Lecture 14: John Donne’s School I – Features of Metaphysical poetry


The Metaphysical poets
– John Donne
– Here lies a king, that rul’d as he thought fit 
–         The universal monarchy of wit; 
(Thomas Carew on Donne)

John Donne and the Metaphysical Poetry School
Metaphysical? Where does the name come from and what does it mean and why?
– The term “metaphysical” says more about the people who used the term than about the poets described as such.
– According to T. S. Eliot, the term metaphysical was used as a term of ‘abuse’.
– In other words, the early critics did not want people to write Donne’s poetry and therefore they negatively framed him.
– Now the name is stuck as a label rather than a definition.
– The metaphysical poets are a group of poets led by John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvel.
– Donne, like Shakespeare was a veteran, but he only composed poetry.
– Donne wrote poetry as other poets where adopting the classical rules of decorum in writing poetry.
– But Donne was a modernist poet who sought to change both the content and form of poetry.
– For that, Neo-classical poets did not like Donne and viewed him/his poetry as a threat.
– Thanks to 20th century poet and critic T. S. Eliot, many started to admire Donne’s school.

– John Donne’s experimentations can be summarized in (Features of Metaphysical Poetry)
1- Poetic Forms
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 

2- Parody and intertextuality
Come live with me, and be my love, 
And we will some new pleasures prove 
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, 
With silken lines, and silver hooks. 
(Donne’s “The Bait”)

Come live with me and be my love, 
And we will all the pleasures prove, 
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields, 
Woods, or steepy mountain yields. 
(Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”)

3- Conceit, paradoxes and colloquial language

Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat. 

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. 

4- Realism vs Idealism
Compare Marlowe and Donne

5- Display of Wit and Intellectuality
6- Dramatic argumentative style
7- Mixture of Love, religious, and daily life issues.
8- Critical of mainstream/established rules of versification.
9- Empowers women and the subclass and questions the established artistic and societal rules.
10- They discuss personal, rather than epic or collective, themes and issues, even when talking to/about God.
11- Metaphysical poetry is full of very modern ideas, scientific and geographical explorations, original imagery, and inner conflict like the soliloquies of Shakespeare.
12- They experimented with language and verse forms with great originality.

– Donne was famous for his original long metaphors known as conceits.
– A Conceit is a metaphor where the relationship between the tenor and the vehicle is highly unlikely until the poem reveals the ingenious explanation.

Had we but world enough and time, 
This coyness, lady, were no crime. 
We would sit down, and think which way 
To walk, and pass our long love’s day. …
But at my back I always hear 
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; 

Reception/Framing of the Metaphysical poets

In the 20th century, the metaphysical poetry because a model for poets to follow. The revival of the Donne school proves it was the critics who were at fault rather than Donne and his followers. The negative framing of Donne has caused him to be kicked out of the English Canon for about 2 hundred years. Now, in many ways the metaphysicals are more famous that their early critics.

1- Ben Jonson:  Donne “for not being understood would perish” and that “for not keeping of accent [he] deserved hanging”
1- John Dryden: “Donne affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his
amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.”

2- Samuel Johnson: Donne’s poetry is “a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike… The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions.”

3- Alexander Pope: “Donne had no imagination, but as much wit as I think any writer can possibly have”

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