The term metaphysical poets was coined by the critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of 17th-century English poets whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by a greater emphasis on the spoken rather than lyrical quality of their verse. These poets were not formally affiliated and few were highly regarded until 20th century attention established their importance. Given the lack of coherence as a movement, and the diversity of style between poets, it has been suggested that calling them Baroque poets after their era might be more useful. Once the Metaphysical style was established, however, it was occasionally adopted by other and especially younger poets to fit appropriate circumstances.
Origin of the name
In the chapter on Abraham Cowley in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Samuel Johnson refers to the beginning of the seventeenth century in which there "appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets". This does not necessarily imply that he intended metaphysical to be used in its true sense, in that he was probably referring to a witticism of John Dryden, who said of John Donne:
He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this...Mr. Cowley has copied him to a fault.
Probably the only writer before Dryden to speak of the new style of poetry was Drummond of Hawthornden, who in an undated letter from the 1630s made the charge that "some men of late, transformers of everything, consulted upon her reformation, and endeavoured to abstract her to metaphysical ideas and scholastical quiddities, denuding her of her own habits, and those ornaments with which she hath amused the world some thousand years".
Nor was Johnson's assessment of 'metaphysical poetry' at all flattering:
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and, very often, such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables... The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
When it came to justify his charges with examples, Johnson quoted just three poets: Cowley himself, John Donne and John Cleveland, which is hardly sufficient for such a blanket condemnation. Instead he was repeating the disapproval of earlier critics who upheld the rival canons of Augustan poetry, for though Johnson may have given the Metaphysical 'school' the name by which it is now known, he was far from being the first to condemn 17th century poetic usage of conceit and word-play. John Dryden had already satirised the Baroque taste for them in his Mac Flecknoe and Joseph Addison, in quoting him, singled out the poetry of George Herbert as providing a flagrant example.
20th century recognition
There is no scholarly consensus regarding which English poets or poems fit within the Metaphysical genre. Colin Burrow, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, singles out John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Crashaw as 'central figures', while naming many more, all or part of whose work has been identified as sharing its characteristics. Two 20th century anthologies have been important in defining the Metaphysical canon: Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1921) and Helen Gardner's Metaphysical Poets (1957). The latter also included 'proto-metaphysical' poets such as William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh and, extending into the Restoration, brought in Edmund Waller and Rochester. While comprehensive, her selection, as Burrow remarks, so dilutes the style as to make it "virtually coextensive with seventeenth-century poetry".
During the course of the 1920s, T. S. Eliot did much to establish the importance of the school, both through his critical writing and by applying their method in his own work. By 1961 A. Alvarez was commenting that "it may perhaps be a little late in the day to be writing about the Metaphysicals. The great vogue for Donne passed with the passing of the Anglo-American experimental movement in modern poetry." Two decades later, a hostile view was expressed that emphasis on their importance had been an attempt by Eliot and his followers to impose a "high Anglican and royalist literary history" on 17th-century English poetry.
Burrow's opinion, on the other hand, is that the term 'Metaphysical poets' still retains some value. For one thing, Donne's poetry had considerable influence on subsequent poets, who emulated his style. And there are several instances in which 17th-century poets used the word 'metaphysical' in their work, meaning that Samuel Johnson's description has some foundation in the usage of the previous century. However, the term does isolate English poets from those who shared similar stylistic traits in Europe and America. Since the 1960s, therefore, it has been argued that gathering all of these under the heading of Baroque poets would be more helpfully inclusive.
Johnson’s definition of the Metaphysical poets was that of a hostile critic looking back at the style of the previous century. In 1958 Alvarez proposed an alternative approach in a series of lectures eventually published as The School of Donne. This was to look at the practice and self-definition of the circle of friends about Donne, who were the recipients of many of his verse letters. They were a group of some fifteen young professionals with an interest in poetry, many of them poets themselves although, like Donne for much of his life, few of them published their work. Instead, copies were circulated in manuscript among them. Uncertain ascriptions resulted in some poems from their fraternity being ascribed to Donne by later editors.
