The Metaphysical poets were a loose group of similarly-minded poets working in the 16th and 17th
centuries. They rebelled against the strict, structured nature of the sonnet form and began working
in their own ways, expressing novel ideas in inventive poetic forms. These poets also aimed at a less
polite, more colloquial and playful, entertaining style of writing. Some of them wrote in a distinctly
secular manner, focussing on love, sex and relationships. Other poets considered religious life and
love in great detail.
“Metaphysical” is drawn from two Greek words: “Meta”, meaning beyond and “Physika”, meaning
of the physical. This form of poetry aims to think and speak beyond the physical world. Most of
these poems therefore begin in the very real, visceral, physical world and then extend beyond this to
deal with life, love, morals, religion, time and existence. The poetry is very often compact in its ideas
and images; it employs analogy and has been described, over the years, as being very difficult and
dense in its content, images and ideas. Indeed, Jonson complained that many of Donne’s poems are
excessively difficult to understand. Jonson felt that Donne’s poems, some written to women, are too
difficult for women to understand!
Metaphysical poetry has several important features:
1] the conceit--"farfetched," "combination of dissimilar images," "heterogeneous ideas yoked by
violence together"—the conceits show far greater intellectuality than Petrarchan conceit.
2] complexity & obscurity:
4] exaggeration, hyperbole:
5] rebellion against Petrarchan and Elizabethan poetic conventions:
6] colloquial language:
7] natural speech rhythms or extreme distortions of metrical patterns--"modulation so imperfect
that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables":
8] irregular lines and stanzas:
9] argumentative form and content:
10] persona & situation--like dramatic monologue in many cases.
Metaphors are a popular way of compacting ideas in Metaphysical poetry. These poets drew
heavily from their time and built comparisons based on geography, exploration, new worlds
and ideas and conquering both new worlds and potential lovers. The metaphors created are
known for being unusual and interesting. These poets often yoked together strikingly
different images or ideas in metaphors. This unusual conceit is a hallmark of Metaphysical
John Donne 1572-1631
John Donne was one of the leading metaphysical poets of the Renaissance, with a hugely
varied body of work ranging from sermons to sonnets, and elegies to pamphlets. A
contemporary of Shakespeare, he is known for both his love poetry and religious verse,
and often used complex conceits, such as extended
metaphors, with startling impact.
Donne was born in London in 1572 into a Catholic family at a
time when Catholicism was illegal. He studied at both Oxford
and Cambridge but could not graduate because of his faith.
After university he became a soldier and fought on the
continent and then returned to a promising civil service
career. But Donne effectively stalled his own career when he
secretly married his employer's teenage niece, Anne More.
Her uncle was furious and had him arrested. Though he was
later released from prison, he found it hard to find
employment, and over the coming years he would be unable
to support his increasingly large family without charitable
When King James I came to power, Donne converted to the
Church of England and moved towards religious poetry,
writing prose attacking the Catholic faith. In 1615, in a final change of fortune, Donne
took holy orders and rose quickly in his profession to become the Dean of St Paul's
Cathedral in London. Towards the end of his life he wrote the famous Holy Sonnet X
(Death be not Proud). He died in 1631, and his work was never published in his lifetime.
No Man Is An Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
George Herbert 1593–1633
Nestled somewhere within the Age of Shakespeare and the Age of Milton is George
Herbert. There is no Age of Herbert: he did not consciously fashion an expansive literary
career for himself, and his characteristic gestures, insofar as these can be gleaned from
his poems and other writings, tend to be careful self-scrutiny rather than rhetorical
pronouncement; local involvement rather than broad social engagement; and complex,
ever-qualified lyric contemplation rather than epic or dramatic mythmaking. This is the
stuff of humility and integrity, not celebrity. But even if Herbert does not appear to be
one of the larger-than-life cultural monuments of seventeenth-century England—a
position that virtually requires the qualities of irrepressible ambition and boldness, if not
self-regarding arrogance, that he attempted to flee—he is in some ways a pivotal figure:
enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and
important British devotional lyricist (religious poet) of this or any other time.
Herbert is also important, especially in the seventeenth century, not only as a poet but
as a cultural icon, an image of religious and political stability held up for emulation
during tumultuous times. Much of his early popularity owes something to the carefully
crafted persona of "holy Mr Herbert" put forth by the custodians of his literary works and
reputation. Herbert is sketched as one who exchanged the advantages of noble birth and
worldly preferment for the strains of serving at "Gods Altar," one whose "obedience and
conformitie to the Church and the discipline thereof was singularly remarkable," and
whose "faithfull discharge" of the holy duties to which he was called "make him justly a
companion to the primitive Saints, and a pattern or more for the age he lived in."
Herbert becomes a model of harmonious, orderly, non-controversial devotion for whom
faith brought answers and commitment to the social establishment, not divisive
questions and social fragmentation.
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk'd with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
Andrew Marvell 1621-1678
Andrew Marvell was an English metaphysical poet, Parliamentarian, and the son of a
Church of England clergyman (also named Andrew Marvell). As a metaphysical poet, he
is associated with Joh