Metaphysical Poets Re/De-Canonized

 Farzaneh Doosti


Metaphysical poetry, in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the rôle assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.





The term “Metaphysical Poets” as ascribed to a certain group of 17th century poets – such as Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Cleveland, Crashaw, Traherne, Vaughan and Cowley – has a derogatory etymology. The initial signification of the term was actually the opposite of its modern connotation as related to ‘spirits’ and spiritual matters. Those who first imposed the term on such poets – whose poetic interests are nevertheless quite discordant in their scope of subject matters and interests – were critics of the Augustan Age who accused them of being harsh, unnatural, bizarre, and in a word, against the poetic norms of the era. Metaphysical poets had to wait frustrated in their graves for thirty scores till the 20th century revival of interest in them; their poetry then was called not only precious, but the only true poems, rich with association of sensibility.

In the profile of “Metaphysical Poetry” there are two figures that stand out as giving revolutionary depth and signification to the term: Samuel Johnson, and T.S. Eliot. This paper, therefore, tends to make a survey on the application of the term from its first coinage by the Augustans to the 20th century critics who gave new meaning to them. The main focus will obviously be on two main articles: Johnson’s “Life of Cowley”, and Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”. Finally it will have a glance at what happened to the somehow put-out fire of enthusiasm in Metaphysical poetry after Eliot and later, the wave of Deconstructionism.


Antagonist Augustans


The term metaphysical meaning ‘after physics’, ‘beyond physics’, or more clearly ‘after (Aristotle’s work on) physics’ is first mentioned in John Dryden’s Discourse of Satire (1693) that John Donne ‘affects the Metaphysics … in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign’, meaning that Donne employs the terminology and abstruse arguments of the medieval Scholastic philosophers and in fact spoils poetry by harsh philosophic expressions. Dryden disapproved of Donne’s stylistic excesses, particularly his extravagant conceits (or witty comparisons) and his tendency towards hyperbolic abstractions. There could be found, of course, traces of the usage of the term even before Dryden. One of the first to use the term was William Drummond of Hawthornden in a letter written to Arthur Johnston in 1630; this shows how much Dryden’s view of the poet was into the literary circles of the period.

Though metaphysical poets have always had admirers in different periods and eras – and that is why they surpassed history’s oblivion, the critics of the Augustan Age who were fond of Neoclassic ideals of decorum, clarity, restraint and admired shapeliness of the poets of Augustan Rome were therefore antagonistic towards poets of the mid-17th century who went beyond those restraints to the forbidden realms of far-fetched conceits and juxtaposition of the most dissimilar.

Samuel Johnson, one of the most outstanding critics and as the most pragmatic as well as practical critic of the era, established the term more or less permanently as a label for metaphysical poets in his Lives of the English Poets (of Cowley). Johnson’s view of the poetry is quite in line with Dryden’s; they both condemn Donne for his “perplex[ing] the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love”.


Johnson’s “Life of Cowley”


Johnson’s description of [metaphysical wit] begins with introducing Metaphysical poets; he accuses them of being a bunch of showing off versifiers rather than true poets whose verses are mere celebration of their extreme knowledge of the world and scientific studies. In fact, Johnson and his contemporaries did not use the term “metaphysical” equal to “spiritual” or in opposition to “physical”; it rather connotes the philosophical and scientific aspect of the poetry rich with strange conceits such as compasses, ether, etc. only at hand for a scholar, not a poet. Johnson condemns these poets of being too much concerned with rhyme. Poetry, he believes, is what engages men’s hearts and opens up their eyes to the “softness of love” as in the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton.

