Define metaphysical poetry and describe its characteristics.

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term "metaphysical poets" was coined in the 18th century to describe a style of poetic writing found in many late sixteenth and seventeenth century writers that combined intellectual speculation, especially religious, but also philosophical and scientific, with highly wrought extended metaphors and sensuous imagery. The most typical writer of the school was John Donne (1572-1631); others include George Herbert (1593-1633), Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674), Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), and Richard Crashaw (c. 1612-1649). They typical used highly complex syntax and made novel connections, often between philosophic and scientific ideas on the one hand and human emotions on the other. Their poetry was often metrically irregular, syntactically compressed, and used striking and unusual phrases and words. A good example of an extended metaphysical conceit is John Donne's use of alchemy in his "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day":

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.