On the Metaphysical Poets by Samuel Johnson

Cowley, like other poets who have written with narrow views, and, instead of tracing intellectual pleasure to its natural sources in the mind of man, paid their court to temporary prejudices, has been at one time too much praised, and too much neglected at another.

Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms. About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets; of whom, in a criticism on the works of Cowley, it is not improper to give some account.

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.

If the father of criticism has rightly denominated poetry, an imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets; for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.

Those, however, who deny them to be poets, allow them to be wits.
Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries that they fall below
Donne in wit, but maintains that they surpass him in poetry.

If wit be well described by Pope, as being “that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”, they certainly never attained, nor ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Pope’s account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous: he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.

If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.

But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. As they were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising, they had no regard to that uniformity of sentiment which enables us to conceive and to excite the pains and the pleasure of other minds: they never inquired what, on any occasion, they should have said or done; but wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature; as Beings looking upon good and evil, impassive and at leisure; as Epicurean deities making remarks on the actions of men and the vicissitudes of life without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness, and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before.

Nor was the sublime more within their reach than the pathetic; for they never attempted that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration. Sublimity is produced by aggregation, and littleness by dispersion. Great thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness. It is with great propriety that subtlety, which in its original import means exility of particles, is taken in its metaphorical meaning for nicety of distinction. Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation. Their attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments: and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature or the scenes of life, than he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon. What they wanted, however, of the sublime, they endeavoured to supply by hyperbole; their amplification had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy behind them; and produced combinations of confused magnificence that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.

Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost: if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth: if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme and volubility of syllables.

In perusing the works of this race of authors, the mind is exercised either by recollection or inquiry; either something already learned is to be retrieved, or something new is to be examined. If their greatness seldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; if the imagination is not always gratified, at least the powers of reflection and comparison are employed; and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found, buried perhaps in grossness of expression, but useful to those who know their value; and such as, when they are expanded to perspicuity and polished to elegance, may give lustre to works which have more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment.

This kind of writing, which was, I believe, borrowed from Marino [Footnote: As Marino’s chief poem, L’Adone, was not published till 1623, and as most of Donne’s poems must have been written earlier, this is very unlikely. Besides, the resemblance is more apparent than real. Metaphysical poetry was a native product. See Introduction.] and his followers, had been recommended by the example of Donne, a man of very extensive and various knowledge; and by Jonson, whose manner resembled that of Donne more in the ruggedness of his lines than in the cast of his sentiments.

When their reputation was high, they had undoubtedly more imitators than time has left behind. Their immediate successors, of whom any remembrance can be said to remain, were Suckling, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Cleveland, and Milton. Denham and Waller sought another way to fame, by improving the harmony of our numbers. Milton tried the metaphysic style only in his lines upon Hobson the Carrier. Cowley adopted it, and excelled his predecessors, having as much sentiment and more music. Suckling neither improved versification, nor abounded in conceits. The fashionable style remained chiefly with Cowley; Suckling could not reach it, and Milton disdained it.

Critical remarks are not easily understood without examples, and I have therefore collected instances of the modes of writing by which this species of poets, for poets they were called by themselves and their admirers, was eminently distinguished.

As the authors of this race were perhaps more desirous of being admired than understood, they sometimes drew their conceits from recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry. Thus Cowley on Knowledge:

The sacred tree midst the fair orchard grew;
The phoenix Truth did on it rest.
And built his perfum’d nest,
That right Porphyrian tree which did true logick shew.
Each leaf did learned notions give,
And th’ apples were demonstrative:
So clear their colour and divine,
The very shade they cast did other lights outshine.

On Anacreon continuing a lover in his old age:

Love was with thy life entwin’d,
Close as heat with fire is join’d,
A powerful brand prescrib’d the date
Of thine, like Meleager’s fate.
The antiperistasis of age
More enflam’d thy amorous rage.

In the following verses we have an allusion to a Rabbinical opinion concerning Manna:

Variety I ask not: give me one
To live perpetually upon.
The person Love does to us fit,
Like manna, has the taste of all in it.

Thus Donne shows his medicinal knowledge in some encomiastic verses:

In everything there naturally grows
A Balsamum to keep it fresh and new,
If’t were not injur’d by extrinsique blows;
Your youth and beauty are this balm in you.
But you, of learning and religion,
And virtue and such ingredients, have made
A mithridate, whose operation
Keeps off, or cures what can be done or said.

Though the following lines of Donne, on the last night of the year, have something in them too scholastic, they are not inelegant:

This twilight of two years, not past nor next,
Some emblem is of me, or I of this,
Who, meteor-like, of stuff and form perplext,
Whose what and where, in disputation is,
If I should call me any thing, should miss.

