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What is Metaphysical Poetry and Its Characteristics?

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The term “metaphysical” is used of a number of English poets Of the first half of the seventeenth century, notably Donne, Carew, George Herbert, Crashaw, Henry Vaughan and Abraham Cowley. This term was first used by Drummond of Hawthornden in a letter to Arthur Johnson (1630), an alter by Dyrden and Johnson. The term is not, however, an altogether a happy one, for it is liable to give the impression that the metaphysical poetry discusses the nature of the universe, and this is evident from the assurance of Dryden to the Earl of Dorset: “Donne effects 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 hears and of things as Milton does in Paradise Lost or Pope in The Essay on Man or Tennyson in “In Memoriam.” They simply use nice speculations to express and define an emotion.

Characteristics of the Metaphysical Poetry

Intellectual and analytical basis

The metaphysical poetry is predominantly intellectual and analytical. In it an emotion or feeling is expressed through the working of the intellect. Sometimes the poet’s intellect appears to dominate his feeling to such an extent that the latter is totally lost sight of. The poets who wrote successfully in the metaphysical Style were all intellectual and annalistic, though they vary greatly in the range and depth of their thinking. Donne, the leader of the metaphysical, for instance, links up a wider range of ideas, and explores a more complex attitude Of mind in “Barter my heart” than Herbert does in “Affliction.” But all the two are analysis of emotion. Because of this analytic habit the metaphysical poets preferred to use words that call the intellect into play rather than those that appeal to the sense:

“Let Maps to Other worlds on world have showne
Let us possess on world, each hath one, and in One.”
(The Good Morrow)

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We recognize that the words in such lines as these have more than their normal prose meaning, but they appeal not to the sense or emotions, but to something more akin to the faculty that apprehends a mathematical problem. An intellectual bias affects not only the choice of words and image, but also the form of their poems and their rhythmical effects. There is no denying the fact that the metaphysical poetry turns on some feeling or emotion experienced by the poet, but this motion is expressed freely, directly and elegantly as in the poetry of Wordsworth or Shelley or Keats: it is as R.J. Rees says “so speak, filtered and processed by being brooded over, and subjected to the working of the intellect.” The term metaphysical refers to the manner rather than to the matter.

Novelty in Expression and Thought & Rejected Woman Worship

The metaphysical poets wholly concerned to say something that has been never said before, no matter whether this something was natural and appropriate. They endeavored to be singular in their thoughts and were careless of their propriety. They wanted to get away from the worn-out and traditional ideas and forms bequeathed to the generations of poets by Petrarch. Thus while the Elizabethan poets contented themselves with comparing a pair of lovers to a pair of doves, Donne Was bold enough to compare them in A Valediction forbidding Mourning to pair of compasses. The poets nurtured On the Petrarchan tradition have been wont to describe the weeping eyes as “famous”; but Crashaw, bids farewell to this time old poetical tradition and describes the eyes of the sorrowing Mary Magdalene as:

“Two walking baths, two weeping motions,
Portable and compendious oceans.”

The metaphysical also rejected the cult of woman worship, and instead of regarding women as goddesses worth of adoration they represented them simply as fickle and faithless creatures of flesh and blood. They entered into the enclosed garden of Elizabethan lover poetry like angry gardeners pulling up the withered trees of gay-colored flowers and planting the seeds of fresh but odd-looking flowers.

Far-fetched similes and metaphors (Conceits)

The metaphysical poetry abounds in far-fetched similes and metaphors which are commonly called ‘conceits.’ In it we often come across “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” (Johnson). Metaphysical poets ransack the whole world of art and nature for illustration, comparisons and allusions. T.S. Eliot has pointed out that the metaphysical poetry is characterized by the elaboration of a figure of speech to the farthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it. In the line:

“Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their Map, who lie
Flat on his bed.”

We are resemblances between things which are apparently unlike—between the physicians and the cosmographers, and between the patient and the map. This geographical metaphor strikes us more by its ingenuity than by tits appropriateness. Cowley in The Given Heart compares a lover’s heart to a hand grenade, which is at the same time fantastic and startling; we wonder at how this image comes into the head of the poet:

“Wo to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room,
‘Till tear and blow up all within
Like a grenado shot into a magazine.”

Combination of Heterogeneous Thoughts

In metaphysical poetry the most heterogeneous ideas and thoughts are yoked together by violence. Take Donne’s poem ‘Anniversarie.’ The poem is the celebration of a love that is a year old. It is the love triumphant, resisting decay and disintegration to which earthly things of heir. Suddenly the thought of death comes to darken the joyous mood of the poet and the imagines the lovers rotting away in their respective graves. Soon the poet rises to the idea of love that is eternal, Thus in this poem the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked together almost by violence,

Absurdity and hyperbole Exaggeration

The images as well as the ideas of the metaphysical poets bear the stamp of absurdity and hyperbole. When we find a poet of the quality of Cowley comparing the love of different women to travels thought different countries (The Welcome), or of Donne likening a good man to telescope or Cowley thus apostrophizing beauty:

“Thou tyrant, which leavest not man free!
Thou subtle thief, from whom nought safe can be!
Thou murderer, which hast killed, and devil
which woulds
                         damm me!” (Beauty)

We can realize into a frantic absurdities and hyperboles the English poetry was for a time misled by the metaphysical Craze for writing something Strange, new and startling. As Dr. Johnson says, “What they wanted however Of the sublime, they endeavored 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.” The absurdity of the metaphysical poetry is seen acutely in the manner its votaries combine the abstract with the concrete, the remote with the near, the physical with the spiritual, the finite with the infinite, and the sublime with the common place.

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Highly de-emotionalized Style

In metaphysical poetry emotions are shaped and expressed by logical reasoning, and both sound and picture are subservient to this end. Words dedicated to poetry are eschewed because these words are charged with accumulated emotion. “Like Wordsworth they prefer words in everyday use, but their practice goes even further than his theory. Wordsworth proposed to use ‘the natural language of impassioned feeling.’ But the metaphysical poets use the natural language of men when are soberly engaged in commerce or in scientific speculation, so that the words themselves, apart from their meaning in the context, have no repercussion.” They do not use easy or, emotionally exciting rhythms unlike the Elizabethan poets; the rhythms they use are as intricate as their thoughts, and their function is to stimulate intellect. They care a fig for the rules of accent and stress, and so Ben Johnson said the Donne deserved hanging for not keeping of accent.


The charge of obscurity is commonly levelled against the metaphysical and not without justification. The metaphysical poetry is as difficult to understand as Browning’s which is a grand puzzle to the readers. The obscurity of the metaphysical poets proceeds from their attempt to say too much, and not from that to say too little. They huddle a new thought on the one preceding it, even before that first has had time to express itself. The rapidity with which one thought succeeds another is dazzling and confusing, with the result that the readers fail to grasp its full meaning. They analyze things which lie beyond the ken of Ordinary comprehension. They use terms and figures of speech which are unknown to all but the specialists in geography, science, medicine in all these branches of knowledge. They see things from a myriad points view but give only a hint of each separate vision, and the readers go on groping in order to know the exact character of the vision.

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