Before we talk about some of the most famous of the metaphysical poets, let’s talk a little bit about metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry, as the name implies, is concerned with the abstract and intellectual viewpoint of life. The topics of this kind of poetry include discussions about life and love and their ever-entwining nuances with each other. It speaks of the infinite perspective and eternal quality of life and how that perspective intensifies man’s relationship with God.
Metaphysical poems are beautiful and lilting, lyrical yet intense. They are thought-provoking in the use of witty repartee, acute in their irony and amusing in their use of words. There is always some type of argument, some effort to convince one way or another, that a certain path of action or a certain way of thinking be pursued.
There are many metaphysical poets of great renown. We think first of John Donne, George Herbert and T.S. Elliot. Others come to mind also, but for our discussion today, we’ll consider just these few. John Donne was an English poet who lived in the later half of the sixteenth century. Interestingly Donne also became a lawyer, a member of parliament, and, on the insistence of King James I, Donne became an Anglican priest. His knowledge and experience in these two fields undoubtedly contributed to his eminence as a metaphysical poet. As is often the case with artists, in spite of his education and his wonderful talents of poetic writings, Donne lived a good portion of his life in poverty, relying only on the help of well-to-do friends.
Some of Donne’s best-known works include The Good-Morrow, The Sunne Rising, The Canonization and A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. His poems have a strong style that is filled with exciting metaphors and thought-provoking ironies. He had a great knowledge of British Society and often sought outlet in criticizing what he knew. One of his favorite themes was based on his ideas of true religion. Although not a poem in the strictest sense, who cannot thrill at Donne’s words in Meditation when he reminds, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Another of the great metaphysical poets we are considering today is George Herbert. Herbert, a Welsh-born English poet, was born in 1593 and died in 1633, and was also an orator and an Anglican priest, as was John Donne. Herbert was also well-educated in the study of languages and music. Some of George Herbert’s poems include A Dialogue, A Wreath, Affliction. One of Herbert’s most intriguing works is his poem, Easter Wings. The words are meaningful and thoughtful, but there’s even more to the poem than that. It was printed sideways on two facing pages of a book in such a way that the lines of the poem look like two birds with wings outspread flying toward heaven.
Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1888,1965, was born in America but moved to England where he became a naturalized British subject in 1927. His most famous poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, was a masterful writing which laments the plight of Prufrock and his handicap of mediocrity. Eliot also wrote some other well-known works including Gerotin, The Waste Land and the Hollow Men. Eliot was a successful businessman, who had developed a love of poetry at a very early age. Thank goodness for us, literature was an important part of his early life.