Metaphysical Poets and Poetry

Metaphysical Poets and Poetry 


Metaphysical Poets and Poetry

What is Metaphysical Poetry 

Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry 


The term 'Metaphysical' was first used by Dr. Johnson who applied it to Cowley and Donne. It denotes the work of a group of poets of the Stuart Period who came directly or indirectly under Donne's influence. Usually lyrical in nature, their works show a surprising blend of passion and thought. The subjects of their poems are chiefly religious and amatory. Their poems are full of learned imagery and striking conceits. But there are unexpected turns of language and figures of. At their best they reveal great psychological insight and subtlety of thought.

Besides Donne, in this category are included George Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, Carew, Cowley and Marvell. 

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Metaphysical Poets and Poems


John Donne (1572 - 1631)

Donne revolted against the easy fluent style, stock imagery and pastoral conventions of poetry of the Elizabethan Age. He aimed at reality of thought and vividness of expression. His poetry is forceful, vigorous and inspite of occasional faults of rhythm often strangely harmonious. 
His love poems, "Songs and Sonets" show the intense and subtle analysis of various moods of a lover and these are expressed in vivid and startling language which is colloquial rather than conventional. A vein of satire too runs through these poems. The rhythm is dramatic and gives the illusion of excited talk. He avoids the smooth, easy patterns of poetry of his contemporaries. His great variety of pace, his fondness for echoing sounds, his deliberate use of shortened lines and unusual stress contribute to the effect of vivid speech, swift thought and delicate emotional responses. 
Donne is essentially a psychological poet whose primary concern is with human feeling. His poems are all intensely personal and reveal a powerful and complex being. Among the best known and most typical of the poems of this group are "Aire and Angels", "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucis Day", "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning " and "The Extasie".
His religious poems, such as - "Holy Sonets", "A Hymn to God" "The Father" are intensely personal. They reveal the struggle in his mind before taking orders in the Anglican Church. They are the expressions of a deep and troubled soul. In them are found the intellectual subtlety, the scholastic learning and the wit and conceits of the love poems.
The poetry of Donne reveals a depth of philosophy, a subtlety of reasoning, a blend of thought and devotion, a blend of thought mingling with the homely and sublime, the light and the serious and these characteristics make his poetry full of variety and surprise. It is to these many characteristics, so widely differing yet often brought together in a startling fusion that the general term 'Wit' is applied. 
Probably the most distinctive feature of metaphysical poetry is its striking imagery. In Donne's poetry imagery is almost invariably unusual and striking, often breathtaking but sometimes far fetched and fantastic. From his wide range of knowledge he draws many remarkable comparisons: parted lovers are like the legs of a pair compasses, love is a spider which transubstantiates all, his sick body is a map, his physicians Cosmographers and Death his 'south-west discoveries'
Although Donne was far too much of an individual for any succeeding poet to resemble him very closely, his influence is strongly felt in both the courtly and religious poetry of the following generation and the 'metaphysical school' embraces such names as George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew and Andrew Marvell. Yet all of these ,while reflecting directly or indirectly the influence of Donne, differs in many important respects from their great predecessor. 

George Herbert (1593 - 1633)

Herbert was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College and then took holy orders. None of his poems were published during his lifetime. His religious poem "The Temple" shows his zeal for the Church of England and concern with practical theology. He himself describes the work as 'a picture of many spiritual conflicts' that have passed between God and his soul before he took holy orders.
Herbert's poems are honest, sincere and modest. They are homely, quite, colloquial and touched with a quaint humour. They are metaphysical in their unusual conceits and in the blend of thought and feeling. Herbert was a careful artist, precise and simple in expression, fond of unusual metrical patterns (as in Easter-Wings) and a lover of harmony. 

Richard Crashaw (1612 - 1649)

Crashaw was the son of a Puritan clergyman and he entered the Roman Church. In many ways Crashaw is not metaphysical. His poems reveal no complexity of mind, no conflict or tension. Their manners are not colloquial and the images in them are pictorial rather than intellectual, lacking the homeliness of Donne and Herbert. But he has the metaphysical fondness for the striking conceit which in them often becomes fantastic. His poetry is notable for its fire and fervour derived from his religious excitement and exaltation. It is emotional rather than thoughtful and his long, irregular odes are full of gaudy extravagances and sensuous decoration often showing an undisciplined rapture, though he is capable of simple beauty. For an example of these qualities we may refer to his poem "The Flaming Heart".

Henry Vaughan (1621 - 1695)

Some of the notable books of Vaughan are "Poems", "Silex Scintillons" and "Thalia Rediviva". Vaughan's love poems though they are often beautifully phrased are inferior to his religious poems specially those in "Silex Scintillons". His religious fervour is nobly imaginative and strikes out lines and ideas of astonishing strength and beauty. His profound yearning for retreat from earth to heaven, his regard for Nature, mysticism and striking imagery have found an eloquent expression in "The Retreat"

Thomas Carew (1595 - 1640)

Carew was born in Kent, educated at Oxford University and studied law in the Middle Temple. His poems show his great lyrical ability. His fancy is warmly coloured though sometimes it is marred by licence and bad taste.

Abraham Cowley (1618 - 1667)

Some of notable works of Cowley are "Pyramus and Thisbe", "Constantia and Philetus", "The Pindarique Odes". His best known poems are "The Davideis", "The Mistress". In Cowley the metaphysical strain has become feeble. His work suffers from a lack of deep feeling. In him the use of metaphysical wit and conceit deteriorates into mere ingenuity and mannerisms. 

Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678)

His poems have been described by a critic 'as the finest flower of serious and secular metaphysical verse'. Marvell's work has the subtlety of wit, the passionate argument and the learned imagery of the metaphysical, combined with the clarity and control of the classical followers of Jonson and the gracefulness of the Cavaliers. His rhythms are flexible flexible, his melody is delicate. He loved Nature and the freshness of gardens and in all his works there is a high seriousness and absolute sincerity. 


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