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Why has Donne’s poetry been described as ‘Metaphysical’?

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    To answer this question one needs to define the term ‘Metaphysical’ because, although it can be applied to any poetry dealing with spiritual or philosophical matter, it is complicated by the fact that it is now generally only applied to a group of seventeenth century poets.

    Therefore as David Reid has aptly remarked it is a “particularly fuzzy term” and therefore it is “futile to try for watertight definition”. The first problem is that behind the term, ‘Metaphysical,’ lies a history of different critical approaches – Giordano Bruno, the first critic to attempt a conceptual formulation of “concettismo”, as the ‘Metaphysical’ style was known in Italy, concluded that ‘Metaphysical poetry’ was essentially concerned with perceiving and expressing the universal correspondence in his universe.However, Samuel Johnson wrote that “about the beginning of the seventeenth century [in England] there appeared a race” of Metaphysical poets and therefore the problem is that there are different descents of critical views about the term.Furthermore Johnson talks of a “race” of these poets but the problem is that there is not such a line of descent as this statement would suggest.

    There are connections between poets, who are classed as ‘Metaphysical’, like Dunne, Cowley, Hubert and Marvell, but only here and there; for example in The Definition of Love Marvell writes in a Donneish vein but that does not mean they have similar styles. The problem is that most of the poets who are classed as Metaphysicals are all highly individual and that is what they all have in common – but this is hardly a basis for defining what a Metaphysical is. “It would be going too far to say that the Metaphysicals are like a constellation, the appearance of their being a group depending upon point of view rather than real connections between them, but the connections between them are certainly tenuous”.Another problem about defining this literary category is that it runs into other groupings in the seventeenth century, namely the House of Ben, which were influenced by Edmund Spenser, and the Cavalier poets, who were influenced by Johnson.

    For example Clement Paman’s Good Friday is a beautiful and personal poem that combines Spenserian water – fantasy with conceits in the manner of Donne. Therefore, although a concrete definition of the term cannot be made, there are some general characteristics of Metaphysical poetry which are – firstly, an extravagant style, the use of conceits, puns and paradoxes and abstruse terminology, often drawn from the science of the day, secondly, an intellectual style that expresses a highly individual angle on the world; thirdly, Metaphysical poets are wits, university – educated men and finally, a trouble with the state power, religion leading to a general estrangement from the world.The Metaphysical style is an extravagant style; that is not to say their extravagance is idle decoration but “is expressive of singularity, of individual self – consciousness or individual estrangement from the world”.2 This is very obvious in Donne’s poetry because he often employs the use of paradox, conceit and what his contemporaries labelled ‘Donne’s strong lines”.

    ‘Strong lines’ are not lines of poetry but expressions made arresting and difficult through abrupt or riddling syntax, or alternatively through paradox or conceit. In The Ecstasy this is evident in 1. 32-“We see we saw not what did move”A complicated puzzle is created by the phrase “We see we saw not” and this is also seen later in the poem, 11.51 – 52:”They are ours, though they are not we, we areThe intelligence, they are the sphere”This strong line is similar in difficulty of phrasing but there is also the additional use of the intellectual conceit on a metaphysical idea of planetary motion.

    His remarkable flow of invention and his flair for bizarre compounds are evident throughout his works : “a sundial in a grave”,The Will (1.51) and “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”, The Relic, (1.6), even Johnson remarked “Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope”. Another technique that the poet uses to remove his reader from their world into the world inside his head is through, as Johnson terms it, “enormous and digusting hyperboles”.

    His tears become a sea -“You which beyond that heaven which was most highHave found new spheres, and of new lands can write,Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I mightDrown my world with my weeping earnestly” (I am a Little World made Cunningly, 5 – 8)Here Donne’s repentance requires a cosmic disaster to express itself sufficiently but in A Valediction: of Weeping a mere lunar disaster manages a grief beyond grief even more hyperbolically -“O more than moonDraw not up sees to drown me in thy sphere,Weep me not dead, in thine arms”.The ordinary moon draws the tides up at most forty feet above their lowest point at the Bay of Fundy. But here Donne’s lover is more than the moon because she draws seas of salt right up into the heaven of her arms where he lies weeping. Donne has built up a chain of conceits involving his grief with the world.

    Tears become pregnant, then one swells to become a world flooded with a new deluge of her tears, and now he casts beyond the universe we know. All, the whole world, is not enough to make pictures of his grief, so he fantastically cancels and improves on the shape of the universe to give himself to the melodrama of parting.The subject of Metempsychosis is the history of the soul, which first lived in the apple that Eve plucked, it transmigrated to a germinating mandrake, and when Eve pulled that up, it took itself to a sparrow’s egg and so on. The poem imagines the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis applied to an individual soul, running through stages of incarnation from the Creation until, according to Donne, it would end up in some great contemporary personage.