A younger second generation was a close-knit group of courtiers, some of them with family or professional ties to Donne’s circle, who initially borrowed Donne’s manner to cultivate wit. Among them were Lord Herbert of Cherbury and his brother George, whose mother Magdalen was another recipient of verse letters by Donne. Eventually George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw, all of whom knew each other, took up the religious life and extended their formerly secular approach into this new area. A later generation of Metaphysical poets, writing during the Commonwealth, became increasingly more formulaic and lacking in vitality. These included Cleveland and his imitators as well as such transitional figures as Cowley and Marvell.
What all had in common, according to Alvarez, was esteem, not for metaphysics but for intelligence. Johnson's remark that "To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think" only echoed its recognition a century and a half before in the many tributes paid to Donne on his death. For example, Jasper Mayne's comment that for the fellow readers of his work, "Wee are thought wits, when 'tis understood". Coupled with it went a vigorous sense of the speaking voice. It begins with the rough versification of the satires written by Donne and others in his circle such as Everard Gilpin and John Roe. Later it modulates into the thoughtful religious poems of the next generation with their exclamatory or conversational openings and their sense of the mind playing over the subject and examining it from all sides. Helen Gardner too had noted the dramatic quality of this poetry as a personal address of argument and persuasion, whether talking to a physical lover, to God, to Christ's mother Mary, or to a congregation of believers.
A different approach to defining the community of readers is to survey who speaks of whom, and in what manner, in their poetry. On the death of Donne, it is natural that his friend Edward Herbert should write him an elegy full of high-flown and exaggerated Metaphysical logic. In a similar way, Abraham Cowley marks the deaths of Crashaw and of another member of Donne’s literary circle, Henry Wotton. Here, however, though Cowley acknowledges Crashaw briefly as a writer ("Poet and saint"), his governing focus is on how Crashaw’s goodness transcended his change of religion. The elegy is as much an exercise in a special application of logic as was Edward Herbert’s on Donne. Henry Wotton, on the other hand, is not remembered as a writer at all, but instead for his public career. The conjunction of his learning and role as ambassador becomes the extended metaphor on which the poem’s tribute turns.
Twelve “Elegies upon the Author” accompanied the posthumous first collected edition of Donne’s work, Poems by J.D. with elegies of the author’s death (1633), and were reprinted in subsequent editions over the course of the next two centuries. Though the poems were often cast in a suitably Metaphysical style, half were written by fellow clergymen, few of whom are remembered for their poetry. Among those who are were Henry King and Jasper Mayne, who was soon to quit authorship for clerical orders. Bishop Richard Corbet's poetry writing was also nearly over by now and he contributed only a humorous squib. Other churchmen included Henry Valentine (fl 1600-50), Edward Hyde (1607-59) and Richard Busby. Two poets, Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland and Thomas Carew, who were joined in the 1635 edition by Sidney Godolphin, had links with the heterodox Great Tew Circle. They also served as courtiers, as did another contributor, Endymion Porter. In addition, Carew had been in the service of Edward Herbert.
Isaac Walton’s link with Donne’s circle was more tangential. He had friends within the Great Tew Circle but at the time of his elegy was working as a researcher for Henry Wotton, who intended writing a life of the poet. This project Walton inherited after his death, publishing it under his own name in 1640; it was followed by a life of Wotton himself that prefaced the collection of Wotton's works in 1651. A life of George Herbert followed them in 1670. The links between Donne’s elegists were thus of a different order from those between Donne and his circle of friends, often no more than professional acquaintanceship. And once the poetic style had been launched, its tone and approach remained available as a model for later writers who might not necessarily commit themselves so wholly to it.
