Is John Donne a Metaphysical poet?
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 witBy us; we...
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