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The phrase "metaphysical poetry" was initially used disparagingly by John Dryden (1631-1700) and Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who applied it to a group of seventeenth-century poets, whom they considered influenced by Donne or sharing his poetic diction. To Johnson, in particular, such poetry aimed to show the learning of the poets and thus sounded detached from human life ("to show their learning is their whole endeavor"). The label acquired a positive meaning in the twentieth century, particularly thanks to T. S. Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets" in his Selected Essays (1932) which valued Donne's balance of ideas and emotion, often conveyed through difficult and elaborated metaphors, in his poetry.
The characteristic features of metaphysical poetry are:
- wit: that is intellectual learning, often displayed by Donne through unlikely comparisons and metaphors linking two things apparently very different. Examples include: Worlds and emispheres for lovers in "The Good Morrow", bodies as books and thus the physical dimension of love in "The Extasie", lovers as insignificant insects and then with a leap that is really hard to justify as the constantly self-regenerating Phoenix in "The Canonization";
- conceits: these metaphors become rather extended in several poems, they are not merely decorative but become part of the central argument. In "The Flea", for example, the central image of the title is developed throughout the poem, as in "The Good Morrow";
- colloquial style: the difficulty of the metaphors and the concepts they convey are often hidden under a colloquial style as in "The Flea", "Batter My Heart", "The Good Morrow". This style gives Donne's poetry a dramatic quality and, particularly the opening lines of the poems reproduce the pace of everyday speech
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