The term metaphysical itself is very self-explanatory as to what it stands for. “Meta” is the word equivalent of anything that is above or beyond the “physical”, which stands for the physical world, things and objects that abide by the laws of physics. Metaphysical poetry therefore, serves the purpose of using words to reach the deepest realms of understanding than its exact prose paraphrase. Philosophy and the abstract, emotions and the otherworldly, metaphysical poetry depicts and illustrates intangible matters in ways that does not require any overweighing words or even the excess use of it. This paper aims to look at what makes metaphysical poetry what it is, what makes John Donne a metrist and how are the elements reflected in his works.
Metaphysical poetry tackles with unambiguous meanings that hit one’s understanding in such a way that most others cannot. And it does so with a set of literary devices known as conceits, metaphors, hyperboles, imagery, carpe diem etc. A conceit, which is to make comparisons between the unlikeliest of things, is a key element in metaphysical poetry. For instance, John Donne in his poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, he compares two entwined lovers to the two separate legs of a compass, hinting at the individual lovers being connected to each other in an inseparable manner, even though they are singular entities. And in his poem The Sun Rising the central conceit lies around the poetic persona comparing the unwelcomed intruder, the sun as an “unruly” elderly person. Author Andrew Cutrofello in his book titled The Insistence of Art, “To write metaphysically meant to write “wittily.” True wit consisted in the ability to bring apparently opposite things into harmony with one another” (2). Another key characteristic of metaphysical poetry is carpe diem, which means to seize the day. To elaborate, it emphasizes how one must make the most of the time that they have, living life, as we know it, to the fullest. Andrew Marvells, in his poem To His Coy Mistress illustrates this element when the poetic persona says, “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;” emphasizing on the limited amount of time the speaker has. In the same poem, a hyperbole which is exaggeration of certain things, (in this particular case, time and its exaggerated pace) can be noticed in these lines as the poetic persona says to his lover, “Vaster than empires and more slow;/ An hundred years should go to praise /Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; /Two hundred to adore each breast, /But thirty thousand to the rest;”. These elements undoubtedly make metaphysical poetry standout from its brethren and gives it the sort of individuality it is known for. Aside from these elements, the subject matter of most metaphysical poetry associates with philosophical matters, things otherworldly to us and even abstract emotions such as love.
The characteristics which set metaphysical poetry apart from other forms of poetry, and makes it what it is, is exactly what makes John Donne a metrist. The elements of metaphysical poetry given the shape as we see it today, has largely been shaped from the ways of Donne’s works. In his poem The Canonization , there are a lot of well-arched metaphors such as, when the poetic persona says that he and his lover are like moths drawn to a candle “her one, me another fly”, and again when it is mentioned how the two lovers embody the eagle in resemblance of a strong and masculine entity, and the dove in resemblance of a peaceful and feminine entity, as they are bound by the image of the phoenix, dying but then rising once more by love. One can find instances of implemented hyperboles in Donne’s poems as well, for example, in his poem The Sun Rising these particular lines, “ Thy beames, so reverend, and strong/Why shouldst thou think?/I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,/But that I would not lose her sight so long;” exaggerate the fact of how the poetic persona could, if he wished, make the sun disappear with only a mere wink, but he chose not to do so because it would mean he would not be able to view his lover for the moments he had kept his eyes closed. Donne’s works are very lyrical and are arranged in such a manner that one’s reverie can be broken with an aha-moment of enlightenment, as is with most metaphysical poetry. Author Arthur H. Nethercot in an article titled The Reputation of John Donne as A Metrist, mentions “The melody in Donne’s lyrics could escape only the orally and mentally deaf” (469). Instances of wit or literary conceits are also very prominent in his poems as mentioned previously. It is no surprise that Donne’s name is such a celebrated one in the realms of metaphysical poetry and his works adored to this day, as they remain the frontrunners in the genre still. Donne is a true metrist both in style and in substance regarding his poetry.
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John Donne having evidently a knack for crafting the art which is metaphysical poetry, has had the required characteristics very skillfully embedded in his poems. The style and the elements all compliment each other making the poems beloved throughout the ages. In an article titled DONNE’S METAPHYSICAL POETRY: A NEW THEORY OF LOVE, Dr. Mushtaq Ahmad says,
It is neither the content nor the form but style that gives it the name. Their style was distinguished by witticism, casuistry and metaphysical conceits that are realized by farfetched or eccentric similes or metaphors, such as in Donne’s comparison of tear with a coin. Strange paradoxes, far-fetched imagery and the use of quasi-logic are the hallmarks of metaphysical poetry. (281)
Which goes to show how Donne engraved these particular aspects with finesse in his poems, the wit, the metaphors, exaggerations and the like, the exact set of elements that make metaphysical poetry, so metaphysical, are indeed the same set of elements that give credibility to his title of being a true metrist.
Metaphysical poetry, throughout the years has survived and aged very well as the intricate way of words that deliver unambiguous meanings continues to enchant generation after generation over time. It is undoubtedly a form of art to be marveled at for what it is, as well as Donne’s works which make him a successful metrist, with embedded elements of it so delightfully engraved in his poems.