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Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry meaning

Metaphysical poetry is known for its figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes and philosophical topics. It also includes a lot of humour and wit. These poems often touched on contemporary scientific advancements as well. They are highly intellectualised and contains extremely complicated thought.

It investigate the relation between rational, logical argument on one hand and intuition or ‘mysticism’ on the other hand, often depicted with sensuous detail. It is considered to be highly ambiguous due to high intellect and knowledge of metaphysical poets.

What are the themes of metaphysical poetry?

The theme of metaphysical poetry commonly are love, lust, religion and morality. It offers comparisons of unlikely things that do not belong in this the world humans reside and are loaded with conceits, paradoxes and irony. They are argumentative, intellectual, realistic and rational in their approach.

What are the characteristics of metaphysical poetry?

One of the most prominent characteristics of this way of writing is the spoken quality of the poetry, something that many other writers of that era did not approve of. Other common features include the use of colloquial diction, philosophical exploration, new and original conceits, irony and the relaxed used of meter. The writers whose works has mostly been highlighted often brings out the question to all the readers like “Do God really exist?”, “Or does humankind has all free choice?”, “What is the nature of reality?”. 

What are Metaphysical conceits?

It is one of the Central importance in metaphysical poem. A (metaphysical) conceit is usually considered as a subtype of metaphor – an elaborate and strikingly unconventional or far-fetched metaphor, hyperbole, contradiction; simile, paradox or oxymoron causing a shock to the reader by the obvious dissimilarity, “distance” between or or stunning incompatibility of the objects compared. One of the most famous conceits is John Donne’s A Valediction  Forbidden Mourning, a poem is which Donne compares two souls in love to the points on a geometer’s compass.

Examples of Metaphysical poems

The best known metaphysical poet is John Donne followed by Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert. Donne is considered to be the pioneer of such poems and the originator of the basic tenants of the genre. It is after him that many other writers have started following his footsteps and developing all the features of the metaphysical writing.

The Flea by John Donne

The Flea” is one of the most popular metaphysical poem and considered to be the beat edition by Donne. The poem makes a familiar argument in a very original 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; […]

The Flea” is essentially a seduction lyric, the nature of it being physical love. The speaker in the poem is trying to convince to a woman that he wants to sleep with her and he finds it be fine to do the same as he feels the subject of the poem that is the flea has sucked the blood from both their bodies and that they are already experienced their fluids mixing. Of course, this rather crude paraphrase is a world away from the elegance and metaphorical originality of Donne’s poem with its extended metaphor.

The Collar by George Herbert

“[…] But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

At every word,

Methought I heard one calling, Child!

And I replied My Lord.

The most heartbreaking moment is that George Herbert went to grave without seeing any of his work getting published. ‘The Collar’ is one of Herbert’s best known poems. In this poem Herbert talks about a “collar” that a Christian priest is recognised by.. (Please note Herbert was a priest himself). He depicts the collar as something that restricts one’s freedom in intolerable way. The speaker seeks to reject his belief in God and wants to be free. This central collar-metaphor signals this as one of Herbert’s greatest achievements in metaphysical poetry.

The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days! When I

Shined in my angel infancy.

“Before I under this place

Appointed for my second race,

Or taught my soul to fancy aught

But a white, celestial thought; […]

The Welsh-born Vaughan is less famous than some of the other poets but his work is equally labelled as “metaphysical “. In the poem “The Retreat” the poet talks about the innocence one loses as he grows older and in the process one becomes farther away from heaven and starts growing near to the corrupted state of adulthood. The poet feels as an adult, one is unable to access the divine world as easily. The poem has a double meaning of ‘retreat’ as both refuge and withdrawal.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

“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. […]

This poem is considered to be the second example after ‘The Flea’ under the metaphysical poem. In this poem, the speaker who can be Marvell himself is trying to convince the woman he claims to love that they must go to bed together as he feels that life is too short and one must not let it go out of hand without enjoying oneself.

Marvell says that, in light of what he’s just said, the only sensible thing to do is to enjoy themselves and go to bed together while they still can. The poem is famous for its enigmatic reference to the poets ‘vegetable love’ which has inevitably been interpreted as a sexual innuendo, and gives us an example of metaphysical poets unusual use of metaphors.

The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell

“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’er have flown,

Bur vainly flapp’d it’s tinsel wing..

In the ‘Definition of Love’ Marvell declares that his love was born of despair. Despair of knowing that the one he loved would never be his because he and his beloved run on parallel lines which means they can never intersect and come together. This poem has been interpreted as a coded reference to ‘homosexuality’  two men who love each other are ‘parallel’ in being the same gender but during the 17th century this kind of love was never accepted by the society and decided that they could never be together. It’s a powerful poem depicting a frustrated love.

The Pulley by George Herbert

When God at first made man,

Having a glass of blessings standing by,

‘Let us’, said he, ‘pour on him all we can.

Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,

Contract into a span.’

So strength first made a way;

Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.

When almost all was out, God made a stay,

Perceiving that, alone of his treasure,

Rest in the bottom lay…

This is one of Herbert’s poem where the use of paradoxes and metaphors made him one of the greatest metaphysical poets. ‘The Pulley’ is Creation poem which imagines God is making man and bestowing all available attributes upon him. The poem teaches that work is utterly important so that man should worship God who created Nature rather worshipping Nature itself. There are two perspective in the poem  one is God is advocating hard work as his own reward and justifying just ‘one day’ from the week to be a day of rest and worship him to the fullest. Man should be ‘rich and weary’, concluding that rich not in the term of financial but in moral and spiritual sense too.

