Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry


Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

–Menonim Menonimus

Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

In the nick of the 16th century as well as in the first half of the 17th century there came out a group of English poets that included John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Richard Crashaw, John Cleveland, Abraham Cowley and a few others who are termed as Metaphysical Poets. The term ‘Metaphysical’ was first used by John Dryden in his book entitled ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’. In regard to John Donne, he said, “He (Donne) affects the metaphysics not only in his satires but also in his amorous verses.” Later on, Dr Johnson used the label ‘Metaphysical’ for all the poets of this group headed by John Donne. Since then this group of poets has been being called blindly as “Metaphysical Poets.” The term ‘Metaphysics’ means something beyond the physical world. The themes of love, God, death, angel, heaven, hell, etc., beyond our physical perception, are called metaphysical. There is no denying the fact that, these early 17th-century English poets dealt with metaphysical themes in their poetry. But here a question arises that there is ample use of metaphysical themes in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Spenser, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in Alexander Pope’s The Essays on Man and in some others. Then why are they not called Metaphysical Poets? This question still remains unsettled. But whatsoever the denomination is for this group of early 17th century poets- the main features which distinguish this school of poets from other poets who dealt with the same themes is that this group of poets headed by John Donne added ingenious and intellectual reasoning (arguments) to the conventional theme of love and religious poetry. Their arguments were highly fantastic, far-fetched and fanciful made of metaphor, simile, oxymoron and so on which are called Metaphysical Conceits. They used conceits not for mere decoration, but as arguments to illustrate, elaborate, persuade, or prove a point of view. In this respect, it is better and reasonable to denominate their poetry as Poetry of Arguments or Poetry of Reasoning or Poetry of Conceit. Though the treatment of the themes of these poets differs something from each other yet there are some features that are seen to be common either much or less to all of these poets which may be brought under discussion as- thematic characteristics and stylistic characteristics as below:

Thematic Features

Thematically the poets of this group deal with metaphysical themes, especially with love and religion. Let us discuss the thematic features in brief as below:

The Theme of Love

First, the theme of love plays a dominant role in the poetry of these poets, especially in John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Their sense of love is ideological as well as realistic. Their love begins in the flesh and dwells in the heart. Their physical love sours up to heaven where it gets perfection and immortality. But John Donne is free from the amorous description of his beloved’s beauty. His sense of beauty lies not in physical charm but in mutual attraction and trust. Donne has written out a large number of poems on this theme among which mention may be made of ‘The Canonization’, ‘The Anniversary’, ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘The Sun Rising: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ and so on. The following lines quoted from- ‘The Anniversary’ expresses his motto that true love is immortal, as:

”All other things to their destruction draw

Only our love hath no decay

This no tomorrow hath nor yesterday.”

Andrew Marvell’s sense of love is something different from that of John Donne. In his love poems, we get ample description of the physical beauty of his beloved. Among his typical love poems mention may be made of- ‘To His Coy Mistress’, ‘The Definition of Love’, ‘The Unfortunate Lover’, ‘Young Love’ and so on. In the poems entitled ‘To His Coy Mistress’, he persuades his beloved to consent to the poet’s desire. The poet is so indulged in the physical charm of his beloved that he utters:

”An hundred years should go to praise

Thine Eyes and on thy Forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each Breast

But thirty thousand to the rest.”

The Theme of Religion

Secondly, the ‘theme of religion’ makes a striking place in many of the poems of this group of poets. But the theme of religion that they dealt with is truly Christian. The very creed of Christism has been well portrayed in their religious and devotional poems. Among the so-called metaphysical poets George Herbert, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan are great as religious poets ever born in Christianity. Almost all the poems of George Herbert are religious and genuinely Christian. He expresses his personal conflicts between his worldly desire and spiritual aspiration. In his poems, he confesses that he becomes the victim of earthly glory but in spite of this sin, he loves God. He says:

”I know the ways of pleasure, the sweet strain

The lullings and the relishes of it


Yet I love thee.” 

John Donne, like Herbert, is a true Christian in his religious and devotional poems. He believes that through sufferance and repentance for sin, one can get salvation, he says:

”Teach me how to repent

As if thou hast sealed my pardon.”