Late additions to the Metaphysical canon have included sacred poets of both England and America who had been virtually unknown for centuries. John Norris was better known as a Platonist philosopher. Platonic ideas had earlier played their part in the love poetry of others, often to be ridiculed there, although Edward Herbert took the theme of “Platonic Love” more seriously in his poems with that title. But in the poetry of Henry Vaughan, as in that of another of the late discoveries, Thomas Traherne, Neo-Platonic concepts played an important part and contributed to some striking poems dealing with the soul’s remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm and its spiritual influence.
Traherne's poetry remained unpublished until the start of the 20th century. The work of Edward Taylor, who is now counted as the outstanding English-language poet of North America, was only discovered in 1937. When a first selection was published, he was called simply “A Puritan sacred poet”. Soon after, however, he was being described as “an American metaphysical” and his poetry typified as ‘Colonial Baroque’. In his work appear such typically Baroque elements as acrostic verse, word play and use of conceits, as well as spoken meditations reminiscent of George Herbert. A later study compared his approach to that of such Baroque Poets as Giambattista Marino and Francisco de Quevedo, who in his time were influencing the Spanish-language poets of the New World.
Grierson attempted to characterise the main traits of Metaphysical poetry in the introduction to his anthology. For him it begins with a break with the formerly artificial style of their antecedents to one free from poetic diction or conventions. Johnson acknowledged as much in pointing out that their style was not to be achieved “by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes”. Another characteristic singled out by Grierson is the Baroque European dimension of the poetry, its “fantastic conceits and hyperboles which was the fashion throughout Europe”. Again Johnson had been partly before him in describing the style as “borrowed from Marino and his followers”. It was from the use of conceits particularly that the writing of these European counterparts was known, Concettismo in Italian, Conceptismo in Spanish. In fact Crashaw had made several translations from Marino. Grierson noted in addition that the slightly older poet, Robert Southwell (who is included in Gardner’s anthology as a precursor), had learned from the antithetical, conceited style of Italian poetry and knew Spanish as well.
The European dimension of the Catholic poets Crashaw and Southwell has been commented on by others. In the opinion of one critic of the 1960s, defining the extent of the Baroque style in 17th-century English poetry “may even be said to have taken the place of the earlier discussion of the metaphysical”. Southwell counts as a notable pioneer of the style, in part because his formative years were spent outside England. And the circumstance that Crashaw’s later life was also spent outside England contributed to making him, in the eyes of Mario Praz, “the greatest exponent of the Baroque style in any language”.
Crashaw is frequently cited by Harold Segel when typifying the characteristics of The Baroque Poem, but he goes on to compare the work of several other Metaphysical poets to their counterparts in both Western and Eastern Europe. The use of conceits was common not only across the Continent, but also elsewhere in England among the Cavalier poets, including such elegists of Donne as Carew and Godolphin. As an example of the rhetorical way in which various forms of repetition accumulate in creating a tension, only relieved by their resolution at the end of the poem, Segel instances the English work of Henry King as well as Ernst Christoph Homburg’s in German and Jan Andrzej Morsztyn’s in Polish. In addition, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is given as a famous example of the use of hyperbole common to many other Metaphysical poets and typical of the Baroque style too.
The way George Herbert and other English poets “torture one poor word ten thousand ways”, in Dryden’s phrase, finds its counterpart in a poem like “Constantijn Huygens’ Sondagh (Sunday) with its verbal variations on the word ‘sun’. Wordplay on this scale was not confined to Metaphysical poets, moreover, but can be found in the multiple meanings of ‘will’ that occur in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 135”. and of ‘sense’ in John’s Davies’ “That the Soul is more than a Perfection or Reflection of the Sense”. Such rhetorical devices are common in Baroque writing and frequently used by poets not generally identified with the Metaphysical style.
