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Metaphysical Poets

Imagine poetry filled with scathing wit, rhetorical questions, philosophical arguments, inventive wordplay and exaggerated metaphors that last for an entire poem. Sounds over the top, right? Not for the metaphysical poets, a group that leaves no peculiar comparisons or discussions off limits!

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Metaphysical Poets

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Imagine poetry filled with scathing wit, rhetorical questions, philosophical arguments, inventive wordplay and exaggerated metaphors that last for an entire poem. Sounds over the top, right? Not for the metaphysical poets, a group that leaves no peculiar comparisons or discussions off limits!

Metaphysical poets: meaning

The word 'metaphysical' may sound complex at first, but when it's broken down, it becomes quite simple.

Within poetry, the metaphysical centres around the exploration of abstract ideas and philosophical concepts. 'Meta' means beyond, and 'physics' refers to our physical world, so Metaphysics means beyond our world or outside of the ordinary.

The term ‘Metaphysical poets’ was coined by Samuel Johnson in 1779 to categorise a loose collection of seventeenth-century poets that shared similar characteristics. Metaphysical poets were thus never an official group.

Metaphysical poetry is a style of poetry that flourished in the 17th century in England, characterized by its use of complex metaphors, intellectual or philosophical concepts, and often playful or paradoxical language to explore the human experience. Defining features of the group included wit and wordplay and the exploration of the relationship between physical forms and abstract concepts. Metaphysical poetry often explores themes related to religion, morality and love. Metaphysical poetry is known for its highly intellectual and imaginative nature, and for its use of metaphysical conceit, which employs elaborate and extended metaphors to connect seemingly unrelated things or ideas.

A metaphor is a literary feature that describes an object or idea in a way that isn't to be taken literally or truthfully, but instead for the sake of symbolism or comparison.

For example: If you tell someone you're feeling blue, you're probably symbolising that you're feeling sad, not that you actually feel like the colour blue.

The most important metaphysical poet was John Donne, as his poems - like 'The Flea' (1633), 'A Valediction, Forbidden Mourning' (1633) and 'The Sun Rising' (1633) are defining of the metaphysical genre. The other significant metaphysical poets who share similar characteristics are Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert.

Samuel Johnson, who was the first to create the label of ‘metaphysical poets’, was an English playwright, essayist, writer, poet, and critic who is famous for creating the most influential version of the English dictionary in the eighteenth century.

Metaphysical Poets, Samuel Johnson, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Samuel Johnson is an English writer and critic who was very influential in eighteenth-century literary circles.

Did you know? He actually coined the term 'metaphysical poets' as an insult, believing that the ingenious wit, wordplay, and metaphors were forced, and designed only to show the intelligence of the poet. Basically, he believed they were too smart for their own good!

Characteristics of metaphysical poetry

The main key characteristics of metaphysical poetry are intellect, the use of conceit, spirituality, and abstract ideas versus the physical world.

Intellect and wit

One of the defining features of metaphysical poetry is the use of wit, complex philosophy, and paradoxes.

A paradox is a statement that seems to lack common sense and contradict itself, but when thought about carefully, could actually be true.

For example, In 'Holy Sonnet 11' (1633), Donne says 'Death, thou shalt die'. This sounds implausible. How can death die? When you think about it though, when someone dies the thoughts and fears they had about death die with them. For Donne, all that will be left is heaven, so perhaps this statement has some truth to it.

Let’s look at a famous example in Donne’s 'The Sun Rising' (1633). Firstly, at the beginning of the poem, Donne is frustrated at the sun for interrupting his lover and he.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,Why dost thou thus,Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

- John Donne, The Sun Rising, Line 1-3

Donne quickly turns his frustration around, intelligently reframing the situation by suggesting that as it is the sun’s job is to keep the world warm, it should shine on Donne and his lover because they are the whole world, and their bedroom the globe.

Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties beTo warm the world, that's done in warming us.Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

- John Donne, The Sun Rising, Line 27-30

By using intellect to effortlessly change his argument, Donne shows the complex wit and contradictions that metaphysical poets are famed for.

Conceit

The metaphysical poets made the conceit popular, using it so regularly that the technique was harshly criticised as drawn-out and unnecessary.

A conceit is an extended metaphor that commonly lasts for the entirety of a poem. They are often complex, far-fetched, and unconventional.

In ''A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning' (1633), John Donne compares two lovers to a drafting compass – Donne’s lover being the point of the compass, and he the tip of the pencil – implying that his lover is the stable centre, and no matter how far he roams, she will lean close and draw him back to where he belongs.

If they be two, they are two soAs stiff twin compasses are two,Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no showTo move, but doth, if the 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.

- John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning, Line 25-32

The conceit in this poem, as in many metaphysical poems, is far-fetched, unusual, and only makes sense after lengthy justification. Despite the criticism it received as being drawn-out, the conceit serves the purpose of being unconventional and jarring to the reader, forcing them to consider the complex philosophical questions the poem deals with.

Abstract ideas vs the physical world

A key characteristic of metaphysical poetry is the idea that the physical, spiritual, and emotional world are interconnected. Metaphysical poets will often draw unusual comparisons between physical ideas and abstract concepts.

Take a look at Andrew Marvell’s 'The Definition of Love' (1681). Marvell states that the lovers can never truly meet because they resemble parallel lines – side by side, perfect for each other, but unable to converge.

