Features Of Metaphysical Poetry

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The term “metaphysical poetry” was not a term used by Donne or by his contemporaries when referring to poems by him or other poets of his time.  The term was first used, when referring to Donne, by John Dryden in 1693 when he complained that Donne “affects the Metaphysics . . . 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.” Later, the great critic Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, wrote that “about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets,” of whom Donne was the chief.  The term “metaphysical,” then, was used both by Dryden and by Johnson more as a term of disapproval than as a merely descriptive term.

I’ve taken both of these quotations from The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English, edited by Ian Ousby (1994; originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1988).  Ousby’s volume lists a number of features normally associated with “metaphysical poetry,” many of which can be found, for instance, in Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”  Such traits include the following:

  • “extravagant conceits” (that is, elaborately sustained comparisons).  For example, in lines 25-36, Donne compares the two lovers to the two “feet” (one pointed, one containing a pencil) of the kind of compasses used to draw perfect circles.
  • “far-fetched . . . comparisons.”  For example, in the opening lines of “A Valediction,” Donne compares the leave-taking of two true lovers to the way a soul peacefully leaves the body of a dying virtuous person.
  • “wit,” as when Donne says that

Dull sublunary lovers’ love

(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence . . . (13-15)

In other words, lovers whose love is earthly (“sublunary”) rather than spiritual cannot stand to be physically separated from one another.  Note the witty word-play on “sense” and “Absence.”  Note also the paradoxical wittiness of claiming that something’s “soul is sense” (paradoxical because soul and sensuality are usually considered opposites).

  • “combination of dissimilar images,” as when Donne, in stanza three, combines imagery of earthquakes with imagery of movement of the heavenly spheres.
  • “a style that is energetic, uneven and vigorous,” as when Donne departs from normal iambic meter (in which odd syllables are unaccented and even syllables are accented) in line 26, which would be scanned as follows “As STIFF TWIN COMpasES are TWO.”  Placing three strongly stressed syllables right next to one another, as Donne does here, was a deliberate choice of a rhythm that could well be described as “energetic, uneven and vigorous.”
  • “witty comparisons,” as when Donne compares the bond between these two lovers to an ever-expanding piece of “gold to airy thinness beat” (24).

Other poems by Donne illustrate other “metaphysical” traits cited in Ousby’s volume, but enough traits have already been discussed here to justify the claim that Donne is indeed a “metaphysical” poet in the standard senses of that term.

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