Close reading

Critical Approaches to the Metaphysicals can very broadly be divided into two. The first is to consider the poems apart from any context or background, as words on the page, as text. The close analysis of poetry was first promoted in the 1920s by the so-called ‘New Criticism' in the USA, and by academics like I.A.Richards, William Empson and F.R.Leavis in the English Department of Cambridge University in England. Various recent theories have pushed this further, seeing each poem as a ‘verbal construct' and any meaning arising out of that construct.

Metaphysical poetry fitted in very well with this new approach as well as being a new voice to inspire the younger poets of the century. This approach emphasised paying close attention to the artefact. It is like paying close attention to a painting, looking at brush and paint technique, perspective, colour, and how representational it is, without knowing much about the painter or when it was painted.

What close reading focuses on

In this approach, each poem is seen as a timeless artistic product. What particularly interested the first close readers were:

  • the ambiguities within poems
  • how many layers of meaning or interpretation there were
  • the paradoxes
  • the undercurrents of tone
  • how sincere or honest the poet's voice was, and at what level
  • the imagery used: how central it was to conveying meaning, how subtle its patterns, how symbolic, how original
  • skills with words, in wordplay, assonance, alliteration, puns
  • innovations with form, rhythm and other structures
  • evaluation in terms of the match or consonance of content, tone and expression

In a sense, everyone has to start here, especially with the Metaphysicals. Understanding the poetry and understanding the context needs to go hand in hand. All of the points above repay a good deal of attention. However hard the text might seem, this sort of formal analysis equips you to read poetic texts of any sort. If you can understand and analyse Donne's poems, you can get to grips with most other poets.

Use of comparison

Comparison has always been a tool in close reading. With the Metaphysicals, it is easy and helpful to compare poems by one poet with similar ones from another. We can see that the religious poetry of each poet is very different from that of another, even when they share the same theology. Even within a single poet's output, experiences of human love can vary tremendously, with different tones, images, and structures.

Comparisons with poetry immediately preceding the Metaphysicals can be helpful, too, to see what the poets were reacting against or even imitating. We cannot see the originality of a poet if we don't know what was done before. We develop an idea of tradition, with breaks and discontinuities in it; new breakthroughs and new techniques in language or in ways of seeing reality.


However, close reading can have its limitations:

  • The stress on evaluation can lead to rather personal judgements if certain agendas are being followed, and many of the new critics did have hidden if not stated agendas
  • The approach is not always successful at making overall judgements about a poet or school of poetry, even though individual analyses may be brilliant. We can sometimes lose the wood for the trees.
  • It also perhaps relies too heavily on the words on the page to give us all the clues about what they mean, or how the poem came to be written in the way it was

Sometimes, knowing the context is a much surer way of establishing a particular meaning.

  • How do you approach a Metaphysical poem?
  • Does the close analysis approach differ from, say, the way you read poems for GCSE?
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