Monthly Archives: June 2012

Who Are the Top Metaphysical Poets

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.

What is Metaphysical Poetry and Who Wrote It?

The term “metaphysical poetry” refers to a specific period of time and a specific set of poets. In 17th-century England, there was a group of poets who, while they did form a formal group, have been considered the metaphysical poets. There are, in most lists, nine poets that belong, and they are as follows: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Edward Herbert, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvel, Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling. There are an additional seven poets that are sometimes also considered to be part of this small group of 17th century metaphysical poets, and they are George Chapman, Abraham Cowley, Richard Leigh, Katherine Philips, Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet and John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.

Donne is, and this is almost undisputed, the quintessential metaphysical poet. If none other is read, Donne is generally recommended for a reader to get a good idea of what metaphysical poetry is all about.

So, what is metaphysical poetry? The answer lies in the composition of these pieces. The common thread is that they contain metaphors that are highly conceptual in nature. These metaphors are often tenuous, at best, in their comparisons of one thing to another, but they can leave the reader feeling enlightened.

This type of metaphor is known as a metaphysical conceit. The way to tell a metaphysical conceit from a regular metaphor is that they often exhibit an analytical tone, contain double meanings, show logical reasoning, and have paradoxes, symbolism, and wit. While one or two of these elements might be missing from any given piece, there should be the majority of them present.

One of the prime examples of metaphysical poetry is John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. In this piece, Donne paints a picture of a drawing compass that helps an artist or architect create circles. One arm is one of the lovers and is constantly moving, but even so, the other person, or arm, leans toward the movement. The circles that the compass draws are symbols of perfection and eternity, two things people strive for when in love. Most wouldn’t have drawn a correlation between love and lovers and a compass used for making precise circles. This was the genius of the metaphysical poet — drawing similarities between the unlikeliest of similar ideas and objects.

One of the most apparent contrasts between metaphysical poetry and other poems of the 17th century is that while the metaphysical poets were comparing love to compasses (Donne) and the human soul to drops of morning dew (Marvel) the rest were relying heavily on classical mythology and nature for their symbolism and allusions.

Another characteristic that separates the poetry of the metaphysical poets and their contemporaries is that even when writing on a romantic subject, the word and metaphor choices were most often decidedly unromantic. They have both been praised and criticized for this, but despite the mixed reviews, they remain interesting and engaging reads.

How Poetry Has Changed Through History

The human tradition of poetry is a vital part of the spiritual and cultural legacy of our species. It likely began as a simple mnemonic device used to transmit messages across great distances. Eventually, poetry emerged as a very poignant form of language created to move and inspire the reader, as well as preserve memories through descriptive and detailed storytelling.

Rhythm and rhyme are essential parts of the oral poetry that many believe existed well before the age of written words. Assonance, the use of repetitive vowel and consonant sounds within a poem, also played a significant role in the creation of early verse. These characteristics were designed to aid in the memorization of a large amount of wording and information so that history could be more easily maintained by the itinerate poets of the age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a piece of literature that is representative of the earliest age of written poetry. This lengthy narrative poem, carved in Sumerian text upon tablets made of clay, was created to honor a famous king and warrior of the ancient near east. Near this time, the legendary Iliad and Odyssey epics were written by the Greek poet, Homer, detailing the Trojan War and the myths surrounding it.

Greco-Roman poetry extended the tradition of retelling occurrences in history but added its own cultural conventions by changing the lengths and forms of the most widespread poetry. Psalms and hymns became more and more accepted, and poems were an integral part of the elaborate religious rites that took place within the era. Latin poems maintained strict rules as to the length of meter and number of beats, as exemplified by the poet Ovid. Medieval times saw a steady flow of religious themes in poetry, from hagiographic details on the lives of the saints to songs meant to be sung during Mass, often times in Latin. Secular themes were still quite popular, nonetheless, and usually written in the language of the common people. Medieval poems were often sung before an audience to the accompaniment of a lyre, or read as script in plays such as the works of Shakespeare.

The modern age sustains a vast appetite for free verse poems, with a high emphasis on careful selection of each word and placement to evoke a thoughtful response from the reader. E.E. Cummings is an example of a modern writer who employs unusual experimentation with freedom and language to create memorable poetry. Form has not been abolished, however, and many poets seek to reinvent former styles including those that cross cultural boundaries.

The world of poetry has, much like the world around us, undergone quite a few changes since its beginnings. Due to the increasing advancements and complexities of human thought and society, poets continue to stretch to the very limits of imagination in their epic attempt to find the right words.