Metaphysical Poets Summary


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the eighteenth century, the term “Metaphysical poets” was coined to refer to certain writers, primarily of religious verse, of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries who shared similar characteristics. Although scholars have suggested many alternative names (Louis Martz called their works the poetry of meditation, and Mario DiCesare’s anthology spoke simply of seventeenth century religious poets), the term “Metaphysical poets” remained useful to literary historians for more than two hundred years.

The Metaphysicals were never a self-conscious group, for the most part having limited or no contact with one another—even though the literary world of London at the time was quite small. The list of who is considered a Metaphysical poet has fluctuated through changes in fashion and, of course, in the very definition of Metaphysical verse. Prominent names in most discussions of Metaphysical poetry include John Donne (1572-1631), George Herbert (1593-1633), Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674), Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), Richard Crashaw (c. 1612-1649), Robert Southwell (c. 1561-1595), Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Sir William Davenant (1606-1668), Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), and Thomas Carew (1594-1640). American critic Louis Martz has recognized two early American poets, Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672) and Edward Taylor (c. 1645-1729), as sharing many characteristics with these English poets.

Lists of...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

History of the concept

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although the specific designation “Metaphysical poet” was not used until 1781, the adjective “metaphysical” was applied to the works of these poets in their own time. The Scots poet William Drummond of Hawthornden spoke of a tribe of writers in his day filling poems with “metaphysical Ideas and Scholastic Quiddities.” In 1693, the most influential of restoration critics, John Dryden, scorned the verse of Donne because in it he “affects the metaphysics.” In the early eighteenth century, Alexander Pope identifies Cowley (and, parenthetically, Davenant) as a poet who “borrowed his metaphysical style from Donne.” In fact, it was in the context of Cowley, and not of Donne, that Johnson invented the term “Metaphysical poet.” In his essay on Cowley in Lives of the Poets (1779-1781), Johnson wrote “About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed metaphysical poets.”

For about a century and a half, Metaphysical poetry fell out of favor, although the Romantics, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, expressed a liking for them. It remained for Grierson’s work (and Eliot’s famous review of it) to revive an interest in these poets—and to provide at least one theory of why they had been ignored for so long. In his introduction, Grierson, after listing what he considers the major hallmarks of the Metaphysical poets, ends with the most important: “above all...

(The entire section is 457 words.)