The metaphysical poets came after the Elizabethan poets and their poetry seems to be very popular in England alone. These metaphysical poets may have been so popular in the first half of the seventeenth century. This unit shall examine who these poets were, their style of writing and how they took over English poetry during their time.
Who are the Metaphysical Poets?
It is customary to refer to one group of poets in the first half of the seventeenth century as Metaphysical. The term “Metaphysical Poets” was coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits and their poetry revolved round love and religion. These poets were not really connected together, in fact, most of them did not even know or read each other.
Samuel Johnson referred to the beginning of the seventeenth century in the chapter on Abraham Cowley in his book Lives of the Most Eminent English Poet as a “race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets”. This does not really imply that he intended metaphysical to be used in its true sense, in that he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden who said of John Donne that, “he affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love”. Probably, the only writer before Dryden to speak of a certain metaphysical school or group of metaphysical poets is Drummond of Hawthornden (1585 – 1649), who in one of his letters speaks of “metaphysical ideas and Scholastical Quiddities”.
There is no scholarly consensus regarding which seventeenth century English poets or poems may be regarded as in the “metaphysical” genre. Colin Burrow, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, describes John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Crashaw as the “central figures” of metaphysical poetry. In 1921, Herbert Grieson published metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, which collected poems by Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Marvell and Carew.
The Background of John Donne
John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England. He is known as the founder of the Metaphysical Poets, a term created by Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth century English essayist, poet, and philosopher. The loosely associated group also includes George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and John Cleveland. The Metaphysical poets are known for their ability to startle the reader and coax new perspective through paradoxical images, subtle argument, inventive syntax, and imagery from art, philosophy, and religion using an extended metaphor known as a conceit. Donne reached beyond the rational and hierarchical structures of the seventeenth century with his exacting and ingenuous conceits, advancing the exploratory spirit of his time.
Donne entered the world during a period of theological and political unrest for both England and France; a protestant massacre occurred on Saint Bartholomew’s day in France; while in England, the Catholics were the persecuted minority. Being born into a Roman Catholic family, Donne’s personal relationship with religion was tumultuous and passionate, and at the centre of much of his poetry.
He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in his early teen years. He did not take a degree at either school, because to do so would have meant subscribing to the thirty-nine Articles, the doctrine that defined Anglicanism. At age twenty he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. Two years later he succumbed to religious pressure and joined the Anglican Church after his younger brother, convicted for his Catholic loyalties, died in prison. Donne wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse, and some sacred poems in the 1590s, creating two major volumes of work: Satires, and Songs and Sonnets.
In 1598, after returning from a two-year naval expedition against Spain, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Donne secretly married Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Donne’s father-in-law disapproved of the marriage. As punishment, he did not provide a dowry for the couple and had Donne briefly imprisoned.
Donne started writing the Divine poems in 1607. In Pseudo-Martyr published in 1610, Donne displayed his extensive knowledge of the laws of the church and state, arguing that Roman Catholics could support James I without compromising their faith. In 1615, James I pressured him to enter the Anglican Ministry by declaring that Donne could not be employed out of the church. He was appointed Royal Chaplain later that year. His wife died in 1617 aged thirty-three shortly after giving birth to their twelfth child. The holy sonnets are also attributed to this phase of his life.
In 1621, he became dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. In his later years, Donne’s writing reflected his fear of his inevitable death. He wrote his private prayers, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, during a period of severe illness and published them in 1624. He was best known for his vivacious, compelling style and thorough examination of mortal paradox. John Donne later died in London in 1631.
John Donne’s Poetry
John Donne wrote several poems, and his poetry is full of wits and conceits. Most of his poems express love, religion and fear of death. The first of Donne’s poems we shall examine is the fifth of the Elegies, “His Picture” probably written in the last decade of the sixteenth century.
ELEGIE V – HIS PICTURE
Here, take my picture; though I bid farewell,
Thine, in my heart, where my soule dwells, shall dwell.
‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ‘twill be more
When weather-beaten I come backe; my hand,
Perhaps with rude oares torne, or sun beams tann’d.
