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MA English Part 2 Notes Essay on Poetry | METAPHYSICAL POETRY

Metaphysical poetry owes its origin in the Jacobean age. Donne is the founder of the Metaphysical school of poetry, who led the revolt against the conventional poetry of the Spenserians. Dr. Johnson christened Donne and his followers “the Metaphysical poets.” It denotes, in Sainsbury’s words, “the habit, common to this school of poets, of always seeking to express something after, something behind, the simple, obvious first sense and suggestion of a subject.” Dr. Johnson’s account of the school is well worth quoting, though its general condemnation is unjust to some delightful poets such as Herbert and Vaughan. “About the beginning of the seventeenth century, appeared a race of writers that may be termed as metaphysical poets. The Metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour …… if the father of criticism (Aristotle) has rightly denominated poetry and imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, love their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied Nature nor life, neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations, of intellect ……. Their thoughts are often new but seldom natural. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together Nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions, their learning instructs and the subtlety surprises: but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. They were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising. They never enquired what, on any occasion, they should pave said or done, but writer rather as beholders than partakers bf human nature; without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness, and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only today what they hoped had been never said before …….. their attemps were always analyticat; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and laboured peculiarities, the prospects of Nature, or the scenes of life then he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism and habit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.”

There are a few characteristics of Metaphysical poetry which are mentioned below:

1.    A characteristic feature of all Metaphysical poetry is indulgence in “dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” A comparison is often instituted between objects that have ostensibly little in common with each other. Crowley, e.g., compares, being in love with different women, to traveling though different countries “two hetero-generous ideas yoked by violence together.”

        Hast thou not found each woman’s breast
        (The land where thou hast traveled)
        Either by savages posses.
        Or wild, and inhabited,
        What joy could’st take, or what repose,
        In countries so uncivilized as those.

Often “the figure of speech is elaborated to the farthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it.”

2.    Natural grace is often hard to find in Metaphysical writing, which abounds in artificiality of thought and hyperbolic expression. The writer probably deemed it a passport to fame to say: “something unexpected and surprising.” What they wanted of the sublime, they endeavoued to supply by hyperbole, their amplification had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy behind them; and produced combinations of confused magnificence, that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined”. Here is Crowley again promising a tempest of sighs in return for one or two from his dear one:

By every wind that comes this way,
Send me at least a sigh or two
Such and so many I’ll repay
As shall themselves make winds to get to you.

The compliment is violent and unnatural, and does not give the effect of real emotion.

3.    Obscurity:
In the task of trying to find the verbal “equivalent for states of mind and feeling, “to quote T.S Eliot, the Metaphysical made themselves difficult to understand. As we have seen, they combined dissimilar ideas without attempting to unite them, and the reader was left to divine what the really had in mind. So far as their later reputation was concerned, this did not serve them well for several generations.” Ben Jonson predicted that Donne’s fame would not live because of his incapacity to open himself to his reader, and indeed this great poet had almost to be rediscovered in our own times. Coleridge, however, did the school more justice “The style of Metaphysical, “he wrote,” is reverse of that which distinguishes too many of our most recent verifiers; the one conveying The most fantastic “thoughts in the most correct language, the other in the most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts.”

4.    Learning:
Metaphysical verse is laden with the scholarship of its authors. A whole book of knowledge might be compiled from the scholarship allusion in Donne and Crowley alone. To such learning in itself there could, of course, be no objection. It is an enrichment of the poet’s mind, and part of the equipment for his high vacation. Injudiciously applied, however, it can only mystify the average person, and it was unfortunate that, as Dr. Johnson noted, the Metaphysicians, “sometimes drew their conceits from recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry.” The poet is not made by what he can give at second or third hand, unless his own genius can transmute it. As Johnson also said, “No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume that dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes by readiness of rhyme and volubility.”

5.    Source of Metaphysical Inspiration:
Metaphysical poetry resolves itself into the broad division of amorous and religious verse. The former was written largely by the courtly poets, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace, and the latter by Herbert, Crawshaw and Vaughan; who all dedicated their gifts to the service of their religion. The Metaphysical element, it seems first made its appearance in love poems, following the example of the ltalian writers whom Donne seems to have adopted as his models. Under this influence made yet more popular by the practice of Donne, every metaphor, natural or traditional to the theme of love, wase elaborated in abstract and hyperbolic fashion: till it gave rise to indulgence in strange and far-fetched images. From this, the practice spread to all kinds of poetical writing, amorous or otherwise. But though it returned to England through Italy, the Metaphysical mode is traceable, in its origins, to the poetry of middle ages where the lover woos his mistress in the same artificial tone, which characterizes Metaphysical verse.

