The Metaphysical School of Poetry

The term “metaphysical” means beyond the physical. The major poets of 17th Century English Literature belonged to this school of metaphysical poetry writing, which explored and upheld the fusion of intellect and emotion. Literary critic and poet Samuel Johnson first coined the term “metaphysical poetry” in his book Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1179 – 1781) (Life of Cowlie section). It was also used by John Dryden to describe Donne’s poetry. Some common metaphysical questions include Does God Exist? Is there a difference between perception and reality? Is free-choice not existent i.e, is fate pre-determined? Is consciousness limited to the brain? In this school certain methods were rigorously followed. They include a rare clarity and freshness of vision, a harmonious blending of wit and emotion, use of stock metaphors, the abundant use of conceits, use of environmental images, a lyrical flow of thought and verse and the manifestation of divinity in nature.

John Donne (1572 – 1631)

All discourse on metaphysical poetry must begin with John Donne who was especially noted for being hailed as the father of the “metaphysical school of poetry”. He was not only a poet, but also a lawyer, priest and satirist. Critics describe his style as inventive, strong, dramatic and sensual – that of a womanizer despite being religious. He wrote Love Poetry, Religious Poetry and Elegies and Satires. One of his most exemplary love poems is The Good Morrow, meaning wishing one’s beloved good morning. He compares his beloved and himself to two hemispheres of the globe to form one complete whole. Another of his love poems is A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning. His religious poetry includes The Progress of the Soul and The Anatomy of the World. His satires are a deliberate imitation of the Greek writer Persius. He also composed poems like The Flea and The Canonization.

In John Donne’s poetry there is a sense of miraculous exemption from time and all its entanglements. The freedom from temporal and spatial boundaries is one of the foremost features of Donne’s poetry. He takes into his purview of discussion the universal cause and explores in details the mysteries of human life and emotions. There is a lucid and candid expression and a field of joyous liberty. He also composed 26 holy sonnets along with two other sonnets which are derogatory in nature, after 1610. Their form is quintessentially Petrarchan and their themes refers to different aspects of his personality. His deep faith in divinity led him to compose sonnets which were  extensively replete with his sense of devotion and conviction in love. The sonnets vary greatly in their value. The themes involve his personal sense of limitations, his fears, his inadequacies and especially his thoughts about judgement day. They are philosophical speculations about the reality of human existence. His poetry was a reaction to the fluency and exuberance of Elizabethan poetry.

Andrew Marvel (1621 – 78)

Andrew Marvel is best known for his elaborate poem on the theme of Carpe diem or “Seize the Day”- To His Coy Mistress. Marvel’s poem is characterized with urbane energy which flows through the lines of the poem. The sense of romantic vastness and love for his beloved charged with remarkable intensity has been portrayed most artistically through the poem. The poem, incorporates various poetic conventions from French and Italian love poetry. The sense of immediacy is provided by a typical poetic situation. The poet exhorts his beloved to consummate their love lest time prevents it. As Marvel belongs to the metaphysical school of poetry, his poems uphold certain significant metaphysical features. In his poetry we come across an elegance and precision of style, polish and diction, regular rhyme and meter, persistent use of couplets and extensive irony of theme. He is a rather intelligent poet. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that in Marvel, there are some variations from the common features of the metaphysical school. We do identify a ruggedness of style and a very bold use of colloquialisms of daily conversation – sometimes bordering on the gross. Perhaps he tried to bring about a fusion between the metaphysical and Jonsonian styles. His poetry has a haunting, memorable and intellectual quality. T.S. Elliot had once commented –

“In Marvel’s poetry one may find a tough reasonableness beneath slight lyrical grace.”

Marvel’s other poems include Horatian Ode upon Oliver Cromwell’s return from Ireland. There are also other poems on Cromwell- The First Anniversary of the Government and Under His Highness, the Lord Protector. Marvel was clearly appreciating Cromwell’s government and personality in heroic couplets in the latter. He was a Puritan and his poems were circulated in manuscripts among his friends, published posthumously. Another of his famous poems is The Garden.

George Herbert (1593 – 1633)

The rhythm and intensity of Herbert’s poetry resembled those of the Provencal poets. Herbert’s poetry celebrates life, energy, rhythm and vitality. He is recognized as “one of the foremost British devotional lyricists.” He has composed 169 poems in 140 stanza patterns. The most popular of his works is The Temple which is a collection full of faith and fervour and also subtlety of thought and ornament. His famous poems include Caller, The Quip and The Pulley. Herbert made extensive use of the technique of conceit. In it, Herbert was experimenting with ‘Pattern Poetry’ wherein each stanza represents a picture or an image. His pictorial poems are Easter Winds, The Altar and other religious poems like Trinity Sunday. In The Windows, he compares a righteous preacher to a glass through which God’s light shines more effectively than his words. All his works are visually satisfying as they draw a pattern through the lines. Herbert was introducing a balance of thought and content in his poetry which conferred a regularity of patterns on his verse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Herbert’s diction that “Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected”.

Legouis Kazamian says that Herbert –
“is the saint of the metaphysical school…often gives an impression of a sort of sublimity”

Henry Vaughan (1621 – 95)

Vaughan is a religious metaphysical poet. He is chiefly known for the religious poetry contained in Silex Scintillans, published in 1650, with a second part published in 1655. He was greatly inspired by George Herbert. He uses several tricks of Herbert’s style like abrupt openings, ejaculations and whimsical titles. He found God not in the Bible but in nature. In his poem The Retreat, he quite symbolically explores the retreat into one’s childhood, from childhood back to infancy, from infancy to the pre-lapsarian stage of the fall before the birth of human life on Earth. Vaughan explores the belief that the divine almighty power is invested in nature or the environment that surrounds us. He says in it –

“They are all gone into the world of light”

We are born for a purpose upon the completion of which we would have to return to the Almighty. It is this one governing impulse, that characterizes Vaughan’s poetry. In Childhood, he yearns for a place full of love and harmony, a utopian world that is. He is preoccupied with his religious philosophies and his poems are like a prayer invoking divine presence. They paved the way for the Caroline school of poetry (the poetry of Herrick, Waller and Lovelace). The question of whether William Wordsworth knew Vaughan’s work before writing his ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood has puzzled and fascinated those seeking the origins of English romanticism. Both poems clearly draw on a common tradition of romantic images to heighten their speakers’ presentations of the value of an earlier time and the losses experienced in reaching adulthood. His style is free from complications as seen in the poem The World.

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