Wit and rhetoric

The shock of the new

Sometimes poetry is written so as to challenge people's images of what poetry should be like, with writers intending their readers to laugh at poetic absurdity. This characterizes much Metaphysical poetry. For example, much of John Donne's early work is designed to make his audience laugh, even if they may have to work quite hard to understand the joke.

Getting the joke

Usually, the joke lies in one of two things:

  • The clever way Donne constructs an argument to lead to the most bizarre conclusions, as if proving black is white, or that the moon is made of blue cheese; he often applies this to love poetry

  • The way he uses images, bringing in highly unusual images that seem to have nothing to do with the subject matter.

The art of persuasion

Metaphysical humour is sometimes missed because people today are not familiar with what is called rhetoric. In Elizabethan and seventeenth-century higher education, everyone studied rhetoric, devised, in the first instance, to help lawyers present a good argument. It listed all the ways to persuade people to believe the case. Some of the cleverness of Metaphysical poetry lies in the use of these devices and often gives them a sense of eccentric logic.

A personal voice

The sense of argument creates a speaking voice. It is as the debate is overheard as it is happening. Obviously the speaking voice does not speak smoothly or in regular metric patterns; speech rhythms are rougher and readier. So it is with Donne especially. Some of his followers preferred to go back to a neater, more ordered style. But Donne lived in an age of theatre, and often went to see plays. His poetry is often close to the dialogue of the theatre.

  • Looking at Donne's prose, it can be seen that he could apply his cleverness to prose as well, including sermons. However, not all Metaphysical poets were as clever as Donne.
  • Nor was Donne always joking. Often he was serious, though he still used the same methods
  • Nor were all post-Elizabethan poets Metaphysicals. Poets such as Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick continued the tradition of the ‘sweet line'. They were sometimes known as the ‘Cavalier Poets'
  • Some, like Richard Lovelace, moved between the two styles.
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