As lines, so loves oblique may wellThemselves in every angle greet;But ours so truly parallel,Though infinite, can never meet.

- Andrew Marvell, The Definition of Love, Line 25-28

In a similar way to Donne’s compass metaphor in ''A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning', Marvell represents an abstract concept (love) by linking it to a concrete idea (parallel lines), making possible the discussion of a complex philosophical concept by linking it to something physical.

Important metaphysical poets

Some of the most significant metaphysical poets outlined by Samuel Johnson includes John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan.

John Donne

Donne was born in England in 1572 to Roman Catholic parents. He is the defining metaphysical poet and is known for his intellectual, philosophical wit and his depiction of the paradoxes of love and religious faith. His work commonly includes conceits that force seemingly incompatible concepts together.

In John Donne’s 'The Flea' (1633), Donne links a flea biting both he and the woman he loves to mean that their blood has mingled and argues that they should therefore have intercourse as it would be no different.

Andrew Marvell

Born in Yorkshire in 1621, Marvell studied at Cambridge before becoming a tutor and eventually an influential politician. His poems did not receive much recognition in his lifetime, and it was not until 1681, three years after his death, that his collection of Miscellaneous Poems was published. Some of his most famous works, 'To His Coy Mistress' (1681) , 'The Definition of Love' (1681), and 'The Mower' (1681) include the wit, intricate comparisons and philosophical discussions associated with metaphysical poetry, leading to him being grouped with the likes of Donne, Vaughan and Herbert.

George Herbert

Born in Wales in 1593, George Herbert was a poet and clergyman in the Church of England. He based most of his poetry on religion, under the belief that the love of God is a better theme for poetry than the love of a woman.

He is famed for his immaculate word choice, and for intensely spiritually reflective poetry, dealing with abstract topics like loss of faith in 'The Collar' (1633) and resurrection in 'Easter Wings' (1633). These poems featured in his most famous collection, 'The Temple' (1633), which has inspired many poets and writers from Henry Vaughan to T.S Elliot.

Metaphysical poets, George Herbert, StudySmarterFig. 2 - George Herbert is a Welsh poet and clergyman.

Henry Vaughan

Vaughan was born in Wales in 1621, and trained to be a lawyer after a brief stint at Oxford University. After being inspired by the work of George Herbert, Vaughan returned to spirituality and religion, and produced his most famous works of religious poetry, which featured in 'Silex Scintillians' (1650). Like many metaphysical poets, Vaughan's work includes clever use of metaphor and alliteration to create complex, elaborate imagery.

Alliteration occurs when two or more words next to, or close to each other, share the same starting letter. The technique is often used for emphasis, rhythm or to create a certain mood!

For example: StudySmarter shows me super strategies to succeed in my studies!


Think of imagery as the picture created in your mind when a writer uses certain techniques. They could use the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), metaphors, figures of speech, and many other creative techniques to make you picture or imagine something a certain way.

Metaphysical poem: examples

Some examples of metaphysical poems include:

Metaphysical poetsMetaphysical poems
John Donne'The Flea', 'The Sun Rising', 'Valediction: Forbidden Mourning'
Andrew Marvell'To His Coy Mistress', 'The Definition of Love',
George Herbert'The Collar', 'The Temple', 'The Pulley'
Henry Vaughan'Silex Scintillians'

The most iconic example of a metaphysical poem is John Donne's 'The Flea' (1633). The speaker in 'The Flea'' is attempting to convince his mistress to have sex with him. He uses a conceit (extended metaphor) in an extremely unusual way. He argues that having been bitten by the same flea, their blood is now mixed, and so having sex is not an extra step, and will not dishonour her.

The metaphor is undeniably far-flung and exaggerated. However, because the speaker argues his point so well, using religious language about unity and the holy trinity, 'The Flea' acts as a work of immense intellect and wit rather than a mere attempt to seduce a woman.

Donne also links the abstract concept of consummation to a concrete form (a flea), making it possible to discuss complex ideas like religion and honour. Combined with intelligent wit and the use of a conceit, 'The Flea' defines the characteristics that are commonly attributed to metaphysical poets. In this way, it is the perfect example of the genre.

Metaphysical poets - key takeaways

  • The term metaphysical poets was coined by Samuel Johnson in 1779 to loosely categorise a group of seventeenth-century poets.
  • Characteristics of metaphysical poetry include: wit and wordplay, use of conceits and linking abstract concepts to physical forms
  • The most important metaphysical poet is John Donne, whose masterpiece 'The Flea' is considered the quintessential metaphysical poem.
  • Other major metaphysical poets include Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert.
  • The most important metaphysical poems include 'The Flea', 'The Sun Rising', 'Valediction: Forbidden Mourning', 'To His Coy Mistress', 'The Definition of Love', 'Silex Scintillians', and 'The Temple'.

Frequently Asked Questions about Metaphysical Poets

The metaphysical poets are a loose collective of seventeenth century poets, the most important of which are John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert.

The father of metaphysical poetry is John Donne, whose poems The Flea and The Sun Rising helped to define the characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre.

The main characteristics of metaphysical poetry are wit, wordplay, and conceits employed to compare abstract concepts and physical forms.

The most important metaphysical poet is John Donne.

The main topics discussed in metaphysical poetry are morality, love and religion.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who is considered the 'father' of metaphysical poetry?

Which of these is not a common characteristic of metaphysical poetry?

Who coined the term 'metaphysical poets'?

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