Dr. Obermeier                                                                                                                                                        Eng 221

Metaphysical Poetry

This is a term used for a group of 17th-century poets (Donne and Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Marvell, and others—in America, Edward Taylor) who are not really a "school of poetry" but simply seem to use very similar poetic techniques.  The term “metaphysical” denotes a movement in poetry rather than a type of poetry. (NOTE: “Metaphysical” in a philosophical sense would refer to the nature of reality beyond or transcending—“meta”—the physical; it is NOT used in this limited sense here.)

Major Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

1. Intellectuality

Metaphysical poetry treats human experiences and emotions in terms of analytical, intellectual rather than emotional terms, frequently becoming one long reasoned argument. For instance, if the poet is discussing his love for a lady or his love for God, instead of saying “I love thee,” offering direct emotional expression to his feelings, he will analyze his love, argue his way through a logical presentation (in essence, try to discover a more intellectual way of making an emotional presentation).

2. Poetry of Unified Sensibility

We think and feel simultaneously, so the world of poetic experience should involve BOTH.  As we read a poem, watch a sunset, or fall in love, we think/analyze and feel/emotionalize.  Thus we would expect the poet to more rapidly form the rational to emotional, spiritual to physical, mystical to logical—and blend these together into a new though unusual whole.

3. Leading Figurative Device: CONCEIT

Conceits are ingeniously elaborated metaphors, demonstrating curious equations (occult resemblances) between two things, most frequently comparing spiritual truth to physical objects. A conceit fuses disparate items and goes beyond the “normal” bounds of metaphor; the meaningful likeness is discoverable (cf. Johnson, discordia concors: union of two very dissimilar items, “yoked by violence together”).


                                    My soul is God's conduit pipes, or His musical pipes

                                    “Drill through my metal heart an hole, wherein

                                    With graces cotters to thyself it pin.”

Such conceits set up a complex of intellectual and emotional responses:

a) the conceit tends to form the body, the core of the poet's statement rather than being used merely for ornamentation,


b) it is a ready vehicle for unified sensibility (it joins the physical/ spiritual, sensuous/intellectual—cf. Donne's compasses in his “Valediction”).

4. Elements of WIT—paradox, pun, antithesis, startling contrast

Other stylistic possibilities in metaphysical poetry (esp. as derived from Donne): colloquial and homely language, conversational idiom; strong line (rugged, unmetrical, monosyllabic, strong stresses); dramatic mode (use of apostrophe; poems become monologues or dialogues, prayers).