Another striking example occurs in Baroque poems celebrating "black beauty", built on the opposition between the norm of feminine beauty and instances that challenge that commonplace. There are examples in sonnets by Philip Sidney, where the key contrast is between ‘black’ and ‘bright’; by Shakespeare, contrasting ‘black’ and various meanings of ‘fair’; and by Edward Herbert, where black, dark and night contrast with light, bright and spark. Black hair and eyes are the subject in the English examples, while generally it is the colour of the skin with which Romance poets deal in much the same paradoxical style. Examples include Edward Herbert’s “La Gialletta Gallante or The sun-burn'd exotic Beauty” and Marino’s “La Bella Schiave” (The Beautiful Slave). Still more dramatically, Luis de Góngora’s En la fiesta del Santísimo Sacramento (At the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament) introduces a creole dialogue between two black women concerning the nature of their beauty.
Much of this display of wit hinges upon enduring literary conventions and is only distinguished as belonging to this or that school by the mode of treatment. But English writing goes further by employing ideas and images derived from contemporary scientific or geographical discoveries to examine religious and moral questions, often with an element of casuistry. Bringing greater depth and a more thoughtful quality to their poetry, such features distinguish the work of the Metaphysical poets from the more playful and decorative use of the Baroque style among their contemporaries.
Long before it was so-named, the Metaphysical poetic approach was an available model for others outside the interlinking networks of 17th century writers, especially young men who had yet to settle for a particular voice. The poems written by John Milton while still at university are a case in point and include some that were among his earliest published work, well before their inclusion in his Poems of 1645. His On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1629) and "On Shakespear" (1630) appear in Grierson’s anthology; the latter poem and “On the University Carrier” (1631) appear in Gardner’s too. It may be remembered also that at the time Milton composed these, the slightly younger John Cleveland was a fellow student at Christ's College, Cambridge, on whom the influence of the Metaphysical style was more lasting.
In Milton’s case, there is an understandable difference in the way he matched his style to his subjects. For the ‘Nativity Ode’ and commendatory poem on Shakespeare he deployed Baroque conceits, while his two poems on the carrier Thomas Hobson were a succession of high-spirited paradoxes. What was then titled “An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare” was included anonymously among the poems prefacing the second folio publication of Shakespeare’s plays in 1632. The poems on Thomas Hobson were anthologised in collections titled A Banquet of Jests (1640, reprinted 1657) and Wit Restor’d (1685), bracketing both the 1645 and 1673 poetry collections published during Milton’s lifetime.
The start of John Dryden’s writing career coincided with the period when Cleveland, Cowley and Marvell were first breaking into publication. He had yet to enter university when he contributed a poem on the death of Henry Lord Hastings to the many other tributes published in Lachrymae Musarum (1649). It is typified by astronomical imagery, paradox, Baroque hyperbole, play with learned vocabulary (“an universal metampsychosis”), and irregular versification which includes frequent enjambment. The poem has been cited as manifesting “the extremes of the metaphysical style”, but in this it sits well with others there that are like it: John Denham’s “Elegy on the death of Henry Lord Hastings”, for example, or Marvell’s rather smoother “Upon the death of the Lord Hastings”. The several correspondences among the poems there are sometimes explained as the result of the book’s making a covert Royalist statement. In the political circumstances following the recent beheading of the king, it was wise to dissemble grief for him while mourning another under the obscure and closely wrought arguments typical of the Metaphysical style.
The choice of style by the young Milton and the young Dryden can therefore be explained in part as contextual. Both went on to develop radically different ways of writing; neither could be counted as potentially Metaphysical poets. Nor could Alexander Pope, yet his early poetry evidences an interest in his Metaphysical forebears. Among his juvenilia appear imitations of Cowley. As a young man he began work on adapting Donne’s second satire, to which he had added the fourth satire too by 1735. Pope also wrote his “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717) while still young, introducing into it a string of Metaphysical conceits in the lines beginning “Most souls, ‘tis true, but peep out once an age” which in part echo a passage from Donne’s “Second Anniversary”. By the time Pope wrote this, the vogue for the Metaphysical style was over and a new orthodoxy had taken its place, of which the rewriting of Donne’s satires was one expression. Nevertheless, Johnson’s dismissal of the ‘school’ was still in the future and at the start of the 18th century allusions to their work struck an answering chord in readers.