My face and brest of hairecloth, and my head
With cares rash sodaine stormes, being o’rsopread,
My body’ a sack of bones, broke within,
And powders blew staines scatter’d on my skinne;
If rival fooles taxe thee to ‘have lov’d a man,
So foule, and course, as Oh, I may seeme than,
This shall say what I was: and thou shalt say,
Does his hurts reach mee? doth my worth decay?
Or doe they reach his judging minde, that hee
Should now love lesse, what hee did love to see?
That which in him was faire and delicate,
Was but the milke, which in loves childish state
Did nurse it: who now is grown strong enough
To feed on that, which to discus’d tasts seemes tough.
Note, to begin with, the ‘real-life’ situation. The poet is going away, perhaps, to join the cadiz expedition of 1596-1697, an overseas posting, we might say, and he gives his beloved a picture to remember him by. Nevertheless, this is not a simple poem, but one which holds and balances many conflicting emotions and attitudes. It begins abruptly thus:
Here, take my Picture…
The poet’s feelings burst forth; he cannot stay for formality, or even for common politeness. In both the literary and the social sense this is an “unconventional” poem. Then the poet implies that though the lady needs a picture to remind her to her lover, he doesn’t need a picture of her, because her image is engraved in his heart “where his soul dwells”, and his love is not dependent on anything physical. Next is a wry and harsh allusion to death, to the fact that he may not return. The picture resembles him. It is a good “likeness’; yet is not reality, but a ‘shadow’; therefore, if he is dead, and becomes a ‘shade’ it will resemble him still more. Then he compares what he may be when he returns with what the picture represents him to be now. The grammar of the next sentence is:
‘When… I come back’ – the worse for wear, and other girls ask what you can see in me – ‘this’ – the picture – ‘shall say what I was’. The vivid evocation of perils and suffering – note that the energy of “My body’s a sack of bones, broken within/And powders blew staines scatter’d on my skinne:” is horrifyingly real, but we also feel that the poet is ironically asking for sympathy, and we are pulled up short by the “rival fooles”. They are his sweetheart’s girl friends, imagined tittering at the strange, battered bearded figure that he “may be then”, and wondering what she finds attractive in him. He tells her what to say in reply. She can point to the picture and prove by its means that she fell in love with “as proper a man as ever went on neat’s leather”. Next is one of the sixteen Holy Sonnets.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so;
For, those, whom thou thinkst, thou dost over throw,
Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy picture bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s deliverie.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, Chance, Kings and Desperate men,
And dost with poison, warre, and siciknesse dwell,
And popppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shall die.
The theme is simple. The language is plain, the tone assured and full of energy. This is a lively poem about death, and a simple, calm denial “for thou art not so” establishes its feeling. Here we meet again the theme of death and sleep, of the picture and reality. As sleep refreshes us, and delivers us from life, so does death. Death has no power in himself; we die when it is our fate to do so, or by accident, or through the exercise of arbitrary power, or we are murdered. Death, so to speak, ‘lives’ in bad and miserable company. Donne believes that death will no longer live in the mortal bodies of humans. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally”. These clauses bring hope in the reader that one day, human race shall be alive eternally.
The Life of Andrew Marvell
Due to the inconsistencies of ambiguities within his work and the scarcity of information about his personal life, Andrew Marvell has been a source of fascination for scholars and readers since his work found recognition in the early decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1621, Marvell grew up in the Yorkshire town of Hull where his father, Rev. Andrew Marvell, was a lecturer at Holy Trinity Church and Master of the Chaterhouse. At age twelve Marvell began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. Four years later two of Marvell’s poems, one in Latin and one in Greek, were published in an anthology of Cambridge poets. After receiving his B.A. in 1639, Marvell stayed on at Trinity, apparently to complete an M.A. degree. In 1641, however, his father drowned and Marvell abandoned his studies. During the 1640’s, Marvell travelled extensively on the continent, adding Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian, to His Latin and Greek.
