“Metaphysical Poets” is a term coined by poet & critic Samuel Johnson, who describes a loose group of English lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterised by ample use of conceits, guess & speculation about topics such as love, religion etc.
These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not know each other or read each other’s work. Metaphysical poetry is extremely intelligent & witty. It is deeply religious but is also ironical.
It is a little bit different from other types of poetry. Poems classified in this category do share the same characteristics. They are all of highly intellectualised, use strange imagery & contain complicated thoughts.
Meaning & Origin
The word “meta” means “after”. Thus metaphysics deals with the questions that can’t be explained by science. It questions the nature of reality in a philosophical way. Metaphysics can cover a broad range of topics from religious to consciousness. Metaphysics is about exploration & philosophy, not about science & mathematics.
- Themes: Metaphysical poetry is spiritual & has often religious themes. Moreover, it focuses on love, as the union of soul.
- Literary Devices: Metaphysical poetry uses metaphors, puns, paradoxes & meter to create drama & tension. In addition, Metaphysical poetry uses scientific, medical & legal words & phrases to create arguments about the philosophical aspect of life.
- Poets: Metaphysical poets were men of high intellect. They were all graduated from Oxford University, Cambridge University or they studied at one of the Inns of Court in the city of London. With the help of their vast knowledge, they presented new ideas & stories to their readers.
- Unclarity: Metaphysical poetry is considered highly ambiguous & obscure due to high intellect & knowledge of metaphysical poets. The poetry is greatly challenging to understand at the first reading. It needs full concentration & full attention to getting to the roots of the matter.
- Short Poems: Metaphysical poetry is considered to be brief & concise. Every line conveys a lot of meanings in a few words. Every word is adjusted in every line like a brick in a wall & conveys the message of the author. Hence there is no wastage of words.
- Sayings in the Poetry: Metaphysical poetry is a vast collection of maxims & sayings. Thus epigrammatic quality is part & parcel of the metaphysical poetry. John Donne is a pioneer in this regard.
- Metaphysical Conceits: A significant feature of metaphysical poetry is the use of metaphysical conceits. It is the unique quality of metaphysical poetry. A conceit is a comparison of two dissimilar things, which may have very little in common. E.g. Abraham Cowley in his poem “The Mistress” compares his love for ladies to his habit of travelling in various countries of the world.
- Originality: Originality is the hallmark of metaphysical poets. All the metaphysical poets were unique & original in their ideas & thoughts. They didn’t follow the path of their contemporary poets. They stood against their contemporaries & followed their own way of writing poetry.
- Wit: Metaphysical wit is also a noteworthy feature of metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical wit is the expression of one’s idea & thoughts, using aptly & technically, the words & various figures of speech in such a manner as to provide pleasure to the readers. John Donne is called the “Monarch of Wit” in the history of metaphysical poetry.
- Platonic Love: Platonic love is another feature of metaphysical poetry. Platonic love means, spiritual love, which is free from elements of physical love.
Metaphysical poetry is not intended to be read in a passive way. Its use of paradox, imagery, conceit & wit is meant to awaken the reader. Metaphysical poetry asks the philosophical questions about religion, faith, spirituality & being.