John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets

The phrase ‘metaphysical poets’ was first used by Samuel Johnson in The Lives of Poets (1799) who applied it to the work of poets writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century whose “manner resembled that of Donne”. Most of the metaphysical poetry was written in the latter part of the sixteenth century to mid-seventeenth century, prominently between 1595 and 1660.The metaphysical school included George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley among others.

Ostensibly, the word ‘metaphysical’ is a combination of ‘meta’ (after) and ‘physical’ (material) which means beyond or after the physical. Metaphysics is seen as opposite to the physical/material nature of the world and deals with philosophical ideas related to religion, death, nature of the soul, universe and man’s place in it. Critic R.G Cox suggests that the term ‘metaphysical’ was used to identify poetry with “fundamental problems and opposition of a metaphysical nature” that was “express(ed) by a special kind of paradoxical metaphors” (Cox, 110). Much of the metaphysical poetry is religious and frequently other concerns related to soul, eternity and time do appear.

A salient and distinguishing feature of metaphysical poetry is its use of conceits. Conceits are witty and intellectualized metaphors that draw a deliberate parallel between two dissimilar objects/ideas. The two objects may be vastly different and not alike at all, but the ingenuity lies in bringing two disparate ideas and images together to draw an unlikely parallel between the two.

Samuel Johnson identified Donne’s poetry as “metaphysical” for his rich use of conceits. Donne’s poems use weird analogies, wit and wordplay to fuse logic and emotions through abstract ratiocination and intellectual conceits. If in A Valediction, Donne presents lovers as “twin-feet compass”, in The Flea he uses conceit of a flea to convince his beloved for lovemaking.

Over the years, critics have differentiated conceits from ordinary poetic metaphors. While metaphors imply straightforward comparison, a conceit likens two dissimilar objects. Skilful use of a conceit establishes a relationship between two different ideas to convey the poet’s vision by cleverly linking the ordinary and familiar with the abstract and imaginary. The strength of a poem lies in its creative use of metaphysical wit (clever reasoning) that yokes unrelated ideas incapable of any link or association.

According to Grierson and Smith, “if Donne’s conceits are extravagant, his vocabulary is simple” to reveal his cogent logic and his creative cleverness. There are frequent references to religion, medieval cosmology, alchemy, chemistry and imperialism that will illustrate the concerns of his age. Discourses on monarchy, law and science are alluded to and often figure in the form of analogies and conceits.

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