Dr. Marla J. Fowler
The term metaphysical poets was coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know or read each other (Wikipedia). Their work is a blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity, characterized by conceit or “wit”—that is, by the sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things so that the reader is startled out of his complacency and forced to think through the argument of the poem. Metaphysical poetry is less concerned with expressing feeling than with analyzing it, with the poet exploring the recesses of his consciousness. The boldness of the literary devices used—especially obliquity, irony, and paradox—is often reinforced by a dramatic directness of language and by rhythms derived from that of living speech. Esteem for Metaphysical poetry never stood higher than in the 1930s and ’40s, largely because of T.S. Eliot’s influential essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), a review of Herbert J.C. Grierson’s anthology Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century. In this essay Eliot argued that the works of these men embody a fusion of thought and feeling that later poets were unable to achieve because of a “dissociation of sensibility,” which resulted in works that were either intellectual or emotional but not both at once. In their own time, however, the epithet “metaphysical” was used pejoratively: in 1630 the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden objected to those of his contemporaries who attempted to “abstract poetry to metaphysical ideas and scholastic quiddities.” At the end of the century, John Dryden censured Donne for affecting “the metaphysics” and for perplexing “the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts . . . with the softnesses of love.” Samuel Johnson, in referring to the learning that their poetry displays, also dubbed them “the metaphysical poets,” and the term has continued in use ever since. Eliot’s adoption of the label as a term of praise is arguably a better guide to his personal aspirations about his own poetry than to the Metaphysical poets themselves; his use of metaphysical underestimates these poets’ debt to lyrical and socially engaged verse. Nonetheless, the term is useful for identifying the often-intellectual character of their writing (Encyclopedia Britannica). Without doubt Samuel Johnson's choice of the word metaphysical to describe the followers of Donne was directly influenced by these earlier usages (the Cleveland passage is quoted in Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 to illustrate the definition of ‘Metaphysicks’). The category of poetry that indulged in metaphysics was a live one for later seventeenth-century poets, but for them metaphysics was a word used to mark the point at which strongly argued verse bordered on self-parody. There is more value than this, however, in the group name. Even in the earlier seventeenth century members of the core group of metaphysical poets were connected by a number of social, familial, and literary ties. Izaak Walton relates that Donne and George Herbert enjoyed ‘a long and dear friendship, made up by such a Sympathy of inclinations, that they coveted and joyed to be in each others Company’ (Walton, 57–8). Donne addressed poems to Herbert's mother, Magdalen, and preached her funeral sermon, as well as writing a poem to Herbert's brother, Edward, Lord Herbert. Herbert of Cherbury in turn read both Donne's poetry and that of his own brother with care, and was a friend of Thomas Carew and Aurelian Townshend. Henry Wotton was the addressee of epistles in both verse and prose from...