Historical fortunes

Each of the poets being studied was acknowledged in their own century, often during their lifetime. Donne, Herbert and Marvell had their poems published after their death, but they were known and admired as poets whilst alive. Some of Crashaw's verse was published during his lifetime, as was all of Vaughan's. Donne and Herbert, even in their day, were recognised as the pre-eminent figures, though the admiration was often a mixed one, since they were also exceptional clergy men in their own very different way. But Donne's poetry went through seven editions within 40 years of his death and Herbert's not many less.

Their first biographer

Izaak Walton, photo by Trish Steel, available through Creative CommonsIzaak Walton was the first biographer of this group of poets. (He is better known today as the author of a famous book on fishing, called The Compleat Angler.) His account of the life of Donne was first published in 1640 as part of a collection of sermons that Donne had preached. Walton then expanded this life to include Wotton, Hooker and Herbert in 1670 and proved immensely popular.

The term ‘metaphysical' first used of them

John Dryden was an early critic, commenting about Donne in 1693:

He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign.'

While complaining that it is unnatural to write intelligent love poetry because it might perplex the ladies, Dryden was the first to use the word ‘metaphysics' in conjunction with this style.

More on Dryden: He was the first of the ‘Augustan' or neo-classical poets. This style of writing predominated from the Restoration through till the end of the eighteenth century, when they gave way to the Romantics.

‘Nothing but a heap of riddles'

The name Metaphysical was applied to the whole group of poets composing in this style by the great eighteenth century dictionary maker and literary critic, Dr Samuel Johnson. Writing in his The Lives of the Poets on the life of Abraham Cowley, he called them ‘the metaphysical poets', of which he saw Cowley as the leading example. So already by 1776, Donne and Herbert had lost their pre-eminence. A typical view of Donne at the time was: ‘the poetry of Donne (though the wittiest man of that age) (is) nothing but a continued heap of riddles.'

The Romantics and their followers in the Victorian period did not see a great deal to learn from the Metaphysicals, though Herbert continued to be popular in anthologies of devotional verse. It was seen that Vaughan anticipated some of Wordsworth's philosophy in his natural mysticism. But one of the most famous anthologies of the nineteenth century, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, contained no examples at all of Donne, though plenty by his Elizabethan and Cavalier contemporaries; no Crashaw; some Herbert and almost no Vaughan or Marvell.

The Metaphysicals rediscovered

It was not till the twentieth century that, as with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Metaphysicals were discovered again, and for much the same reason as with Grierson's Anthology of Metaphysical PoetsHopkins. The age wanted a new poetry: the Victorian-Edwardian vestiges of Romanticism had become lifeless and limited in the extreme, and failed to speak to a modern age. The vigour of the Metaphysicals' voice, the freshness of their imagery, and their willingness to explore a wide range of experience, led Professor Herbert Grierson of Edinburgh University to issue the collected poems of Donne in 1912, and an anthology of Metaphysical poetry in 1921, prefaced by a ground-breaking essay.

Established ‘A' level texts

Response was quick and positive. The Edwardian poet Rupert Brooke quickly wrote an essay on Donne, having absorbed what Grierson had to say. But it was T. S. Eliot, the rising star of twentieth century poetry, who really took up the claims of the Metaphysicals. His courses of lectures in the UK and the USA introduced the poets to a new generation of university students and teachers, some of whom became highly influential themselves. Grierson's anthology arrived as an ‘A' level text in the late 1950s and it, or succeeding collections, have been a set text on one examining board or another's syllabus ever since. Among critics, their reputation and fortunes have been unchallenged.

  • Do you think studying Metaphysical poetry at ‘A' level is a good choice?
    • Or do you feel it is simply too difficult, too removed?
  • What can we gain by studying it at this level?
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