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(8) The Metaphysical Poets

Metaphysical Poets

- a label used for a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century

- the term was first applied by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century to describe the supposed contortions of style and strained 'conceits' of the poets who defied the then accepted 'classical' canons of taste

- the poets shared an interest in metaphysical concerns and a common way of investigating them

- wrote rigorous and energetic verse appealing to the reader's intellect rather than emotions

- employed inventive and elaborate style, learned imagery, paradox, and oxymoron

- metaphysics: a branch of speculative philosophy concerned with explaining the world

- metaphysical poets: John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Sir John Suckling

- metaphysical religious poets: George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan

John Donne (1572 - 1631)

Life and Career

- born into a Roman Catholic family, but in his twenties converted to the English church to avoid persecution

- his way to prosperity was spoilt by a secret marriage to a niece of his prominent employer, on which he was forced to retire to a country life beset by financial insecurity

- King James I prevented his civil promotion and urged on him an ecclesiastical career, he finally consented and became a successful court preacher and dean of St Paul's Cathedral

> Sermons (published 1640):

- contains eighty of his sermons, prepared for the publication and revised by the author himself

- his sermons were greatly appreciated for their powerful metaphorical style, bold erudition, and dramatic wit

- prefers contemplating sin, death, and judgement rather than rejoicing at the prospect of heaven

>> "Death's Duel" (1631, published 1632):

- his own funeral sermon, the last sermon he delivered, having risen for the occasion from his deathbed

- stresses the interconnection of life and death throughout human existence

- calls for repentance not only from an awareness of his own early death, but also from a sense of shared mortality

Poetic Style

- favoured the classical Roman genres of satire and elegy

- wrote occasional poems for friends and patrons and for small coteries of courtiers and ladies

- uses starling and playful images, puns, paradoxes, and elaborate metaphors known as 'conceits'

- ostentatiously displays his intelligence, wit, and erudition

- renders his poems as dramatic monologues in which the speaker's ideas seem to evolve from one line to another

- presents the dynamic mental conflict with its own creative energy which may lead to the resolution of a paradox

- uses dramatic prosody, his variable and jagged rhythms mirror the effect of speech

- his poems contain a great variety of attitudes, viewpoints, and feelings on the subjects of love and religion

- exploits theological language in love poetry and daringly erotic images in religious verse


> Satires (c. 1590s, printed 1633):

- speculative, colloquial, and boisterous, suggesting a narrator trapped in the animated life of the streets and houses

- four of his five satires treat commonplace Elizabethan topics of foppish courtiers, bad poets, corrupt lawyers, etc.

- unique in his use of images of pestilence, itchy lust, vomit, excrement, and pox to create a corrupt satiric world

- one of his satires treats the quest for true religion, arguing that doubting search is preferable to simple acceptance of any established religious tradition

> Elegies (mostly c. 1590s, printed 1633):

- his love elegies are witty representations of adventurous travel and love liaisons

>> "Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed":

- variously compares the human body to a map, a landscape, or a continent

- his fondling of a naked lover becomes in a conceit the equivalent of exploration in America

>> "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":

- develops the image of a circle which stands for eternity, having neither a beginning nor an end, but being both

> Songs and Sonnets (published posthumously, 1633):

- challenges the popular Petrarchan sonnet sequences of 1590s: there is only one formal sonnet, the songs are not notably lyrical, rather draws on a whole range of literary traditions concerned with love

- comprises fifty-five various poems developing different situations, but always presenting a speaker in immediate relation to a listener

- reveals intensive emotions which are not static but rather shifting and evolving with the turns of the poet's thought

>> "The Flea":

- light-hearted, witty, cynical, and frankly lustful in the Ovidian mode

- comically demonstrates the folly of resisting seduction

>> "The Funeral":

- presents himself as the Petrarchan lover of an unattainable lady

- makes an easy, even jesting, play with mortality

>> "The Sun Rising":

- an Ovidian celebration of eroticism in an irreverent address to the Sun who has dared to awake the sleeping lovers

- presents two worlds, one of petty activity and drudgery, another of wealth and power, but both outclassed by love

