Introduction: The term “metaphysical” can be interpreted as beyond (meta) physical nature (physical). John Dryden was the first to use the term in connection with Donne by saying that ‘he affects the metaphysics’. Dr. Johnson later described Donne and his followers as the metaphysical poets. However, we cannot call Donne’s poetry metaphysical if the term is to imply the exposition of some philosophical system of the universe or speculation about the nature of things. Furthermore, though Dr. Johnson used the term in a derogatory sense for Donne, the qualities which he enumerated about Donne’s poetry are valid.
What is metaphysical poetry ? In brief, the term “metaphysical poetry” implies the characteristics of complexity, intellectual tone, abundance of subtle wit, fusion of intellect and emotion, colloquial argumentative tone, conceits (which are always witty and sometimes fantastic) scholarly allusions, dramatic tone, and philosophic or reflective element.
Concentration is an important quality of metaphysical poetry in general and Donne’s poetry in particular. In all his poems, the reader is held to one idea or line of argument. His poems are brief and closely woven. In The Ecstasy, for instance, the principal argument is that through the different acts of love the function of man as man is being worthily performed. The poet develops the theme without digression.
An expanded epigram would be a fitting description of metaphysical poem. No word is wasted, and nothing described in detail. There is a sinewy strength in the style. Verse forms are usually simple, but always suitable in enforcing the sense of the poem.
Fondness for conceits is a major characteristic of metaphysical poetry. Of course, all comparisons discover likeness in things unlike but in a conceit, we are made to concede the likeness even while being strongly conscious of the unlikeness. Donne often employs fantastic comparisons. The most famous and striking one is the comparison of a man who travels and his beloved who stays at home to a pair of compasses, in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. A clever, though obviously frivolous conceit is employed in The Flea where the insect is called the marriage-bed and the marriage-temple of the lovers because it has bitten them and sucked their blood. In his religious poetry, too, Donne uses far-fetched conceits. In the Holy Sonnet If poisonous minerals, there is an image of the poet’s tears mingling with Christ’s blood and taking the form of a learned conceit of the sphere and its intelligence with its “correspondence” between microcosm and macrocosm. While these conceits evoked Dr. Johnson’s displeasure, they are fairly well enjoyed by modern readers.
Wit striking and subtle marks metaphysical poetry. Indeed, the conceits especially display a formidable wit. So do the various allusions and images relating to practically all areas of nature and art and learning. Allusions to medicine, cosmology, ancient myth, contemporary discoveries, history, law, and art abound in Donne’s poetry. The hardcore of logic is undeniable in The Flea, for instance, though the poem is obviously light-hearted. Donne’s wit assumes different moods and attitudes reflecting his perception of the complexity of life. Wit makes itself evident in the paradoxes employed in the poem. In The Legacy, the lover is his own “executor and legacy”. Such paradoxical statements are to be found in several poems. In Death be not proud, he says: “Death thou shalt die”. Batter my heart is also full of such paradoxical statements.
Combination of passion and thought is a peculiar characteristic of metaphysical poetry and is another form of wit. Thus there is a “unification of sensibility”, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, in metaphysical poetry. There is in Donne’s poems an intellectual analysis of emotion. Every lyric arises out of some emotional situation, but the emotion is not merely expressed; it is analysed. A Valediction : Forbidding Mourning proves that lovers need not mourn at parting; The Canonization establishes that lovers are saints of love; The Good Morrow asserts that lovers are the best possible hemispheres who make up a complete world.
Argumentation and reasoning balance the passion in Donne’s poems. No one can deny the passion in The Sun Rising, but there is also plenty of argumentation to prove that the sun has no power over the lovers, as love knows no season or clime. Similarly, in The Canonization, there is passion expressed through beautiful metaphors:
“Call us what you will, we are made such by love ;
Call her one, me another fly,
We are tapers too, and at our own cost die.”
But at the same time, the tone of the poem is intellectual and there is plenty of complexity involved in the conceits and allusions, such as the Phoenix riddle. Aire and Angels is highly refined in thought and subtlety, even while being a passionate utterance. In A Valediction: Of Weeping we have an exquisite blend of intense concentrated passion and profound thought.
The use of colloquial speech marks metaphysical poetry, as far as Donne is concerned. This is especially apparent in the abrupt, conversational opening of many of his poems, for instance :
For God’s sake hold thy tongue, and let me love (The Canonization)
Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising)
Donne arrests our attention both by the content and the dramatic style of his poetry.
Donne’s love poems are especially entitled to be called metaphysical in the true sense. Poems such as The Good Morrow, The Anniversary, The Canonization, and The Ecstasy raise, even though they do not explicitly discuss, the great metaphysical question of the relation of the spirit and the senses. They raise it not as an abstract problem, but in the effort to make the experience of the union of two human powers in love, and the union of two human beings in love, apprehensible. Often Donne speaks of the soul and of spiritual love. The Ecstasy speaks of the souls of the lovers which come out of their bodies to negotiate with one another.
Conclusion. Intellect and wit blending with emotion and feeling mark metaphysical poetry, especially that of Donne. Indeed, Donne rep resents very well the school of poetry somewhat vaguely called “metaphysical”. He brought the whole of his experience into his poetry. He is erudite, “the monarch of wit”, colloquial, rhetorical, or familiar. He chooses his language from the court or the camp, the jargon of law, study, or the marketplace. These qualities are present in Donne’s poetry-in the earliest of his love poems as well as in the later religious poems. Grierson aptly sums up: “Donne is metaphysical not only by virtue of his scholasticism but by the deep reflective interest in the experiences of which his poetry is the expression, the new psychological curiosity with which he writes of love and religion”.