I sum the years and me, and find me not
Debtor to th’ old, nor creditor to th’ new,
That cannot say, my thanks I have forgot,
Nor trust I this with hopes: and yet scarce true
This bravery is, since these times shew’d me you.
Donne.

Yet more abstruse and profound is Donne’s reflection upon Man as a
Microcosm:

If men be worlds, there is in every one
Something to answer in some proportion
All the world’s riches: and in good men, this
Virtue, our form’s form, and our soul’s soul is.

Of thoughts so far-fetched as to be not only unexpected but unnatural, all their books are full.

To a Lady, Who Wrote Poesies for Rings

They, who above do various circles find,
Say, like a ring th’ aquator heaven does bind.
When heaven shall be adorn’d by thee,
(Which then more heaven than ‘t is, will be)
‘T is thou must write the poesy there,
For it wanteth one as yet,
Though the sun pass through ‘t twice a year,
The sun, which is esteem’d the god of wit.
Cowley.

The difficulties which have been raised about identity in philosophy are by Cowley, with still more perplexity, applied to Love:

Five years ago (says story) I lov’d you,
For which you call me most inconstant now;
Pardon me, madam, you mistake the man;
For I am not the same that I was then;
No flesh is now the same’t was then in me,

And that my mind is chang’d yourself may see.
The same thoughts to retain still, and intents,
Were more inconstant far; for accidents
Must of all things most strangely inconstant prove,
If from one subject they t’ another move:
My members then, the father members were
From whence these take their birth, which now are here.
If then this body love what th’ other did,
‘T were incest, which by nature is forbid.

The love of different women is, in geographical poetry, compared to travels, through different countries:

Hast thou not found each woman’s breast
(The land where thou hast travelled)
Either by savages possest,
Or wild, and uninhabited?
What joy could’st take, or what repose,
In countries so unciviliz’d as those?
Lust, the scorching dog-star, here
Rages with immoderate heat;
Whilst Pride, the rugged Northern Bear,
In others makes the cold too great.
And when these are temperate known,
The soil’s all barren sand, or rocky stone.
Cowley.

A lover, burnt up by his affections, is compared to Egypt:

The fate of Egypt I sustain,
And never feel the dew of rain.
From clouds which in the head appear;
But all my too much moisture owe
To overflowings of the heart below.
Cowley.

The lover supposes his lady acquainted with the ancient laws of augury and rites of sacrifice:

And yet this death of mine, I fear,
Will ominous to her appear:
When found in every other part,
Her sacrifice is found without an heart.
For the last tempest of my death
Shall sigh out that too, with my breath.

That the chaos was harmonized, has been recited of old; but whence the different sounds arose remained for a modern to discover:

Th’ ungovern’d parts no correspondence knew,
And artless war from thwarting motions grew;
Till they to number and fixt rules were brought.
Water and air he for the Tenor chose.
Earth made the Base, the Treble flame arose.
Cowley.

The tears of lovers are always of great poetical account, but Donne has extended them into worlds. If the lines are not easily understood, they may be read again:

On a round ball
A workman, that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afric, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, all.
So doth each tear,
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mixt with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee my heaven dissolved so.

On reading the following lines, the reader may perhaps cry out,
“Confusion worse confounded”:

Here lies a she sun, and a he moon here,
She gives the best light to his sphere,
Or each is both, and all, and so
They unto one another nothing owe.
Donne.

Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?

Though God be our true glass, through which we see
All, since the being of all things is He,
Yet are the trunks, which do to us derive
Things, in proportion fit, by perspective
Deeds of good men; for by their living here,
Virtues, indeed remote, seem to be near.

Who would imagine it possible that in a very few lines so many remote ideas could be brought together?

Since’t is my doom, Love’s undershrieve,
Why this reprieve?
Why doth my She Advowson fly
Incumbency?
To sell thyself dost thou intend
By candle’s end,
And hold the contrast thus in doubt,
Life’s taper out?
Think but how soon the market fails,
Your sex lives faster than the males;
As if to measure age’s span,
The sober Julian were th’ account of man,
Whilst you live by the fleet Gregorian.
Cleveland.

Of enormous and disgusting hyperboles, these may be examples:

By every wind, that comes this way,
Send me at least a sigh or two,
Such and so many I’ll repay
As shall themselves make winds to get to you.
Cowley.

    In tears I’ll waste these eyes,
    By Love so vainly fed;
  So lust of old the Deluge punished.
                    —Cowley.

All arm’d in brass the richest dress of war,
(A dismal glorious sight) he shone afar.
The sun himself started with sudden fright,
To see his beams return so dismal bright.
Cowley.

An universal consternation:

His bloody eyes he hurls round, his sharp paws
Tear up the ground; then runs he wild about,
Lashing his angry tail and roaring out.