Johnson then attacks the poetry from two different angles: mimetic and pragmatic. The Metaphysicals’ first failure, according to Johnson, could be found out through Aristotle’s criteria for true poetry – as imitative art: Metaphysical poetry is far from truth by copying neither “nature” nor “life”. He then approaches the poetry from another angle and that is its failure to affect the reader the way true poetry does. In other words, Johnson attempts to prove that Metaphysical poetry, though admirable, is not able to please the reader as a harmonious, unified, and beautiful piece of poetry, soothing the minds of the readers. In order to prove so, he questions the central anchor of Metaphysical poetry, namely “wit”:

He first confirms that the true value of their poetry only lies in the merit and extent of their wit. Even Dryden admitted that he and his contemporaries “fall below Donne in wit, but surpass in poetry”. But in order to attack this anchor, he wittily provides two different definitions of ‘wit’. According to Pope, wit is what “has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”. Based on this definition, Metaphysical poets have failed to such wit, since they “just tried to get singular thought, and were careless of diction”, and language. Here Johnson wittily and boldly questions even Pope’s definition, and provides a new concept of ‘wit’, as being “at once natural and new”. Thus Metaphysical thoughts “are often new, but seldom natural”. In fact the unnaturalness of their poetry is what makes them unpleasing to the mind of the reader.

Having put the two previous definitions of ‘wit’ aside as not working in the case of metaphysical poets, Johnson then takes a step further to define their wit as an example of discordia concors; “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike”. He decries their roughness and violation of decorum, the deliberate mixture of different styles, this kind of wit they have “more than enough”.

Johnson may seem to condemn the pragmatic failure of metaphysical poetry as “not successful in representing or moving the affections”, but is actually leaving the ground for the values of their poetry but providing subjective definitions for pragmatic and mimetic values of true poetry:

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. 

Johnson here knowingly emphasizes the significance of the reader in producing the final poem, and if by any chance Metaphysical conceits fail to prove “natural”, “just” or “obvious”, they may turn to be so in another time and place, as it really happened in the 20th century and the strange conceits and fragmentation of images seemed so natural to the shattered subjects (readers) of the post-war time. As Goethe remarks, “the unnatural, that too is natural,” and the metaphysical poets continue to be studied and revered for their intricacy and originality because of the very naturalness of images found in their once supposed far-fetched conceits. Such evaluations totally depend on the context, the understanding of the reader, and the time it is being read.

Johnson’s other criteria for wit was being “new” to the reader, but how could a conceit prove new if over-used? In fact, if a conceit or thought become a dead metaphor, it will lose all its magic and wit; and this factor is also dependant on the time and era in which it is read.

His ending, however, is that of a fair judgment and sometimes admiration rather than condemnation: “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”. Apart from finding a kind of ‘truth’ in their poetry, he also confirms a number of valuable features in their poetry such as “acuteness”, “powers of reflection and comparison”, “genuine wit”, “useful knowledge”, and finally “more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment”.

Johnson’s view of Metaphysical poets, though not totally confirming, proved to be fair and influenced by his own era’s literary canon – which valued imitativeness and unity over fragmentation and metaphysical expressions. We should keep in mind that metaphysical poetry was a reaction against the deliberately smooth and sweet tones of much 16th-century verse, a courageous act even against the literary canon of their own time. And that is why the metaphysical poets adopted a style that seems so energetic, uneven, and rigorous and much appealing to the fed up 20th century reader.


20th Century Revival of Interest


The Metaphysicals were out of critical favor for the 18th and 19th centuries. Obviously, the Romantic poets who dealt so much with the ideals of ‘nature’, ‘simplicity’, and ‘originality’ and so attempted to achieve the language of ‘man speaking to men’ in their poetry, found little in this heavily intellectualized poetry, that according to Johnson makes “the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonder more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found’. At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, interest in this group picked up, and especially important was T.S. Eliot’s famous essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). Eliot himself was quite impressed by Sir Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th Century (1921). It is in fact Grierson who discovers the treasure hidden in their poetry, and having compared them with all other masterpieces of literature, he concludes that metaphysical poetry

lays stress on the right things—the survival, one might say the reaccentuation, of the metaphysical strain, … in contrast to the simpler imagery of classical poetry, of mediaeval Italian poetry; the more intellectual, less verbal, character of their wit compared with the conceits of the Elizabethans; the finer psychology of which their conceits are often the expression; their learned imagery; the argumentative, subtle evolution of their lyrics; above all the peculiar blend of passion and thought[1], feeling and ratiocination which is their greatest achievement…All these qualities are in the poetry of Donne, and Donne is the great master of English poetry in the seventeenth century.

