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Metaphysical Poetry: Definition and Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

John Donne: The Pioneer of Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne: The Pioneer of Metaphysical Poetry

Definition of Metaphysical Poetry

Samual Johnson was the first person, who invented the term Metaphysical Poetry, while talking about the life of Abraham Cowley in his book, "Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets" (1779–81). He says that, at the beginning of the 17th century, a race of writers appeared, who may be regarded as Metaphysical Poets.

Etymologists are of the view that the expression Metaphysical is a derivative of the Latin word Metaphysica, which is a combination of two words: Meta and Physica. The word meta means ‘beyond’ or ‘after’. It is a prefix and is equally used in English. It refers to things or concepts, which are abstract. Literally, Physica means ‘work’, but in this case, it is considered as something, which is having a concrete shape.

So, the term Metaphysical may be defined as ‘Beyond physical work’. In this regard, R.S Hillyer asserts that "the Metaphysical deals with the notion of existence, with the existing universe and man’s place therein. Roughly, it has taken such implications as these- philosophical, difficult, ethereal, obscure, supercilious, ingenious, odd and bizarre. Poetry, which deals with correlation between the real world and the after-world, concrete and abstract, soul and being, as well as reality and perception using philosophical methodology is called Metaphysical Poetry."

Now, let’s move ahead and probe into the characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry. Following are some of its features, which may help you understand the nature of metaphysical poetry:

10 Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

There are many characteristics of metaphysical poetry, which distinguish it from other forms of poetry. Here are some of the important characteristics of metaphysical poetry:

  1. Obscurity
  2. Brevity
  3. Aphorism
  4. Metaphysical Conceits
  5. Unified Sensibility
  6. Colloquialism
  7. Originality
  8. Wit
  9. Platonic Love
  10. Spirituality

1. Obscurity in Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is considered highly ambiguous and obscure due to high intellect and knowledge of the metaphysical poets. Their poetry is greatly challenging to understand at first reading. It needs deep concentration and full attention to get to the roots of the matter. John Donne’s many poems are best examples in this regard. Ben Jonson was of the view about the future of John Donne that his popularity would not live longer because of his inability to reveal himself to the reader openly.

2. Brevity in Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is considered to be highly terse and concise in the history of poetry. These poems are very brief and short in length. Every line conveys a lot of meaning in very few words. There is no waste of words. Every word is adjusted in every line like a brick in a wall. Nothing is superfluous and spare. Every word has its own function and conveys the message of the author. Metaphysical poetry is like the essays of Bacon in brevity and conciseness in the history of English literature. Have a look at the following lines from John Donne’s poetry:

I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying
In whining poetry.

(The Triple Fool By John Donne)

Just such disparity
As if 'twixt air and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's will ever be.

(Air and Angels By John Donne)


3. Aphorism in Metaphysical Poetry

Epigrammatic quality is another aspect of metaphysical poetry. Their poetry is a vast collection of maxims and sayings. John Donne’s is a pioneer in this regard. His poetry is replete with numerous maxims. Look at the following lines from his poetry and conclude yourself how epigrammatic these are:

And swear
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

(Song: Go and catch a falling star By John Donne)

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say no.

(A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning By John Donne)

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What is a Metaphysical Poem?

What is a Metaphysical Poem?

4. Metaphysical Conceits

A significant feature of Metaphysical Poetry is the use of metaphysical conceits. It is a unique quality of Metaphysical Poetry. Conceit is a far-fetched comparison of two dissimilar things, which have very little in common. Metaphysical poetry is brimming with metaphysical conceits. For example Abraham Cowley in his poem ‘The Mistress’ compares his love for ladies to his habit of travelling in various countries of the world:

Hast thou not found each woman's breast
(The lands where thou hast travelled)
Either by savages possest,
Or wild and uninhabited?
What joy couldst take, or what repose,
In countries so unciviliz'd as those?

(The Mistress by Abraham Cowley)

5. Unified Sensibility

It was T.S Eliot, who coined this phrase ‘Unified Sensibility'. According to him, Unified Sensibility implies fusion of thoughts and feelings together. In the history of English Literature, either poets laid great emphasis on intellect, reason, thinking or feelings and emotions. This separation of reason and feeling is called Dissociation of Sensibility.

We are all aware of the fact that in the Age of Pope, poets tried to set aside their emotions and wrote poetry purely a product of their reason and intellect. hey just overemphasized reason and judgment and did not give any importance to the feelings of a person. On the other hand, fusion of thoughts and feelings is called the unification of sensibility. Unification of Sensibility is the most imperative feature of Metaphysical Poetry.

Metaphysical poets didn't dissociate feelings and reasons from one another. They tried their best to fuse them together. Their poetry indicates an amazing amalgam of spiritual and physical, ethereal and earthly, abstract and concrete, thoughts and emotions. This feature is also called juxtaposition of opposite things. That is why their poetry is difficult to understand. Their love for philosophy has a prodigious impact on their poetry.

6. Colloquialism

Colloquialism is another vital feature of Metaphysical Poetry. Metaphysical poets reacted against the traditional diction of the poets. They employed their own diction in their poetry. They mostly used informal language instead of formal, dignified and sublime language like Milton in their poetry. They tried to use colloquial language. For example Johan Donne in his poem ‘The Canonization’ uses a very simple diction:

FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve.

(The Canonization by John Donne)

Call's what you will, we are made such by love ;
Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die.

(The Canonization by John Donne)


7. Originality

Originality is the hallmark of metaphysical poets. All the metaphysical poets were unique and original in their ideas and thoughts. They didn’t follow the trodden path of their contemporary poets. They stood in rebellion against them and followed their own way of writing poetry.

They wanted to startle their readers by presenting unique and unheard and unseen ideas before them. They desired to differentiate themselves from the outmoded poets in every respect. That is why they are called original poets in the history of English literature.

For example, John Donne in his poem ‘The Flee’ forbids his wife from killing a flee because he has the feeling that this killing of a flee will cause murdering of three souls. Look at the following lines taken from The Flee:

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

(The Flee by John Donne)

8. Wit

Wit is also a noteworthy feature of Metaphysical Poetry. Metaphysical wit is the expression of one’s idea and thoughts, using aptly and technically the words and various figures of speech in such a manner as to provide pleasure to the readers. Johan Donne is called the ‘Monarch of Wit’ in the history of Metaphysical poetry.

He uses informal, argumentative and simple language in such a way that the reader gets wondered at the ideas of the poet. Pope has rightly said about John Donne, “Donne had no imagination, but as much wit, I think, as any writer can possibly have.” Have a look at the following lines taken from John Donne’s poetry, which proves him a monarch of wit:

All that is lovable is wonderful
The mistress is wonderful,
Therefore the mistress is lovable.

(Elegy II Anagram by John Donne)

9. Platonic Love

Platonic love is another characteristic of Metaphysical Poetry. Platonic love means spiritual love, which is free from elements of physical love. John Donne is famous for treating spiritual love in his poems. For example in ‘Canonization’, he considers love as a sanctified thing. Have a look at the following examples, which provide an evidence of platonic love in his poetry:

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes,
For he who color loves, and skin,
Loves but their oldest clothes.

(The Undertaking by John Donne)

10. Spirituality

Metaphysical poetry is characterized by its use of philosophical and spiritual themes. In metaphysical poetry, the poet often explores the nature of reality, existence, and truth.

This type of poetry often uses devices such as allegory, symbols, and metaphors to explore these concepts. Metaphysical poetry often attempts to answer some of life's big questions. What is the nature of reality? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? These are just some of the questions that metaphysical poets often explore.

For example, John Donne's sonnets are characterized by their focus on spirituality. In these poems, Donne explores the relationship between the physical and the spiritual world, and how the two interact. He also examines the role of religion in human life, and how it can impact our day-to-day existence. These themes make Donne's sonnets some of the most thought-provoking and introspective works of poetry ever written.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq


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Gehad anwar on November 22, 2019:

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Kanhaiya on November 11, 2019:

Nice ...Really it is very useful

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 05, 2019:

Thanks for your comments. Actually, it takes a lot of time to write such like articles. It needs extensive study and research!

Akshi Shekhawat from India on October 04, 2019:

Remarkable and laconic elucidation you have rendered here sir with incisive analysis and a lucid style. I read two of your articles and impeccably they have a well structured portrayal. Its really appreciable for its rich content and all onerous research. My inquisition is that how much time does it take to derive such fabulous content sir?

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on September 11, 2017:

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

sherin on September 10, 2017:

this has been so helpful for me. its hard to find an article that has all the main characteristics of metaphysical poetry with examples.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on September 01, 2017:

You are welcome, Gopal!

Gopal Gogoi on September 01, 2017:

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Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on July 08, 2017:

Thanks for your comments.

javed palal on July 08, 2017:

Such an informative topic you have shared here dear..

Nice,keep it up..

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 26, 2017:

Thanks Nizar Cromwell for your feedback. Actually, this article is based on a thorough research and extensive study of the topic. I read various articles on internet and the study notes that are available in Pakistan and then I wrote this article. I tried to clarify what metaphysical poetry is.

Nizar cromwell on March 26, 2017:

It is a very interesting topic, I really appericiate it. Thank you for this great efforts to make metaphysical poetry as much clear as you could. Just one request, please if you have names of books writtung in this regard provide me with them

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 12, 2016:

You are welcome! I am glad it helped you.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 05, 2016:

Thanks Psshravan for your comments. I'm glad it helped you. on October 03, 2016:

great help for information seekers!!you are doing a magnificient job for the readers sir.thank you

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on July 06, 2016:

Thanks Purple Pablo for commenting and stopping by. I'm glad you liked it.

Stefan Zlatkovic from Novi Sad on July 06, 2016:

An interesting read, with great look at poet and his work. It was very informative and inspiring.

I learned a lot from you.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 24, 2016:

Thanks for subscribing to my channel. Have a nice time.

Ghost from Brazil on April 24, 2016:

Done subscribing! You're doing a great job. Stay blessed :)

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 24, 2016:

Thanks Singer4Freedom for your comments. I'm glad it helped you. For videos on English literature, please visit my YouTube channel:

Ghost from Brazil on April 23, 2016:

really very well written...........i'm a student it's very helpful for me ...please keep posting more about english literature ......thanks & cheers ;)

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on January 17, 2016:

Thanks Karun for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 29, 2015:

Thanks Ujjal Borah for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Ujjal Borah on November 29, 2015:

Very well-written article and refreshed our university days.

We loved Metaphysical poetry in College and University, specially John Donne, and found very interesting.

Hope to read more such articles.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on August 15, 2015:

Thanks Anne Harrision for stopping by and commenting. Yea, John Donne is really difficult to understand, but there is beauty in his complex thoughts. That's why; I like him.

Anne Harrison from Australia on August 15, 2015:

A great summary of a very complex subject. Studying Donne at school, it took many months to start to understand him, but it is an appreciation which has lasted with me. Voted up

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