Much later, in the 20th century, famous poet T.S. Eliot revived their reputation, stressing out their quality of wit, in the sense of intellectual strenousness rather than smart humour.
The term metaphysical poetry usually refers to the works of these poets, but it can sometimes denote any poetry that discusses metaphysics, that is, the philosophy of knowledge and existence. Metaphysical poets revolted against the romantic conventionalism of Elizabethan love poetry, in particular the Petrarchan conceit.
John Donn was the acknowledged leader of this poetic group. They themselves would not have used the term “metaphysical”, nor have considered themselves to constitute a “school” of poetry. There is no exact list of “metaphysical poets”; Crashaw and Cowley have been called the most “typically” metaphysical; some of them were Protestant religious mystics, like Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne; some Catholic, like Crashaw; one was an American clergyman, Edward Taylor. Even Marvell shares certain affinities with the “metaphysical” poets. Nowdays, “the metaphysicals” are popular with contemporary readers because of their realism, intellectualism, and break with their immediate literary past.
Some characteristics of metaphysical poetry include:
- a tendency to psychological analysis of emotion of love and religion
- a penchant for imagery that is novel, “unpoetical” and sometimes shocking, drawn from the commonplace (actual life) or the remote (erudite sources), including the extended metaphor of the “metaphysical conceit”
- simple diction (compared to Elizabethan poetry) which echoes the cadences of everyday speech
- form: frequently an argument (with the poet’s lover; with God; with oneself)
- meter: often rugged, not “sweet” or smooth like Elizabethan verse. This ruggedness goes naturally with the Metaphysical poets’ attitude and purpose: a belief in the perplexity of life, a spirit of revolt, and the putting of an argument in speech rather than song.
- The best metaphysical poetry is honest, unconventional, and reveals the poet’s sense of the complexities and contradictions of life. It is intellectual, analytical, psychological, and bold; frequently it is absorbed in thoughts of death, physical love, and religious devotion.
Metaphysical poetry, and in relation to
Metaphysical poetry deals with the whole experience of man, and mankind, but the intelligence, learning and seriousness of the poets means that the poetry is focused on the profoound areas of experience, especially on love, romance and sensuality. Their poems are about man’s relationship with God, or higher power, the eternal perspective.
Metaphysical poems are brief but intense mediations, characterised by striking use of wit, irony and often, wordplay. Beneath the surface of formal structure of rhyme, metre and stanza, there is the underlying, but often hardly less formal, structure of the poet’s argument.
Wit and conceit were both aspects of a mental set, shared by writers losking for analogies and connections between things.
Poet Dryden was the first to apply this term to this group of poets when in 1693 he criticized Donne with these words: „He (Donne) affects the Metaphysics……. In his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosphy, when he should engage their hearts“. He disaproved of Donne’s stylistic excesses, particularly his extravagant conceits and witty comparisons, and his tendency towards hyperbolic abstractions.
Origin of the name
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 seventeenth century in which there “appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets”
Before Dryden, there is almost no one who mentioned this metaphysical school (or group) of metaphysical poets. Perhaps the only one was Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), in one of his letters one can find this sentence: “metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities.” 
Critical opinion of this rebelious group 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.” Generally, Johnson’s 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.
Donne and Herbert
John Donne (1572 – 1631)
John Donne (1572-1631) is the one who established what has become known as the “Metaphysical style of poetry”. This style was taken up by many later poets, we shall mention George Herbert (1593-1633) and Henry Vaughan (1622-95). Some of the major characteristics of Donne’s poetry style are:
- the abrupt opening of a poem with a surprising dramatic line;
- the use of colloquial diction;
- the ideas in the poem being presented as a logical and persuasive argument, the purpose of which is to aid his wooing, whether of a woman or God.
Donne took metaphors from all spheres of life, and we can say he had no respect for works of poets who were recognized and respected for their style. He took his metaphores especially from crafts and the sciences, and made frequent use of the ‘conceit’: a surprising, ingenious, far-fetched turn of ideas. Often a whole poem is an extended ‘conceit’, and frequently a poem ends with a final ‘conceit’ in the last two lines. Donne developed his technique writing love poetry, and later adapted it to the writing of religious poetry.
