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The Metaphysical Poets

by William J. Long

The Metaphysical Poets. This name--which was given by Dr. Johnson in derision, because of the fantastic form of Donne's poetry--is often applied to all minor poets of the Puritan Age. We use the term here in a narrower sense, excluding the followers of Daniel and that later group known as the Cavalier poets. It includes Donne, Herbert, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Vaughan, Davenant, Marvell, and Crashaw. The advanced student finds them all worthy of study, not only for their occasional excellent poetry, but because of their influence on later literature. Thus Richard Crashaw (1613?-1649), the Catholic mystic, is interesting because his troubled life is singularly like Donne's, and his poetry is at times like Herbert's set on fire. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who blossomed young and who, at twenty-five, was proclaimed the greatest poet in England, is now scarcely known even by name, but his "Pindaric Odes" set an example which influenced English poetry throughout the eighteenth century. Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) is worthy of study because he is in some respects the forerunner of Wordsworth; and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), because of his loyal friendship with Milton, and because his poetry shows the conflict between the two schools of Spenser and Donne. Edmund Waller (1606-1687) stands between the Puritan Age and the Restoration. He was the first to use consistently the "closed" couplet which dominated our poetry for the next century. By this, and especially by his influence over Dryden, the greatest figure of the Restoration, he occupies a larger place in our literature than a reading of his rather tiresome poetry would seem to warrant.