How do some of the writings of the so-called "Metaphysical Poets" differ?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Although John Donne and George Herbert are both often classified as “metaphysical poets,” their writings reveal differences as well as similarities.  Among those differences are the following:

  • Donne wrote both secular poems and religious poems, whereas Herbert almost exclusively wrote religious poems.
  • Donne’s poems often deal with secular and even erotic love, whereas Herbert’s poems rarely if ever deal with those kinds of love.
  • The tone of Donne’s religious poems (especially in his Holy Sonnets) is often anxious and dark, whereas the tone of most of Herbert’s religious poems is typically rooted in an assurance of God’s love. Donne’s speakers often worry that they will not be saved; Herbert’s speakers either assume that they will be saved or are eventually surprised by some indication of salvation. One need only contrast, for instance, the tone of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”) with the tone of Herbert’s “Love (3).”
  • The religious purposes of Herbert’s poetry are usually immediately obvious.  The religious purposes of some of Donne’s apparent secular poems are sometimes only implied or only perceived once the irony of the poems is recognized.
  • Donne’s religious poetry often seems obviously (and even harshly) Calvinist in its theology, whereas the Calvinism of Herbert’s poetry is not nearly as strongly emphasized
  • Donne’s imagery is often complex, puzzling, and challenging; Herbert’s imagery is more often simple, straightforward, and traditional.
  • Herbert is more likely than Donne to experiment with different and often unusual stanzaic forms, as in “The Altar,” “Easter Wings,” and “The Collar.”
  • Herbert’s God seems more actively reassuring than Donne’s.  Here, for instance, is the opening stanza of Herbert’s “Love (3)”:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack,
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd anything.
[emphasis added]

Here, in contrast, are the closing lines of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 2, which are addressed to God:

Why doth the devill then usurpe on mee?

Why doth he steale, nay ravish that's thy right?

Except thou rise and for thine own worke fight,

Oh I shall soone despaire, when I doe see

That thou lov'st mankind well, yet wilt'not chuse me,

And Satan hates mee, yet is loth to lose mee.

It would be possible to cite many more examples like these – examples in which the speakers of Donne’s religious poems sound anguished while those of Herbert’s religious poems offer evidence of God’s constantly abiding love.



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