The English Metaphysical Poets and Poetry

The term “metaphysical” as applied to Donne and his followers is, more or less, a misnomer. However, it has come to stick. It was Dryden who first applied the term in relation to Donne’s poetry. “He affected,” complained Dryden, “the metaphysics, not only in his satires but in his amorous verses.” Dr. Johnson borrowed Dryden’s ideas, and in his “Life of Cowley” called Cowley a poet of the metaphysical school of Donne.

He derided Cowley’s pedantic exhibition of his learning and vocabulary in his poems. But the exhibition of their learning was only one of the many characteristics of the metaphysical poets. Their love of daring imagery, enigmatic expression, a peculiar sensualism uneasily wedded to a mystical conception of religion, their intellectualism and taste for the expression of novel ideas in a novel manner, were some other qualities. The term “metaphysical” denotes, according to Saintsbury, “the habit, common to this school of poets, of always seeking to express something after, something behind, the simple, obvious first sense and suggestion of a subject.” In this way Donne and his followers strike a note of variance from Spenser and the Spenserians and Elizabethan poetry in general.

Composite Quality:
According to Grierson, metaphysical poetry, in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Goethe’s Faust “has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and of the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.” It arises when the physical world loses its stability, and the people lose faith in the orthodox patterns of thought and belief. At such times sensitive poets turn their attention inwards, and through self-analysis aim at better understanding of themselves, their situation in the world, and their relation to a philosophic or idealised “otherworld.” The age in which Donne lived witnessed a gradual crumbling ?: the old order of things, the disturbing progress of science, and the scepticism which went with it. “The new philosophy”, said Donne, “calls all in doubt”. The realisation that the earth is not the centre of the universe, and the inference that man is not the greatest of all :reatures, dealt a rude blow to the orthodox Christian complacency. Donne’s search for some principle of coherence in a world of chaos led to the reconciliation of opposites-resolution of doubts and the :-.tegration of the world of reality with the world of the imagination, of sensual cynicism and highflown mysticism, and even of carnal and spiritual longings. This led him surely to the employment of what have been dubbed “metaphysical conceits” and an occasional display of rot-of-the-way, recondite learning. The subtler points of his feeling found outlet quite often in obscure and enigmatic expression which has been the delight of some, and the despair of many readers. In spite of Donne’s obscurity and persistent intellectualism it may be said to his credit as a love poet that he imported into English love poetry a vigorous element of hard realism (which sometimes amounts even to cynicism). In this respect he scored a big advance over Spenser and his school who glorified Platonic love and celebrated almost unearthly and highly conventional mistresses of the Petrarchan tradition. Donne’s “ead was accepted by a large number of poets succeeding him. Among them may be mentioned Herbert, Vaughan, Carew, Crashaw, Trasherne, early Milton, and Cowley. These poets are often classed together as “metaphysicals” or “metaphysical poets”. Apart from them the influence of Donne and his school may also be discerned in the work of a sizable number of poets who flourished in the Caroline period. In fact the metaphysical vein was in evidence as a major current in the stream of English poetry till the age of Dryden, when it gave place to nee-classicism ushered in by him.
Now let us consider some salient characteristics of the poetry of the metaphysical school.
“Undissociated Sensibility”:
The most important characteristic of the metaphysicals is their possession of, or striving after, what T. S. Eliot calls “undissociated sensibility” (the combination of thought and feeling) which Milton was to “split” later. However, Prof. L. C. Knights in his essay “Bacon and the Dissociation of Sensibility” in Explorations puts forward the view that sensibility came to be dissociated much earlier by Bacon. The metaphysicals are “constantly amalgamating disparate experiences” and forming new wholes out of materials so diverse as “reading Spinoza, falling in love and smelling the dinner cooking.” Donne has the knack of presenting together different objects which have between them a quite remote though undeniable similarity. He connects the abstract with the concrete, the remote with the near, the physical with the spiritual, and the sublime with the commonplace and sometimes during moments of the most serious meditation breaks into a note of sardonic humour or pathetic frivolity. 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.” Donne wrote :
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, sometimes, his readers. His successors handled these contraries rather crudely, with very unpleasant effects.
