The criteria by which Johnson faulted Cowley and his “race” of Metaphysicals became standard hallmarks of their poetry: (1) ostentatious learning; (2) metrical irregularity; (3) “metaphysical wit,” defined as novel connections in image and metaphor; (4) unusual diction; and (5) using “courtship without fondness” in their love poetry. Each of these supposed poetic vices have been considered virtues by critics who revived interest in Metaphysical poetry in the 1920’s.
The first quibble, “showy” erudition, depends on the reader’s judgment of the poet’s motive. When Cowley likens human judgment to a telescope or “multiplying glass” in his “Ode of Wit” (1668), detractors such as Johnson might think he is either parading his learning or trying to be up-to-date. However, more sympathetic readers may read that as just being playful, or simply choosing the most effective analogy.
The second charge, roughness of poetic rhythm, can likewise be met by inquiring how the poets actually read their verse. In the early nineteenth century, poet and critic Coleridge observed that ignoring function words, such as prepositions, articles, and conjunctions, will usually smooth out the most seemingly irregular of Donne’s verses. Nevertheless, many a reader has found Donne’s rhythms—and those of his fellow Metaphysicals—quite awkward. Donne’s contemporary Ben Jonson even quipped that Donne’s looseness of accent was a hanging...
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