    However, the poem stops after the eleventh incarnation, Themech, “Sister and wife to Cain”, because the poem in infinitati sacrum and therefore devoted to infinity and endlessness. Donne’s interest in the condition of the soul within the body, whether vegetable or animal, is evident in this poem. The serpent -“Broke the slight veins, and tender conduit – pipe,Through which this soul from the tree’s root did drawLife, and growth to this apple.” (11.

    122-24)The stalk of the apple excites the poet’s mind to imagine the subtle capillaries through which the soul draws life into a body. The account of the roe and milt becoming fish excites Donne’s metaphysical imagination as a life- form just beginning to appear in this side of nothing in the transparent scales and the name that can hardly be assigned -“…

    a female fish’s sandy roeWith the male’s jelly, newly leavened was,For they had intertouched as they did pass,And one of those small bodies, fitted so,This soul informed, and abled it to rowItself with finny oars, which she did fit,Her scales seemed yet of parchment, and as yetPerchance a fish, but by no name you could call it.” (11, 223 – 30)David Reid aptly puts it “Wherever he writes of soul joining body and making at alive, he writes with the sensitivity of someone to who life in the body, which is our only way of being in the world, is strange yet fascinating.”Airs and Angels is perhaps one of Donne’s most difficult poems, one of the ones Dryden may have had in mind when he stated that Donne “perplexed the minds of the fair sex with the nice speculations of philosophy.” It is an obviously Metaphysical poem, for it discusses souls and bodies and suggests the contemporary theory that angels make themselves into bodies of air in order to appear to men.

    Here he again explains how love will mysteriously connect the lovers when they are apart.He imagines metaphysically, he imagines spiritual or supernatural states of being because he is telling his love she is an angel, for “Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be”. Donne’s love poetry frequently overturns earthly limitations, as souls may unite lovers who are physically separated. For Donne love poetry performs all sorts of miracles in contracting or expanding space and time; for example in The Good – Morrow -“For love, all love of other sights controls,And makes one little room an everywhere.

    “In this poem another metaphysical reference is of import is -“Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one”.According to the theory of the time each man was thought to be a little world in himself, a microcosm, paralleling the great world, the macrocosm. Donne was an educated man and this is evident from his awareness of contemporary philosophical matter but also new scientific thoughts. In The Flea the poet likens the flea biting him and then his lover to sexual intercourse because of the mingling of blood -“And pampered swells with one blood made of two”At the time is was a common preconception that during sexual intercourse blood was literally mingled and the flea symbolises this mingling; therefore it is evident that Donne was familiar with the scientific and philosophical theories of his time.

    In Paradox V1, That the guifts of the body are better than those of the mind or Fortune, Donne asserts the idea that the gifts of the body are better than those of either the mind or fortune by using, or mis – using, concepts of Renaissance Platonism. The complementary nature of the soul and the body, the necessity of their independence, and the idea that the soul should not be honoured at the expense of the body are given in many of his works, including Airs and Angels. The opening line of Paradox V1 – is”I say agayne that the body makes the mind. Not thatit created it a mind, but formes it a good or bad mind.

    “Donne’s argues that it is not the Platonic concept that the soul is the form of the body, but rather that it is the body that forms the mind. This piece of work may be one of the reasons that T.S Eliot spoke of the Metaphysicals as masters of the kind of poetry he wanted: difficult, complex, learned and simultaneously intellectual, sensual and feeling.Metaphysical has often been linked with wit and Joseph Addison used ‘Metaphysical’ as a nickname to associate its object with what was seen as the empty and fantastic philosophical culture of the Middle Ages.

    Therefore, here, the term ‘Metaphysical’ characterised the wit of the earlier seventeenth century as insubstantial and out of touch with human nature. The easiest way to explain Donne’s wit is to compare him to another poet, Suckling, who was a Cavalier poet. The Cavalier poets used wit and extravagance as a social game and this is evident in Suckling’s Sonnet. Here the poet tells Cupid that it is not beauty but appetite “in love that makes the sport” and his perverse notion that he might “a fancy take/ To black and blue” complexions, rather than red and white, asserts the rule of his caprice.

    His ungallant analogy of women to dishes expresses bored contempt for any tie of affection -“And if I like one dishMore than another, that a peasant is”.However, this insolence and indifference, which is a form of wit, far from being glum, is simply acceptable, social banter. On the other hand, when Donne claims to have attained a state of indifference in Love’s Diet there is a certain violent edge to the poem, whish suggests his bitterness -“If [Love] wrung from me a tear, I brined it soWith scorn or shame, that him it nourished not”Here it is not a social game because it puts Donne outside society, as it about his private feelings, which poets like Suckling would not discuss. Here there is an inner turbulence in the poem because Donne’s indifference suggests fear of betrayal and therefore the poem becomes a revengeful satire on women.