The Sun Rising by John Donne

Busy old fool, unruly sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school boys and sour prentices,

Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices,

Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are rags of time….

This is Donne’s one of the most celebrated poems where the speaker is chastising the sun for peeping through the curtains arousing him and his lover as they were lying on the bed together in the morning. It’s ’metaphysical’ imagery is evident in Donne’s planetary imagery later in the poem as he taunts the sun for being unlucky in love because it’s natural partner, the world is already spoken for putting a subtle pun in the poem for the readers to understand that Donne and his partner are compared with the world.

Metaphysical timeline

1590 – Spenser’s Faerie Queene (I-III) published

1591 – Sydney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, thought to have a strong influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella

Donne goes to Thavies Inn as law student.

1592 – Donne goes to Lincoln’s Inn to study law

Henry King was born

1593 – George Herbert was born at Montogmery

1594 – Acting group The Lord Chamberlain’s Men re-established, of which Shakespeare was the leading member. They used the Theatre as their playhouse.

Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry was published

Hooker’s Of the Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity I-IV

Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller

1595 – Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (or The Defence of Poesy)

Spenser’s Amoretti

1596 – Spenser’s Faarie Queene (IV-VI) published

Second Blackfriars Theatre opened by Burbage

Donne on Cadiz expedition

Herbert’s father dies

1597 – New Poor Law

Bacons’s essays published

The lease on the theatre expires. James and Richard Burbage dismantle the building and moves the material on other side to rebuild it.

1598 – Death of Philip II

Donne appointed Secretary to Egerton

1599 – Earl of Essex, favourite of former Queen Elizabeth, arrested for failure to carry out her policies in Ireland

Oliver Cromwell born

The Globe Theatre built on the South bank of Thames

Edmund Spenser dies

1600 – East India Company founded

Shakespeare’s first tragedy performed

1601 – Following an attempted uprising, Earl of Essex beheaded for treason

‘War of the Theatres’ by Jonson, Thomas Dekker, John Marston

Donne secretly gets married to Anne More and dismissed from Egerton’s service. He becomes MP

1603 – Elizabeth dies succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who becomes James I of England

Plague in London and theatres are closed again

Lord Chamberlain’s Men becomes The King’s Men and frequently performed at court

1604 – Hampton Court conference

1605 – Gunpowder plot. Arrest and execution of Guy Fawkes

Cervantes’ Don Quixote Pt.1

Shakespeare’s King Lear

Herbert goes to Westminster school

1606 – Cyril Tourneur The Revenger’s Tragedy

1607 – Appearance of Halley’s comet

Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy published

Donne’s Divine Poems

Founder of Jamestown Virginia

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle

1608 – Herbert’s mother marries Sir John Danvers

1609 – Herbert matriculates at Trinity College Cambridge

1610 – Galileo reports on his findings with the telescope

Beaumont’s and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy

Galileo The Starry Messenger

1611 – Authorised Version of the Bible

Chapman, translation of Homer’s Iliad

Donne’s First Anniversarie printed

1612 – Death of Henry, Prince of Wales

Prince Charles becomes heir to the throne

Donne’s of the Progress of the Soul

1613 – Globe theatre fire

The Globe Theatre burns down after catching fire during performance of Henry VIII. The fire was started by a spark from a cannon which was uses for a sound effects.

Richard Crashaw born

1614 – Globe theatre was rebuilt after fire in previous year.

Chapman, translation of Homer’s Odyssey (-1615)

Donne elected M.P for Taunton

1615 – Cervantes’ Don Quixote pt.2

Donne becomes church of England priest. Receives D.D from Cambridge University

1616 – Lectures on the circulation of the blood by William Harvey in London

Johnson’s Works

Death of Cervantes

Herbert made fellow of Trinity College

1617 – Anne Donne dies

1618 – Sir Walter Raleigh executed

Abraham Cowley was born

Beginning of The Thirty Years’ War (to 1648)

Herbert made Reader in Rhetoric at Cambridge

1620 – Pilgrim Fathers to Massachussets in the Mayflower

Herbert Public Orator at Cambridge

1621 – Bacon dismissed from office

Performance of Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts

Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women

Donne Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

Andrew Marvell born in East Yorkshire

Henry Vaughan born in Breconshire Wales

1622 – Performance of Middleton’s The Challenging

1624 – Donne’s Devotion upon Emergent Occasions

Herbert M.P for Montgomery

1625 – James I dies. Charles I becomes king. Charles marries Henrietta Maria of France

1626 – John Bunyan dies

Laud appointed Bishop of London

Buckingham assassinated

1629 – Future Charles II was born

Herbert made Rector of Bemerton, Wiltshire

1631 – Bishop Laud enforces uniformity to the Church of England

John Dryden born

Crashaw at Pembroke College at Cambridge

Donne dies

1632 – Katherine Philips was born

Metaphysical poets created a new trend in the history of English Literature. These poems have been created in such a way that one must have enough knowledge to get to the actual meaning. Metaphysical poets made used of eveyday speech, intellectual analysis and unique imagery.

The creator of metaphysical poem John Donne along with his following poets is popular and successful not only in that Period but also in the modern age. Metaphysical poetry has taken its name in the history of English Literature for itself unique versatility and is renowned among itself readers.

It’s a little wonder that modernist poet T.S Eliot championed the metaphysical poets in an essay of 1921 and a subsequent series of Cambridge lectures. Both the modernist and metaphysical poets thought that literature should be intellectually robust and that it should grapple with big ideas.

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