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Imagine poetry filled with scathing wit, rhetorical questions, philosophical arguments, inventive wordplay and exaggerated metaphors that last for an entire poem. Sounds over-the-top, right? Not for the metaphysical poets, a group that leave no peculiar comparisons or discussions off limits!
The word 'metaphysical' may sound complex at first, but when it's broken down, it becomes quite simple.
Within poetry, the metaphysical centres around the exploration of abstract ideas and philosophical concepts. 'Meta' means beyond, and 'physics' refers to our physical world, so Metaphysics means beyond our world – outside of the ordinary.
You may be surprised to learn that the metaphysical poets were never an official group. In fact, the term ‘Metaphysical poets’ was only coined by Samuel Johnson in 1779 to categorise a loose collection of seventeenth century poets that shared similar characteristics.
Defining features of the group included: wit and wordplay, the use of complex extended metaphors, and an exploration of the relationship between physical forms and abstract concepts – usually religion, morality and love.
A metaphor is a literary feature that describes an object or idea in a way that isn't to be taken literally or truthfully, but instead for the sake of symbolism or comparison.
For example: If you tell someone you're feeling blue, you're probably symbolising that you're feeling sad, not that you actually feel like the colour blue.
The most important metaphysical poet was John Donne, as his poems - like 'The Flea' (1633), 'A Valediction, Forbidden Mourning' (1633) and 'The Sun Rising' (1633) are defining of the metaphysical genre. However, there are many other significant poetic figures who share similar characteristics with Donne, such as Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert.
Samuel Johnson, who was the first to create the label of ‘metaphysical poets’, was an English playwright, essayist, writer, poet, and critic who is famous for creating the most influential version of the English dictionary in the eighteenth century.
Did you know? He actually coined the term 'metaphysical poets' as an insult, believing that the ingenious wit, wordplay, and metaphors were forced, and designed only to show the intelligence of the poet. Basically, he believed they were too smart for their own good!
Let's analyse some of the key characteristics of metaphysical poetry
One of the defining features of metaphysical poetry is the use of wit, complex philosophy, and paradoxes.
A paradox is a statement that seems to lack common sense and contradict itself, but when thought about carefully, could actually be true.
For example, In 'Holy Sonnet 11' (1633), Donne says 'Death, thou shalt die'. This sounds implausible. How can death die? When you think about it though, when someone dies the thoughts and fears they had about death die with them. For Donne, all that will be left is heaven, so perhaps this statement has some truth to it.
Let’s look at a famous example in Donne’s 'The Sun Rising' (1633). Firstly, at the beginning of the poem, Donne is frustrated at the sun for interrupting his lover and he.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,Why dost thou thus,Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
- John Donne, The Sun Rising, Line 1-3
Donne quickly turns his frustration around, intelligently reframing the situation by suggesting that as it is the sun’s job is to keep the world warm, it should shine on Donne and his lover because they are the whole world, and their bedroom the globe.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties beTo warm the world, that's done in warming us.Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
- John Donne, The Sun Rising, Line 27-30
By using intellect to effortlessly change his argument, Donne shows the complex wit and contradictions that metaphysical poets are famed for.
The metaphysical poets made the conceit popular, using it so regularly that the technique was harshly criticised as drawn-out and unnecessary.
A conceit is an extended metaphor that commonly lasts for the entirety of a poem. They are often complex, far-fetched, and unconventional.
In ''A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning' (1633), John Donne compares two lovers to a drafting compass – Donne’s lover being the point of the compass, and he the tip of the pencil – implying that his lover is the stable centre, and no matter how far he roams, she will lean close and draw him back to where he belongs.
If they be two, they are two soAs stiff twin compasses are two,Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no showTo move, but doth, if the other do.And though it in the centre sit,Yet when the other far doth roam,It leans, and hearkens after it,And grows erect, as that comes home.
- John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning, Line 25-32
The conceit in this poem, as in many metaphysical poems, is far-fetched, unusual, and only makes sense after lengthy justification. Despite the criticism it received as being drawn-out, the conceit serves the purpose of being unconventional and jarring to the reader, forcing them to consider the complex philosophical questions the poem deals with.
A key characteristic of metaphysical poetry is the idea that the physical, spiritual, and emotional world are interconnected. Metaphysical poets will often draw unusual comparisons between physical ideas and abstract concepts.
Take a look at Andrew Marvell’s 'The Definition of Love' (1681). Marvell states that the lovers can never truly meet because they resemble parallel lines – side by side, perfect for each other, but unable to converge.
As lines, so loves oblique may wellThemselves in every angle greet;But ours so truly parallel,Though infinite, can never meet.
