Metaphysical Poetry of John Donne

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      Elizabethan poetry in spite of its merits and popularity suffered from inherent weaknesses. It was artificial and conventional. The uniform attitude to love, the mechanical sweetness of verses, the decadence of inspiration were bound to produce reaction. Donne led the revolt against Elizabethan poets. He disliked the Petrarchan convention, the tears of lovers, the cruelty of the mistress, and conceits of the Elizabethans. Thus, he may be said to be the founder of a new type of poetry. As C.S. Lewis asserts: "Metaphysics in poetry is the fruit of the Renaissance tree, becoming over-ripe and approaching putrescence."

The word "metaphysical" has been defined differently by various writers. R.S. Hillyer writes: "Literally, it has to do with the conception of existence, with the living universe and Man's place therein. Loosely, it has taken such meanings as these - difficult  philosophical, obscure, ethereal, involved, supercilious, ingenious, fantastic, and incongruous".
Metaphysical Poetry

The term 'Metaphysical': Johnson's views on Metaphysical poetry:

      The word "metaphysical" has been defined differently by various writers. R.S. Hillyer writes: "Literally, it has to do with the conception of existence, with the living universe and Man's place therein. Loosely, it has taken such meanings as these - difficult  philosophical, obscure, ethereal, involved, supercilious, ingenious, fantastic, and incongruous".

      John Donne's poetry is metaphysical, "not only in the sense of being erudite and witty but in the proper sense of being reflective and philosophical." In other words, the learned critic feels that metaphysical poetry is "inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence."

      John Dryden was the first use the epithet-metaphysical poetry - to cover the poetic work of Donne, Cowley, Vaughan and his contemporaries. Dr. Johnson revived this epithet and wrote an essay on the metaphysical poets in his Life of Cowley. Dr. Johnson attacked the metaphysical on several grounds - for their parade of learning, for their remote and fantastic analogies and conceits, for their carelessness in diction, for their novelty intended to shock the reader, for their ingenious absurdity, ruggedness and subtlety. He was indifferent to the vein of weighty thought and brooding imagination, the originality and metrical achievement of the metaphysical poets. He had no eye for the nobler and subtler qualities of their genius. A literary dictator as he was, he condemned without reservation what did not appeal to his classical mind.

      Dr. Johnson's account of the school is well worth quoting, though its general condemnation is unjust to some delightful poets, such as Herbert and Vaughan. As he states in Life of Cowley: "About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the Metaphysical poets. The Metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor. If the father of criticism (i.e., Aristotle) has rightly denominated poetry an imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life, neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of the intellect. Their thoughts are often new but seldom natural. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises: but the reader commonly thinks: his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. They were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising. They never inquired what, on any occasion, they should have said or done, but wrote rather as beholders than part-takers of human nature; without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness, and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only to say what they hoped had been never said before....Their attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and labored particularities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life, than he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon." From the aforesaid statement, Dr. Johnson has pointed out the following peculiarities of the metaphysical poets:

(a) They were men of learning and made a pedantic display of their strange knowledge.

(b) They affected a peculiar 'wit' which may be described as a kind of Discordia Concors a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.

(c) Their fondness for analysis, which broke an image into bits, led them to the dissection of emotion rather than a direct and impassioned expression of it.

(d) Harshness and irregularity of their verse which is poetry only to the eye, not to the ear.

Main Aspects Of Metaphysical Poetry

Passionate Thinking:

      There is plenty of passion in this kind of poetry, but it is passion combined with intense intellectual activity. T.S. Eliot thinks that "passionate thinking" is the chief mark of metaphysical poetry. Thus, even in The Anniversary where Donne gives a lofty expression to the love and mutual trust of himself and his wife, his restless mind seeks far-fetched ideas, similitudes and images in order to convey to the reader the exact quality of this love and trust.

The Peculiarities of the Metaphysical Lyric:

      The metaphysical lyric lays stress on the fantastic, on the intellectual, on wit, on leaned imagery, on conceits based on psychology of flights from the material to the spiritual plane, on obscure and philosophical allusions, on the blending of passions, and thought, feeling and ratiocination. The metaphysical lyric, is a blend of passion, imagination and argument. According to A.C. Ward, the metaphysical style is a combination of two elements, the fantastic in form and style and the incongruous in matter and manner.