Notes and references
- ^Gardner, Helen (1957). Metaphysical Poets. Oxford University Press, London. Retrieved 2014-08-15.
- ^Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, vol. 1 (1779)
- ^The Spectator no.58 (May 11, 1711), p.69
- ^ abcdColin Burrow, “Metaphysical poets (act. c.1600–c.1690)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 7 May 2012
- ^See Grierson's introduction
- ^Alvarez, p.11
- ^Harold B. Segel, The Baroque Poem: a comparative survey, New York 1974, particularly the "Introduction", pp. 3–14
- ^Alvarez, “Donne’s Circle”, pp. 187-95
- ^Alvarez, ch. 6, "The game of wit and the corruption of the style"
- ^Elegies, p.393
- ^Gardner pp. 22–4
- ^”Elegy for Doctor Donne”, Poetry Explorer
- ^"Grierson, poem 138. On the Death of Mr. Crashaw. Abraham Cowley. Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th c".
- ^Izaac Walton, The Life of Henry Wotton, pp.161-2
- ^"Poems, by J.D. VVith elegies on the authors death".
- ^Ted-Larry Pebworth (2000). Literary circles and cultural communities in Renaissance England. University of Missouri Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-8262-1317-4. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
- ^Sarah Hutton, “Platonism in some Metaphysical Poets”, in Platonism and the English Imagination, Cambridge University 1994, pp 163-178
- ^New England Quarterly 10, June 1937, pp.290-322
- ^Wallace Cable Brown, American Literature, Duke University 1944, Vol. 16. 3, pp. 186-197
- ^Austin Warren, Kenyon Review, 3.3 (Summer 1941, pp.355-71
- ^”Edward Taylor”, Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004
- ^Alfred Owen Aldridge, Early American Literature: A Comparatist Approach, Princeton University 1982: Chapter 2, “Edward Taylor and the American Baroque”
- ^Grierson, p.xxxi)
- ^Grierson p.xx
- ^"Concettismo - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095630632.
- ^White, Helen C."Southwell: Metaphysical and Baroque", Modern Philology, Vol. 61, No. 3 (February 1964): 159–168.
- ^Alvarez, p.92
- ^Segel, pp. 102-16
- ^Scroll down at the Hull University site
- ^"Shakespeare's Sonnets".
- ^The original nature, and immortality of the soul, section 2
- ^Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 7
- ^"Shakespeare's Sonnets - Sonnet 127".
- ^“Sonnet of Black Beauty”
- ^"Text analysis at Fareletteratura. Analisi del testo e Parafrasi: "Bella schiava" di Giovan Battista Marino -".
- ^"Palabra Virtual".