6.    Delight in Novel Thought and Expression:
The Metaphysical poets, in Johnson’s words, “desired to say what they hoped had been nerve said before. They endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts and were careless of their diction.” They did not feel obliged to follow the trodden path. They had their own thoughts and they worked out their own manner of expressing them. “They played with their thoughts,” said Sir Walter Scott as the Elizabethan had played with words.” In fact they carried the Elizabethan freedom of imagination and delight in verbal fancies to a point at which it became difficult for the average reader to grasp their meaning.

7.    The Metaphysical Poets:
Donne was the leavening force in the rise of the style and its most consistent and extreme adherent. His poetry abounds in probing analogies and ingenious wit, and recent critics have found in Donne their most prize example of ambiguity and the unified sensibility. Following Donne’s lead, Edward and George Herbert helped establish, respectively, the secular and devotional lines in Metaphysical Poetry. In his structures and figures Edward Herbert who praised the expression of “Common thing ingeniously, and wittily” and “somewhat out of the ordinary road” resembled Donne more closely than any of his other followers. Apparently influenced by Marine, he incorporated Italian techniques into Donne like structures. All the poets like Crowley, Cleveland, George Herbert, and Crawshaw contributed to the style known as metaphysical but defined in different ways.

The Revival of Metaphysical Poetry:
Early 19th century critics frequently praised the “beauties” of 17th century metaphysical poetry with the enthusiasm of the discoverer while condemning its faults” with the vigour of the intellectual vigilante. Their attitude marked a very discernible break with those of the 18th century, when the metaphysical were known chiefly through highly unsympathetic criticism, such as Addison’s essays on “mixed wit” and “false wit” and Johnson’s essay’s on Crowley or through adoptions such as Popes neoclassic revisions of some Donne’s satires and Wesley’s Methodist hymns based on George Herbert’s lyrics.

If Eliot has been the messiah of the recent metaphysical cultism, Coleridge was its john the Baplist, crying out merits of the metaphysical in the wilderness of aesthetic prejudice and misunderstanding and preparing the way for the present revival. His contribution was two-fold and incalculable. He communicated his enthusiasm for the metaphysical to an important circle of literary friends and acquaintances through his letter and brilliant conversation of their poetry to a much wider group through his lectures and published writings. Probably more ultimate importance, however, were some of his aesthetic theories, particularly that of the reconciliation of opposites, that have become the reconciliation of much of the recent critical praise of metaphysical poetry.


Throughout the history of the metaphysical revival the metaphysical style has continued both to maintain its identity and integrity and to stimulate fresh critical interpretation and vital poetic experimentation. As the stlylistic embodiment of an idea or attitude, the metaphysical style has sought a hard won integration from the disturbing complexity and diversity in the universe and in the individual. This quest for integration has given function and meaning to the correspondences, conceits, ambiguity and thought-feeling relationships that have helped express it the metaphysical revival beginning as part of an antiquarian dusting of older writers, has thrived on new interpretations growing often from a new view of persistent problems.

The new interpretations have tended to focus on problems of nature and role of analogy and personal expression in metaphysical poetry. The average 17th century reader would have taken it for granted that the poet treated a world knit together by correspondences and analogies. Although the average 19th century reader found many the metaphysical common place assumption quaint and fantastic, the philosophical and religious of the earlier 19th century was nevertheless congenial and conducive to a revival of metaphysical work. The 19th and 20th centuries like the 17th apparently seized upon the analogies of metaphysical poetry as an instrument for patching and reinforcing an ordered system that was called in doubt. Browning and the Catholic illustrate this tendency. Hopkins and Eliot went the farthest in repossessing a sacramental outlook uniting God, man, Nature and history. Years plundered esoteric thought in constructing his own unifying myth.
The metaphysical revival has apparently sprung from a broad philosophical outlook certainly the Catholic revival the first and the Second World Wars, and the “Waste Land” era have helped to shape and colour it. Both 17th century and modem readers have had to deal with a world breaking loose from its old religious and philosophical moorings. Nineteenth and 20th century readers found guidance in the 17th century metaphysical poet’s use of analogies to link the fragments of the universe together into meaningful whole and theyfound solace m what they regarded as the soul bearing expression of comples experience similar to their own.

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