Metaphysical Poets Analysis

Metaphysical conceits

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

What Johnson called metaphysical wit is most characteristically expressed in the form of the metaphysical conceit. In modern usage, the literary term “conceit” generally refers to an extended comparison, though as Joseph Anthony Mazzeo pointed out, the word “conceit” could be used in the seventeenth century as a simple synonym for “metaphor.” Typical conceits before the Metaphysicals treated clichéd comparisons, such as love as a storm at sea in Rima 189 of Petrarch (1304-1374). The specific poem was well known in the sixteenth century through translations by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser.

Such a comparison stated baldly or succinctly would just be a simile, “love is like a storm at sea,” or, if expressed more directly a metaphor, “love is a storm at sea.” However, Petrarch’s figure becomes a conceit by expanding the comparison and multiplying details: the lover’s sighs are the winds, his tears the rain, the lady’s scorn for him the dark clouds, and so on. Petrarch’s conceit is not, however, metaphysical. The conceits of the Metaphysical poets differ from the conceits of Petrarch and his many English imitators of the sixteenth century by doing just what Johnson scorned: making comparisons that were novel rather than traditional.

The most-discussed metaphysical conceit, Donne’s comparison in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” of a loving husband and wife as two legs of a compass, is a convenient...

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Universal analogy

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Whether or not Johnson was right in attributing the elaborateness of such Metaphysical images to a lust for novelty depends on how apt the reader finds the analogy. Johnson thought the typical Metaphysical image to be not at all apt. In Metaphysical poetry, he asserted, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” How “natural” a comparison seems to the reader may be a function of the reader’s culture, poetic tradition, and to some extent, mere taste. For example, the well-known hardness of flint, yielding to no other substance, sprang easily to Petrarch’s mind when describing the unyielding heart of the beloved, deaf to the lover’s pleas. So the Petrarchan cliché of the “flint-hearted lady” seemed “natural” to Renaissance poets and readers, no less poetic for being conventional.

In the sixteenth century, however, arose an anti-Petrarchan sentiment that was tired of clichés. Parodies of Petrarch’s comparisons ridiculed their conventionality. William Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 meets the traditional lover’s hyperbole of his beloved’s eyes being brighter than the sun with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and goes on to offer similar reductive satire of other stock images. Donne’s elegy “The Comparison” presents typical analogies for his beloved, inverts them into disgusting images for someone else’s beloved, and concludes, “She, and comparisons, are odious.”


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Marinismo and Gongorismo

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While Metaphysical poets were identified as a type in the English-language tradition, the phenomenon of highly conceited poetry merging thought and feeling was a widely European development in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In Italy, Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) was famous, and widely imitated, for his reversal of Petrarchan conventions in love poems collected in Le rime (1602; Steps to the Temple, canto 1 only, 1646) and La Lira (1615). Marino and his father, a Neapolitan lawyer, became part of the literary circle of Giambattista Della Porta, where Marino encountered the philosophy of Giordano Bruno. The result was a series of lyrics that produced poetry criticized for seeking novelty, not only in its comparisons but also in its subject matter and diction. Marino was exploring metaphysical concetti independently of early English Metaphysicals such as Donne, though he directly influenced a second English generation, particularly Crashaw, who translated Marino’s verse. By 1627, Marino’s imitators in Italy were called i Marinisti, “the Marinists,” and the Italian equivalent of Metaphysical poetry was Marinismo or secentismo (seventeenth-century-ism).

In Spain, the poetry of Luis de Góngora y Argote gave the name of Gongorism to the metaphysical style in Spanish poetry. Gonogora’s opponents called this style culteranismo, combining the words culto (“cultivated,” which sounds flattering, but implies an overworking of the material) and luteranismo (“Lutheranism,” which implies a heresy against poetry).

Strong lines

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

One quality celebrated (or condemned) in the poetry of both Marino and Gongora was also identified in the English Metaphysicals by their contemporaries, who did not use the term “metaphysical.” Helen Gardner opens her influential introduction to her anthology of the Metaphysicals with a discussion of this quality under the name of “strong lines.” Lines of poetry were considered “strong” if they were concise, packing a great deal of meaning into few words, which at the same time made them difficult to interpret.

Identifying the Metaphysical poets as purveyors of strong lines presents a paradox, since the metaphysical conceit is characterized by elaboration—tracing down every nuance of a comparison—and the strong, or “masculine,” style is characterized by epigrammatic, elliptical conciseness. Mario Praz met this criticism by theorizing that the Metaphysical style began as a sort of offshoot of the vogue for emblems, allegorical pictures of abstract concepts accompanied by epigrams defining that concept. Praz’s theory depends rather heavily on not making fine distinctions between several types of seventeenth century verse and is no longer widely held.

Doctrine in metaphysical verse

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

With the notion that the Metaphysical poets read their learning into their poetry came the obvious question (though it was not apparently obvious until the 1970’s): If the thought in the devotional lyrics of the Metaphysical poets is theological, then what is the relation of doctrine to the poems? Can the reader determine the denominational drift of the poet’s Christianity from the poems? In the 1950’s, critic Martz discovered a curious phenomenon: Though largely Anglican, the Metaphysical poets were, Martz was convinced, influenced by Catholic devotional manuals from the continent.

Then a series of critics, starting with William Halewood in The Poetry of Grace (1970), began to assert the existence of what by the end of the decade became known by Barbara Lewalski’s term, “Protestant poetics,” in these poets. Whether a particular poet leaned more toward Calvinism or Anglican orthodoxy (other than the two Roman Catholic poets in the group, Crashaw and Southwell), this theory maintained, their sensibilities were decidedly Protestant, not informed by Ignatian guides to meditation as Martz suggested. However, in The Emotive Image (1983), Anthony Raspa posited a “Jesuit poetics” in English poetry of the seventeenth century, and in Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth Century Poetry (2000), R. V. Young demonstrated that most of the supposedly Protestant elements of this poetry were common in Catholic thought and...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Dickson, Donald R. John Donne’s Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Though this edition treats only Donne, the critical essays are excellent overviews of critical controversies on metaphysical poetry.

Gardner, Helen. The Metaphysical Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. A revision of the 1957 Penguin anthology, correcting the text of Donne’s poems and reprinting Gardner’s now-classic essay on metaphysical poetry as an introduction.

Grierson, Sir Herbert J. C. Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1921. The standard anthology that almost singlehandedly revived interest in Metaphysical poetry, with a perceptive and influential introduction.

Mazzeo, Joseph. Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. This collection includes Mazzeo’s discussion of “universal analogy” in Metaphysical poetry, a more accessible version than in his earlier scholarly articles.

Young, R. V. Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 2000. A detailed study of how these four Metaphysical poets (and others) interrelated theological thought and religious feeling.