George Herbert’s poetry shows that to a large extent he followed the lead offered by Donne, but he also made contributions which were quite distinct. His distinguishing characteristic is the simplicity of diction and metaphor. He retains the colloquial manner, the logical persuasive presentation of ideas, but he also draws his metaphors from everyday, life experiences, introducing simple pictures of life in contrast to the sophisticated poetry one can find in Donne’s poetry. ‘Conceits’ do not seem to be an important part of his poetry, and his appeal is not as intellectual as Donne’s.
A technique George Herbert introduced was the ending of a poem with two quiet lines which resolve the argument in the poem without answering the specific points raised by it, and this represents quite a dramatic break from Donne. Donne expresses his doubts in intellectual terms, and answers them in the same way. Herbert occasionally explores his doubts in intellectual terms, but answers them with emotion. In this way Herbert conveys the insight that one cannot argue or reason with God; one either feels God’s presence, or loses the feeling. In these respects Herbert can be considered to have broken new ground, into which Henry Vaughan followed later.
George Herbert wrote no love poetry. When he began writing poetry at Cambridge, to devote his poetic works to God, and decided that no love is equal, nor can be compared nor called love, unless it includes God. He seems to have had less difficulty in adjusting from court life to a religious life than Donne did. Herbert’s faith seems to have been more secure, deep and profound than that of his colleague.
Izaak Walton reports that Herbert was considered as almost a saint by those that knew him. Herbert’s poetry is also about struggles of a religious kind, but the struggles are neither so desperate nor so personal as Donne’s. Herbert’s poetry appears to be of a more instructive kind, attempting to instruct by example rather than precept. Herbert writes his poems for others, recording his struggles, doubts and fears in order that others may follow his example, and avoid his mistakes. The thought in Herbert’s poems can be seen as a continuation of the thought in his sermons, and it is this purpose behind his poetry which largely determines his style. In the opening stanza of ‘The Church Porch’ he writes,
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.
Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Batter my Heart‘ and Herbert’s ‘The Collar‘ are both poems about their fight to maintain their unconditional faith in God, and a comparison of these two can illustrate some of Herbert’s particular characteristics.
Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart‘ is the story of the poet’s involvment in a deep-rooted and desperate struggle with his own hart, soul, desires and ideas He almost seems to doubt whether God exists at all, and the power of the diction and imagery is indicative of serious turmoil. In the opening line Donne writes,
Batter my heart, three person’d God; (p.85)
Herbert, showing the influence of Donne, writes in his opening line:
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more. (p.135)
Both openings are dramatic, evoking violent action, and both are delivered in a personal and colloquial manner. Another similarity is that both poems take the form of arguments, using logic to make the reasoning convincing and persuasive. Donne writes,
. . . for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. (p.86)
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit? (p.135)
They argue the same idea, but their arguments are of quite different kinds. Donne’s thinking is intellectual, with line of reasoning reflecting a rigorously disciplined mind. On the other side, Herbert’s arguments relate more to feelings, emotions, the kinds of feeling with which we can all identify with. Consequently, there is slight but noticable difference in style. Herbert’s lines are simple, short, and we understand them easily, but understanding Donne’s ideas and thoughts takes effort and concentration.
In the beginning of his poetic career, Donne wrote love poems in which the ingenuity of thought, and originality of ‘conceits’, were the main criteria by which they were to be judged. In Herbert’s poems we can find less emphasis on conceits, exotic imagery, and ingenious thought, and looks to another source for stylistic inspiration – the Bible, or, more specifically, the language of Christ and the Parables.
Where Donne goes out of his way to find an exotic or striking image – a globe, beaten gold, a pair of compasses for example, Herbert looks for the homeliest commonplace image he can find. In ‘The Collar’ for example we have a thorn, wine, fruit, and cable. We can see the reason for this preference in Herbert’s own observations on Christ’s use of common imagery:
by familiar things he might make his doctrine slip the more easily into the hearts even of the meanest . . .
that labouring people might have everywhere monuments of his doctrine . . . that he might set a copy for the parsons.
