Is John Donne a Metaphysical poet?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Samuel Johnson, no fan of what we now call the metaphysical poets, coined the term metaphysical and described it as follows:

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

Metaphysical poets wrote verse that stood in stark contrast to the neoclassical poets Johnson preferred. Johnson praised the Neoclassicals for their regular meter, rhyming couplets, and clearly expressed ideas.

Johnson, for example, praised John Dryden, the kind of neoclassic poet he appreciated. He notes that Dryden liked Donne's "wit." Nevertheless, Johnson says of this wit:

But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.

Donne is a metaphysical poet, and was appreciated, rather than reviled, for this talent in the twentieth-century. An example of a Donne poem that combines unusual or dissimilar images can be found in "The Canonization." Here, moving away from cliched descriptions of lovers, Donne describes two lovers as like candles ("tapers"), an eagle, a dove, and a phoenix, all very different kinds of birds. This stanza, the third, not only piles on metaphors, it defies gender norms that differentiate between the sexes by saying the two lovers can be described by the same objects:

We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
The phœnix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
By yoking together many objects—the phoenix that rises again from the flames, the candles, the eagle, and the dove, Donne tries to show that the lovers, though encompassing a universe of forms, are animated by the same passion that causes rebirth in them both. He shows too that he is a metaphysical poet.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a very intersting question to consider, as really to answer it we need to move towards some kind of definition of what is meant by the expression "metaphysical." In a sense, this word is a label that has come to be applied to the work of certain poets, Donne of whom is one, who write poems that are short, draw their subject matter from the big issues facing their age, and are characterised by a rejection of traditional forms of expression and the adoption of startling conventions, particularly in the area of imagery. The conceit, in particular, which makes improbably comparisons, seems to be above all else the label that signifies whether a poet's work can be considered to be "metaphysical" or not.

To give one example of one of John Donne's conceits, let us consider "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," where a dying husband compares the link that exists between himself and his wife to a pair of compass points that are always linked even when they are separate:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Such original and striking imagery which elaborates its point beautifully explores and builds upon the central theme of the poem and also gives ample proof of why Donne is considered to be a metaphysical poet.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial