The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Metaphysical Poets

BEFORE

1627 John Donne deploys Metaphysical exaggeration in his melancholic love elegy “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day” – “Oft a flood / Have we two wept, and so / Drowned the whole world, us two…”

1633 “The Agony”, by George Herbert, applies Metaphysical wit to matters of belief – “Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.”

1648 Robert Herrick’s book Hesperides includes the famous carpe diem (“seize the day”) poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, with its famous line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

1650 Henry Vaughan, inspired by George Herbert, publishes “The World”, a poem of mystical devotion.

The term “Metaphysical Poets” was coined by the essayist and literary critic Samuel Johnson to describe a group of 17th-century English writers that included John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). Their style was marked by wit, sophisticated logic, and occult metaphor, and often focused on themes of love, sexuality, and faith.

Sensual pleasures

Better known as a politician than a poet during his lifetime, Marvell produced a body of work, published posthumously as Miscellaneous Poems, that contains the famous love poem “To His Coy Mistress”. In the poem, the speaker tries to persuade the object of his desire to seize the day and sleep with him. His argument to break down her resistance contains typically Metaphysical conceits – fanciful ideas pursued to an imaginative conclusion: “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace.”

History, theology, and astronomy are all brought into play by Marvell, who challenges the puritanical Christianity of the 17th century as a barrier to sensual pleasures.

He also brings vivid imagery and intellectual vitality to the pastoral, in poems such as “The Mower to the Glow Worms” and “The Garden”, where he achieves a beautiful balance between abstraction and the senses, as he eulogizes the pleasure of withdrawing “To a green thought in a green shade”.

"Stumbling on melons, as I pass, / Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass."

“The Garden”

See also: Metamorphoses • Les Amours de Cassandre • Paradise Lost • The Waste Land