Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical Poetry #

A name later ascribed to poets who dealt with subjects concerning the abstract in concrete terms. They use logic to explain the inexplicable.

Literally, metaphysical means to transcend above or beyond the physical or concrete. – often used in the sense that it was about non-material and supernatural things - the abstract rather than the physical.

The age objects to the heroic and sublime, and it objects to the simplification and separation of the mental faculties.

Metaphysical poetry was a product of the popularisation of the study of mental phenomena. Ethics having been eclipsed by psychology, we accept the belief that any state of mind is extremely complex, and chiefly composed of odds and ends in constant flux manipulated by desire and fear.

Neither the fantastic nor the cynical nor the sensual occupies an excessive importance with Donne; the elements in his mind had an order and congruity. The range of his feeling was great, but no more remarkable than its unity. He was altogether present in every thought and in every feeling.

What is true of his mind is true, in different terms, of his language and versification. A style, a rhythm, to be significant, must embody a significant mind, must be produced by the necessity of a new form for a new content. T.S. Eliot.

May just be a bit of meaningless literary jargon.


  1. Intellectually rigorous, scholastic, dialectical, subtle .
  2. Argumentative – using logic, syllogisms or paradox in persuasion.
  3. Concentrated complex and difficult thought
  4. Dramatic, with abrupt aggressive opening but modulating tones.
  5. Style – concise, succinct, epigrammatic
  6. Use of conceits; commonplace medieval topics with lots of comparisons to unusual, unexpected things or images called conceits or extended metaphors.

Deals with dichotomies, dualities, paradoxes, antithesis in a dialectic manner - argumentative.

  • Body and soul (corporal and spiritual)
  • Time and eternity (finite and infinite)
  • Real (concrete) and the ideal (abstract)
  • Carnal (profane) and divine (sacred) love
  • Sin and redemption
  • Emotion (passion) and Reason (logic)

Donne resolves everything into a unity;

a) the oneness of lovers,

b) the self-sufficiency of lovers,

c) the image of the circle – cycles – perfection

Marvell, another Metaphysical poet, does not attempt to resolve the dialectics of the polarities, rather he ends them in a compromise.

All metaphysical poets attempt to transcend the physical sphere in order to gain perspective or vision.

Metaphysical poets attempt to explain the emotional and spiritual elements of life in concrete, rational and logical terms. They attempt to define our sentiments by logical syllogisms or in scientific terms.

Donne uses religious conceits in his love poetry about sex and later in life uses sexual conceits in his religious poetry.

Wit: “Apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness.” OED

Finding analogies between disparate things.

In The Canonisation, Donne compares the relationship between lovers to:

Insects, candles, the eagle and the dove, and to the Phoenix.

Samuel Johnson writing 150 years after Donne’s death criticised him for:

“the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.”

The argumentative logic is often achieved by sleight of hand and on closer look, full of fallacies.

  • Puns, quibbles and double meanings were favorites of all Elizabethans.
  • Antithesis is also popular.
  • Compression, brevity and a difficult nugget-like quality forces the reader to “read and think”. Samuel Johnson.

Donne used a great deal of specialized knowledge in his poetry. He, like Hamlet was an eclectic Renaissance scholar.

The “strong lines are often too harsh for our ears".