The term “metaphysical poetry” is used to describe a certain type of 17th century poetry. Metaphysical poetry is concerned with the whole experience of man. It means that the poetry is about showing knowledge and thoughts from different areas of experience, especially about love, romantic and sensual; about man’s relationship with God and about pleasure, learning and art.
Metaphysical poems are lyric poems characterised by use of wit, irony and wordplay. Wit and conceit were both aspects of a mental set shared by writers looking for connections between things. As well as manipulation of ideas, wit could be displayed in verbal expression. Compression and brevity were part of a poetic fashion called “strong lines”.
Wordplay and brevity were all aspects of “wit”. Conceit is a poetic idea, usually a metaphor. There can be conventional ideas, where there are expected metaphors. It is an idea or concept expressed in a unusual way. Typical metaphysical conceits come from a wide variety of areas of knowledge: medieval philosophy and alchemy; mythology, government (“she is the state, he is the prince” from Donne’s ” The Sun Rising” ), travelling ( Donne’s ” Go and Catch a Falling Star” )…
Some characteristics of metaphysical poetry:
A tendency to psychological analysis of emotion of love and religion an ability for imagery that is novel, unpoetical and sometimes shocking, drawn from the common place ( actual life ) or the remote ( erudite sources), including the extended metaphor of the “metaphysical conceit” form: frequently an argument ( with the poet’s lover, with God..) meter: often rugged, not sweet or smooth like Elizabethan verse the best metaphysical poetry is honest, unconventional, and reveals the poet’s sense of the complexities and contradictions of life. It is intellectual, analytical, psychological, usually it is absorbed in thoughts of death, physical love and religious devotion.
The Metaphysical Poets are known for their ability to surprise or frighten the reader and show new perspective through paradoxical images, not very strong arguments, inventive syntax and descriptions art, philosophy and religion using a metaphor known as a conceit. Using the term ” Metaphysical poets” to describe this very different kind of writers doesn’t have to mean that they shared a common world view- only that they held in common a poetic style and a way of organizing thoughts.
John Donne was known as the founder of the Metaphysical Poets. He was born in 1572 in London. Like most poets of that time Donne looked on poetry as a ” polite accomplishment rather than as a trade or vocation, and in consequence he circulated his poems in manuscript but left most of them uncollected and unpublished.”1 His poetry marks stylistic and thematic breaks from the sort of verse written by his predecessors and his contemporaries. Donne focused his work around highly concentrated images which often involved a dramatic contrast or it is noticable for its hard intellectualism.
Donne liked to twist and to change not only images and ideas, but also traditional rhytmic and stanzaic patterns. Although later sonneters like William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson play with the Petrarchian tradition, the first significant change in the genre occured at the end of 16th century, when religion gradually displaced love as the main theme of the sonnet. He introduced love in his own way ” The tired cliches of love poetry- cheeks like roses, hearts pierced by the arrows of love-emerge an unprecedental level of mental alertness and engagment “.
John Donne was the first to express and develope the expresion of religious faith. In his Holy Sonnets he explores his obsessions with death and salvation. The 19 Holy Sonnets contain Donne’s finest examples of religious poetry. These poems are marked by the same intensity, the same combination of passion and argument that can be found in Songs and Sonnets, but the object of the passion has changed now. In his Holy Sonnets Donne investigates issues of eternity but also sin, repentance and death are things that have always forced people to examine their faith.
Born into a Roman Catholic family, Donne’s personal relationship with religion was strong and passionate and at the center of his poetry. In 1621 he became dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Later he wrote his private prayers ” Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” and his learned, charismatic and inventive preaching made him a highly inluential presence in London. ” Only a few days before his death he preached Death’s Duel, a terrifying analysis of all life as a decline toward death and dissolution which contemporaries termed his own funeral sermon” 3123
Generally Donne wrote about women in his youth, and about God in his older ages, his passion is transformed. In fact Donne is unusual, if not unique, for him courtly love hardly appears in his poetry at all. The courtly love poet always express the same experience of love, the range of situations and motions who deal with being very limited. In contrast Donne expresses an enormously wide range of feelings in his Songs and Sonnets, all relating to the experience of real love.
In these poems we are also confronted by the war between the body and soul. The metaphysical style expresses a sense of the tensions between matter and spirit, faith and reason. However he also saw the necessity of realising that love is personal not merely spiritual relationship. We can say that Donne “was a poet who threw himself head long into life, love and sexuality, and later into the very visible public role of court and city preacher”44
“The Flea” is very popular Donne’s poem from the title Songs and Sonnets. In the early 17th century the term “sonnet” usually meant “love lyric”. “The Flea” appears to be a love poem, it is dedication from a male suitor to his lady of honour. A closer look at the poem tells us that this suitor is actually arguing with his lady. The poet ask his mistress to notice only this flea and to forget everything else.
The flea has bitten them both, and their bloods mix within its body: “And in this flea our two bloods mingled be”5. The attention paid to the qualities of blood may be noted here and later in the poem. The mixing of bloods is something like offence to the lady, if she is of royal blood and he is not. The description of the swelling of the insect with “one blood made two” is telling about preganancy. The word “suck” in this poem would be same to the experience of passion or lust. The poet tells that the flea sucked him first “Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee;”6 so he has lost his innocence, but he consider himself still honourable.
The flea becomes a symbol of the world in which the lovers wishes are realized. If the flea is pregnant with their blood child, then the lady may as well be pregnant too. Now that this has been established between the blood of the woman and the flea and if the lady would kill the flea, it would be a kind of suicide. So to kill this flea, the woman would have to commit murder. By killing the flea whom the poet gave such strange metaphors, the lady destroys the symbolic world the poet has built and brought them both back to reality. In the third stanza, the opening is very powerful and effective “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since”7, he makes the lady almost sounds evil, and again during the gap between the stanzas, an event has taken place, the lady has killed the flea.
By killing the innocent flea, the lady has “purpled her nail”, a color connected with the clothing of royalty. So she has committed the sin that destroy the union of their blood. And the poet tells that the lady has just admitted her lost of innocence by suggesting that the flea really didn’t do anything to deserve death. The hopeful suitor that addresses his honourable lady in “The Flea” argues throughout the verses. So the act could only be committed symbolically, within the body of a flea. If such a union of the poet to his lady can be realized in the flea, then let the flea become the entire world, so that their love can be reality. 1
In another poem by Donne called ” The Good-Morrow” there are clear Platonic elements. The idea that Donne and his lady are halves that complete each other is in Plato’s theory of love. The Good-Morrow details his feelings about one of his loves. It is about love in the highest order. He starts the poem by saying that anything they think, they love before was just an illusion. This love is the real thing and makes all other loves insignificant. In the second stanza, Donne says that the room that he and his love share is everything, and everywhere. There is no life beyond the walls of their room, because they are the only two things that matter in the entire world.
In third stanza, Donne and his love are looking into each other’s eyes. What Donne sees is his own image reflected in her eyes, just as she sees her image in his eyes.
My face in thine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest,8
The two hemispheres are each other’s eyes, and they are better than the actual world because they are not cold in the North or primitive in the west.
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp North, without declining West?9
They have none of the problems of the real world. Their world is better than the world outside of where they are. Donne then goes to say that if they love each other equally, then their love will never die. 2