Grierson also uses the term Metaphysical to refer to the Scholastic and philosophic aspects of the terminology. Nevertheless, this feature finds quite positive connotations in his usage, as giving depth and richness to the language and strength of thought. T.S. Eliot, quite under the influence of Grierson, gave value to this kind of poetry as celebrating association of sensibility, that was actually a restatement of that old Johnsonian discordia concors but with a different positive connotation as poetic ideal, and that made all the difference.


T. S. Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”


Quite impressed by Grierson’s new interest and insight into Metaphysical poems of 17th century, and especially Donne’s, Eliot picks up the material in a few of his articles, and specifically in “Metaphysical Poets” and examines it from a new angle. He calls the virgin realm of Metaphysical poetry “the work of a generation more often named than read, and more often read than profitably studied”. Eliot therefore attempts to make a serious critical, or better say ‘analytical’, survey of the poetry in order to attract attention to its potentialities and the now-lost association of sensibility.

Eliot begins his article with a very good question quite untouched by the kind of abuse which has long shadowed the name and work of the metaphysical poets:

The question is to what extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school (in our own time we should say a ‘movement’), and how far this so-called school or movement is a digression from the main current.

In order to define the school, he first categorizes the poetry of the so-called metaphysical poets into different classes, admitting that such term is too vague and general to cover the varied range of different and sometimes opposing styles and subject matters: the poetry of John Donne, according to Eliot, is “late Elizabethan, its feeling very close to that of Chapman”. The ‘courtly’ poetry of Jonson is Latinate and a different story. And finally there is “the devotional verse of Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw” with more intrinsic differentiations.

            Eliot’s next step is to find common grounds for such school of vast styles, discovering that what makes them distinguished from other kinds of poetry is “a development by rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader”. He later elaborates more on the term and comes up with a definition of associated sensibility. “The language of these poets”, Eliot remarks, “is as a rule simple and pure“; but the structure of the sentences is “sometimes far from simple” which is due to their “fidelity to thought and feeling”, and not a vice. Comparing Donne with other poets of previous and later ages, Eliot realizes that the difference is not that of ‘degree’, but “between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet”. Eliot writes of Donne quite admiringly that

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.

This amount of concentration and juxtaposition of discordant images is what T. S. Eliot as a man of 20th-century alienations and fragmentations would ideally admire – a consciousness of the fact that the life itself is a great paradox and inherently paradoxical; it is this paradox that manifests itself in the poetry of the Metaphysicals and can finally mingle thought and sense. This realization is of course not appealing to the taste of the Neoclassics – who still enjoyed the illusion of a harmonious world of accords.

            Eliot’s article is in fact a response to Johnson’s remarks in “Life of Cowley”. In Eliot’s article, these two voices – of Augustans and of 20th century – make a dialogue with each other, at times approving and sometimes opposing one another. His strategy is a clever and well-planned one. In fact, Eliot claims that he is going to define the Metaphysical poets by their very failures previously shown by Johnson, and manages to transform them to a distinguished concept of paradoxical unity. Somewhere is the article Eliot writes,

If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical’, consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable,… Johnson has hit, perhaps by accident, on one of their peculiarities, when he observed that ‘their attempts were always analytic’; he would not agree that, after the dissociation, they put the material together again in a new unity.

As seen in the above witty phrase, Eliot himself does not tend to wholly “reject the criticism of Johnson” – which is considered by Eliot to be “a dangerous person to disagree with”. Having left the Johnsonian canon in peace, Eliot manages to skip the danger of totally rejecting his pragmatic and still-perfect touchstones while cautiously developing his own point of discussion by giving depth and insight to the long ignored value of discordia concors.

