Metaphysical poets, selected poems

In terms of essays and books by recognised scholars and critics, it is probably better to stick to the older ones, when Metaphysical criticism was in its youth. Critics then, in the period 1920-1970, were still explaining what exactly Metaphysical poetry was – which is really where you are. More recent books assume a detailed knowledge of the poetry, and go into greater literary or theoretical detail than you need. The following list of books has been annotated with this in mind.


This probably will not concern you much, as you will already have your set text. But if you are interested, these are some of the main editions available:

John Carey ed. John Donne: The Major Works (Oxford: O.U.P.)

Helen Gardner ed.: The metaphysical Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Herbert Grierson ed.: Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford:O.U.P.1921; revised by Alastair Fowler, with modernised spelling, 1995). Grierson's introductory essay is still worth reading.

Theodore Redpath: The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1983)

A.J.Smith ed.: John Donne: The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971). Modernised spelling and a lot of notes!

Critical Work

Joan Bennet: Four Metaphysical Poets (Cambridge: C.U.P. 1934, rev. 1953); furtherrevised as Five Metaphysical Poets (1959). Very much based on Grierson's andT.S.Eliot's appreciation of the poets.

Stevie Davies: John Donne (London: Northcote House, 1994). This is one of the British Council series written for students. The chapter on ‘The Male' is a good introduction to feminist criticism, but unlike the T.S.Eliot essay on Herbert, shedoes use some tough critical language.

T.S.Eliot: His two essays on ‘The Metaphysical Poets' and ‘Marvell' are still excellent to read.They can be found in a number of places, for example his Selected Essays (1932). The fullest account is in two lecture series Eliot gave in 1926 and 1933. These can be found in The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry ed. Ronald Schuchard (London:Faber,1993)

His later booklet on ‘George Herbert' (1962) can be found with an introduction byPeter Porter in the British Council series of English authors published by Northcote House (1994). There are chapters on his life and background; The Temple; and a comparison between Herbert and Donne.

Seamus Heaney: The Redress of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). This is a public lecture mainly on George Herbert.

Julian Lovelock ed. Donne: Songs and Sonnets (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973). This is the earlier ‘Casebook' on Donne, which contains all the classic criticism of Donne. It also includes an argument between two good critics, C.S.Lewis and Joan Bennett. Lewis was a literary historian who wrote on Donne in the Oxford History of English Literature. N.B. Don't read the new Casebook (ed. Andrew Mousley, 1999) – mm the essays there are much too technical, dealing with deconstruction; psycho-analytic approaches; feminism and historicism.

Louis Martz: The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1954). This is a tougher book, about the religious poetry of the metaphysicals and Ignatian meditation.

A.J. Pollard ed. Andrew Marvell: Poems (Basingstoke: Macmillan). This is in the Casebook series, so it will have some of the older classical essays on Marvell, as well as excerpts from some more recent work.

Isabel Rivers: Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Student's Guide (London: Rutledge, Kegan Paul, 1979, rev.1994). This is a book you can dip in to, for instance into sections on the Garden of Eden; Platonism; Protestant Theology; and ways of explaining the Bible.

Rosamund Tuve: Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1947)About the best book on Metaphysical conceits and imagery. Dip into it. A Reading of George Herbert (London: Faber, 1952, rev.1965). Very good on Herbert's imagery, and very sympathetic to him.

James Winny: A Preface to Donne (London: Longmans, 1970, rev. Pearson, 1981). The first part deals with his life and background. The second part contains seven analyses of poems.

If you really see yourself as an advanced scholar, and want examples from some of the critical approaches listed in Section 6, then try the following, all by acknowledged experts in their field:

  • Historicist (Cultural & Political) Approaches:
    • A. Sinfield: Literature in Protestant England 1560-1660 (Princeton U.P., 1983), an unashamedly anti-Christian Marxist account
    • J. Carey: John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber, 1981)
  • Literary Historical Approach:
    • Helen Gardner's essay on John Donne in Twentieth century Views: John Donne (Prentice Hall, 1962)
    • George Williamson:6 Metaphysical Poets: A Readers' Guide (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968)
    • Robert Ellrodt: 7 Metaphysical Poets (Oxford: O.U.P.)
  • Religious and Philosophical Approaches:
    • Louis Martz ed. George Herbert and Henry Vaughan (O.U.P.,1986)
    • The Paradise Within containing a chapter on Henry Vaughan
    • Joseph Summers: George Herbert: His Religion and Art (Chatto & Windus, 1954)
  • A general post-structural/ deconstructive account:
    • T.Doherty: John Donne, Undone (London, 1986). This focuses particularly on paradox and generates some unusual readings, but is a little disconcerting if you are just grappling with finding ANY meaning at all.

Website resources

Most free websites contain somewhat less than what you are currently using! Most just give you a biographical account. However, the following may be useful:

  • 'John Donne 1572-1631'

  • The John Donne Society homepage

  • Poems set to music
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