Stylistic Features

Stylistically the poems of the metaphysical poets are featured by the use of elaborate conceit, epigrammatic quality, wits, puns, dramatic notes and compact words and phrases. Let us illustrate the stylistic features as below:

First, which strikes our mind and excites our sense of wonder while going through the poems of these poets is the imagery which is called ‘metaphysical conceit’. Their conceits are ingenious drawn from a variety of sources as- theology, astrology, law, physiology, geography, medieval philosophy and contemporary science. Their conceits are far-fetched, fantastic and fanciful which give testimony to their learning and cleverness. It is conceit through which they have made a unique and surprising blend of feeling, emotion and intellect. They are consciously far away from using the conventional stock of conceits that are found in the Elizabethan sonnets. Unlike the Elizabethans, their conceits are not a mere ornament but integral parts of their poetry. Their conceits are instruments (arguments) through which they illustrate, persuade and prove their point of view. In the poem ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ John Donne used the imagery of a compass to illustrate his static and heartily love to his beloved, as he says:

”Our two Soules, therefore which are one


If they be twoe, they are twoe so

As stiff twin compasses are twoe.”

George Herbert also uses ample conceits in his religious poetry. In the poem entitled ‘The Agonie ‘George Herbert gives a vivid description of the effect of sin which becomes a fantastic metaphysical conceit. He says:

”Sinne is that presse and vice which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through every vein.”

Henry Vaughan another metaphysical poet makes abundant use of conceits in his poems. For example, we can cite one of his poems ‘The Shower’. In the opening lines he gives a very perfect and fantastic idea of the birth of the shower as below:

‘‘twas so, I saw thy birth: That drowsie Lake 

From her faint bosom breathe thee.”

The second striking stylistic device of metaphysical poetry is the use of wit which not excite our sense of wonder only but also amuse us. In Donne we get:

”If yet I have not all thy love

Deare I shall never have it all.”

In Marvell, we find such uses of wits, as:

”Ah my dear God! If I am clean forgot

 Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.”

Thirdly, they are also skilled in the use of puns. John Donne has made puns with these words, as- sonne, shadow, will etc.

Fourthly, the poetic style of all these metaphysical poets is characterized by a ‘dramatic note’. Many of Donne’s, Marvell’s, Herbert’s and Vaughan’s poems open abruptly like a drama that has imparted dramatic detachment though their poems are extremely subjective. For example, the poem ‘The Canonization’ opens, as:

”For Godsake, hold your tongue and let me love

Or chide my Palsie or my gout.”

Fifthly, there is ample use of allusions and references from medieval philosophy, the Bible and from contemporary science. For example- almost all the poets have made ample allusions and references to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in their poems.

Sixthly, metaphysical poets have a weakness and predilection for the use of concrete and abstract words, sometimes, which become epigrammatic that often render complexity and absurdity to their poetry. For example:

”The grave is a fine and private place

But none, I think do there embrace.”  (Andrew Marvell) 

In conclusion, it can be said that the poets of the first half of the 17th century are unique both in theme and style; because the use of metaphysical themes has got perfection in their poetry, and in style, they are full of conceits that have been used in a novel way to persuade and prove their point of view. 0 0 0

Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

Read More: Salient Features of John Donne’s Poetry

Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry

N. B. This article entitled ‘Salient Features of Metaphysical Poetry’ originally belongs to the book ‘Critical Essays on English Poetry‘ by Menonim Menonimus.

Books of Literary Criticism by M. Menonimus:

  1. World Short Story Criticism
  2. World Poetry Criticism
  3. World Drama Criticism
  4. World Novel Criticism
  5. World Essay Criticism
  6. Indian English Poetry Criticism
  7. Indian English Poets and Poetry Chief Features
  8. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  9. Walt Whitman’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  10. Critical Essays on English Poetry
  11. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: Return of the Spirit-An Analytical Study
  12. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: ‘Yawmiyyat Naib Fil Arayaf’-An Analytical Study
  13. Analytical Studies of Some Arabic Short Stories
  14. A Brief History of Arabic Literature: Pre-Islamic Period
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I am Menonim Menonimus, a Philosopher & Writer.


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