Where Donne wrote for a limited readership, passing his poems around the wits and noblemen of court, Herbert did not want his vocabulary or imagery to be a barrier to any reader’s understanding.
The main difference between the two poems comes in the final two lines of each. Donne’s poem ends with a ‘conceit’, (quoted above). The meaning of these lines may not be clear on first reading, but their function is to encapsulate the argument, or dilemma, presented by the poem. Herbert’s final lines have quite the opposite effect:
Me thought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply’d, My Lord!
The surprise here is achieved through the simplicity of a call of one word and a response of two words. The drama lends immediacy, drawing us in to share the poet’s experience. Far from reiterating or encapsulating the dilemma explored in the poem, the lines resolve and transcend the dilemma. The questions are not answered, but abandoned when the sense of the actual presence of God renders the doubt and frustration redundant. Herbert implies that in religion reason can never be enough; faith, which fills the unknown, is the only answer. Donne did not use this technique; it was Herbert’s contribution to the genre, which was taken up by later poets, such as Henry Vaughan, who use it at the end of ‘The World’.
The simplicity of Herbert’s approach to the metaphysics, poetry and life is reflected in the titles he chooses, often single words such as ‘Man’, ‘Life’, ‘Love’, and ‘Death’. These words often do not reoccur in the poems, and nor, if the poems were read without the title, would the reader be able to supply them. The unifying ideas in Herbert’s poems are often simple too, such as the idea of a pulley, or a collar.
Sometimes, Herbert is over-simplifying his subjects; to liken man’s need for God to a pulley, for example, or the discipline of faith to a collar, might seem rather crude. But this original simplicity is deceptive, for the poems generally embody a system of complex thought, revealed by the structure and the use of metaphor. The structure of ‘The Collar’, for example, reflects the struggle between freedom and discipline in its alternation of long and short lines.
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
His idea of complexity is also present in that the frame of mind he is expressing contains the seeds of its own downfall, for that which is free, loose, and large, can also be directionless and undisciplined. The diction of a later line reveals Herbert’s self-condemnation:
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
A person who is raving, fierce, and wild, is not capable of making a balanced judgement. In ways such as these the central simple idea is filled out in the structure and diction of the poem. Another technique he uses is clearly seen in the poem ‘Redemption’, and it is in poems such as this that he comes close to his model: the parable. At the first glance, ‘Redemption’ tells a simple story of a tenant being granted a favour by his landlord, but a little reflection shows that the story is a symbolic representation of the relationship between mankind, God, and Christ.
But, the deep meaning of the story told in the poem builds in a cumulative way when we piece details together and interpret them – the title being just the clue for the interpretation. We learn, for example, that the landlord has ‘gone/ about some land, which he had dearly bought’. Later we learn that the landlord is among ‘theeves and murderers’. Finally the poet meets the landlord,
. . . there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.
These lines show that the price paid for the land which was ‘dearly bought’ was nothing less than Christ’s death on the cross. Complexities such as these place Herbert among the Metaphysical poets, in spite of his essential simplicity and avoidance of ‘conceits’.
In many poems, such as ‘Affliction’, ‘Man’, and ‘The Flower’ Herbert , just as Donne addresses God directly, and these seem to be the most personal, intimate of his poems. We can almost see him exploring his personal relationship with God, wanting to understand God better and to make himself more worthy.
In ‘Affliction‘ he charts the fluctuations and failings of his faith. In the first three stanzas he repeats some of his early feelings about God which were not true faith at all, but exercises in indulgence, or self-gratification. At first he thought his service to be ‘brave’, implying that he was more concerned with his own grace and glory than with the glory of God. In the second stanza he reveals a mercenary attitude, in which he looks forward to a relationship with God which will bring him personal reward.
. . . both heav’n and earth
Pay’d me my wages in a world of mirth
In the third stanza he records how he tried to argue himself into faith, with love, and true religious experience, being conspicuous by their absence.
