Glossary Home Movements

Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics.

It was at its peak during the seventeenth century in England and continental Europe.


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 short list 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

Example #1 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.


Example #2 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.


Example #3 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.


Example #4 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.

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