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What Is Metaphysical Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Metaphysical poetry is defined as poetry dating from the 17th century in Britain that has an abstract and ethereal style. Such poetry used a variety of forms and structures, but employed similar styles. The term was first coined by John Dryden in 1693 when he described a poem by John Donne as affecting “the metaphysical.” It was later popularized by Samuel Johnson in 1781.

Poetry was described by Aristotle, in his “Poetics,” as describing emotions. This was compared with prose, which described facts and actions. Poetry does not have to adhere to such narrow constraints; in fact, descriptive poetry and epic poetry go against Aristotle's ideas and describe events or things. Metaphysical poetry, of all types, veers towards not only emotion, but emotional ideas of the abstract. They are not concerned with war or love, but with the world in a non-scientific sense.

Seventeenth century lyrical poets gave rise to the idea of metaphysical poetry in Britain. The 1600s were a complicated and fast-moving time for Britain. It began with the merger of England and Scotland under King James. The century also saw Britain’s only republican period, civil war, the rise of religious minority groups and the expansion of science. It was a century of Samuel Pepys, John Milton and Isaac Newton.

There were many features displayed by the metaphysical poets. First, their poems displayed great wit. They also ignored structural experimentation in order to concentrate on style and theme. Some were prone to hyperbolic abstraction, while others moved towards Neo-Platonism and the perfection of beauty. Georg Lukács saw metaphysical poetry as a foreshadowing of existentialism.

The most important feature was the metaphysical conceit. The conceit is a stretched metaphor using more conceptual and abstract ideas than a normal metaphor. Normal metaphors replace one story or object with another readily identifiable story or object. Despite the surface change, the inner meaning remains the same. The metaphysical poets, on the other hand, made almost forced comparisons: for example, saying that “love is a table that needs crafting and a good polishing.”

John Donne was one of the most important metaphysical poets of his time. His poems revolved around his inner spirituality as well as psychological analysis and sexual realism. His poems include “The Flea.” Other famous metaphysical poets include Henry Vaughn and George Herbert.

Another exemplar of metaphysical poetry is Andrew Marvell. He is best known for “To His Coy Mistress,” but also wrote metaphysical poems. In “On a Dew Drop,” he uses the line “so the soul, that drop” to compare a dew drop with the human soul.

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Discussion Comments
By Handycell — On Jan 21, 2014

I’m a middle school English teacher who is currently doing a segment on poetry. Some of the kids seem surprisingly enthused about it, which is fantastic because I’ve always been a lover of poetry and metaphysical poetry, in particular. In fact, Donne is one of my favorite poets. I would love to introduce my students to metaphysical poetry, but I have a feeling that it could very easily become too intense and confusing for them. Has anyone taught metaphysical poetry to middle schoolers? If so, how did you approach it? I would love to give them a sample of all the different forms of poetry I can, but I don’t want to throw out anything that might be too much. Any suggestions, fellow teachers?

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