Marvell spent most of the 1650’s working as a tutor first for Mary Fairfax, daughter of a retired Cromwellian general, then for one of Cromewll’s wards. Scholars believe that Marvell’s greatest lyrics were written during this time. In 1657, Marvell was appointed Milton’s Latin secretary, a post Marvell held until his election to parliament in 1660.
Marvell used his political status to free Milton, who was jailed during the Restoration, and quite possibly saved the elder poet’s life. In 1678, after 18 years in parliament, Marvell died rather suddenly of a fever. Gossip of the time had it that the Jesuits (a target of Marvell’s satire) may have poisoned him. After his death he was remembered as a fierce and loyal patriot.
The Poetry of Andrew Marvell
In the poems of Marvell, metaphysical wit is dominant. Let us examine “The Fair Singer”, one of his best poems. “The Fair Singer” is a slight and charming love lyric in which the metaphysical conceit is used with playful ingenuity; indeed it was in the skill with which the game was played, the convention exploited, that the seventeenth-century reader of verse such as this found much of pleasure. The Lady’s beauty is dazzling, her voice enchanting: she has made a conquest of the poet who is her prisoner. The war-captivity conceit is resolved in the last stanza, where the lady’s beauty and voice become the wind and sun, natural powers against which the poet is helpless, as a ship might be against an enemy bearing down with the sun behind him.
To make a final conquest of all me,
Love did compose so sweet an Enemy,
In whom both Beauties to my death agree,
Joining themselves in fatall harmony;
That while she with her Eyes my Heart does bind,
She with her Voice might captivate my Mind.
Our last poem is the famous “To His Coy Mistress”. The poem is a metaphysical poem written during or before the interregnum. The poem is considered one of Marvell’s finest and is possibly the best recognized carpe diem poem in English. Although the date of its composition is not known, it may have been written in the early 1650s’. At that time, Marvell was serving as a tutor to the daughter of Sir Thomas Fairfax.
The speaker of the poem addresses a woman who has been slow to respond to his sexual advances. In the first stanza, he describes how he would love her if he were to be unencumbered by the constraints of a normal lifespan. He could spend centuries admiring each part of her body and her resistance to his advances (i.e., coyness) would not discourage him.
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should if you please refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow.
Vaster than Empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should to go praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead Gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
In the second stanza, he laments how short human life is. One life is over, the speaker contends, the opportunity to enjoy one another is gone, as no one embraces in death. In the last stanza, the speaker urges the woman to requite his efforts, and argues that in loving one another with passion, they will both make the most of the brief time they have to live.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Through the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and rhymes in couplets. The first verse paragraph “Had we…” is ten couplets long, the second “But at my back…” Six, and the third “Now, therefore,…” seven. The logical form of the poem runs thus:
The Metaphysical Style
The Metaphysical style was characterized by wit and metaphysical conceits. The metaphysical conceits are unusual similes or metaphors such as in Andrew Marvell’s comparison of the soul with a drop of dew; in an expanded epigram format, with the use of simple verse forms, octosyllabic couplets, quatrains or stanzas in which length of line and rhyme scheme enforce the sense. The specific definition of wit which Johnson applied to the school was: “a kind of Discordia Concors’ a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike”.
Their poetry diverged from the style of their times, containing neither images of nature nor allusions to classical mythology as were common. Several metaphysical poets especially John Donne were influenced by Neo-Platonism. One of the primary Platonic concepts found in metaphysical poetry is the idea that the perfection of beauty in the beloved acted as a remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm. Their work relies on images and references to the contemporary scientific or geographical discoveries. These were used to examine religious and moral questions, often employing an element of casuistry (i.e. theoretical reasoning used to resolve moral problems, often evasive or arcane) to define their understanding or personal relationship with God.
The Metaphysical poets, though not many, really changed the phase of English poetry. These poets with their wit and conceits held my poetry lovers spell bound during the Renaissance. Nevertheless, critical opinion of the school has been varied. Some believed they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. No matter what, the group may have influenced T.S. Eliot’s poetry who praised them in his essay The Metaphysical Poets (1921).
In this article, we have been able to introduce the metaphysical poets to you. We have told you how they influenced English Poetry with their wit and conceits which were peculiar to their style of writing.