John Donne (1572-1631), one of the most famous Metaphysical Poets.

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The "metaphysical poets" is a term coined by literary critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of English lyric poets of the 17th century, who shared an interest in metaphysical concerns and a common way of investigating them, and whose work was characterized by inventiveness of metaphor (these involved comparisons being known as metaphysical conceits). These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know or read each other. Their poetry was influenced greatly by the changing times, new sciences, and the new found debauched scene of the 17th century.

Origin of the name[edit | edit source]

File:Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.jpg

Poet and critic Samuel Johnson, who gave the school its now-used name.

In Life of Cowley (from Samuel Johnson's 1781 work of biography and criticism Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets), Johnson refers to the beginning of the 17th century in which there "appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets". This does not necessarily imply that he intended metaphysical to be used in its true sense, in that he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden,[1] who said of John Donne: "He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this . . . Mr. Cowley has copied him to a fault." Probably the only writer before Dryden to speak of a certain metaphysical school or group of metaphysical poets is William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), who in a letter speaks of "metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities." [2]

Characteristics[edit | edit source]


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Their style was characterized by metaphysical conceits – far-fetched or unusual extended similes or metaphors, such as in Andrew Marvell's comparison of the soul with a drop of dew – in an expanded epigrammatic format, with the use of simple verse forms, octosyllabic couplets, quatrains or stanzas in which length of line and rhyme scheme enforce the sense.[3] The specific definition of wit which Johnson applied to the school was: "...a kind of discordia concours; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike." [4] Their poetry diverged from the style of their times, containing neither images of nature nor allusions to classical mythology, as were common.[5]

Several metaphysical poets, especially John Donne, were influenced by Neo-Platonism. A primary Platonic concept found in metaphysical poetry is the idea that the perfection of beauty in the beloved acted as a remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm. In a famous definition Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian Marxist critic, described the school's common trait of "looking beyond the palpable" and "attempting to erase one's own image from the mirror in front so that it should reflect the not-now and not-here" as foreshadowing existentialism.[6] Though secular subjects drew them (in particular matter drawn from the new science, from the expanding geographical horizons of the period, and from dialectic) there was also a strong casuistic element to their work, defining their relationship with God.[7]

Critical opinion[edit | edit source]

Critical opinion of the school has been varied. Johnson claimed that "they were not successful in representing or moving the affections" and that neither "was the sublime more within their reach."[8] Generally, his criticism of the poets' style was grounded in his assertion that "Great thoughts are always general," and that the metaphysical poets were too particular in their search for novelty. He did concede, however, that "they...sometimes stuck out unexpected truth" and that their work is often intellectually, if not emotionally stimulating.[9]

The group was to have a significant influence on 20th-century poetry, especially through T.S. Eliot, whose essay The Metaphysical Poets (1921) praised the very anti-Romantic and intellectual qualities of which Johnson and his contemporaries had disapproved, and helped bring their poetry back into favor with readers.[10]

Metaphysical poets[edit | edit source]

The following poets have also been sometimes considered metaphysical poets(Citation needed):

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Gardner, Helen. Metaphysical Poets, Oxford University Press, London, 1957.
  2. Gardner, Helen. Metaphysical Poets, Oxford University Press, London, 1957.
  3. Gardner, Helen The Metaphysical Poets Penguin Books,1957 ISBN 0-14-042038-X
  4. Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin Books, 1968.
  5. Halleck, Ruben. Halleck's New English Literature, American Book Company, 1913.
  6. Királyfalvi, B.The Aesthetics of Georg Lukács, 1975.
  7. Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (Oxford University Press, 2008)
  8. Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin, 1968.
  9. Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin, 1968.
  10. The Metaphysical Poets by T.S. Eliot, 1921.

External links[edit | edit source]

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