The Metaphysical Poets

Poetry and mysticism have, to begin with, this in common, that both alike belong to the field of contemplation rather than of action. Both are concerned primarily with the recognition of pattern, of significance, ultimately of value, in the world about them and within them. As distinguished from the man of action, say, the contemplative is concerned not with the conquest of the external world but with the understanding of it. The hunger for God is the basic human hunger so every mystic of every tradition agrees. "Thou maddest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee," is the way saint Augustine puts it.

However, eight centuries ago the Moslem woman Rabi'a had prayed,"O God! If I worship Thee for of Hell; and if I worship Thee in hopes of paradise, withhold paradise from me, but I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me the Eternal Beauty." In addition, the story is told of mystic, Thomas Aquinas, that, as he knelt in the Church of Saint Dominic in Naples, weary from the labor of his great defense of the Real Presence in the Sacrament, he heard the voice of his Master speak from the crucifix before him. And the voice asked him what reward he would have fore the work he had done so well. The answer which the great theologian is said to have returned on that occasion is the one answer of which the mystic could approve, "I will have thyself."

The mystic and the poet are alike, also, in that neither is willing to remain passive. Thus, often unresisting submission to the flood of experience seems the sole alternative to the aggressive conquest of one's environment, to the imposition of one's own mood upon the offering of the day. The mystic has been striving for some time to focus all his resources upon his main purpose of coming into direct contact with his God. Mystics of all traditions have testified to the compulsive power of that attraction to God. That is why it is not easy for the mystic to content himself with flashes and glimpses of his goal. The goal of the mystic is not the expression of his experience in words or in any other medium, but the carrying on, the carrying through, of that seeking of God which he has begun. This does not mean that the mystic may not be moved to the expression of his experience. He often is and to impressive effect. For the mystic, that final satisfaction comes not through any expression of the fragments or stages of his experience but only through the completion of it. What, then, is the significance of the expression which the mystic sometimes gives to his experience? The expression of mystical experience usually does one of three things. At its simplest, it may bear witness to the goodness of Gods. Closely associated with this type is the narrative of the mystic's experiences. There is a third possible type, in which the expression becomes an instrument of mystical efforts, a prayer for help in the way to God.

Whatever their theories as to the origin or value of metaphysical poetry, all critics agreed that the distinctive characteristics of the genre is it's intellectual emphasis, an emphasis apparent both in the preoccupations of the poet and in his procedure. For Dr. Johnson, the fact that they overemphasized the intellectual element is the definitive element in their claims to literary immortality in poetry. As to Mr. T.S. Eliot the fact that they sometimes overdid it does not appear so much of a fault when you consider how the romantics, for instance, under did it.