Metaphysical Poetry: Examine Major Metaphysical Poets

"In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered."
T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)

 Introduction: It was Samuel Johnson who first christened Donne and his followers the metaphysical poets in his Life of Cowley. About the beginning of the 17th century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets. Johnson derived the term from Dryden’s disparaging remark that Donne "Affect the metaphysics”. So in current literary criticism ‘Metaphysical’ underlies the special feature of Donne’s poets –The lively play of intellect, the alliance of passion and playfulness and a reorganization of many-sidedness of human passion -complex and dramatic and unusual in syntax and imagery. The poetic practice of Donne started a powerful movement which unfenced a large body of poetry in the first halt of 17th century and brought about a revival of metaphysical poetic tradition in the modern era. Now let us examine major metaphysical poets under the following heads.

John Donne

John Donne: Donne, the most independent of the Elizabethan poets revolted, as Albert says, against the easy face style, stock imagery and pastoral conventions of follower of Spenser. He aimed at reality of thought and vivid nests of expression. “Wit, the soul of metaphysical poetry, makes Donne a poet of exceptional brilliance. It is his very genoas that fashions his feelings and his thought” (Legonius) His poetry embraces principally themes of love and religion, metaphysical in his conception and vigorous expressions of his intensely perennial feeling and reveals a powerful and complex being. They are profoundly sensuous and very often sublimated by the thought of death. The Anniversary, Air and Angels, a Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, A valediction: Forbidding Mourning has Ecstasies, Romance of his most typical love poems. They all display intellectual complex imagery and irregularity of form. He frequently employed the conceit, an elaborate metaphor making striking syntheses of apparently unrelated objects or ideas. His intellectuality, introspection, and use of colloquial diction, seemingly unpoetic but always uniquely precise in meaning and connotation, make his poetry boldly divergent from the smooth, elegant verse of his day. His passion, feeling and sensuality are couched in wit and conceits. In portraying the characteristic and sudden flight of mood from the mate rail to the spiritual, Donne resort to breath- taking farfetched and fantastic images; parted lovers are like the legs of a pair of compasses, lovers is a spider  which ‘transubstantiates’, all his sick body is a map, his physician is a cosmographers and death his south-west discoveries,. He religious poems comprising the ‘Holy smock are the expressions of a deep and trouble soul. Intense and personal as the sonnets are, they are characterized by the intellectual subtlety, the scholastic learning and the wit and conceits of the love poems. However, inspire of ‘affecting the metaphysics,’ as Dryden alleged, there is no doubt that Donne enriched poetic tradition in the way he refined thought. Donne exerted considerable influence on his followers, their poetry has lyrical beauty, love or religions subject, metrical felicity of speech.

George Herbert (1593-1633): He is remembered chiefly for his religious poem The Temple. Comparing Donne he has a simple and unimpeded devoutness but shows his metaphysical quality in his usual conceits and in the blending of thought and felling.

Henry Vaughan: (1622-95) Henry influenced by Donne and Herbert has a mysticism as revealed in suck poem The Retreat and I saw Eternity The other Night. Vaughan more successful in his love poems however anticipated words word in his mystic regard for nature.

Richard Crashaw (1613-49): Richard Crashaw, the Roman Catholic poet, shows the influence of Donne in his best wrote poem steps to The Temple. His poems are not always metaphysical inspire of his preference for the stricken conceits. They lack complexity of mind, conflict and tension and his approach is more emotional then thoughtful and his images are pictorial than intellectual 

Thomas Carew (1598-1639): The lyrics of Thomas Carew show the influence of Donne but have a grave and wit of their own. His long poem The Raptures is, however, marred by sex and bad taste.

Ref: 1. The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of        John Donne- J. B. Leishman  
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta
      4. John Donne- R. C. Bald