- Andrew Marvell, The Definition of Love, Line 25-28
In a similar way to Donne’s compass metaphor in ''A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning', Marvell represents an abstract concept (love) by linking it to a concrete idea (parallel lines), making possible the discussion of a complex philosophical concept by linking it to something physical.
Let's take a look at some of the most significant metaphysical poets.
Donne was born in England in 1572 to Roman Catholic parents. He is the defining metaphysical poet and is known for his intellectual, philosophical wit and his depiction of the paradoxes of love and religious faith. His work commonly includes conceits that force seemingly incompatible concepts together.
In John Donne’s 'The Flea' (1633), Donne links a flea biting both he and the woman he loves to mean that their blood has mingled and argues that they should therefore have intercourse as it would be no different.
Born in Yorkshire in 1621, Marvell studied at Cambridge before becoming a tutor and eventually an influential politician. His poems did not receive much recognition in his lifetime, and it was not until 1681, three years after his death, that his collection of Miscellaneous Poems was published. Some of his most famous works, 'To His Coy Mistress' (1681) , 'The Definition of Love' (1681), and 'The Mower' (1681) include the wit, intricate comparisons and philosophical discussions associated with metaphysical poetry, leading to him being grouped with the likes of Donne, Vaughan and Herbert.
Born in Wales in 1593, George Herbert was a poet and clergyman in the Church of England. He based most of his poetry on religion, under the belief that the love of God is a better theme for poetry than the love of a woman. He is famed for his immaculate word choice, and for intensely spiritually reflective poetry, dealing with abstract topics like loss of faith in 'The Collar' (1633) and resurrection in 'Easter Wings' (1633). These poems featured in his most famous collection, 'The Temple' (1633), which has inspired many poets and writers from Henry Vaughan to T.S Elliot.
Vaughan was born in Wales in 1621, and trained to be a lawyer after a brief stint at Oxford University. After being inspired by the work of George Herbert, Vaughan returned to spirituality and religion, and produced his most famous works of religious poetry, which featured in 'Silex Scintillians' (1650). Like many metaphysical poets, Vaughan's work includes clever use of metaphor and alliteration to create complex, elaborate imagery.
Alliteration occurs when two or more words next to, or close to each other, share the same starting letter. The technique is often used for emphasis, rhythm or to create a certain mood!
For example: StudySmarter shows me super strategies to succeed in my studies!
Think of imagery as the picture created in your mind when a writer uses certain techniques. They could use the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), metaphors, figures of speech, and many other creative techniques to make you picture or imagine something a certain way.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know’st that this cannot be saidA sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, Yet this enjoys before it woo, And pampered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,Where we almost, nay more than married are. This flea is you and I, and thisOur marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet. Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to that, self-murder added be, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou sincePurpled thy nail, in blood of innocence? Wherein could this flea guilty be,Except in that drop which it sucked from thee? Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now; ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be: Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
The speaker in 'The Flea'' is attempting to convince his mistress to have sex with him. He uses a conceit (extended metaphor) in an extremely unusual way. He argues that having been bitten by the same flea, their blood is now mixed, and so having sex is not an extra step, and will not dishonour her.
The metaphor is undeniably far-flung and exaggerated. However, because the speaker argues his point so well, using religious language about unity and the holy trinity, 'The Flea' acts as a work of immense intellect and wit rather than a mere attempt to seduce a woman.
Donne also links the abstract concept of consummation to a concrete form (a flea), making it possible to discuss complex ideas like religion and honour. Combined with intelligent wit and the use of a conceit, 'The Flea' defines the characteristics that are commonly attributed to the metaphysical poets. In this way, it is the perfect example of the genre.
The metaphysical poets are a loose collective of seventeenth century poets, the most important of which are John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert.
The father of metaphysical poetry is John Donne, whose poems The Flea and The Sun Rising helped to define the characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre.
The main characteristics of metaphysical poetry are wit, wordplay, and conceits employed to compare abstract concepts and physical forms.
The most important metaphysical poet is John Donne.
The main topics discussed in metaphysical poetry are morality, love and religion.
Who is considered the 'father' of metaphysical poetry?
Which of these is not a common characteristic of metaphysical poetry?
Use of rhyme.
Who coined the term 'metaphysical poets'?
Which of these figures is not a metaphysical poet?
Edgar Allen Poe.
What is the definition of a conceit?
A complex extended metaphor.
Who wrote the famous collection of poems The Temple?
Which of these is not a well-known metaphysical poem?
'Loving in truth' (1591).
Which of these is not a common topic discussed in metaphysical poetry?
What does John Donne use a flea to propose in The Flea?
That he and his mistress should have sex.
Whose works of poetry are featured in 'Silex Scintillians' (1650)?
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