- ^Nick Jones, “Cosmetic Ontologies, Cosmetic Subversions: Articulating Black Beauty and Humanity in Luis de Góngora's "En la fiesta del Santísimo Sacramento", The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 15.1, 2015, abstract
- ^Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.5
- ^Encyclopedia Britannicaonline
- ^Introduction to the poems at the John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth College
- ^The Poems of John Dryden, Vol. 3, pp.5-8
- ^Isabel Rivers, “The making of a 17th century religious poet”, in John Milton: Introductions, Cambridge University 1973, p.93
- ^Text at Poem Hunter
- ^Text from the Adelaide University e-book
- ^The Poems of Andrew Marvell, Pearson Education 2003,
- ^Felicity Rosslyn, Alexander Pope: A Literary Life, New York 1990, pp.17-20
- ^Howard D. Weinbrot, Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire, Princeton University 1982,pp.299-307
- ^Maynard Mack, “Wit and Poetry and Pope” in Collected in Himself, University of Delaware 1982, Volume 1, pp.38-40
- A. Alvarez, The School of Donne, London 1961
- "Elegies upon the Author" in Poems by J.D. with elegies of the author’s death, London 1633
- Gardner, Helen, The Metaphysical Poets. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957)
- Grierson, Herbert J.C., Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Oxford, 1921
- Johnson, Samuel: “The Life of Cowley” extracted from Lives of the Poets (London 1780)
- Segel, Harold B., The Baroque Poem: a comparative survey, New York 1974
The Essay: Its Significance
Eliot’s essay on The Metaphysical Poets was first published as a review of J.C. Grierson’s edition of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the 17th Century. But the essay is much more than a mere review. It is a critical document of much value and significance. It is an important landmark in the history of English literary criticism, it has brought about a revaluation and reassessment of Donne and other Metaphysical poets, and has caused a revival of interest in these poets who had been neglected for a considerable time. It is in this essay that Eliot has used, for the first time, the phrases Dissociation of Sensibility and Unification of Sensibility, phrases which have acquired worldwide currency and which, ever since, have had a far reaching impact on literary criticism.
Eliot begins the essay by praising Grierson’s scholarly edition of metaphysical lyrics and poems of the 17th century. This book is an admirable piece of criticism in itself, as well as a provocation to criticism. It is a great irritant to thought. It sets Eliot himself thinking, and he proposes to consider the significance of the label ‘Metaphysical’ which has generally been used as a term of abuse to indicate the quaint tastes of these poets, and also to examine whether the so-called ‘metaphysical’ poets constituted a school or movement in themselves, or were they merely a continuation of some older tradition.
Difficulties in the Way
Eliot is quite conscious of the difficulties of the task he has undertaken. First, it is difficult to define the term, “metaphysical” and explain the characteristics which differentiate metaphysical poetry from other kinds of poetry. Secondly, it is difficult to decide which poets practised it and which did not, and which of their verses have such characteristics. In the beginning of the 17th century, there are noticeable three different schools of poetry: First, there is Donne, a late Elizabethan, and Marvell and Bishop King who are very close to him. Secondly, there is Ben Jonson and his, courtly school, of poetry, a kind of poetry which expired in the next century in the verses of Prior. Thirdly, there is the religious poetry of Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw. It is difficult to find characteristics which are common to all those poets, and which are dominant enough to mark out these poets as constituting a separate, distinct group.
Metaphysical Poetry: Its Characteristics
Eliot then proceeds to examine one by one with suitable illustrations the characteristics which are generally considered ‘metaphysical’. First, there is the elaboration of a simile to the farthest possible extent to be met with frequently in the poetry of Donne and Cowley. The most striking instance of such elaboration is the famous conceit of a pair of compasses in Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Secondly, there is the device of the development of an image by rapid association of thought requiring considerable agility on the part of the reader. For example, in Donne’s A Valediction: of Weeping, we got three separate images: the picture of the geographer’s globe, the tears of the poet’s beloved, and the picture of the Great Flood. Though these three pictures are entirely separate, the poet has unified them by stressing the likeness between his lady’s tears and the globe, and further that they are capable of overflowing the earth. Thirdly, on other occasions Donne produces his effects by sudden contrasts. Thus in the line, “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”, the most powerful effect is produced by sudden contrast of the associations of ‘bright hair’ and ‘bone’. But such telescoping of images and contrast of associations are not a characteristic of the poetry of Donne alone. It also characterises Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare, Webster, Tourneur and Middleton. This suggests that Donne, Cowley and others belong to the Elizabethan tradition and not to any new school. The dominant characteristics of Donne’s poetry are also the characteristics of the great Elizabethans.