Lancelot Andrewes (1555 - 1626)

- a contemporary of metaphysical poets, though not one himself, together with J. Donne a major court preacher

- delivered his sermons at the court on the great feast-days of the Christian calender

- felt antipathy to Puritan rigidity, particularly in matters concerned with the absolute authority of the Scriptures

> XCVI Sermons (1629):

- gives exacting, precise, unemotional, yet powerful arguments analysing Scriptural texts

- concentrates on several words of the text from which he steadily extracts meaning

- preoccupied with the logos, which he takes both as the literal Word of God and as the focus of his teaching

Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678)

- wrote in a great range of genres and styles, claimed both the private worlds of love and religion and the public worlds of political and satirical poetry and prose

- politically accepted the Restoration, but maintained his own independent vision and belief in religious toleration

- many of his dramatic monologue poems are spoken by named naive personas, as e.g. the Mower or the Nymph

- in many poems explores the human condition in terms of fundamental dichotomies which resist resolution

- religious and philosophical poems deal with the conflict between nature and grace, body and soul, or poetic creation and sacrifice: "The Cornet" or "The Dialogue Between the Soul and Body"

- love poems focus on the conflict between flesh and spirit, physical sex and platonic love, or idealizing courtship and the ravages of time: "The Definition of Love" or "To His Coy Mistress"

- pastorals oppose nature and art, the fallen and the Edenic state, or violent passion and contentment: "The Garden"

- his political poems set the traditional order against providential revolutionary change and the goods and costs of retirement against those of action and war: "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" (1650)

> "Upon Appleton House":

- refers to the period he spent as a tutor to the daughter of Thomas Fairfax at Nunappleton where Fairfax retired after giving over his command of the Parliamentary army to Cromwell as he was unwilling to invade Scotland

- opposes the attractions of various kinds of retirement to the duties of action and reformation

- adapts the small-scale genre of the country-house poem to an epic-like scope comprising the myth of origin of the Fairfax family, the experiences of the poet-tutor, and projected future of the daughter of the house, etc.

> "To His Coy Mistress":

- a typically carpe diem poem voiced by a witty and urbane speaker in balanced and artful couplets

- addresses an indecisive lady and presses her to yield before the extinction of passion and its corruption by time ('Had we but World enough and Time, / This coyness Lady were no crime.')

- sees an unconsummated relationship standing frailly against a background of mortality, war, and final Judgement

- briefly, even desperately, holds out the possibility of a physical triumph against the impending change and decay

> "The Garden":

- describes gardens as the source of the symbolic crowns awarded to saints, soldiers, athletes, and poets; as the source of metaphors for and expression of physical love; and suggests that all passion ends in vegetable life

- the poem represents an attempt to recapture innocence through meditation and solitude ('a green Thought in a green shade') and imagines the world as an exclusive paradise possessed by a solitary Adam

Sir John Suckling (1609 - 1642)

- his life and work embodies the Cavalier ideal of an aristocratic wit, gallant, lover, soldier, and gamester

- represents the easy, confident, flirtatious, morally lax, and essentially unearnest world of courtly manners

- his poems and songs adopt various stances to the subject of love: cynical debunking of love myths, frank enjoyment of sensual pleasure, or invitations to love

> Fragmenta Aurea (1646):

- a posthumous collection of his poems, plays, and letters

>> "Against Fruition": claims that the greatest delights of love are in the chase

>> "A Session of the Poets": a witty satire on his contemporaries describing a contest for the post of poet laureate

>> "A Ballad upon a Wedding": a playful epithalamion demystifying the usual celebration of the cosmic and religious significances of marriage by detailing comic rustic parallels and identifying sex as the great leveller

George Herbert (1593 - 1633)

- like J. Donne hesitated for some years before being ordained, but unlike Donne served in a small country parish

- loosely associated with the metaphysical poets, but his style is deceptively simple, marked by ease and grace

- wrote poems of tight construction, exact diction, and perfectly controlled tone

- developed biblical poetics based on the language, metaphors, and symbolism of the Bible

