What is Metaphysical poetry?

A term of abuse?

‘Metaphysical' is a strange name. Literally, it means:

  • a certain branch of philosophy, to do with concepts like ‘Being' and ‘Knowing'

It addresses key questions such as What does it mean to exist? How do we know? How can we be sure we know? What can we know?

The Metaphysical poets never used this term of themselves. It was their successors, who did not much care for their poetry, who gave them and their poetry the name:

  • John Dryden, a poet of Charles II's time, talks of John Donne ‘affecting the metaphysics not only in his satires but in his amorous verses.' Clearly he thought philosophical ideas were fine for satire (often quite intellectual verse) but not for love poetry.
  • An eighteenth century critic and poet, Dr. Samuel Johnson, wrote the life of one of the minor poets of the group, and throughout the essay referred to the whole group as ‘Metaphysical poets'.

From then on, the name stuck.

Poetic philosophy

Metaphysical poetry is not afraid of ideas and concepts. These may be philosophical, but they may also be to do with religion, or science, or politics, or mathematics. Metaphysical poetry sometimes uses these ideas as the main part of the argument of the poem; but they are also used as a source of imagery, to illustrate a point.

Intellect and feeling

In much Metaphysical poetry there is a debate going on, as in a law-court, in which a case is being made for or against somebody or something. The poems can have a considerable intellectual content but this does not mean that they are academic, boring, or without feeling. Most of the Metaphysical poets were also very passionate and very engaged emotionally but they managed to combine intellect and emotion, as good lawyers do in court.

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