Metaphysical poets

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John Donne, the most famous metaphysical poet

The metaphysical poets is a term coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of English lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know one another or read one another's work. Given this lack of coherence as a movement and the great diversity of style between poets, it has been suggested that calling them Baroque poets after their era might be more useful.

Origin of the name[edit]

In the chapter on Abraham Cowley in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Samuel Johnson refers to the beginning of the seventeenth century in which there "appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets". This does not necessarily imply that he intended metaphysical to be used in its true sense, in that he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden, who said of John Donne:

He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this . . . Mr. Cowley has copied him to a fault.[1]:15

Probably the only writer before Dryden to speak of a certain metaphysical school or group of metaphysical poets is Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), who in one of his letters speaks of "metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities".[1]

Nor was Johnson's assessment of 'metaphysical poetry' particularly flattering, since he wrote:

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and, very often, such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables... The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.[2]

There is no scholarly consensus regarding which seventeenth-century English poets or poems may be regarded as in the 'metaphysical' genre. Colin Burrow, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, describes John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Crashaw as the 'central figures' of metaphysical poetry.[3]

In 1921, Herbert Grierson published Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, which collected poems by the poets mentioned above as well as many others, diverse in style but sharing defining characteristics.[4] Helen Gardner's Metaphysical Poets anthology, published in 1957, contained a wider selection of writers, including 'proto-metaphysical' poets such as William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh, and extending into the Restoration to include Edmund Waller and the Earl of Rochester. As Burrow remarks, in Gardner's anthology 'The all-thinking, all-feeling metaphysical poets were becoming virtually coextensive with seventeenth-century poetry'.[3]

By the 1980s there was a view that the new emphasis on the importance of the metaphysical poets had been an attempt by Eliot and his followers to impose a 'high Anglican and royalist literary history' on seventeenth-century English poetry.[3] But in Burrow's view, the 'metaphysical poets' label still retains some value. For one thing, John Donne's poetry had considerable influence on subsequent poets, who emulated his style. And there are several instances in which seventeenth-century poets used the word 'metaphysical' in their work, meaning that Samuel Johnson's description has some foundation in the poetry of the previous century.[3] However, the term isolates English poets from those who share similar stylistic traits in Europe and America. Since the 1960s, therefore, it has been argued that gathering all of these under the heading of Baroque poets would be more helpfully inclusive.[5]


Their style was characterized by wit and metaphysical conceits — far-fetched or unusual similes or metaphors, such as in Andrew Marvell’s comparison of the soul with a drop of dew;[6] or Donne's description of the effects of absence on lovers to the action of a pair of compasses.[7] The specific definition of wit which Johnson applied to the school was: "... a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike."[8] Their poetry diverged from the style of their times, being less dependent on conventional images of nature or allusions to classical mythology. Several metaphysical poets, especially John Donne, were influenced by Neo-Platonism. One of the primary Platonic concepts found in metaphysical poetry is the idea that the perfection of beauty in the beloved acted as a remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm. Their work relies on images and references to the contemporary scientific or geographical discoveries. These were used to examine religious and moral questions, often employing an element of casuistry.[9]

Critical opinion[edit]

Critical opinion of the school has been varied. Johnson claimed that "they were not successful in representing or moving the affections" and that neither "was the sublime more within their reach."[10] Generally, his criticism of the poets' style was grounded in his assertion that "Great thoughts are always general," and that the metaphysical poets were too particular in their search for novelty. He did concede, however, that "they...sometimes stuck out unexpected truth" and that their work is often intellectually, if not emotionally, stimulating.[10] The group was to have a significant influence on 20th-century poetry, especially through T. S. Eliot, whose essay The Metaphysical Poets (1921) praised the very anti-Romantic and intellectual qualities of which Johnson and his contemporaries had disapproved, and helped bring their poetry back into favour with readers.[11] The New Critics are often thought to have revived the metaphysical poets[by whom?] and particularly Donne. Critics such as Cleanth Brooks admired them especially for their use of paradox and irony. The metpahysicals are widely admired, including by the New Critics, for their carefully worked out metaphors evident in poems such as "The Canonization" or "Benediction" by Donne.[citation needed]

Major poets[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Gardner, Helen (1957). Metaphysical Poets. Oxford University Press, London. Retrieved 2014-08-15. 
  2. ^ Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, vol. 1 (1779)
  3. ^ a b c d Colin Burrow, ‘Metaphysical poets (act. c.1600–c.1690)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 7 May 2012
  4. ^ See Grierson's introduction
  5. ^ Harold B. Segel, The Baroque Poem: a comparative survey, New York 1974, particularly the "Introduction", pp.3-14
  6. ^ "On a Drop of Dew", Poetry Foundation
  7. ^ "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", Poetry Foundation
  8. ^ Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin Books, 1968.
  9. ^ Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.5
  10. ^ a b Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin, 1968.
  11. ^ The Metaphysical Poets by T.S. Eliot, 1921.

Further reading[edit]


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