Dr. Johnson’s Definition
Eliot then takes up Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of metaphysical poetry, in which the great doctor has tried to define this poetry by its faults. Dr. Johnson in his Life of Cowley points out that in Metaphysical poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked violence together”. They bringing together of heterogeneous ideas and compelling them into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is universal in poetry. Countless instances of such fusion of opposite and dissimilar concepts can be cited at random from all poets. Such unity is present even in the poetry of Johnson himself. The force of Dr. Johnson’s remark lies in the fact that in his view the Metaphysical poetry could only Yoke by violence dissimilar ideas. They could unite them or fuse them into a single whole. But this is not a fact. A number of poets of this school have eminently succeeded in uniting heterogeneous ideas. Eliot quotes from Herbert Cowley, Bishop King and other poets in support of his contention. Therefore, he concludes that Metaphysical poetry cannot be differentiated from other poetry by Dr. Johnson’s definition. The fault which the learned doctor points out is not there, and the unity of heterogeneous ideas is common to all poetry.
The Special Virtue of the Metaphysicals
As a matter of fact, it is futile to try to define metaphysical poetry by its faults. Even such a shrewd and sensitive critic as Dr. Johnson failed to do so. Eliot, therefore, purposes to use the opposite method, the positive approach, and point out the characteristic virtue of this school of poetry. He would show that Donne and the other poets of the 17th century, “were the direct and normal development of the precedent age”, and that their characteristic virtue was something valuable which subsequently disappeared. Dr. Johnson has rightly pointed out that these poets were ‘analytic’; they were given too much analysis and direction of particular emotional situations. But he has failed to see that they could also unite into new wholes the concepts they had analysed. Eliot would show that their special virtue was the fusion of heterogeneous material into a new unity after its dissociation. In other words, he would show that metaphysical poetry is distinguished from other poetry by unification of sensibility, and that subsequently, dissociation of sensibility, overtook English poetry, and this was unfortunate.
Unification of Sensibility
The great Elizabethans and early Jacobians had a developed unified sensibility which is expressed in their poetry. By ‘sensibility’ Eliot does not merely mean feeling or the capacity to receive sense impressions. He means much more than that. By ‘sensibility’ he means a synthetic faculty which can amalgamate and unite thought and feeling, which can fuse into a single whole the varied and disparate, often opposite and contradictory experiences. The Elizabethans had such a sensibility. They were widely read, they thought on what they read, and their thinking and learning modified their mode of feeling. Thus in the poetry of Chapman and others there is, “a sensuous apprehension of thought”—a unification of thought and feeling—and a recreation of thought into feeling. Their reading and thinking alters theirs feeling, this modified feeling is expressed in their poetry, and hence their unification or synthesis of thought and feeling. Eliot gives concrete illustrations to show that such unification of sensibility, such fusion of thought and feeling, is to be found in the poetry of Donne as well as in much of modern poetry, but it is lacking in the poetry of Tennyson.
Dissociation of Sensibility
The fact is that after Donne and Herbert a change came over the mind of England. The poets lost the capacity of uniting thought and feeling. The ‘unification of sensibility’ was lost, and ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in. After that the poets can either think or they can feel; there are either intellectual poets who can only think, or there are poets, who can only feel. The poets of the 18th century were intellectuals, they thought but did not feel; the romantics of the 19th century felt but did not think. Tennyson and Browning can merely reflect or ruminate, i.e. mediate poetically on their experience, but cannot express it poetically. Eliot expresses this view in words which have become famous, which are frequently quoted, and which clearly bring out his capacity for ‘trenchant phasing’, his originality and critical insight. He writes: “Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but they do not fell their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking, in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
In other words, the metaphysical poets had a mechanism of sensibility—a unified sensibility—which enabled them to assimilate and fuse into new wholes most disparate and heterogeneous experiences. They could feel their thoughts as intensely as the odour of a rose, that is to say they could express their thoughts through sensuous imagery. In his poems, Donne express his thoughts and ideas by embodying them in sensuous imagery and it is mainly through the imagery that the unification of sensibility finds its appropriate expression. The operation of the unified sensibility in Donne may be illustrated by the following lines from Dante’s Paradise: Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one mass, the scattered leaves of the universe: substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, so that what I speak of is in one simple flame. In the above lines the spiritual experience, which is so very different from the ordinary experience, has been expressed by Dante concretely by a masterly use of the imagery of light. Dante has given expression to his spiritual experience in sensuous terms, in a visual image, the simple flame. This is also frequently the method of Donne.
