Biblical imagery in metaphysical poetry

The following images recur frequently in English literature:

Apocalyptic language

Apocalypse is the Greek word for Revelation. The apocalyptic language of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible (containing visions of the end of time) and of other Bible passages have always had a profound effect on the Christian imagination. Mentions of trumpets and angels are based on a combination of 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 and Revelation 11:15. Both verses had entered Christian art and symbolism at an early stage so writers employing this imagery are drawing on images very familiar to their readers. We still talk of the ‘four corners of the world' today, even though we know the earth is round. Revelation 7:1 shows how these images entered the ancient Christian imagination.

Act of grace

Grace (through which humans are believed to receive undeserved forgiveness and gifts from God) is a central concept in Christian thinking (John 1:17). Because human beings are seen as predisposed to disobey God, they are unable to enter a relationship with him without his forgiveness and ongoing help. This help includes both assistance in turning to turn to God in the first place  and willingness to repent (Ephesians 2:4-5). It is also believed to include the presence of the Holy Spirit with the individual to bring about a new way of living. Such help is an undeserved gift from God and relies upon him taking the initiative.

Washed in Christ's blood

The phrase is taken from older translations of Revelation 1:5. It also occurs in the Anglican Prayer Book (the Book of Common Prayer) in the liturgy for communion. The prayer of humble access, beginning ‘We do not presume to come', contains the phrase ‘our souls washed through his most precious blood'. The idea of blood taking away the guilt of sin comes from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, when animals were sacrificed to atone for human sin. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is described as having made a ‘once for all' sacrifice to atone for sin Hebrews 10:11-14, with the shedding of his blood making forgiveness possible.


Literally, incarnation means putting flesh on something, or giving a body to it. The doctrine of the incarnation is a central Christian belief, teaching that God took on human form, or flesh, and became man in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 3:16).

The Metaphysical poet John Donne's thinking is based on this. He sees that all spiritual matter needs to have a physical form before it can benefit humans, as in Aire and Angels, in which Angels need to take the element of air in order to manifest themselves. In The Extasie, he suggests that ecstatic love, the union of souls, is the spiritual essence of true love, but needs the body to be incarnated in, to take visible and material form. This is what sex is for. In this, Donne is the exact opposite of Plato, the Greek philosopher much admired by many in the seventeenth century. Plato's idea was that you could build up from physical, or carnal love, to spiritual love. For him, sex begins the process, but Donne reverses this.


A conceit consists of linking two unlike ideas together in an image, while a paradox is the linking of two logical opposites together as a statement. Religious language often uses paradox to emphasise its difference from ordinary language, not because it wants to be difficult, but because common-sense reality is often so opposite to religious perception. For example, the Bible talks of losing one's life to save it (Matthew 16:25). Jesus often used paradox to make a point. Matthew 20:16 completes a most paradoxical parable with ‘the last will be first, and the first last'.


Easter is the central Christian festival, even more significant than Christmas. It commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels state that Jesus died on what is now called Good Friday and rose again three days later (John 20:1). The resurrection of Jesus was later interpreted as giving hope to all who believed in him that they too would rise to new life after death (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).


Baptism is a central Christian ceremony or sacrament, together with communion (or the Mass). It involves pouring water over the baptismal candidates or immersing them in water. The symbolism of transformation works at several different levels. Firstly, it denotes repentance and a cleansing from past sins (Acts 19:4). Secondly, it denotes ‘dying' to the old life and resurrection to a new transformed life.


A sacred a building or place of worship. In the Old Testament, it denoted the one central sacred place of worship, originally built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 3:1-15). Much of the Metaphysical poet Herbert's verse is about emblematic aspects of a church building and Christian worship. But the New Testament also uses the metaphor of God ‘dwelling' in believers, as in a sacred building (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).


Literally means ‘a buying back'. In the Bible, the term has the sense of a transaction which is necessary before human beings can be saved from God's condemnation for sin and disbelief. In the Old Testament (or Old Covenant), sacrifices were made which symbolised this transaction. The New Testament claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was sufficient to pay for the sins of all humankind. 

Resurrection of the Dead

This is one of the central beliefs of Christianity, set out in 1 Corinthians 15, which argues that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, his followers can also expect to experience life beyond death (1 Corinthians 15:1-9). Christ is ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep' (1 Corinthians 15:20 NIV). When he returns at the Second Coming, those who belong to him' will also be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:23).

The writer goes on to discuss the nature of the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:35-49) which will be both like and yet utterly unlike human kind's physical body, just as the seed is different from the plant that comes from it. The new body will be imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:53), no longer subject to death, which will finally have been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

The end of time is frequently related to the resurrection of the dead, who will arise when ‘the trumpet will sound' (1 Corinthians 15:52). In another New Testament passage, a slightly different account is given, of the world being consumed by fire (2 Peter 3:7; 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12). This is the account used by both Donne and King in their poems on the final resurrection.


When a writer refers to a veil it may be an allusion to several important symbolic biblical passages. 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 is a long passage detailing the veil that Moses had to wear because his face shone with glory after seeing God face to face. The Israelites could not bear the refection of that glory, so Moses had to wear a veil. Now humans can no longer see God's glory directly, but the Bible states that one day they shall.

Other verses linked with this are Hebrews 6:19 and Hebrews 9:3, contrasted with Hebrews 10:19-22. This is the symbolism of the curtain in the Jewish Temple, which is described as a veil hiding the holiest place where God's presence resides most intensely. In Hebrews, the writer says that now Jesus has come to remove that veil, humankind can enter into God's presence through Jesus himself. The emphasis here is on accessibility, which is associated theologically with the meaning of the crucifixion.

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