metaphysical poet

Discuss John Donne metaphysical poet

Donne as A Metaphysical Poet

The term metaphysical was first applied to Donne in derogation of his excessive use of philosophy by Dryden in 1693. Donne affects metaphysical, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign, and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy.”

But its present use to designate a special poetic manner originated with Samuel Johnson’s description of metaphysical poetry in his “Life is Cowley”. It is with Doctor Johnson that the revival of interest in Donne’s poetry begins maintains Helen Gardner. “By his copious quotations from Donne, and his declaration that to write in a metaphysical manner it was at least necessary to read and think, Johnson brought back into literary discussion a body of poetry that had largely sunk into oblivion.

Johnson brought it back as illustrative of a certain kind of ‘wit’ not his own, a “more noble and more adequate conception” of wit, which is “at once natural and new”. Combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. 

John Donne-The founder of the Metaphysical School of Poetry

John Donne has been generally regarded as the central figure, the founder of the metaphysical school of poetry that flourished in the early half of the 17th century. The other poets of this school were: George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and Abraham Cowley.

John Donne possesses more of the distinctive qualities of this school of poetry and he is undoubtedly the enkindling influence, the germinal force, behind all the poets in this school. Particularly to the religious and devotional poets.

In his own lifetime, Donne’s poems were circulated in manuscripts and were published for the first time only in 1633, after his death. Therefore, wor his lifetime Donne’s influence was limited. But the subsequent editions of poems that appeared in 1635, 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654, and 1669 proved that Donne was indeed the greatest of all metaphysical poets.

However, it was for his “wit’ particularly that Donne was chiefly admired, so much so, that Thomas Carew called him the king of “The Universal Monarchy of wit”. Dr. Johnson also singles out this kind of wit as the chief mark of metaphysical poetry and illustrates it so effectively from Donne that he paves the way that the criticism of the twentieth century is to follow.

Helen Gardner tells us that it was the wit of Donne, rather than the music and passion of his poetry which the Caroline poets tried to imitate but when in the classical age of Dryden and Johnson the idea of wit was changed and came to be. regarded merely as the happiness of language, Donne sank into oblivion.

In the classical age, Donne was looked down upon for his many excesses, his frequent breach of decorum, and his rough cadence. Dryden criticized him for affecting the metaphysics even in his love poetry calling him “the greatest wit, though not the. best poet of our nation.”

Donne and the Classical Age

In the classical age, Donne sank in repute. The metaphysical poets, in view of Dr. Johnson “, were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor… They neither copied nature nor life……… Their thoughts are often new. but seldom natural: they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.” The salient features of this curious group of writers were thus described by the learned critic in derogation.

This age believed that their work was packed with affectations and conceits, who in their effort to surprise by the boldness and novelty of their images indulged in strained metaphors, far-fetched similes, and the most extravagant hyperbole; they cultivated ingenuity at any cost; substituted philosophical subtleties and logical hair-splitting for the natural expression of feeling, and employed their vast out-of-the-way learning without the slightest regard to propriety. As a result, they came to be regarded as violent, harsh, cold, and obscure. 

Grierson’s Edition

However, it was Grierson’s classic edition of Donne’s poems, published in 1912 which gave to Donne a place beside Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope. A pre-eminent place was claimed for Donne as a poet of love and thus his real excellence was emphasized.

But the wide popularity and acceptance that Donne subsequently acquired cannot be accounted for by any edition of his poems, however excellent the edition may be but largely by the close similarity between the age of Donne and the modern age. The age of Donne was an age of transition when old Elizabethan ideals were breaking down.

The age witnessed a loss of faith in religion and accepted values and the dissolution of older ideals and beliefs, because of the rise of science. There was a conflict between the old and the new, the Medieval and the Renaissance. In this atmosphere of stress and strain, conflict and violence, there reigned a feeling of insecurity supreme.

Now the first few decades of the twentieth century also witnessed melancholy and pessimism, a breaking down of the older Victorian ideals and tradition, and the resultant spiritual chaos and feeling of insecurity. It was also a period of stress and strain when people were caught between opposite ideals and social values.

It is this aforesaid similarity between the two ages which accounts, to a great extent, for the widespread appeal of Donne and the revival of metaphysical poetry in the modern age. 

Pre-conceived Ideas of Metaphysical Poets about Things

Jim Hunter maintains that the metaphysical poets held certain pre-conceived ideas about everything such as eternity, soul, mind, and religion. He quotes from well-known metaphysical poets including Donne to illustrate his point : 

We, then, who are this new soul, know 
Of what we are composed, and made, 
For the Atomies of which we grow, 
Are souls, whom no change cun invade. (Donne : The Extasie) 

Grierson maintains that “Donne, moreover, is metaphysical not only in virtue of his scholasticism but by his deep reflective interest in the experiences of which his poetry is the expression of the new psychological curiosity with which he writes of love and religion.” 


To conclude, the poetry of Donne embraces all the constituent parts of metaphysical poetry close-packed and dense with meaning concentration, wit and conceit, remote imagery, and the element of drama.

Donne uses the technique of dramatic monologue in songs and sonnets the first person of these poems is Donne himself, the actor in various moods (though apparently, they seem to stand for his own feelings), and therefore it is generally assumed that Donne’s poetry is full of feigned emotions which are not genuine ones. Like other metaphysical poems, the poems of Donne also open dramatically: 

For Godsake hold your tongue, and let more love 

(Donne: The Canonization)

I Wonder, by my troth, what thou, and I, Did till we loved? 

(Donne : The Good Morrow)

To what school does Donne belong?

John Donne belongs to the Metaphysical school and that is why he is known as a metaphysical poet.

By what was Donne affected?

Donne was affecated by philosophy, religion, and theology.