Milton and Dryden: Their Influence
In this respect, the poets of the 17th century were the successors of the Elizabethan dramatists. Like them, the Metaphysicals, too, could be simple, artificial, difficult or fantastic. Then came Milton and Dryden, and their influence was most unhealthy, because as a result of their influence there set in a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ from which English poetry has recovered only in one modern age. Both Milton and Dryden were great poets and they rendered important service to the cause, of poetry. Under their influence, the English language became more pure and refined. But at the same time, the feeling became more crude. It is for this reason that the feeling expressed in Gray’s Country Churchyard is cruder and less satisfying than the feeling expressed in Marvell’s Coy Mistress.
There was another effect of the influence of Milton and Dryden, an effect which was indirect and which manifested itself at a later date. Early in the 18th century there was a reaction against the intellectual and ratiocinative (given to reasoning and argumentation) poetry of the pseudo-classics. The pendulum swung to the other extreme, and the poets thought and felt by fits and starts. They lacked balance and they reflected. By ‘reflection’ Eliot means that they ‘ruminated’, they ‘mused’, they ‘mediated poetically’, they enjoyed the luxury of dwelling upon some feeling, but could not express that feeling poetically. In some passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life and in Keats’ second Hyperion, we find a struggle toward a unification of sensibility. But Shelley and Keats died young, and their successors, Tennyson and Browning, could only reflect. They mediated upon their experiences poetically, but failed to turn them into poetry. The Metaphysical poets certainly had their faults. But they had one great virtue. They tried, and often succeeded in expressing their states of mind and feeling in appropriate words and imagery. They had ‘unified sensibility’ and they could find verbal equivalents for it. They were, therefore, more mature and better than later poets.
The Modern Age: Its Metaphysical Temper
Eliot then proceeds to examine the close similarity between the age of Donne and the modern age, and the consequent similarity between the sensibility of the Metaphysicals and the modern poets. The Metaphysicals are difficult and the poet in the modern age is also bound to be difficult. As he puts it, “Our Civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate, if necessary, language into his meaning.” Hence the modern poet also uses concepts and methods very much similar to those of the Metaphysicals who also lived in complex and rapidly changing times. Like them the modern poet also transmutes into sensations, and transforms feelings into thought or states of mind.
In other words, Donne and the other Metaphysicals are in the direct current of English poetry, and the modern poets are their direct descendants. This current flows direct from the Elizabethan age right upto the modern age. Only, and unfortunately, this continuity was broken for some time under the influence of Milton and Dryden who are great masters of language, but not of the soul. The poet must look not only into their hearts and write, but also they must look in to “the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and the digestive tracts.’“ The poet has different faculties and sensibilities, must achieve a unification of his sensibilities, and must express this unified sensibility into his poetry. Only such a poetry would be complete; but it would be complex and difficult. The Metaphysicals, as well as the moderns, have this complexity, and also this completeness and maturity.
The Essay: Its Significance
Eliot’s essay on The Metaphysical Poets is one of the most significant critical documents of the modern age. Eliot has thrown new light on the metaphysical poets, and shown that they are neither quaint nor fantastic, but great and mature poets. They do not represent a digression from the mainstream of English poetry, but rather a continuation of it. His theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, has caused much critical re-valuation and rethinking. In the words of Frank Kermode, the poets henceforth began, “to charge their thinking with passion, to restore to poetry a truth independent of the presumptuous intellect.”