Metaphysical poetry, a well known genre of poetry that started in 16th century England, has greatly influenced contemporary poets and those who practice metaphysics everywhere. Known for both the common themes, and the shared literary functions and styles, metaphysical poetry started in England and spread across Europe during the 16th and 17th century and facilitated a wave of independent thought throughout the area.
Most metaphysical poetry was written by English men of a middle or upper class level who were involved with the English Church and clergy. These poets are said not to have met each other or to have communicated in any way, but they share a large amount of similarities. Due to the high political and cultural involvement the English Church had during the time period, it made sense for people in power to request poets to be a part of the church so as to discourage them from writing negatively or working against the church. This tactic sometimes worked, as in the case of George Herbert, but mostly backfired.
Stylistically, metaphysical poets are categorized by a few different literary devices. Firstly, metaphysical poets frequently employ the lyrical style of poetry. Lyric poetry is poetry written in the first person and is generally about deep emotions of an amazing personal experience. While lyrical poetry does tend to have a structure or rhyme scheme, there is not a strict on such as poetry forms like a sonnet.
Metaphysical poets are also very well known for employing a literary device called a conceit. A conceit is an extended analogy where the two items being compared do not fit within a clear cut comparison. For example, to compare a table to a desk would make sense, but comparing a table to a book would not. The way conceits worked was to make the unclear comparison and then to explain the connection to the two items throughout the arc of the poem. This tactic led to the metaphysical poets being able to create large extended metaphors that carried the weight of social commentary or criticism.
One such example of a conceit is from John Donne’s poem entitled “A Valediction: A Forbidden Mourning.” In the beginning of the poem, John Donne sets up the speaker as a man who craves adventure and does not always live by social norms. Throughout the poem he encourages a woman to do so as well, and even though he will not stay by this woman forever, he encourages her to become intimate with him this one time. In this poem, he makes a comparison of two souls as two separate ends of a drawing compass. While this comparison does not initially make sense, by the close of the poem John Donne’s intentions are very clear.
“If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.”
Two popular themes in metaphysical poetry are love and religion. Love, lust, romance, and all that accompanies it is a frequent theme throughout the metaphysical poet catalog, and a subject contemporary poets still look for advice on today. Poets such as Andrew Marvell wrote very candidly about love during his life. The focus on love as a force to be reckoned with and as an incomparable feeling was a frequent lament. Metaphysical poets were also very focused on the chase and ensnarement of women, and would frequently try to persuade women to engage in sexual intercourse with them through the use of a suave poem.
Another large theme that metaphysical poets grappled with was religion. Many people who practice metaphysical spirituality do not believe in an organized religion. Some poets, such as Richard Crashaw, were resistant to the political hold the church had over the state government and wanted to encourage people to think for themselves when it came to religion and spirituality. Many poets wrote strong and scathing satires of the English Church and encouraged people to move away from their system and to think independently about life changing questions such as “what will happen after I die?” or “what is this world truly made up of?”