Metaphysical Wit and Conceits:
Dr. Johnson was the first critic to point out the tendency of the metaphysical poets to yoke radically different images forcibly together. This tendency arose, according to T. S. Eliot, from their undissociated sensibility. But it may be objected that Donne and his followers do not really seem to be serious and spontaneous in the tendency noted by Dr. Johnson. When Donne compares a pair of lovers to a pair of compasses, is he not speaking with his tongue in cheek? Such a tendency is a true manifest ation of the metaphysical wit. Hobbes in his Leviathan defined wit as the capability to find out similarities between things which may look very dissimilar. When Carew said that Donne
ruled, as he thought fit,
The universal monarchy of wit
He was most probably referring to wit in this sense. All the metaphysicals have an incorrigible aptitude for witty comparisons, juxtaposition, and imagery, and what may be called “the metaphysical conceit”‘….some strained or far-fetched comparison or figure of speech. Dr. Johnson defined the wit of the metaphysicals as a kind of discordia concors, combination of dissimilar images. Let us consider some instances of this discordia concors. In Donne’s Twicknam Garden we meet with the expression “spider love.” Now, we are used to splendid, decorative, or moving images in connexion with the subject of love; but the word “spider” is quite contrary to our expectation. In the same poem the lover’s tears are called the wine of love. The poet invites lovers to come equipped with phials to collect his tears! In another poem we have the very quaint line:
A holy, thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
The word “holy” is highly serious, “thirsty” stands for a simple revsical need, and “dropsy”…the name of a disease…has a clinical tKcTig. Again, consider the lines :
Go tell court-huntsmen, that the king will ride;
Call country ‘ants to harvest offices.
See how the king and country ants are juxtaposed.
The poetry of the metaphysicals has the impress of very vast learning. Whatever be the demerits of the metaphysical poets, even Dr. “rhnson had to admit that for writing such poetry it was at least -ecessary to think and read. However, it may be said that this poetry is r-ain-sprung, mot heart-felt. It is intellectual and witty to a fault. Dr. “onnson noted, that the metaphysical poets sometimes drew their conceits from “recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers rf poetry.” Learning is an asset for a poet. Our quarrel with the -netaphysicals is not that they are learned but that, sometimes, they show off their learning just to impress the reader. An imaginative and learned writer, says Edmund Blunden, “calls for annotation, but the object of his difficult a’llusions is to give shape to his ideas of the world, of the soul, not to de/cide matters of astronomy, physics, geography and natural history/’ Many of Donne’s followers do not always prove so “imagin ative.”
Paradoxical Ratiocination:
According to Grierson, the hallmarks of metapjhysical poetry are pftssionate feeling and paradoxical ratiocination. The same critic observes that the metaphysicals “exhibited deductive reasoning carried to a high pitch.” Too often does Donne state at the beginning of a poem a hopelessly insupportable proposition, which he defends soon after. Consider the poem “The Indifferent” which opens as below:
I can love both fair and brown.
Whatever qualities a woman has are made into so many reasons for loving her! Again, note this in his poem “The Broken Heart”:
He is stark mad, who ever says,
That he hath been in love one hour.
With his tremendous ratiocinative ability Donne defends this proposition. In “The Flea” the proposition presented to his mistress is:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed. and marriage temple is.
It seems an unpromising subject, but there are twenty-seven lines of packed argument to drive it home. This excessive intellectualism not unoften makes for obscurity. See, for instance, the following clever lines:
You that are she and you, that’s doubk she,
In her dead face half of yourself shall see.
Commenting on these, Tucker Brooke says: ‘Tte meaning can be made out, but the satisfaction of his mental ingenuity in so doing is the only reward the reader will receive.” Lucas compla’ns: “Donne treats poetry as a trapeze for mental frisks.” Clay Hunt disapproves such “pyrotechnics of wit.”
Diction and Versification:
In style and versification Donne and his followeis reacted against the cloying sweetness and harmony of the school of Spenser. The metaphysicals deliberately avoided conventional poetic expressions as they had lost their meaning through O’eruse. According to Wordsworth the language of poetry should “the natural language of impassioned feeling.” The metaphysicals employed very “prosaic” words as if they were scientists or shopkeepers. The result is that in’their work we often stumble against ragged and unpoetic words we seldom expect in serious poetry.The versification of the metaphysicals is also, like their diction, coirse and jerky in contrast to the honeyed smoothness of much of Elizabethan poetry. Their revolt, according to Grierson, is due to tvo motives:
(i)         The desire to startle; and
(ii)        the desire to approximate poetic to direct, unconv         entional colloquial speech.
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 metre but according to the sense. “In his work”, say Tucker Brooke, “the Pierian flood is no clear spring: it is more like a Yellowstone geyser: overheated, turbid, explosive, and far from pure.” Donne and other metaphysicals’ metrical infelicity has been adversely commented upon by all.-But, to be fair, we may say that Donne writes as one who will say what he has to say without regard to the conventions of poetic diction or smooth verse; but what he has to say is subtle and surprising and so are often the metrical effects with which it is presented.
