Learn About Metaphysical Poetry and Poets

Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Stevens, and Williams

Poetry
Metaphysical poets used wit, strange imagery to explain life's paradoxes. GETTY Images

Metaphysical poets write on weighty topics such as love and religion using complex metaphors. The word metaphysical is a combination of the prefix of "meta" meaning "after" with the word "physical." The phrase “after physical” refers to something that cannot be explained by science. The term metaphysical poets was first coined by the writer Samuel Johnson in a chapter from his "Lives of the Poets" titled  “Metaphysical Wit” (1779):

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.

Johnson identified the metaphysical poets of his time through their use of extended metaphors called conceits in order to express complex thought. Commenting on this technique, Johnson admitted, "if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage."

Metaphysical poetry can take different forms such as sonnets, quatrains, or visual poetry, and metaphysical poets are found from the 16th century through the modern era.

John Donne

Portrait Of The Poet John Donne (1572-1631) At The Age Of 18
Portrait Of The Poet John Donne (1572-1631) at 18. Heritage Images / Getty Images

John Donne (1572-1631) is synonymous with metaphysical poetry. Born in 1572 in London to a Roman Catholic family during a time when England was largely anti-Catholic, Donne eventually converted to the Anglican faith. In his youth, Donne relied on wealthy friends, spending his inheritance on literature, pastimes, and travel.

Donne was ordained an Anglican priest on the orders of King James I. He secretly married Anne More in 1601, and served time in jail as a result of a dispute over her dowry. He and Anne had 12 children before she died in childbirth.

Donne is known for his Holy Sonnets, many of which were written after the death of Anne and three of his children.

In the Sonnet "Death, Be Not Proud", Donne uses personification to speak to Death, and claims, “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. The paradox Donne uses to challenge Death is

"One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” 

One of the more powerful poetic conceits that Donne employed is in the poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning". In this poem, Donne compared a compass used for drawing circles to the relationship he shared with his wife.

"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;"

The use of a mathematical tool to describe a spiritual bond is an example of the strange imagery which is a hallmark of metaphysical poetry.

George Herbert

George Herbert (1593-1633)
George Herbert (1593-1633) George Herbert ( 1593 – 1633). Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

George Herbert (1593-1633) studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. At  King James I's request, he served in Parliament before becoming a rector of a small English parish. He was noted for the care and compassion he gave to his parishioners, by bringing food, the sacraments, and tending to them when they were ill.

According to Poetry Foundation, "on his deathbed, he handed his poems to a friend with the request that they are published only if they might aid 'any dejected poor soul.'" Herbert died of consumption at the young age of 39.

Many of Herbert’s poems are visual, with space used to create shapes that further enhance the poem's meaning. In the poem "Easter Wings", he used rhyme schemes with the short and long lines arranged on the page. When published, the words were printed sideways on two facing pages so that the lines suggest the outspread wings of an angel. The first stanza looks like this:

"Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store, 
     Though foolishly he lost the same, 
           Decaying more and more, 
                 Till he became 
                       Most poore: 
                       With thee 
                 O let me rise 
           As larks, harmoniously, 
     And sing this day thy victories: 
Then shall the fall further the flight in me." 

In one of his more memorable conceits in the poem titled "The Pulley", Herbert uses a secular, scientific tool (a pulley) to convey a religious notion of leverage that will hoist or draw mankind towards God.

"When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
'Let us,' said he, 'pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.'"

Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell, English metaphysical poet, 17th century, (1899).
Andrew Marvell. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Writer and politician Andrew Marvell's (1621-1678) poetry ranges from the dramatic monologue "To His Coy Mistress" to the praise-filled On Mr. Milton's “Paradise Lost”

Marvell was a secretary to John Milton who sided with Cromwell in the conflict between Parliamentarians and the Royalists that resulted in the execution of Charles I. Marvell served in the Parliament when Charles II was returned to power during the Restoration. When Milton was imprisoned, Marvell petitioned to have Milton freed.

Probably the most discussed conceit in any high school is in Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress." In this poem, the speaker expresses his love and uses the conceit of a “vegetable love” that suggests slow growth and, according to some literary critics, phallic or sexual growth.

"I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;"

In another poem, "The Definition of Love", Marvell imagines that fate has placed two lovers as North Pole and the South Pole. Their love may be achieved if only two conditions are fulfilled, the fall of heaven and the folding of the Earth.

"Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere."

The collapse of the Earth to join lovers at the poles is a powerful example of hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration).

Wallace Stevens

American Poet Wallace Stevens
American Poet Wallace Stevens. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Wallace Stevens (1879-1975 ) attended Harvard University and received a law degree from New York Law School. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.

Stevens wrote his poems under a pseudonym and focused on the transformative power of the imagination. He published his first book of poems in 1923, but did not receive widespread recognition until later in his life. Today he is considered one of the major American poets of the century.

The strange imagery in his poem "Anecdote of the Jar" marks it as a metaphysical poem. In the poem, the transparent jar contains both wilderness and civilization; paradoxically the jar has its own nature, but the jar is not natural.

"I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air."

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams Reading Play to Two Actors
Poet and author Dr. William Carlos Williams (center) reviews his play A Dream of Love with actors Geren Kelsey (left) and Lester Robin. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) began writing poetry as a high school student. He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he became friends with the poet Ezra Pound.

Williams sought to establish American poetry that centered on common items and everyday experiences as evidenced in “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Here Williams uses an ordinary tool such as a wheelbarrow to describe the significance of time and place.

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow"

Williams also called attention to the paradox of the insignificance of a single death against a large expanse of life. In the poem Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he contrasts a busy landscape—noting the sea, the sun, springtime, a farmer plowing his field—with the death of Icarus:

"unsignificantly off the coast

there was a splash quite unnoticed

this was Icarus drowning"