SALIENT FEATURES OF METAPHYSICAL POETRY OR DONNE AS A METAPHYSICAL POET
Seventeenth century in English literature was an era which witnessed great changes. The results of Renaissance were becoming the parts of all walks of life. This age witnessed gradual disintegration of the older order of the things. It also witnessed the disturbing progress of science and the skepticism coming with it. Donne remarks: “The new philosophy calls all in doubt.” So, we see that the sensitive poets in such period began to pay heed towards their self-analysis. They started knowing why they had been created, what relation they had with each other in this world and what relation they had to a philosophic or idealized “Other World.” We can say that these poets got sick of the prominent Renaissance features and the effects they were having on an individual’s life. They wanted to overlook the Renaissance softness, smoothness and soft expression. They adopted the manner of expression of Gongora in Spain and Marino in Italy. They wanted to express their new thoughts in some new and novel way. They wanted to reveal a union of mind and soul, of thought and emotion. It was this approach that introduced a new kind of poetry. It was given the name of “Metaphysical Poetry.” A critic observes: “This style discovered likeness in things apparently unconnected and dissimilar by means of intellectual arguments and unusual comparisons.”
For this style, the term “Metaphysical” was perhaps used first time by Dryden. Dryden chided Donne for using metaphysics. “Donne affects metaphysical, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the mind of fare sex with nice speculations of philosophy…… ”
Dr. Johnson also referring to this poetry says:“The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Johnson used the term metaphysical for Donne’s poetry in a rather scornful way, even though what he said is certainly applicable to Donne’s world. However, a time came when this term got a broader sense and the poets like Donne, Vaughan and Cowley, etc., were called “Metaphysical Poets.”
Now let’s discuss the main qualities of metaphysical poetry and see how Donne fulfills all these requirements as a metaphysical poet. First major quality of metaphysical poetry is that it is largely lyrical. Its themes are based on religion or amatory. To explore the oblivion aspects of human consciousness was their main concern. Elizabethan poetry always played with the words but here the main concern of the poets was thoughts. Dr. Johnson says: “Metaphysical poets were men of learning and to show their learning was their whole endeavour.” Donne’s poetry is full of these ideas and is totally lyrical in nature. He expresses his ideas in imaginative and beautiful way.
Second, metaphysical poetry is urbane, harsh and hard-surfaced in style. It is replete with affectations and conceits. Wit, conceit and paradox are its prominent elements and have been frequently used in it. Wit is the process to find out the similarities between the very dissimilar things. Conceit is a far-fetched comparison whereas contradictory saying is called paradox. In a beautiful poem, we see Donne comparing a pair of lovers with a pair of compasses. Here we find paradoxes such as spider love, unkindly kind or the famous phrase “Thou art not thou.” In another poem, “Twicknem Garden” Donne appears as an unhappy lover. He comes to a garden thinking that the sights around him will appease him because he has brought with him his Spider love. Dr. Johnson observes: “The attempts of the metaphysical poets were always analytic.”
Third in the metaphysical poetry, we see that contemporary language is used. The so-called poetic words are always avoided. We can say that an expanded epigram is the most suitable description of metaphysical poetry. Elizabethans rhythms were generally derived from classical heritage or we can say that they met the requirements of music. However, the rhythms of Donne and his followers were always derived from their meanings. They had simplicity and strength in their verses.
Fourth, metaphysical poetry is “analytical.” The metaphysical were never ready to copy nature or life. They had never painted forms of matter and the forms of intellect. They were great wits because wit is a combination of dissimilar images. Dr. Johnson has observed. “They wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature.”
Fifth, major quality of metaphysical poetry is “concentration.” Donne is also renowned in this field. Almost all the poems by Donne have just one idea for their readers. “The Ecstasy” can be offered as an example. It is concise and without any digression. It is about the relationship of the body and the soul in love.
Sixth major quality of metaphysical poetry is “obscurity” which the metaphysics create in their writings. It is also the hall mark of Donne’s poetry. Most of the readers are unable to comprehend what he wants to convey because of the use of conceits and images. Ben Jonson predicts: “Donne’s fame would not live because of his incapacity to open himself to his reader, and indeed this great poet had almost to be rediscovered in our own times.”
Seventh major characteristic of metaphysical poetry is “Unified Sensibility.” It is a term used for the combination of feeling and thought. It was Donne who made this term popular. Donne and all the other metaphysical poets used it in their poetry. We can see that they expressed their poetry through thinking and feeling. Donne connects the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the spiritual, the remote with the near and the sublime with the common-place.
“Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one
Inconstantly naturally hath begot
A constant habit.”
Such contraries used in Donne’s poetry confuse not only the poet but also his readers. Howard remarks: “Donne is a thrilling poet.”
Eighth major quality of metaphysical poetry is use of colloquial speech. Donne has this quality and uses this device in all his verses. It is apparent in all the poems where he starts his poems abruptly in conversational way. For instance in “The Rising Sun”, he starts his poem with these words.
“For God’s sake hold the tongue, and let me love
Busy old fool, unruly sun.”
Ninth major quality of metaphysical poetry is “Passionate Thinking.” T.S. Eliot remarks, “Passionate thinking is the chief mark of metaphysical poetry.” Donne in “The Anniversary” expresses his love for his wife and trust between them but even then his restlessness seeks farfetched ideas and images in order to tell his reader the love and trust.
Tenth major quality of metaphysical poetry is that it revolves round just two sources i.e. amorous and religious. Some metaphysical poets wrote love poetry and some wrote on religion. Donne as a love poet is often given subtle arguments. However, as a divine poet, he is highly successful. All these poems are marked by an intense feeling of piety, by the subject of death and a very strong faith in Resurrection.
To sum up, metaphysical poetry brought a great revolution in the field of verses. Its future is bright. Prof. Ransom who is a renowned critic of today excogitates over the true nature of poetry and concludes, “Metaphysical poetry is alone true poetry.” In this way, all the metaphysical poets were great metaphysical poets and Donne stands high above all because it was Donne who compelled the critics like Dryden and Dr. Johnson to apply this term to his poetry. No doubt, these critics were unkind in their attitude towards these poets but whatever they think, it was Donne who represents very well this school of poetry. No doubt, Donne was influenced by the poets of sixteenth and seventeenth century, but he never followed them and became unconventional in his poetic approach. He used his experience as a tool to write his poetry. He used his psychological curiosity to write his love and divine poems. The poets of seventeenth century declared his poetry as “strong line poetry” only because of his concise expression and his deliberate toughness. He had never been a living legend. After his death, the re-evaluation in his poetry was made and many more features were discovered in his poetry. All these features compelled the critics and readers to declare him “The True Metaphysical Poet.” We fully agree with the remarks of a critic who comments: “Donne is the monarch of wit, colloquial, rhetorical or familiar. He is metaphysical not only by virtue of his scholasticism but by the deep reflective interest in the experiences of which his poetry is the expression.” (Words: 1416)