    Wit here is not necessarily amusing; the audience would not have laughed out loud at Donne’s sermons and his poems like Valediction: forbidding Mourning because he presents himself as a melancholic figure and speaks to those whose intelligence and sensibility are to some extent socially attuned and style – conscious.However, as David Reid has pointed out, “Metaphysical wit is self – consciously freakish…

    its strangeness are both cerebrally controlled and genuinely strange, shadowing the designs of the mind with emotional suggestions, sometimes quite obscure, where the mind is not so much in control as surprised.2 But it is because Metaphysical wit is not entirely socialised that it is so interesting, even though it is odd as social entertainment. In Love’s Diet the sally “eyes which roll towards all, weep not, but sweat”. This intends scorn but its extravagance suggests the grotesquely wilful obsessions of jealousy.

    Donne’s wit therefore involves him in ugly, shameful emotions. However, this is not always true because sometimes the reader enjoys his wit, such as his ham acting at the beginning of The Canonization -“For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,Or chide my palsy, or my gout,My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune flout.”Donne presents himself as a doting decrepit, and is therefore playing up to the ideas that critics had about him and making it absurd. Therefore what Donne wrote in Satire 1 can also be applied to himself because he too was “subtle – witted” and this is evident throughout his work and is interconnected with his intellectual astuteness.

    Many poets who are loosely termed as the Metaphysicals, such as Crashaw, Vaughan, Marvell and Donne, were involved with the ecclesiastical polity of the Elizabethan and Stuart state and for the majority the involvement was a troubled one. This combination of the worldly and the public, the general and the particular is a theme found in most Metaphysical works. Donne was born a Catholic when Catholics were seen as the enemies of the state and this thwarted his attempts to fit into public life. His mother came from the heroic wing of English Catholicism – she was the grandniece of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More and her two brothers became Jesuits.

    She was a known recusant at a time when non – conformists were fined a hundred marks for attending mass and twenty pounds a month for refusing to attend Anglican Church services. The Catholics hated being a source of revenue for the government and the pervasive system of government spies and this is evident in Satire 1V, 11 214 – 17-“Ten Cardinals into the Inquisition;And whispered “By Jesu”, so often, that aPersuivant would have ravished him awayFor saying of our Lady’s psalter, but ’tis fit”The fact that Donne’s family was divided, his father and first step – father preferring to conform to the new religion and his mother being more willing to take risks for her faith, may have been the reason why Donne separated himself from the religion he was born into and became a Protestant. Satire 111 is a personal inquiry into Donne’s search for the true religion and points out the route of vai media, the middle way. John Carey believed that the religious references in Donne’s poetry reflected the neurotic guilt of someone who was not strong enough to break with the religion he was born into.

    In Satire 11 there are numerous religious references and this may suggest Donne’s obsession with religion, rather than his guilt -“When Luther was professed, he did desireShort Pater nosters, saying as a friarEach day his beads, but having left those laws,Adds to Christ’s prayer, the power and glory clause” (11, 89 – 96)The analogies to Luther’s decision to change from the shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer he used as a friar to the lengthened one he prescribed as a reformer suggest that Donne was unsure about theology. However, in 1596 he joined the Earl of Essex’s expedition to Catholic Spain, which suggests that he was either now anti – Catholic or making a patriotic gesture.Donne was born into a Catholic family and this thwarted his attempts to fit into public life but this was not his fault. However, his marriage to Anne More, a minor, effectively made him an ‘exile’ from the world for thirteen years.

    Anne More’s father, George More, imprisoned Donne because he had married a minor without permission and had him fired from his position as secretary to Thomas Egerton, which left him unemployed for thirteen years. He finally decided to be ordained into the Church of England in 1615 and there he became a pillar of the establishment – but only by an institutionalizing of his estrangement from the world, which is another form of alienation in itself.Therefore it would only seem right that Donne is classed as a Metaphysical poet because his poetry seems to conform to the general description offered in the introduction – and, thus, it is true that “Few Metaphysicals bristle so much with Metaphysical ideas as Donne”.3 Margaret Drabble states, in the Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature, that Donne “is the founder” of the Metaphysical ‘school’ of thought, but, although it is evident that Donne is a Metaphysical poet, he is not the “founder” of the ‘school’, if such a ‘school’ even exists.

    The Metaphysical strain derived from the Medieval ages and “runs through practically all the poetry of the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries.”4 Therefore it cannot be Donne himself who was the originator of the Metaphysical element into English poetry, although it is obvious why he has been called the “prototype5” of the movement – for Donne continuously , as Dryden so perspicaciously remarked, “affects the metaphysics.”

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