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear
These experiences are presented in the past tense, and in the last line we see that he now realises that his relationship with God must be founded on love.
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
In ‘The Flower’ we see Herbert trying to understand, and reconcile himself to, the cycle of spring and winter, life and death, to which all things on earth are subject. He relates the cycle to his own experiences of periods of happiness and fruitfulness and periods of decline, which he attributes to the will of God.
The theme of ‘The Flower’ resonates with the theme of ‘The Pulley’ in which he sees God as deliberately causing a state of restlessness in the soul of mankind in order that he should not become complacent and forget that finding God requires a continuous struggle. The final stanza of ‘The Flower’ also relates back to ‘Affliction’, for we can see the errors of false faith stemming from human pride. The need for love in his relationship with God found at the end of ‘Affliction’ is complimented by the need for humility found at the end of ‘The Flower’.
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.
Where Donne’s sense of ‘repining restlessnesse’ was never stilled, even by revelation of the love of God, for Herbert the notions of ‘quiet’ and ‘rest’ are essential to his poems. Donne asks questions and rarely resolves them, while in Herbert the resolution is satisfactory and deeply felt.
We see in Herbert a poet who although essentially derivative of Donne, used the medium of Metaphysical poetry for a sincere exploration of his own faith, and in doing so broadened the scope of the genre to allow the poet a more personal approach than that apparent in Donne, an approach which was in turn taken up by Henry Vaughan.
Herbert and Vaughan
Vaughan deals with the relationship between man and God. they both see mankind as restless and constantly seeking a sense of harmony and fulfilment through contact with their creator. In ‘The Pulley’ Herbert writes,
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, then at least,
If goodness leade him not. yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
Similarly, in ‘Man’ Vaughan writes,
Man hath stil either toyes or Care,
He hath no root, nor to one place is ty’d,
But ever restless and Irregular.
Herbert and Vaughan agree on the sinfulness of mankind, but in other respects their attitudes towards mankind seem to differ. Herbert is primarily concerned with perfecting himself; he wishes to feel God’s presence among the simple, everyday things of life, and his humility is too deeply felt for him to openly criticise. Vaughan is the opposite, he has the arrogance of a visionary; his humility is reserved for God and Jesus, but seems to despise humanity and his fellows. This attitude is obvous in ‘The World’, in which he refers to the ‘doting lover’, ‘darksome statesman’, and ‘fearfull miser’, and particularly in these lines from ‘Man’,
. . . [Man] hath not so much wit as some stones have
Which in the darkest nights point to their homes,
The ending of Vaughan’s poem ‘The World’ clearly shows the influence of Herbert. In Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ we see the expression of anger and frustration at the apparent fruitlessness of serving God being stilled by the intervention of God.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply’d, My Lord! 
In a similar manner Vaughan contemplates the madness of humanity, and receives understanding from a voice:
But as I did their madness so discusse
One whispered thus
This Ring the Bride-groome did for none provide,
But for his bride.
Another area in which Vaughan’s style is clearly derivative of Herbert’s is in the opening lines of some poems. For example Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’ begins,
When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Here he is discussing a sacred subject in the most casual colloquial manner. Similarly Vaughan begins ‘The World’ with,
I saw Eternity the other night
These two lines also illustrate the most striking difference between the two poets, which lies in the scope of their vision. Herbert is simple, usual, down-to-earth in his imagery, his images having impact because they are more ‘domestic’ and familiar than one would expect for such a grand subject. For Herbert, God has ‘a glasse of blessings’, and he describes God’s blessings in commonplace terms,
At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My dayes were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no moneth but May, (‘Affliction’ p.122)
In contrast, Vaughan’s images are more universal, or cosmic, even to the point of judging man in relation to infinity.
I Saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
In contrast to Herbert’s ‘milk and sweetnesses’ Vaughan sees God’s gift as,
A way where you might tread the Sun, and be
More bright than he.
