John Donne Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

Why is the poem "Dream" by John Donne a metaphysical poem?

Expert Answers info

D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write10,882 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

Samuel Johnson coined the term metaphysical and described the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century 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 subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. We can understand "The Dream" as a metaphysical poem using Johnson's definition. It yokes together heterogenous or unlike ideas and is subtle or difficult to follow. For example, the speaker is dreaming of his beloved when she appears to him physically. It is her eyes that alert him to her presence, for they are like lightning or a torch. Yet while her eyes are blazing with passion, she seems like an angel, a spiritual being, to the speaker. Here, he yokes together the unlike ideas of the beloved as both sexually passionate and a chaste angel. She alights his passions, which become hot like a torch, but then, she puts out the torch. Rather than being angry, however, at her refusal of his passion, the speaker ends with the hope that his beloved put out his passions so she could later return to rekindle them. This a complex and difficult to set of ideas of ideas to follow, typical of a metaphysical poet. It takes effort to understand what the poet is trying to communicate.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Jonathan Beutlich, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12), Professional Writer

bookB.A. from Calvin University

bookM.A. from Dordt University

calendarEducator since 2014

write6,256 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Science, and History

Metaphysical poetry can be a tough read.  It is characterized by frequent paradoxes and complicated thought processes.  Metaphysical poets often use strange imagery as well.  Metaphysics, in a nutshell, deals with a lot of stuff that can't be explained by science, so some common themes within the genre are questions concerning the existence of God, the nature of reality and perception, and consciousness.  

Taking those above elements and applying them to "The Dream" allows a reader some insight as to why it is metaphysical poetry.  The narrator of the poem constantly flip flops between describing what he/she is seeing and experiencing and what may or may not be a dream. 

Also, while the poem doesn't expressly discuss the existence of God, there is frequent religious symbolism in the poem through the repetition of the angel.  The angel also allows Donne to use some complex imagery throughout the poem, for example when he references her eyes being similar to lightning or lighting a candle.  

check Approved by eNotes Editorial