The metaphysical poets is a term coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know or read each other.
This is a very broad term, but it joins together a number of 17th century poets, most notable among them John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn and Abraham Cowley.
By itself, metaphysical means dealing with the relationship between spirit to matter or the ultimate nature of reality. The Metaphysical poets are obviously not the only poets to deal with this subject matter, so there are a number of other qualities involved as well:
Neo-Platonism: This comes from the doctrines of Plato who argues that since the physical world is merely an imperfect imitation of the divine archetype, the poet representing the world is imitating an imitation, and thus creating something that stood at least two removes from the truth.
- Use of ordinary speech mixed with puns, paradoxes and conceits (a paradoxical metaphor causing a shock to the reader by the strangeness of the objects compared; some examples: lovers and a compass, the soul and timber, the body and mind)
- The exaltation of wit, which in the 17th century meant a nimbleness of thought; a sense of fancy (imagination of a fantastic or whimsical nature); and originality in figures of speech
- Abstruse terminology often drawn from science or law
- Often poems are presented in the form of an argument
- In love poetry, the metaphysical poets often draw on ideas from Renaissance Neo-Platonism to show the relationship between the soul and body and the union of lovers' souls
- They also try to show a psychological realism when describing the tensions of love.
This argument is answered in at least two ways:
- By Aristotle: Because the poet imitates general rather than particular ideas, his work is more philosophical than history.
The term "Metaphysical Poet" was first coined by the critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and he used it as a disparaging term. Earlier, John Dryden had also been critical of the group of poets he grouped together as too proud of their wit. Johnson and Dryden valued the clarity, restraint and shapeliness of the poets of Augustan Rome (which is why some 18th century poets are called "Augustan," and therefore were antagonistic towards poets of the mid-17th century.
- By the Neo-Platonists: This group suggests that the poet is attempting to imitate not the world, but the live archetype itself.
During the Renaissance, Plato got mingled with Christian and Eastern thought. Through this mingling we get
Platonic love (which is a lot more than you probably think it means). For Plato, beauty proceeds in a series of steps from the love of one beautiful body to that of two, to the love of physical beauty in general, and ultimately to the love of that beauty "not in the likeness of a face or hands or in the forms of speech or knowledge or animal or particular thing in time or place, but beauty absolute, separate, simple, everlasting--the source and cause of all that perishing beauty of all other things."
When this scheme is Christianized by equating this ultimate beauty with the Divine Beauty of God, the Renaissance Platonic lover can move in stages through the desire for his mistress, whose beauty he recognizes as an emanation of God's, to the worship of the Divine itself.
This complex doctrine of love which embraces sexuality (the mystical union of souls, cf. Donne's "The Canonization") but which is directed to an ideal end (discussed in Plato's Symposium) is particularly evident in Donne. (But we see it in poets from Sidney to Lawrence).
Platonic love has also come to mean a love between individuals which transcends sexual desire and attains spiritual heights (for examples, see some of the courtly romances like Tennyson's Idylls of the King), as well as homosexual love (see Forster's Maurice), derived from the praise of homosexual love in The Symposium.
The Metaphysicals were out of critical favor for the 18th and 19th centuries (obviously, the Romantic poets found little in this heavily intellectualized poetry). At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, interest in this group picked up, and especially important was T.S. Eliot's famous essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921). Interest peaked this century with the New Critics school around mid-century, and now is tempering off a bit, though Donne, the original "Big Name" is being superceded now by interest in George Herbert, who's religious seeking and questioning seems to be hitting a critical nerve.