Beasts creep into their dens, and tremble there;
Trees, though no wind is stirring, shake with fear;
Silence and horror fill the place around:
Echo itself dares scarce repeat the sound.
Cowley.

Their fictions were often violent and unnatural.

Of His Mistress Bathing

The fish around her crowded, as they do
To the false light that treacherous fishers shew,
And all with as much ease might taken be,
As she at first took me:
For ne’er did light so clear
Among the waves appear,
Though every night the sun himself set there.
Cowley.

The poetical effect of a lover’s name upon glass:

My name engrav’d herein
Doth contribute my firmness to this glass;
Which, ever since that charm, hath been
As hard as that which grav’d it was.
Donne.

Their conceits were sometimes slight and trifling.

On an Inconstant Woman

He enjoys thy calmy sunshine now,
And no breath stirring hears,
In the clear heaven of thy brow,
No smallest cloud appears.
He sees thee gentle, fair and gay,
And trusts the faithless April of thy May.
Cowley.

Upon a paper written with the juice of lemon, and read by the fire:

Nothing yet in thee is seen:
But when a genial heat warms thee within,
A new-born wood of various lines there grows;
Here buds an L, and there a B,
Here sprouts a V, and there a T,
And all the flourishing letters stand in rows.
Cowley

As they sought only for novelty, they did not much inquire whether their allusions were to things high or low, elegant or gross; whether they compared the little to the great, or the great to the little.

Physick and Chirurgery for a Lover

Gently, ah gently, madam, touch
The wound, which you yourself have made;
That pain must needs be very much,
Which makes me of your hand afraid.
Cordials of pity give me now,
For I too weak for purgings grow.
Cowley.

The World and a Clock

Mahol, th’ inferior world’s fantastic face,
Through all the turns of matter’s maze did trace;
Great Nature’s well-set clock in pieces took;
On all the springs and smallest wheels did look
Of life and motion; and with equal art
Made up again the whole of every part.
Cowley.

A coal-pit has not often found its poet; but, that it may not want its due honour, Cleveland has paralleled it with the sun:

The moderate value of our guiltless ore
Makes no man atheist, and no woman whore;
Yet why should hallow’d vestals’ sacred shrine
Deserve more honour than a flaming mine?
These pregnant wombs of heat would fitter be
Than a few embers, for a deity.

    Had he our pits, the Persian would admire
  No sun, but warm’s devotion at our fire:
  He’d leave the trotting whipster, and prefer
  Our profound Vulcan ‘bove that waggoner.
  For wants he heat or light? or would have store
  Of both? ’tis here: and what can suns give more?
  Nay, what’s the sun but, in a different name,
  A coal-pit rampant, or a mine on flame!
  Then let this truth reciprocally run
  The sun’s heaven’s coalery, and coals our sun.

Death, a Voyage

No family
E’er rigg’d a soul for heaven’s discovery,
With whom more venturers might boldly dare
Venture their stakes, with him in joy to share.
Donne.

Their thoughts and expressions were sometimes grossly absurd, and such as no figures or licence can reconcile to the understanding.

A Lover Neither Dead Nor Alive

Then down I laid my head,
Down on cold earth; and for a while was dead,
And my freed soul to a strange somewhere fled:
Ah, sottish soul, said I,
When back to its cage again I saw it fly:
Fool to resume her broken chain!
And row her galley here again!
Fool, to that body to return
Where it condemn’d and destin’d is to burn!
Once dead, how can it be,
Death should a thing so pleasant seem to thee,
That thou should’st come to live it o’er again in me?
Cowley.

A Lover’s Heart a Hand Grenado

Wo to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room,
‘T will tear and blow up all within,
Like a grenado shot into a magazin.

Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts,
Of both our broken hearts:
Shall out of both one new one make;
From hers th’ allay; from mine, the metal take.
Cowley.

The Poetical Propagation of Light

The Prince’s favour is diffus’d o’er all,
From which all fortunes, names, and natures fall;
Then from those wombs of stars, the Bride’s bright eyes,
At every glance a constellation flies,
And sows the court with stars, and doth prevent
In light and power, the all-ey’d firmament:
First her eye kindles other ladies’ eyes,
Then from their beams their jewels’ lustres rise;
And from their jewels torches do take fire,
And all is warmth, and light, and good desire.
Donne.

They were in very little care to clothe their notions with elegance of dress, and therefore miss the notice and the praise which are often gained by those who think less, but are more diligent to adorn their thoughts.

That a mistress beloved is fairer in idea than in reality is by Cowley thus expressed:

Thou in my fancy dost much higher stand,
Than woman can be plac’d by Nature’s hand;
And I must needs, I’m sure, a loser be,
To change thee, as thou ‘rt there, for very thee.

