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“Metaphysics in poetry is the fruit of the
Renaissance tree, becoming over-ripe and
approaching putrescence.” – C.S. Lewis
Metaphysical poets did not call themselves by this name. Instead, they were
labeled as such later by John Dryden and Samuel. This term has come to
describe a shift in style of writing and subject of poetry, marked notably
my John Donne and Andrew Marvell.
The great Elizabethan poetry had tired out itself. The previous writing
became seen as conventional and artificial. Because of this, metaphysical
poetry moved towards a style that was intellectual, reason-oriented, and
concerned with the fundamental problems of
the nature of the universe and man’s function
or place in life
The Metaphysical Poets
• They used very unusual conceit. (next slide looks at this)
• The poems rely on wit, displaying the poet’s sensitivity,
knowledge, and cleverness.
• It establishes connections between things that are totally
• The language is simple (not overly decorated).
A conceit is a particular type of metaphor or simile that works to
construct an imaginative poetic image, especially a comparison that
is extreme or far-fetched.
For example, “love is a rose” is a typical metaphor. Roses are red,
which is related to the heart (often associated with love), has sweet
smells, and is valued. However, comparing two lovers to a compass
is a much more unusual relationship, which allows the writer to
build meaning through an extended metaphor. We will see this
used in “The Flea” by John Donne.
They didn’t follow the courtly love tradition. They approached the
love as physical not platonic.
Many poems begin in media res: in the middle of the action
The use paradoxes, which positions things together that are
apparently contradictory though in some sense true.
They illustrate and develop ideas in a detailed and over-complex
way, often with an effect of surprise.
Unusual images are taken from all fields of knowledge: history,
geography, astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, etc.
Poems are often argumentative, establishing reasons as to why their
observations are correct.
John Donne (1572 ～ 1631), is
seen as the greatest
representative of the
metaphysical poets. He was
born of a family with a strong
Roman Catholic tradition. He
was educated at the Trinity
In 1593, Donne’s brother Henry died of a fever in prison
after being arrested. This made Donne begin to question
In 1615 he gave up Catholic faith and entered the Anglican
Church and soon became Dean of Saint Paul's Church.
As a well-known preacher during the time, he wrote many
religious sermons and poems. And these were known as
his sacred verses.
Do your own quick wikipedia
search on Andrew Marvell
Tips to Analyze a Metaphysical Poem:
(With Examples from "To His Coy Mistress“ by Andrew Marvell)
1. Define unfamiliar words and identify allusions (there will be many).
Example: What does it mean to be coy? When the speaker mentions the conversion
of the Jews, is he suggesting a long time or a short time for that to happen?
2. Identify the speaker and subject.
Example: Is anyone named? What did the beloved likely say or do to lead the
speaker to make his plea?
3. Identify the poem's central argument.
Example: What does the speaker want from his beloved? Why does he think he
deserves her affection (now!)? What is he trying to convince the reader to believe?
4. Use close-reading techniques to further unpack layers of meaning within the poem.
(Next lecture note)
The presentation was edited
and made by the following: