The Age

The Metaphysical poets show the spiritual and moral fervor of the Puritans as well as the frank amorous tendency of the Elizabethans. Sometimes like the Elizabethans they sing of making the best of life as it lasts—Gather ye Rosebuds while ye may; and at other times they seek more permanent comfort in the delight of spiritual experience.

The metaphysical poets were John Donne, Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Lord Herbert of Cherbury. The leader of this school was Donne. They are called the metaphysical poets not because they are highly philosophical, but because their poetry is full of conceits, exaggerations, quibbling about the meanings of words, display of learning and far-fetched similes and metaphors. It was Dr. Johnson who in his essay on Abraham Cowley in his Lives of the Poets used the term ‘metaphysical.’ There he wrote:

“About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets. The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor: but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.”

Though Dr. Johnson was prejudiced against the Metaphysical school of poets, and the above statement is full of exaggeration, yet he pointed out the salient characteristics of this school. One important feature of metaphysical school which Dr. Johnson mentioned was their “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Moreover, he was absolutely right when he further remarked that the Metaphysical poets were perversely strange and strained: ‘The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions… Their wish was only to say what had never been said before.”

Dr. Johnson, however, did not fail to notice that beneath the superficial novelty of the metaphysical poets lay a fundamental originality:

“If they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if the conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think, No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume to dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and volubility of syllables.”

The metaphysical poets were honest, original thinkers. They tried to analyze their feelings and experience—even the experience of love. They were also aware of the life, and were concerned with death, burial descent into hell etc. Though they hoped for immortality, they were obsessed by the consciousness of mortality which was often expressed in a mood of mawkish disgust.