Metaphysical poetry was at its peak during the seventeenth century in England and continental Europe. The movement explored everything from irony to philosophy and conceits. It is for its complex and original conceits that most metaphysical poems are noted. During this period, poets relaxed their previously strict use of meter and explored new ideas. John Donne is the best-known of the metaphysical poets.
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History of Metaphysical Poetry
The word “metaphysical” was used by writers such as John Dryden and Samuel Johnson in regards to the poets of the seventeenth century. These poets are noted for their “unnaturalness”. Johnson wrote in Lives of the Most Eminent Engish Poets in the late 1700s, that a “race of writers” had appeared that might be termed “metaphysical poets”. The term was likely taken from Dryden who had described John Donne as affecting “metaphysics” in his “satires” and his “amorous verses”. It was not until the twentieth century that many of these poets were adequately recognized for their talent and originality.
T.S. Eliot is one of the many twentieth-century literary critics who helped to establish the well-deserved reputation that writers such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell now hold. He applied many of their techniques to his own writing.
Who Were the Metaphysical Poets?
The best known of the metaphysical poets is John Done. He is followed by others such as Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert. Donne is most often cited as the best of this shortlist of writers and the originator of the basic tenants of the genre. It is because of his writing that many writers who came after took on some or all of the features of metaphysical writing.
Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry
One of the most prominent characteristics of this movement is the spoken quality of the poetry, something that many other writers of that time did not approve of. Other common features include the use of colloquial diction, philosophical exploration, new and original conceits, irony, and the relaxed use of meter.
Poets whose works have been categorized as “metaphysical” often seek out the answers to questions such as, does God exist? Or, does humankind really have free choice? Or, what is the nature of reality?
Examples of Metaphysical Poems
The Flea by John Donne
‘The Flea’ is one of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphysical poem, it is also one of Donne’s best. The poem makes a familiar argument in a very original way.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; […]
Donne’s speaker suggests to a woman that he wants to sleep with that it’s fine for them to get together because the same flea has fed on the blood from both their bodies. They’re already experienced their fluids mixing.
The Collar by George Herbert
[…] But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.
‘The Collar’ is one of Herbert’s best-known poems. In this poem, the poet speaks about the “collar” that a Christian priest is recognized by. (It’s interesting to note that Herbert was a priest himself.) He depicts the collar as something that restricts one’s freedom in an intolerable way.
The Retreat by Henry Vaughan
Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought; […]
In ‘The Retreat’ the poet describes the loss of innocence as one grows older. This process takes one farther away from heaven and into the corrupted state of adulthood. As an adult, one is unable to access the divine world as easily.
To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
This poem is second only to the ‘The Flea’ as commonly cited examples of metaphysical poetry go.
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.[…]
In this piece, the speaker, who may be Marvell, is talking to a woman he loves. He spends the poem trying to convince her that they need to go to bed together. Life, he declares, is much too short to waste it not enjoying oneself.
Metaphysical poetry is defined by the exploration of philosophical topics, wit, and a looser use of meter. These poems often touched on contemporary scientific advancements as well.
The best-known metaphysical poem is perhaps ‘The Flea’ by John Donne. It was published after Donne’s death, appearing in 1633. The speaker uses a flea and how it sucks blood as a way of attempting to convince a woman to sleep with him.
The word metaphysical is used to describe a concept in literature in which things are defined by something non-physical. Metaphysical writing is concerned with intangible experiences and feelings
In this kind of poetry, authors often used allusions, metaphors, conceits, imagery, and colloquial diction. It’s also possible to find a wide range of other poetic devices.
The themes that are most common to metaphysical poetry are love/lust, religion, and morality. Some of the authors who explored these themes were John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan.
Related Literary Terms
- Conceit: refers to two different kinds of comparisons: the metaphysical, made famous by John Donne, and the Petrarchan.
- Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
- External Conflict: a type of conflict, problem, or struggle that takes place in a novel, narrative poem, play, or other literary work.
- Implied Metaphor: a literary device that’s used in everything from short stories to novels and poems.
- Innuendo: an indirect observation of an event, person, thing, or idea. It is not stated clearly or obviously.
- Intertextuality: a feature of a text that references another text. It reflects upon the latter and uses it as a reference for the new written work.
- Watch: The Life Story of John Donne
- Listen: Metaphysical Poetry Lecture