- manifest a great intellectual and emotional range and mastery of a variety of stanzaic forms and rhythmic patterns

- unlike Donne does not voice fears about his salvation but rather focuses on defining his relationship with God

- most often represents his relationship to God as that of friend with friend, though radically unequal in status

- presents the relation of God to man in terms of a hierarchical society based on obligation both by duty and love

- exercised a major influence on the religious lyric poets of the Caroline age: R. Crashaw, H. Vaughan, T. Traherne

> The Temple (1633):

- his single volume of religious poetry

>> "The Church-Porch": a long prefatory poem

>> "Church Militant": a long concluding poem

>> The Church: the title for nearly two hundred short lyrics, including sonnets, songs, hymns, laments, meditative poems, dialogue poems, acrostic poems, emblematic poems, and other verse enclosed by the two long poems above

- the unifying motif of the volume is the biblical metaphor of the New Testament temple in the human heart

- often agonizes over the necessary inability of a Christian poet to praise God adequately: "The Altar" or "Easter"

- some dialogue poems are resolved by the voice of a divine friend heard within: "The Collar"

- many poems treat church liturgy, architecture, and art: "Church Monuments" or "The Windows"

- some poems are related to religious emblems and present image and picture at once (i.e. are shaped on the page so as to resemble the object dealt with in the poem): "The Altar" or "Easter Wings"

>> "The Collar":

- evokes resistance to service which is finally put an end to in response to the steady call of Christ

>> "Affliction":

- describes a changing understanding of service to a lord, which is first rewarding, then seemingly disappointing

- at all times insists on an obligation shaped by duty as well as the more pressing demands of love

>> "Love III":

- the concluding poem of the volume, a colloquy personifying God as Love who welcomes the sinner to his feast, insistently answering each protest of unworthiness with a gentle assertion of his grace

- entertains the uneasy guest and the would-be servant as equals

Richard Crashaw (c. 1613 - 1649)

- the only major representative of the continental baroque

- the baroque style is exuberant, rhetorical, florid, sensuous, and elaborately ornamented

- renders the spiritual though the senses, uses sensuous metaphors for religious themes

- his favourite subjects are angels and cherubs, the infant Jesus, the bloody wounds of the saviour, the suffering of the Virgin, the tears of the penitent Magdalene, the agonies of martyrs, etc.

- originally served as Anglican priest, but converted to Roman Catholicism for the last four years of his life

- his poetry was influenced by the poetics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation

- his chief influence was G. Herbert, which is reflected in very the title of his collection Steps to the Temple

> Epigrammatica Sacra (1634):

- a collection of Latin epigrams showing the influence of the Jesuit epigram style

- marked by sophisticated rhetoric, puns, paradoxes, antitheses, metallic wit, and sometimes grotesque metaphors

> Steps to the Temple (1646, expanded 1648):

- his two collections of sacred poems published under the same title

> The Delight of the Muses (1646):

- his collection of secular poems

>> "Music's Duel":

- a much elaborated version of an earlier work by a Jesuit poet about the contest of a nightingale and a lutenist

- imitates musical sounds by liquid vowels, smooth syntax, sound repetitions, and onomatopoeia

- creates the effect of continual metamorphosis by using synaesthesia, i.e. the collapsing of one sense into another

- renders the experience of religious ecstasy

Henry Vaughan (1621 - 1695)

- his Welsh origin is reflected in his poetic language of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, in his consistent use of natural imagery, and in his sensitiveness to landscape

> Silex Scintillans (The Flashing Flint, 1650, expanded 1655):

- his major collection of religious verse

- the title is explicated by an emblem of a flint-like heart struck by a bolt of lightning from the hand of God

- the choice of the flint derives from a Latin pun on 'silex' and on the ancient British tribe of 'Silures' from which he claimed descent, referring to himself as 'The Silurist'

- indebted to G. Herbert, which is reflected in a multitude of Herbertian echoes, allusions, and quotations

- differs from Herbert's artful precision in his own long, loose, free-flowing poetic line

- the underlying motif of the collection is a pilgrimage of a solitary wanderer mourning his lost innocence

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    David Livingstone.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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