Metaphysical Poetry: Definition, Characteristics & Examples
It's extremely intelligent and witty. It is deeply religious but is also sure to be ironic and cynical. Learn about metaphysical poetry and how it takes on the questions that can't be answered by science.
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You've probably heard of haikus, lyrical poems and limericks. All of those types of poetry have specific qualities that allow us to group them together. Metaphysical poetry is a little bit different. The poems classified in this group do share common characteristics: they are all highly intellectualized, use rather strange imagery, use frequent paradox and contain extremely complicated thought. However, metaphysical poetry is not regarded as a genre of poetry. In fact, the main poets of this group didn't read each others' work and didn't know that they were even part of a classification.
Literary critic and poet Samuel Johnson first coined the term metaphysical poetry in his book Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1179-1781). In the book, Johnson wrote about a group of 17th-century British poets that included John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan. He noted how the poets shared many common characteristics, especially ones of wit and elaborate style.
What Does the Word Metaphysical Mean?
The word meta means after, so the literal translation of metaphysical is after the physical. Basically, metaphysics deals with questions that can't be explained by science. It questions the nature of reality in a philosophical way.
Here are some common metaphysical questions:
- Does God exist?
- Is there a difference between the way things appear to us and the way that they really are? Essentially, what is the difference between reality and perception?
- Is everything that happens already predetermined? If so, then is free choice non-existent?
- Is consciousness limited to the brain?
Metaphysics can cover a broad range of topics from religious to consciousness; however, all questions about metaphysics ponder the nature of reality. And of course, there is no one correct answer to any of the questions. Metaphysics is about exploration and philosophy not about science and math.
The group of metaphysical poets that we discussed above are obviously not the only poets or philosophers or writers that deal with metaphysical questions. There are other more specific characteristics that prompted Johnson to place the 17th-century poets together.
Perhaps the most common characteristic is that metaphysical poetry contained large doses of wit. In fact, although the poets were examining serious questions about the existence of God or whether a human could possibly perceive the world, the poets were sure to ponder those questions with humor.
Metaphysical poetry also sought to shock the reader and wake him or her up from his or her normal existence in order to question the unquestionable. The poetry often mixed ordinary speech with paradoxes and puns. The results were strange, comparing unlikely things such as lovers to a compass or the soul to a drop of dew. These weird comparisons were called conceits.
Metaphysical poetry also explored a few common themes. They all had a religious sentiment. In addition, many of the poems explored the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) and investigated the humanity of life.
One great way to analyze metaphysical poetry is to consider how the poems are about both thought and feeling. Think about it. How could you possibly write a poem about the existence of God if you didn't have some emotional reaction to such an enormous, life-altering question?
John Donne (1572-1631)
All conversations about metaphysical poetry must start with John Donne. He is considered the founder of metaphysical poetry and master of the metaphysical conceit. Donne was not only a poet but a lawyer, priest and satirist. His poetry reflects this diversity as his works are just as religious as they are funny. Donne explored the idea of religion his whole life and despite being a priest, spent a lot of time examining the idea of 'true religion.' We can trace these questions back to his upbringing. Donne was born and raised a Roman Catholic when it was illegal to be Catholic in England. He lost many relatives to martyrdom - they were either exiled or executed.
Many literary critics describe Donne's style as inventive, strong, dramatic and sensual. The paradoxes of his life surely affected the paradoxes in his poetry. He was considered a womanizer even though he was religious. He wrote as many erotic poems as he did secular ones. Even though his metaphysical poems were witty, they were cynical and ironic as well.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
English poet George Herbert was also an influential figure. He mainly wrote religious poems that utilized imagery and conceits. Herbert was a devout religious man who would become a priest in his 30s. Some of his poems were later turned into hymns. including 'King of Glory, King of Peace' and 'Teach Me, My God and King.'
His poem 'The Altar' is called a pattern poem because the words form the shape of an altar. The altar represents the conceit to show how people should sacrifice themselves to God. Herbert's legacy is still widely felt today. Ever hear the saying, 'His bark is worse than his bite?' That's from his proverb collection Jacula Prudentium.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
While Marvell was the son of a clergyman, unlike both Donne and Herbert, he never became a priest himself. Instead the poet was a tutor and a politician. Many of his poems, which were not published until after his death or written anonymously (probably a good thing for Marvell), lampooned the British court and parliament. These included his biting satires 'Tom May's Death' and 'Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland.'
Marvell's poetry falls in line with his metaphysical brothers since it is considered witty and full of conceits. His political satires greatly influenced his contemporaries John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Marvell will be remembered mostly for his patriotic poetry and being both clever and brave in the defense of political and religious liberties.
Metaphysical Poetry Summary
Metaphysical poetry is not intended to be read in a passive way. Its use of paradox, imagery and wit are meant to awaken the reader. Metaphysical poetry asks the philosophical questions about religion, faith, spirituality and being.
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