Metaphysical Poetry (17th century): History of English Literature

Metaphysical Poetry refers to a specific style of poetry that emerged in the 17th century in England. It is characterized by its intellectual and philosophical exploration of complex subjects, the use of elaborate metaphors and conceits, and a blending of the physical and the spiritual. The term “metaphysical” was coined by Samuel Johnson to describe the poetry of John Donne and his contemporaries. In this essay, we will delve into the characteristics, major poets, and significant works of Metaphysical Poetry.

One of the key characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry is its metaphysical conceits. These conceits are elaborate and extended metaphors that draw surprising and often far-fetched comparisons between seemingly unrelated subjects. They are used to explore profound philosophical and spiritual ideas, often with a sense of wit and intellectualism. The poets of this movement employed conceits to challenge conventional poetic and intellectual conventions.

John Donne is considered the foremost poet of the Metaphysical tradition. His poems are marked by their exploration of love, religion, and the nature of humanity. Donne’s poetry often displays a paradoxical and contradictory nature, expressing the tensions between physical and spiritual desires. His famous poem “The Flea” uses the conceit of a flea to argue for physical intimacy, while “Holy Sonnet 10” (“Death, be not proud”) confronts the theme of mortality with powerful imagery and metaphysical reasoning.

Another prominent figure of Metaphysical Poetry is George Herbert. His collection of poems, “The Temple,” explores religious devotion and the struggle to reconcile worldly desires with spiritual aspirations. Herbert’s poems are known for their intricate wordplay, rich imagery, and deep exploration of faith. “The Collar” and “Love (III)” are among his well-known works.

Andrew Marvell, although associated with the metaphysical tradition, also incorporates political and social commentary into his poetry. His most famous poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” is a passionate plea for the embrace of physical love in the face of the brevity of human life. Marvell’s poetry combines metaphysical elements with wit, irony, and a keen awareness of the political climate of his time.

Other notable Metaphysical poets include Richard Crashaw, Thomas Traherne, and Henry Vaughan. Crashaw’s religious poetry explores themes of divine love and spiritual ecstasy. Traherne’s works, including “Centuries of Meditations,” ponder the nature of innocence and the search for truth. Vaughan’s poems reflect his deep spiritual contemplation, often drawing on natural imagery and exploring the relationship between the physical and the divine.

Metaphysical Poetry had a significant influence on later poets and poetic movements. Its intellectual complexity and inventive use of language paved the way for the development of the conceit and metaphysical exploration in later poetry. The influence of Metaphysical Poetry can be seen in the works of 18th-century poets like Alexander Pope and in the metaphysical elements of the Romantic poets.

In summary, Metaphysical Poetry of the 17th century represents a distinct poetic tradition characterized by its intellectual depth, elaborate metaphors, and exploration of complex themes. The poets of this movement, including John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell, used metaphysical conceits to delve into love, spirituality, and the human condition. Their works continue to be celebrated for their wit, intellectualism, and profound philosophical insights, making Metaphysical Poetry an enduring and influential part of English literary history.

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