Metaphysical Poetry Today

Eliot’s revaluation of Metaphysical poetry and of the association of thought and sense was a great influence on the poetry of twentieth century after him. Eliot himself was quite influenced by Donne’s conceits and far-fetched similes whose trace is easily found in his most outstanding poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Interest peaked after Eliot with the New Critics School around mid-century, though it declined afterwards.

One of the main reasons for such revival, apart from the interest and taste of the time’s literary canon, could be traced in the revolutionary ideas of Freud and Darwin as well as what the terrors of the World War left on the minds of the people alienated both from themselves and nature. Meanwhile, Freud’s deconstruction of the unified image of the self as shattered into ego, id, and superego could be considered a main factor in increasing the value of the kind of poetry which is not only conscious of these fragmentations, but actually acts as an agent to gather the broken and shattered pieces of self and universe in a harsh and violent way, in hope for an ultimate resolution.

Years after the decline of the New Critics, with the emergence of a newer voice of Deconstructionism – pioneered by Derrida – interest in Metaphysical Poetry tempered off a bit. The deconstructionists no more believed in the old-fashioned stuff of both Johnson and Eliot; their new literary canon triumphed in questioning the tyranny of language as well as its free play of signs which fails to mean what it struggles to mean. Based on the new waves of critical theory there could be no essential superiority in a text over the other; all texts make but a deferred process of signification which fail to provide an essential truth about the world. Enslaved in numerous discourses and signification systems, the more they try to give us an illusion of unity and harmony the more paradoxical and vulnerable they become.

Thus there might be no essential difference or superiority between the text of Metaphycals and any other text. Nevertheless, Donne and Herbert seem to have survived the critical whirlwind and are still studied from newer perspectives: their texts have proved to be ideal of deconstructive analysis due to the kind of premature consciousness they show towards language and various discourses they apply. Donne’s poetry is quite self-deconstructive and self-consciously tends to celebrate a threshold – a kind of undecidability in the kind and definition of ‘love’ he attempts to reach in his Sonnet Sequences but paradoxically defines it by not finding a determined definition for it. Herbert’s language also provides a perfect and witty fusion of different discourses, among which faith and love are the most outstanding and getting into the critics’ nerves. Another interesting feature of Herbert’s poetry from a Post-structuralist point of view is the amount of discourses he has consciously applied in addressing and describing his God.




In a conclusion, I should remark that there is necessarily no question of wrongs and rights, or failures or success – as being debated by Johnson and Eliot and over ages – about Metaphysical poetry. Having lost all its distinctions of ‘physics’ or ‘metaphysics’, the word metaphysical has lost its magic and strangeness to the postmodern reader and has actually become an overused and therefore absurd signifier. Thanks to the deconstructive theories of Derrida, I find no more distinction between these binary oppositions and the text itself has rightly proved to be an amalgam of everything in the universe from spirit to matter and from nature to culture.

            As explained before, the critical canon of the day can find any kind of text worth studying and therefore the Metaphysicals do not gain any superiority even over the meanest nursery rime. Though still fascinating and surprising, the contemporary reader is not much shocked – if not bored – with the metaphysical conceits. This reveals how much Eliot’s and Johnson’s time is over and how much out-fashioned – though still admiring and truthful – their literary canons have become ■





Abrams, M.A. A Glossary of Literary Terms, (sixth edition).

Connor, Marguerite. Metaphysical Poetry. (November 2006)

Cuddon, J.A., A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Penguin Books, 1979

Eliot, T.S. “Metaphysical Poets”, (November 2006)

Grierson, Herbert. Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th C., 1921 (November 2006)

Johnson, Samuel. “Life of Cowley”, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Major Authors. Ed. M.H. Abrams. PP. 1277-1279

Ousby, Ian. Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] All italics in the quotations are mine.


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