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.