Metaphysical Conceit: Examples from the Poems of Andrew Marvell




Metaphysical is a term now generally applied to a group of 17th century poets; chiefly Donne, Carew, George Herbert, Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Marvell, Cleveland and Cowley. It appears that one of the first to use the term was William Drummound of Hawthornden in a letter written to Arthue Johnston (c. 1630). In this Discourse of the Original and Progress of Satire (1692) Dryden said of Donne: “He affects the metaphysical not only in his satires, but also in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign, and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy’. Later Johnson, in his lives of the poets (1779-81), established the term more or less permanently metaphysical imagery, and referred to ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’. 


The marks of 17th century metaphysical poetry were arresting with original images and conceits (showing a preoccupation with analogies between macrocosm and microcosm).


They are known for their wit, ingenuity, dexterous use of colloquial speech, considerable flexibility of rhythm and meter, complex themes (both sacred and profane), a liking for paradox and dialectical argument, a direct manner, a caustic humour, a keenly felt awareness of mortality, and a distinguished capacity for elliptical humour, a tersely compact expression. But for all their intellectual robustness the metaphysical poets were also capable of refined delicacy, gracefulness and deep feeling; passion as well as wit. Scholars consider 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvell a member of the “metaphysical” school, along with poets John Donne, George Herbert, and others. Marvell’s poetry covered many forms, ranging from sharp political satires to pastorals and love poems. In “To His Coy Mistress” (1681), Marvell’s most famous poem, the speaker uses gentle wit and thinly veiled innuendo to encourage his lover to seize the moment and act on their desires. “The Garden” (1681), filled with images of nature, is an elaborate discussion of innocence, experience, and the complications of human relationships. The following example is Marvell’s The Definition of Love: 


My Love is of a birth as rare
As’tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility.
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown
But vainly faint its Tinsel Wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended Soul is fixt,
But Fate does Iron wedges drive,
And always clouds it self betwixt.

Again to quote a few lines from To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long Love’s Day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges side
Should'st rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster then empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For Lady you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.




  The Metaphysical have had a profound influence on the course of English poetry in recent years, thanks in great measure, to the critical appreciations of Herbert Grierson, T.S. Eliot, J.B. Leishman, H.C. White, Rosmond Tieve, Cleanth Brooks, Louis Martz, George Williamson and Helen Garden.


Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert,      
     2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta

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