The term ‘visionary’ is appropriate to Vaughan, not only because of the grand scale of his images, but also because his metaphors frequently draw on the sense of vision:
They are all gone into the world of light!
. . . Their very memory is fair and bright
. . . It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast.
. . . I see them walking
And while Eternity is ‘Like a great ring of pure and endless light‘, the ‘darksome statesman’ is likened to a blind creature: ‘Yet digged the Mole‘. In places Herbert presents his ideas through down-to-earth associations with common words, Vaughan communicates mystical, transcendental, flashes of spiritual insight.
It was no secret, Vaughan’s indebtedness to Herbert for literary and spiritual guidance. Herbert’s poems were published under the title The Temple, and Vaughan entitled his volume Steps to The Temple. Vaughan own words were, ‘The blessed man whose holy life and verse gained many pious converts, of whom I am the least.‘ His poetic debt to Herbert lies chiefly in his having borrowed a conceptual framework in which to structure and present his ideas, in which he expressed himself. Some of Vaughan’s ideas even seem to have been borrowed (even stollen) from Herbert, but it is reasonable to suppose that he felt he was sharing the ideas, rather than stealing them. But Vaughan also made an important contribution of his own, in presenting his transcendental, spiritual vision so strikingly.
They were almost forgotten, this rebelious group, until T.S.Eliot, and his favorable essay The Metaphysical Poets (1921) which helped bring their poetry back into favor with readers. T.S. Eliot argued that their work fuses reason with passion; it shows a unification of thought and feeling which later became separated into „dissociation of sensibility“.
The gradual replacement of networks of closely connected individuals by relationships between dead authors and their readers is perhaps a central reason for the emergence of metaphysics (in the pejorative sense) in later seventeenth-century verse. The two later poets stigmatized by Johnson as ‘metaphysical’, Cleveland and Cowley, knew Donne only as a voice in a book. Efforts to reanimate that voice often show signs of strain. But the move from personal to textual connection between members of the group did not always have undesirable consequences. Andrew Marvell, who ever since John Aubrey’s ‘Brief life’ has tended to be regarded as an isolated figure in the literary landscape, has perhaps the most distinctive poetic voice of any member of the group. By describing pastoral figures with wounded or sullied innocence who argue perplexedly about their own fate and the unattainability of their own desires, Marvell transformed the metaphysical style into an idiom appropriate for a period of political division and national crisis. He was not entirely disconnected from its other practitioners: he was at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the same time as Abraham Cowley, and he wrote a commemorative poem for Henry, Lord Hastings, in Lacrymae musarum (1649), a volume that included poems by Dryden as well as John Hall. He and Hall were both among those who composed dedicatory poems for Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta (1648). Like Cleveland, Marvell owed his reputation in the later part of his career largely to his political and satirical poems, but his posthumously published Miscellaneous Poems (1681) shows that a reader of earlier metaphysical verse who actively responded to his changing times could transform the idiom of his predecessors.
Although there never was a group of poets who defined themselves as ‘the metaphysical poets’, there was none the less a set of networks of writers who composed poems that it makes sense to call metaphysical. This consisted first of a group clustered around Donne, and later of a dispersed textual community in which readers of his verse learnt from and adapted a variety of its features to suit their times. Marvell’s rueful and bruised representations of impossible arguments in times through which it was painful to live was the last significant contribution to this tradition of writing:
Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debarrs,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.
- Gardner, Helen., Metaphysical Poets, Oxford University Press, London, 1957.
- Johnson, Samuel., Selected Writings, Penguin Books, 1968.
- The Norton Antology of English Literature, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Questia.19.Nov.2008
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- “http. www.literature-study-online.com/…/religious-metaphysical-poetry.html
- „Metaphysical Poetry“. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (21 Oct.2008)
 GARDNE, Helen. Metaphysical Poets, London, Oxford University Press, 1957.
 JOHNSON, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin, 1968.
 JOHNSON, Samuel. Selected Writings, Penguin, 1968
 John Bartlett (1820–1905). Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. 1919. Page 204
 GARDNER, Helen. Metaphysical Poets, London, Oxford University Press, 1957