Metaphysical Poetry

The definition of metaphysical poetry has changed considerably over time; the use of the word ‘poetry’ is fundamental in the start of this description. For example John Donne (who wrote the ‘Flea’ – the first critically acclaimed, metaphysical poem) was not a metaphysical poet, but an individual who wrote metaphysical poetry. Considering his published collection also contained essays, love lyrics and sonnets. However critics suggests that he was apart of an institution of metaphysical poets: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw and Andrew Marvell.

The features of metaphysical poetry have altered over time. During 16th Century Thomas More criticised Protestant reformers as they established their arguments on ‘philosophy and metaphysical reasons’ (Burrow, 2006, pg.19). Thomas More used the word ‘metaphysical’ to mean something dark and mythical. However in the 17th Century the Oxford English Dictionary referred to metaphysical poetry as using unrealistic imagery and ‘witty conceits’ (Burrow, 2006, pg.19). In 1779 Samuel Johnson suggested that there was an institution of poets heading in a similar, self-expressive direction with their poetry. This direction was confirmed in the 19th Century with a further definition in the Oxford English Dictionary – ‘poetry which expresses emotion within an intellectual context’. (Burrow, 2006, pg.21). However the institution of metaphysical poets came from different backgrounds. Therefore, they were unlikely to have any similar opinions and beliefs – leaving the term ‘metaphysical poets’ inaccurate. Metaphysical poetry as we understand it in contemporary terms, is a story that has tropes: love, desire, religion, science, astronomy and death. These stories describe the origin and its historical change; it ultimately concludes with its downfall. The way in which these poems are written are very dramatic, imaginative and far-fetched.

As previously stated, Andrew Marvell was controversially categorised by Samuel Johnson as a metaphysical poet. ‘To his coy mistress’ is comparable with a dramatic monologue. Fundamentally because the speaker is only addressing a silent listener (monologue) and that the poem consists of an argument and a counter argument. However it is also described as a metaphysical poem, due to the far-fetched imagery in order to express feelings and emotions. To summarise the poem, the speaker is saying to the mistress that he desires, that they do not have all the time in the world and especially her ‘coyness’ will not stop him from wanting and pursuing her. He suggests that she should surrender to his desires and receive the pleasure, as life is very short. The poem suggests a ‘seize the day’ approach with references cultural and biblical references – ‘Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Shouldst rubies find’. The reference to India is applicable for that time because during 1650 The British Empire were involved with India. The first stanza presents the problem or an argument with the use of the first word ‘had’. The second stanza uses the first word ‘but’ to suggest a counter argument and the third stanza uses the first word ‘now’ to suggest a solution. These are typical metaphysical features as the poem suggests the a story, the origin and its descent. The rhythm meter is in iambic tetrameter. For example there are four iambic feet in each line. The rhyme scheme is in rhyming couplets in the scheme of AA BB CC DD and so on. However there is an disruption in the second stanza. The words ‘lie’ and ‘eternity’ do not rhyme and same with the words ‘try’ and ‘virginity’. It could be suggested that the writer may of wanted to stress more emphasis in this part of the poem. Therefore, the reader establishes the importance and seriousness of the imagery used; to break away from the rhyme disrupts the melody, flow and harmony (dissonance) and so this ultimately eradicates the soft and childlike features. The writer uses a strong metaphor in stanza one. For example ‘My vegetable love should grow’. The speaker is simply using this form of imagery to suggest a part of a man’s anatomy that could increase in size – or in other words a phallic suggestion which is a key feature of metaphysical poetry. Further features come from elaborate conceits.. For example the descriptions of what he wanted to do to his mistress’ body – ‘to adore each breast’. In stanza two he also uses a hyperbole – ‘then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity’. Which means that if the mistress dies a virgin, then the worms can have sex with her corpse. He uses this hyperbole as a shock factor which can ultimately persuade his mistress into agreeing with his argument.

Just by looking at the structure and the form of ‘To his coy mistress’ we can clearly see that there are metaphysical features. There is substantial evidence that poetry can contain metaphysical characteristics, however to understand whether the poets themselves belonged to the institution of ‘metaphysical poets’ then a detailed account of their beliefs and opinions is needed. This, is impossible to achieve, considering they are no longer alive and so this element can never be wholly debated and proven.


 Burrows, C. (2006). Introduction. In: Metaphysical Poetry . London: Penguin. P19-24.





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