What is Metaphysical Poetry?
Etymologically the term “Metaphysical” has been derived from two Greek words of Meta and Physics . “Meta” means beyond and “physics” means physical nature. The metaphysical period is one of the major remarkable literary periods in the history of English literature. Merriam Webster dictionary defines Metaphysical as “of or relating to the transcendent or to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses”. This article highlights the metaphysical elements from the selected poems of John Donne. Metaphysical poetry is a unique division of poetry that deals with a philosophical outlook on Nature and as also acclaimed for pedagogical implications of intellect and emotions. The skilful and adept art of poetic form has been progressed by Donne and his contemporary poets even despite criticisms of breaking the Elizabethan tradition of writing. This paper is to examine how John Donne could affect Metaphysics? Also explores the assessment on the literary endeavours and outstanding metaphysical elements in the selected poems of John Donne.
Metaphysical poetry, a term coined by Samuel Johnson, has its roots in 17th-century England. This type of poetry is witty, ingenious and highly philosophical. Its topics included love, life and existence. Metaphysical poetry used literary elements of similes, metaphors, imagery, paradoxes, conceit, and far-fetched views of reality. Metaphysical poetry represents the splendid and thorough amalgamation of intellect and emotion, creative wit and sharp humour so as to accustom the readers with a new model of poetic excellence. John Donne, the pioneer of this metaphysical school of poetry, and his contemporaries like Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Richard Crashaw importantly contributed to this new poetic field of metaphysical poetry. In this regard, Grierson rightly describes metaphysical poetry as “poetry inspired by a philosophical concept of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.”
Metaphysical poetry is a kind of poetry that lays stress on the belief that the logical aspect rules the emotional; signified by sarcasm, absurdity and extraordinary comparisons of unlike features; the latter often being fanciful, to the limit of peculiarity. In his seminal work, Discourse on Satire (1693), John Dryden said that Donne’s work ‘affects the metaphysics’. Later, Dr Johnson labelled the various seventeenth-century poets, whose poems irrespective of their subject matter possessed certain characteristics, as ‘Metaphysical Poets’. It is to Johnson that we owe the term ‘Metaphysical Poets’.
Eighteenth-century poet and critic Dr Samuel Johnson is considered a certain group of poets, metaphysical because he wanted to portray a loose group of British lyric poets who belonged to the seventeenth century. These poets were generally interested in metaphysical issues and had a common method of examining them. Their writings were marked by the innovativeness of metaphor (these included comparisons known as metaphysical conceits). The changing times had a significant influence on their poetry.
Discovery of the new sciences and the immoral scenario of the seventeenth century England were also other factors influencing their poetry. Metaphysical poets dealt with topics like God, creation and afterlife. The most popular metaphysical poets are John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan among others. Donne incorporates the Renaissance conception of the human body as a microcosm into his love poetry. The Renaissance saw several people thinking that the macrocosmic physical world was reflected in the microcosmic human body. They believed that the body is ruled by the intellect just like the land is ruled by a king or queen.
Most of Donne’s poems, such as The Sun Rising, The Good-Morrow and A Valediction: Of Weeping are based on the theme of love and involve a pair of lovers. They are represented as complete worlds unto themselves. The lovers are deeply in love with each other and oblivious to the world around them. Donne uses the analogy to express the extent to which the lovers are involved with each other. They are so engrossed that they forget their surroundings and behave as if they are the only people in existence. Nothing else matters to them except they themselves
In Metaphysical poetry, emotions are shaped and expressed by logical reasoning and both sound and picture are subordinate to this end. Words consecrated to poetry are avoided because such words have accumulated emotion. The very reasons that prompt other poets to use these words persuade Donne and his disciples to neglect them. The Metaphysical poets like Wordsworth preferred words in everyday use. But their practice goes even further beyond.
