Metaphysical Poet's of 17th Century English Literature

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    John Donne was the first to introduce the term metaphysical poetry. Donne's poetry is a reaction to the fluency and exuberance of Elizabethan poetry and the conventional mode of Petrarch and others. He made a searching analysis of every mood and emotion in his love poems, and in his religious poems, the same intellectual analysis is prominent. It seeks a blend of intellect and passion, wit and emotion. It is logical in structure and rich in images which are taken from Astronomy, Geography and other fields of learning. Donne's conceits are instruments of persuasion (Helen Gardner) and effect a blend of passion and intellect and thus achieving 'a unification of sensibility' (T. S. Eliot). Donne is the lover and sensualist, but his mind reviews his love in the terms of philosophy or explores it with the images gathered in his scientific and theological reading. He can perceive beauty but at the very moment of that perception, he sees the corpse, the skeleton. His thought is ever at the service of his passions and his passions enter into his thought. He sought out the strongest images which yoked ideas which no one had yet seen together, The metaphysical school of poets in the seventeenth century who are followers of Donne, reveal some common features delivered from their 'father'.

The main characteristics of Donne's poetry are "a depth of philosophy, subtlety of reasoning, a blend of thought and devotion, a mingling of the homely and the sublime, the light and serious, which make it full of variety and surprise."
John Donne

      These are: (1) their poetry is to a great extent lyrical; (2) the subject is chiefly religious and amatory; (3) there is much metrical felicity, even in complicated lyrical stanzas; (4) the poetic style is sometimes almost startling in its sudden beauty of phrase and melody of diction, but there are unexpected turns of language and figures of speech, (Albert).

      Some of the more important of these metaphysical poets are George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan (pronounced Von), Abraham Cowley, Thomas Carew and Andrew Marvell.

      George Herbert (1593-1633) is of all these poets most akin to Donne the master. He is the "saint of the metaphysical school. His poetry constantly offends taste but often gives the impression of a sort of sublimity" (Legouis). The most popular of his poems is The Temple, which is a collection of poems, full of faith and fervor and also a subtlety of thought and ornament. It is a picture of the "many spiritual conflicts that passed between God and the poet in the mind of the poet". "The poems are homely, quiet, colloquial and touched with a quaint humor. They are metaphysical in their unusual conceits (though Herbert does not cultivate the learned scholastic imagery of Donne) and in the blend of thought and feeling." His oft-quoted poem, Virtue is full of surprising images. The angry and brave' color of the rose "that bids the rash gazer wipe his eyes": the spring is "a box where sweets compacted lie" and the virtuous soul "like seasoned timber never gives": these are some of his remarkable conceits. In spite of these faults of taste, his poems in general show are flashes of beauty. His other poems 'The Quip' and "The Pulley" are spun of mere conceits. His well-known poem is the Caller from The Temple.

      Richard Crashaw's (1613-49) best work is Steps to the Temple, written in honor of Herbert whom he admired. He possesses certain profoundly poetic qualities in higher degrees than Herbert. His language is not simple and precise like Herbert's but he has more warmth, color and harmony. His lyrical flights often remind the reader of Shelley's lyrics, in their fire and fervor. He is emotional rather than intellectual. At the same time he has a metaphysical's fondness for the striking conceit, which often becomes fantastic. This is seen in his poem The Weeper.

"Two walking baths, two weeping motions

Portable and compendious oceans."

      Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) was a doctor and not a priest like the previous two poets. He was the disciple of Herbert in a more intimate sense. He found God not only in the Bible and the Church but also in Nature. He anticipates Wordsworth by two centuries. His love of nature recalls the later poet. His mysticism like Wordsworth's is grounded on his recollection of childhood. His Retreat anticipates Wordsworth's, Immortality Ode. It is an exquisite poem. The poem, 'They are all gone into the world of light' touches artistic perfection in its choice of rhythms and images. He wrote Silex Scintillans which appeared in two parts in 1650 and 1655. It is written under the influence of Herbert's Temple. Here is a metaphysical conceit in the manner of Herbert- "Stars shut up shop." He employs other tricks of Herbert's style- abrupt openings, the questions and ejaculations and whimsical titles. But the poems like 'The World' and 'They are all gone into the world of light' are free from Herbert's influence. In these poems, his religious fervor is highly imaginative. His style is simple and dignified and is free from metaphysical 'conceits'.

      Abraham Cowley (1615-67) is a great example of the infant prodigy. The Faerie Queene made Cowley a poet at the age of twelve, when he wrote Constantina Philetus. His Poetical Blossoms were published when he was fourteen. His best-known poems are The Mistress, The Pindaric Odes and The Davideris. It is an epic on King David in heroic couplets. The best of his prose works is his Essays. The Mistress has the influence of Donne's style. He follows Donne in the free use of far-fetched similes and metaphors. He likens the lover's inconstancy to the vibration of a magnetic needle before it fixed on the true north. In Pindaric Odes, he retained rime but approximated to what is now known as free verse. Cowley lacked intensity of passion and depth of insight. His images are fanciful and decorative, rather than a means of exploring experience. His mind is a Restoration mind and this comes out in such lines as these from the poem Of Wit:

"And Reason, the inferior powers control"

Herbert Grierson observes: in Cowley, the central heat of metaphysical poetry has died down. Less extravagant, his wit is also less passionate and imaginative.

      Thomas Carew (1598-1639) had undoubted lyrical gifts. Within the narrow field of amorous compliments and disdain, he has often attained perfection. Some of his poems remind us of Byron's lyrics like "She walks in beauty or There be none of Beauty's daughters. His language is oratorial and is marred by license and bad taste. His debt to Donne is to be found in his ability to sustain poetic arguments, his vivid phrases and conceits and sometimes in his achievement of that fusion of feeling, thought and image which is characteristic of Donne.

      Andrew Marvell (1621-78) perhaps the greatest poet of the school, was a Puritan, but no sour Puritan; he was a humanist, a wit and a high-minded patriot. In his lifetime his poems were circulated in manuscripts among friends and published only after his death. His poems "have been described as the finest flower of the serious and secular metaphysical verse. His work has the subtlety of wit, passionate argument and the learned imagery of the metaphysical, combined with the clarity and control of the classical followers of Jonson. His rhythms are flexible, his melody delicates, He loved nature and the freshness of the gardens and in all his work there is a high seriousness and absolute sincerity." His love poem To his Coy Mistress and patriotic poem Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return to England are most popular. His another poem is The Garden which shows his delight in nature and his metaphysical qualities like argumentative structure and conceits.

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