Philosophical Conception of the Universe and Ordinary Experiences:

      Metaphysical poetry is inspired by a "philosophical conception of universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence." Undoubtedly, its themes are simple human experiences, the joy and sorrow of love, the thrill of adventure and battle, the hustle and excitement of the town and in addition mystic experiences and inner conflicts known to the greatest thinkers and philosophers. Donne and his fellows are not the metaphysical poets in the full sense of the term. They are metaphysical in a restricted sense. Donne is metaphysical by nature of his scholasticism, his knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, the medieval philosophers and the new learning of the Renaissance, his deep reflective interest in his personal experiences, the new psychological curiosity and dissecting genius with which he writes of life, love and religion. But he is often frivolous, tortuous and skeptical. According to T.S. Eliot, the metaphysical desire is the "elaboration of a figure of Speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it" and the telescoping of images and multiplied associations. Donne is aware of the clash between the old and the new, the world of faith and the world of reason, the clash between the old geographers and Copernicus and his followers:

The new philosophy calls all in doubt
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

Source of Metaphysical Inspiration: Love Poetry and Religious Poetry:

      Metaphysical poetry resolves itself into the two broad divisions of amorous and religious verse. The former was written largely by the courtly poets, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace, and the latter by Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan, who all dedicated their gifts to the service of their religion. The metaphysical element, it seems, first made its appearance in love poems, following the example of the Italian writers, whom Donne seems to have adopted as his models. Under this influence, made yet more popular by the practice of Donne, "every metaphor, natural or traditional to the theme of love, was elaborated in abstract and hyperbolical fashion," till it gave rise to indulgence in strange and far-fetched images. From this the practice spread to all kinds of poetical writing, amorous or otherwise. But though it returned to England through Italy, the metaphysical mode is traceable, in its origins, to the poetry of the Middle Ages, where the lover woos his mistress in the same artificial tone which characterizes metaphysical verse. As Prof. H.J.C. Grierson puts it "The Metaphysicals of the seventeenth century combined two things, both soon to pass away, the fantastic dialectics of medieval love-poetry and the simple, and sensuous strain which they caught from the classics-soul and body slightly yoked and glad to run and soar together in the winged chariot of Pegasus."

      Donne has written many 'songs and 'sonnets' on the subject of love. But he does not follow the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry as we find in Spenser and Shakespeare. He does not flatter his beloved or glorify her. On the contrary, in many of his songs, he shows a cynical contempt for women. For example, in Song he makes it clear that a man may be able to catch a falling star or say where all the past years are; he may, indeed achieve the impossible, but he will never be able to find a Woman true and fair, But Donne is also capable of deep feeling. The poems he wrote to celebrate his wedded love, are full of such feelings. He says to his wife in The Anniversary that all honors and glories, all the princes and their favorites might perish:

Only our love hath no decay
This no to-morrow hath, nor yesterday.
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day,

      There is also a fine feeling in the song, 'Sweetest love I do not go'. But Donne as a poet of love is very often given to subtle arguments. If he had less of arguments and more of passion he would have been a greater poet of love. He is rather rough too. Although in his youth he had lived an irregular life, Donne took to religion whole-heartedly in his middle age and entered the church. He was an excellent preacher and rose to be the Dean of St. Paul's. His Divine Poems, as his religious verse is called, is marked by an intense feeling of piety, by a brooding thought on the subject of death and a strong faith in Resurrection.

Learning in Metaphysical Poetry:

      Metaphysical verse is laden with the scholarship of its authors. A whole book of knowledge might be compiled from the scholarly allusions in Donne and Cowley alone. To such learning in itself there could, of course, be no objection. It is an enrichment of the poet's mind, and part of the equipment for his high vocation. In judiciously applied, however, it can only mystify the average person, and it was unfortunate that, as Dr. Johnson noted, the Metaphysicians "sometimes drew their conceits from recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry." The poet is not made by what he can give at second or third hand, unless his own genius can transmute it. As Johnson also said: "No man could be born a Metaphysical poet, nor assume that dignity of a writer, by descriptions, copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility."

Obscurity in Metaphysical Poetry:

      "In the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling," to quote T.S. Eliot, the Metaphysicals made themselves difficult to understand. As we have seen, they combined dissimilar ideas without attempting to unite them, and the reader was left to divine what they really had in mind. So far as their later reputation was concerned, this did, not serve them well for several generations. Ben Jonson predicted that Donne's fame would not live because of his incapacity to open himself to his reader, and indeed this great poet had almost been rediscovered in our own times. Coleridge however, did the school more justice, "The style of the Metaphysical," he wrote, "is the reverse of that which distinguishes too many of our most recent versifiers; the one conveying the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct language, the other in the most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts."