The Metaphysical poets used the natural language of man when they are engaged in commerce or in scientific speculation, so that the words themselves, apart from the meaning in the context, have no repercussions. They cut themselves off from one of the common means of poetry and thus become entirely dependent on a successful fusion between thought and feeling; they seldom employ easy or emotionally exciting rhythms.
Often the rhythm is as intricate as thought and only reveals itself when the emphasis has been carefully distributed accordingly to the sense; its function is that of a stimulant, not a narcotic, to the intellect. Elizabethan rhythms were usually suggested by a classical heritage, or by the requirements of the music. The rhythms of Donne and his followers are dictated by the meaning.
Dr Jonson rightly said, ‘to write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think’. Successful reading of Metaphysical poets necessitates at least a temporary conquest of the tendency to divorce feeling from intelligence, to be moved only at the cost of being unable to judge, and to judge well only when the sympathies are not engaged.
The incompatibility of detachment and participation, or amusement and pity is constantly impoverishing our experiences.
Any poet must separate himself from his experience if his poem is to be more than a personal outcry. The Metaphysical poets call upon the powers of connecting in a peculiar degree. The search for the intellectual equivalent of emotion enforces connection and it also ensures detachment must be held at an arm’s length. In most of the poems, Donne transmutes the personal experience of a lover into an affirmation about the nature of man. Without forfeiting the power to express emotion, the Metaphysical poetry style distances the persona; it is not true of the protagonist alone but of all mankind that body and spirit are interdependent.
Those who did not like the Metaphysical poetry attacked it for two reasons. Firstly, it is objected that such a style soon degenerates into the pursuit of logical incongruity and ingenuity for its own sake. This is certainly the fate that overtakes it when the poet has very little to say. The second objection is that the Metaphysical poetry style is needlessly obscure. There may actually be a cleavage between the poet’s image and his original impulse. The Metaphysical poet is the man with a continual breakdown of mental habits- experiences which have been kept apart in the mind are suddenly yoked together.
This occasion questions the obscurity in poetry. Recondite imagery is a common cause of difficulty or obscurity in poetry. But the difference should be made between the almost implausible obstacles of private symbolism such as William Blake used or even imagery derived from individual literary pursuits such as T. S. Eliot used in The Waste Land; the imagery of a poet like Donne demands only an acquaintance with widespread contemporary ideas. The other difficulty which arises and complicates Metaphysical poetry is its ‘compression’. But this element of compression in the Metaphysical poetry could overcome through very careful punctuation.
Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry
Poets from John Donne to Ted Hughes show a few characteristics of metaphysical poetry. Each poet categorised under this school of poetry reflected the following characteristics in his writings:
1. Ratiocination: It is reasoning based on logic i.e. this kind of poetry used both reason and logic as a vehicle to put forward an idea. Good ratiocination is invariably supported by argument, proof, examples, etc. In Donne’s Death Be Not Proud ratiocination takes place as the poet explains coherently why death should not be proud.
2. Emotional appeal: The use of reason does not mean an absence of emotional appeal. Metaphysical poetry displays a fine interspersing of emotions, sensibilities, memories and reasons.
3. Use of conceits: The metaphysical poets introduced the concept of conceits. In simple terms, a conceit is the bringing together of very unlikely ideas to produce a new idea. Helen Gardner explains, ‘a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness’.Conceits can be either short or extended. References from medicine, commerce, warfare etc. are drawn to provide novelty to the conceits.
4. Wit: In the context of Metaphysical Poetry, the excessive use of intellectual ideas is referred to as wit.
5. Paradox: On the surface, a paradox appears to be a self-contradictory statement, but delving deeper we see the meaning lying underneath.
6. Dramatic Opening: These poems usually start off from certain events or actions, for e.g. consider the line ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love’ (The Canonization by John Donne).
7. Simple Language: The language used in metaphysical poetry is simple and easy to understand, devoid of elevated and ornate speech, which is found in classical writings.
8. Humour: Another prominent aspect of metaphysical poetry is humour. If the humour is subtle and polished, it helps in controlling the tone and mood of the poem.