That prayer and labour should co-operate are thus taught by Donne:

In none but us, are such mixt engines found,
As hands of double office: for the ground
We till with them; and them to heaven we raise;
Who prayerless labours, or without this, prays,
Doth but one half, that’s none.

By the same author, a common topic, the danger of procrastination, is thus illustrated:

—That which I should have begun In my youth’s morning, now late must be done; And I, as giddy travellers must do, Which stray or sleep all day, and having lost Light and strength, dark and tir’d must then ride post.

All that Man has to do is to live and die; the sum of humanity is comprehended by Donne in the following lines:

Think in how poor a prison thou didst lie;
After, enabled but to suck and cry.
Think, when’t was grown to most, ‘t was a poor inn,
A province pack’d up in two yards of skin,
And that usurp’d, or threaten’d with a rage
Of sicknesses, or their true mother, age.
But think that death hath now enfranchis’d thee;
Thou hast thy expansion now, and liberty;
Think, that a rusty piece discharg’d is flown
In pieces, and the bullet is his own,
And freely flies; this to thy soul allow,
Think thy shell broke, think thy soul hatched but now.

They were sometimes indelicate and disgusting. Cowley thus apostrophizes beauty:

—Thou tyrant, which leav’st no man free! Thou subtle thief, from whom nought safe can be! Thou murderer, which hast kill’d, and devil, which would’st damn me.

Thus he addresses his mistress:

Thou who, in many a propriety,
So truly art the sun to me.
Add one more likeness, which I’m sure you can,
And let me and my sun beget a man.

Thus he represents the meditations of a lover:

Though in thy thoughts scarce any tracts have been
So much as of original sin,
Such charms thy beauty wears as might
Desires in dying confest saints excite.
Thou with strange adultery
Dost in each breast a brothel keep;
Awake, all men do lust for thee,
And some enjoy thee when they sleep.

The true taste of tears:

Hither with crystal vials, lovers, come,
And take my tears, which are Love’s wine,
And try your mistress’ tears at home;
For all are false, that taste not just like mine.
Donne.

This is yet more indelicate:

As the sweet sweat of roses in a still
As that which from chaf’d musk-cat’s pores doth trill,
As th’ almighty balm of th’ early East,
Such are the sweet drops of my mistress’ breast.
And on her neck her skin such lustre sets,
They seem no sweat-drops, but pearl coronets:
Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles.
Donne.

Their expressions sometimes raise horror, when they intend perhaps to be pathetic:

As men in hell are from diseases free,
So from all other ills am I.
Free from their known formality:
But all pains eminently lie in thee.
Cowley.

They were not always strictly curious, whether the opinions from which they drew their illustrations were true; it was enough that they were popular. Bacon remarks that some falsehoods are continued by tradition, because they supply commodious allusions.

It gave a piteous groan, and so it broke;
In vain it something would have spoke:
The love within too strong for’t was,
Like poison put into a Venice-glass.
Cowley.

In forming descriptions, they looked out, not for images, but for conceits. Night has been a common subject, which poets have contended to adorn. Dryden’s Night is well known; Donne’s is as follows:

Thou seest me here at midnight, now all rest:
Time’s dead low-water; when all minds divest
To-morrow’s business, when the labourers have
Such rest in bed, that their last church-yard grave,
Subject to change, will scarce be a type of this;
Now when the client, whose last hearing is
To-morrow, sleeps; when the condemned man,
Who when he opens his eyes, must shut them then
Again by death, although sad watch he keep,
Doth practise dying by a little sleep,
Thou at this midnight seest me.

It must be, however, confessed of these writers that if they are upon common subjects often unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle, yet where scholastic speculation can be properly admitted, their copiousness and acuteness may justly be admired. What Cowley has written upon Hope shows an unequalled fertility of invention:

Hope, whose weak being ruin’d is,
Alike if it succeed, and if it miss;
Whom good or ill does equally confound,
And both the horns of Fate’s dilemma wound.
Vain shadow, which dost vanish quite,
Both at full noon and perfect night!
The stars have not a possibility
Of blessing thee;
If things then from their end we happy call,
‘T is hope is the most hopeless thing of all.
Hope, thou bold taster of delight,
Who, whilst thou shouldst but taste, devour’st it quite!
Thou bring’st us an estate, yet leav’st us poor,
By clogging it with legacies before!
The joys, which we entire should wed,
Come deflower’d virgins to our bed;
Good fortune without gain imported be,
Such mighty customs paid to thee:
For joy, like wine, kept close does better taste;
If it take air before, its spirits waste.

To the following comparison of a man that travels and his wife that stays at home, with a pair of compasses, it may be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has the better claim:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin-compasses are two,
Thy soul, the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run.
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
—Donne.

In all these examples it is apparent that whatever is improper or vicious is produced by a voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange, and that the writers fail to give delight by their desire of exciting admiration.


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