"Unified Sensibility" in Metaphysical Poetry:

      It was T.S. Eliot who made the phrase "unified sensibility" popular. According to Eliot, the two facilities, that of feeling and of thinking came to be dissociated from cach other on account of one-sided emphasis placed since the time of Milton on intellect. Thus after the seventeenth century, we have either poetry of thought or poetry of feeling. Such a separation of thought from feeling is called dissociation of sensibility. This had an adverse effect on the history of poetry. But in the early part of seventeenth-century feeling and thought were combined, they were one operation of the mind. It was not possible to think without feeling and to feel without thinking. This is called a unified sensibility (or unification of sensibility). Donne and the Metaphysicals had a unified sensibility. Their poetry expressed through thinking and feeling at the same time. Here is a direct apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling. Eliot tells us in the essay Metaphysical Poets: "The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. "Thus in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in. If the Metaphysicals are obscure and difficult, it is because. their sensibility is unified, and ours dissociated.

      The Metaphysicals are constantly amalgamating disparate experiences. Donne had the knack of presenting different objects together. These objects are quite remote though undeniable similarity has been brought about by the poet. He connects the abstract with concrete, the physical with spiritual, the remote with the near and the sublime with the common-place. "This juxtaposition, and sometimes, interfusion of apparently dissimilar or exactly opposite objects often pleasantly thrills us into a new perception of reality." And Donne, says Hayward, is a 'thrilling poet'

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:
Inconstancy naturally hath begot
A constant habit,

      These "contraries" meeting in Donne's poetry vex not only the poet but also his readers. His successors handled these contraries rather crudely with very unpleasant effects.

Metaphysical Conceits and Images:

      A characteristic feature of metaphysical verse is indulgence in "dissimilar images, of discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. A comparison is often instituted between objects that have ostensibly little in common with each other. Cowley, for example, compares being in love with different women to travelling through different countries - Two heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together"

Hast thou not found each woman's breast
(The land where thou hast travelled)
Either by savages possest,
Or wild, and uninhabited?
What joy could'st take, or what repose.
In countries so uncivilized as those.

      Often the figure of speech is elaborated to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it. In the following stanza from the same poem, Cowley pushes the geographical metaphor as far as it can go women's breasts (or, as we should say, hearts) being different lands, have now different constellations to influence their climate

Lust, he scorching dog-star, here
Rages with immoderate heat;
Whilst Pride, the rugged Northem Bear,
In others makes the cold too great.
And where these are temperate known,
The soil's all barren sand or rocky stone.

      In plain language, some women are too wanton, others too proud; those who are temperate are unresponsive to the approaches of love. The metaphysical poetry is full of far fetched images ("conceits" as they are called) and allusions and references borrowed from branches of learning old and new. For example, Donne represents himself in Twicknam Garden as an unhappy lover. He comes to a public garden in order that the sights and sounds there might console him. But that is not possible as he has brought with him his spider Love, which transubstantiates all (a piece of medieval science). He wants to be converted into a fountain so that he may weep all the time. But his tears would be true tears of love. Lovers should come and take his tears in phials and comparing them with those shed by their mistresses find out if the latter are true in love! Again, his own mistress is unkind to him because she is chaste. But what a paradox! Among the women, she is the only true or chaste woman, and "who's therefore true, because her truth kills me."

Metaphysical Conceits Convey a Unified Experience:

      R.G. Cox points out: "At its best the metaphysical conceit communicates a unified experience; what matters is the sense of imaginative pressure and intensity; it is only where this is absent that the ingenuity seems obtrusive and we feel impelled to speak of frigidity and fantastic hyperbole". John Donne has made a characteristic use of ideas and experience and the most startling connections are discovered between them. When the use of conceit fails in its purpose, Dr. Johnson's remark, "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together" seems to be justified and when it succeeds one thinks rather of Coleridge's remark that imagination shows itself in "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities."

Affectation and Hyperbole in Metaphysical Poetry:

      Natural grace is often hard to find in metaphysical writing, which abounds in artificiality of thought and hyperbolical expression. The writers probably deemed it a passport to fame to say 'something unexpected and surprising."  "What they wanted 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 be credited, but could not be imagined. Here is Cowley again, promising a tempest of sighs in return for one or two from his dear one:

By every wind that comes this way,
Send me at least a sigh or two
Such and so many I'll repay
As shall themselves make winds to get to you.

The complement is violent and unnatural, and does not give the effect of real emotion.

Diction and Versification of Metaphysical Poetry:

      The Metaphysicals reacted against the cloying sweetness and har mony of the Elizabethan poetry. They deliberately avoided conventional poetic expressions. They employed very prosaic words as if they were scientists or shopkeepers. Thus, we find rugged and un-poetic words in their poetical works. Their versification and their diction is usually. coarse and jerky. According to Grierson, the metaphysical had two motives for employing very coarse and rugged expressions in their poetical works. Firstly, they wanted to startle the reader. Secondly, they had the desire to make use of direct, unconventional and colloquial speeches.