Religious Poetry of the Metaphysicals:
Most of the metaphysical poets wrote on religion. Indeed, we owe most of our good religious poetry to them. It must be emphasised that all the metaphysicals do not write exactly alike. All of them are strongly marked individuals. The English metaphysical poetry from Donne to Traherne should be treated not as a type but as a movement. Donne’s religious poetry has all the qualities we have detailed above. Herbert followed Donne in most respects. He has been called the “saint” of the metaphysical school. His approach to God and Christ is full of, what Edmund Gosse calls, “intimate tenderness.” But he does use the imagery and conceits of the Donnean type. His Temple was the most popular Anglican poem of the age. Herbert had two distinguished followers— Vaughan and Crashaw. They acknowledged their debts to Herbert, but they had tempers fundamentally their own. Vaughan is temperamentally a mystic though he uses conceits after the manner of Donne and Herbert-conceits such as “stars shut up shop” when the arrival of the morning is described. He is at his best while dealing with such themes as childhood, communion with nature, and eternity. His thoughts concerning childhood, in his poem The Retreat are largely echoed by Wordsworth in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality in Childhood. His poem The World has a daring image:
I saw eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light.
All calm as it was bright.
Crashaw’s poetry is uneven work. Whereas Herbert is a gentle stream, Crashaw is an impetuous torrent. He is quite undisciplined and given to moods of religious exaltation and excitement. He has a taste for daiing images and metaphysical conceits. The eyes of Mary Magdalene in The Weeper are described as
Two walking baths; two weeping motions;
Potable and compendious oceans.
“He sings”, says a critic, “the raptures of soul visited by divine love in terms as concrete and glowing as any human lover has ever used to celebrate an earthly passion.” Herein, again, his debt to Donne is discernible. It is the mystic vein in Thomas Traherne which tempts a critic to classify him with Vaughan among the metaphysicals. Traherne is not a great poet, however. He contemplates the beauty of God’s universe till it stirs in him a mystic response. Like Vaughan he idealises childhood as the age in which a human being is nearest God. Crashaw was the only Roman Catholic among the metaphysical poets; and Andrew Marvell, Milton’s secretary, the only Puritan. Unlike most Puritans. Marvell was not a hide-bound fanatic; rather he appears in the colour of a Christian humanist dating from the Elizabethan age. He as a poet has been assigned a quite high status by the school o modern critics led by F. R. Leavis. But in him we find English poetry already on its way to the neo-classicism of Dryden’s school. His greatest poem “To His Coy Mistress” is secular (and not religious) in theme and execution. He urges his “coy” mistress to shed her coyness and make the best of the opportunity granted by Time to them to make merry.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime…
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The following lines have tragic pathos wedded to a metaphysical conceit:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
The Contribution of the Metaphysical Poets to English Literature:
(1)                 The metaphysical poets have given to the English language its best religious poetry. The moods of incisive introspection and mysticism could best be expressed not through commonplace, conventional poetic images and language but unconventional and bold imagery which would jolt the mind and spirit of the reader into an
intimate rapport with the mood of the poet. Herbert, Donne, Vaughan, Crashaw, and Traherne are the most important among the religious English poets of all ages.
(2)                 In the field of love poetry, too, the contribution of the metaphysicals is considerable and quite important from the historical point of view. When Donne appeared on the stage, Spenser and his followers were following the Petrarchan tradition of highly sentimental and idealised love poetry which had not mueh to do with reality. Donne demolished this claptrap and started a vein of highly realistic, frankly sensual, and sometimes,downright cynical, amatory verse. He was critical of the Elizabethan sonneteers and lyricists who
put their mistresses, real or imaginary, on the pedestal of a deity, and pretended to woo them as their “servants,”‘ dying or living in accordance with their moods of rejection or acceptance of their supplications. Donne was frank enough.
Love’s not so pure and abstract as they use
To say which have no mistress but their Muse.
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do
(3)                 Even in the ruggedness and occasional vulgarity of their r-ction and versification the metaphysicals did some service to English poetry in that they made the poets realise that the “smoothness of rrmbers” alone does not make for great poetry. What was needed was a hard core of sense and deft handling of experience related to the poet hrmself who reserved for himself the liberty to employ whatever diction and style he thought was eminently suitable for his purpose. After Donne and his followers the mere music of poetry could not capture for it any appreciative audience.
(4)                 The intellectualism of the metaphysical poetry and the compositeness of its imagery, and even the crabbed nature of its style, secured for it a continuous stream of readers from generation to generation. In the modern times all these qualities appear agreeable to a large number of readers. The modern poets, particularly T. S. Eliot, living in an age of crumbling values (like the age of Donne), have found a guide and a source of inspiration in Donne. It is not surprising, then, that in the modern critical canon Donne is rated as one of the best English poets.

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