      Donne could "sing" whenever he liked but often, he seems to be "bending and cracking the metrical pattern to the rhetoric of direct and vehement utterance." He very often throws all prosodic considerations to the winds and distributes his stresses not according to the meter but according to the sense.

Excessive Intellectualism of Metaphysical Poetry:

      According to Grierson, the hallmark of all metaphysical poetry are passionate feeling and paradoxical ratiocination. The same critic observes that the Metaphysical "exhibited deductive reasoning carried to a high pitch". Often Donne states at the beginning of a poem a hopelessly insupportable proposition which he defends later. The metaphysical poets, in Johnson's words, desired "to say what they hoped had been never said before. They endeavored to be singular in their thoughts and were careless of their diction." They did not feel obliged to follow the trodden path. They had their own thoughts and they worked out their own manner of expressing them. They played with thoughts," said Sir Walter Scott, "as the Elizabethans had played with words. In fact, they carried the Elizabethan freedom of imagination and delight in verbal fancies to a point at which it became difficult for the average reader to grasp their meaning. For splendor of sound and imagery they substituted subtlety of thought, though this must not be taken to mean that their work lacked its own beauty and grandeur.

Reactions Against Metaphysical Poetry:

      About the middle of the seventeenth century a change came over the English poetic temperament. The metaphysical wave had exhausted itself, and had left literary standards and values confused. The Metaphysicals had misused the Elizabethan ideal of liberty. It necessitated the growing realization of clarity and control in poetry. Ben Jonson with his prophetic vision had advocated literary order and discipline in place of lawless impulse and unbridled fancy. His example was ignored for a time, but it was effective later when metaphysical method, in its decay, began to produce more weeds than flowers. Cowley and Marvell had realized the importance of poise and control in their verse. But Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham were the real pioneers of the new' movement. They led the reaction against metaphysical excesses by writing charming verse on the classical model.

Rehabilitation of Metaphysical Poetry in the Twentieth Century:

      After the First World War metaphysical method again came into vogue. Consciousness of the waste and futility of war, and the desolation and hopelessness resulting from it once more brought God in purview. A sincere quest for positive faith emerged, and we have a marked tendency with the opening of the thirties. Religious poetry came to be written under the influence of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. What gave a further impetus to the writing of religious poetry was the popularity of Hopkins after being resurrected by Bridges in 1819. The poetry of Hopkins had qualities which particularly appealed to the post-war world; it revealed a sense of spiritual tension and frustration; it combined a powerful intellect with a strong sensuousness; it possessed a bold originality of technique. The poetry of Hopkins is completely on the lines of the old metaphysicals, with the same devotion of grace, the same technique of expression and the same use of Donne's breaking up of, lines, suddenly indicating a pause. 'The Caged Skylark' is a typically metaphysical piece. In the thirties the poetry can be judged from the impact it made upon poets who did not share the religion which inspired and governed all that Hopkins wrote.

      Eliot himself turned his face away from the faithlessness of the 'Waste Land' and 'Hollow Men' and in 'Ash Wednesday' sought refuge in the Anglo-Catholic doctrines of faith. Since then, religion has become his voice and he has been considered by some as the lost leader. Eliot's poems are in a complete sense metaphysical. Eliot's art embraces Donne's technique of the juxtaposition of the levity with the seriousness, his method of presenting things by contrast, his use of wit and conceits as well as his free manipulation of meter and rhyme scheme to suit the melody and meaning of the piece. Ash Wednesday and poems composed after it are marked clearly by his Anglo-Catholic inclination; Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding - each of these of Four Quarters reveals symbolically this highest faith and is a finely universalized song of enchantment of the highest entity in the sober and philosophical tone.


      The term "Metaphysical" was applied to the poetry of Donne and his followers first by Dryden and then by Dr. Johnson. These poets - Donne, Cowley, Herbert etc. wrote mainly on two subjects, love and religion. The term 'Metaphysical' is rightly applied to them as in their poetry there is the habit "of always seeking to express something after, something behind the simple, obvious first sense and suggestion of a subject." (Meta = beyond+physical). Dr: Johnson was unkind to this school. He thought that these poets only wanted to display their learning and to say something which had not been said before.

      It will be interesting here to mention that the future of metaphysical poetry is bright. Prof. Ransom, an eminent critic of today meditating upon the nature of true poetry, has indicated that metaphysical poetry is alone true poetry. In his treatise, he concedes pure physical poetry as an impossibility aiming at the 'thinginess' and also 'Platonic poetry' which is a false poetry dealing with ideals and ideas alone. He prefers metaphysical poetry not because it represents the middle way between the two, but because it produces a beautiful blend of the two.

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