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date: 08 December 2023

Metaphysical poetsfree

(act. c. 1600–c. 1690)

Metaphysical poetsfree

(act. c. 1600–c. 1690)
  • Colin Burrow

Metaphysical poets (act. c. 1600–c. 1690), is a label often attached to a loosely connected group of seventeenth-century poets, among whom the central figures are John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Crashaw. It is traditionally said that the group was united by the use of far-fetched comparisons, or ‘conceits’, that drew attention to their own ingenuity—although this is more evidently a feature of Donne's work than that of other members of the group. It has also sometimes been suggested that these poets are metaphysical in the sense that they combine thought (or metaphysical speculation) with feeling in ways that were distinctive to the seventeenth century. This claim likewise fits some poets and some poems better than others.

The exact composition of the group is as elastic as the definition of metaphysical poetry, and anthologies of its members' work generally also include a scattering of poems by writers often traditionally, and in some cases misleadingly, classed as ‘cavaliers’, such as Aurelian Townshend, Thomas Carew, William Davenant, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace, as well as ‘minor’ metaphysicals including Henry Wotton, Edward Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Cherbury, Francis Quarles, Henry King, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, John Cleveland, William Hammond, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Stanley, John Hall, Owen Felltham, Katherine Philips, and sometimes too John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, John Norris of Bemerton, and Richard Leigh.

What is the historical and critical value of referring to this disparate group as the metaphysical poets? To answer this question it is necessary first to understand when and how the group acquired its name. Samuel Johnson declared in his 'Life of Cowley' (1779) that 'About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets' (Johnson, 1.199–200). Before 1779 no one had spoken of the ‘race’ of metaphysical poets, which, for Johnson, consisted chiefly of Donne, Cowley, and Cleveland. When Johnson called them metaphysical he did not mean that they were philosophically sophisticated, and he did not mean to praise them:

To show their learning was their whole endeavour … The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

ibid., 1.200

The group's name therefore originated as a term of dispraise, and the critical reputations of both the group and its individual members took more than a century to recover from Johnson's censure.

At the very end of the nineteenth century the literary scholar Arthur Symons praised Donne's 'reasonable rapture' (Symons, 740) and Alexander Grosart claimed that Crashaw's thinking was 'so emotional as almost always to tremble into feeling' (Crashaw, lxx). These critical reappraisals created a receptive audience for Herbert Grierson's anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1921), which marked the full rehabilitation of the group. Grierson declared that metaphysical poetry was 'inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the rôle assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence' (p. xiii). His volume was greeted with an enthusiastic review by T. S. Eliot (first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 Oct 1921, 669–70, and reprinted as 'The metaphysical poets' in Selected Essays, 3rd edn, 1951, 281–91). Eliot projected on to the work of Donne and his contemporaries many of the aesthetic ideals to which he himself aspired, and argued that the work of Donne and Marvell in particular displayed a 'direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling' in a manner that Eliot believed had become impossible by the later seventeenth century as a result of what he termed a 'dissociation of sensibility'. Grierson's collection included thirty-five poems by Donne, and about a dozen each by Herbert, Vaughan, Marvell, and Carew. His inclusion of small numbers of poems by cavalier poets shows the influence of George Saintsbury's Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (3 vols, 1905–21). The roll-call of the metaphysicals was further expanded in 1957 when Helen Gardner produced a new (and subsequently much reprinted) anthology, called boldly and simply The Metaphysical Poets. She included a number of proto-metaphysical poems, including William Shakespeare's 'Phoenix and the Turtle', and poems by Sir Walter Ralegh, Ben Jonson, and Fulke Greville. Arranged in chronological order, her collection ended with Thomas Traherne, Thomas Heyrick, and Richard Leigh, and also included five poems by the second earl of Rochester. The all-thinking, all-feeling metaphysical poets were becoming virtually coextensive with seventeenth-century poetry.

Inevitably there was a backlash. Dissatisfaction with the label was often expressed, as was uncertainty as to whether all poets, or all poems, termed metaphysical showed any significant similarities. By the 1980s it was frequently alleged that the group of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw had been made central to the canon of seventeenth-century English poetry at the expense of poets of a more radical temperament as part of a systematic imposition by T. S. Eliot and his followers of a high Anglican and royalist literary history on English poetry. The term metaphysical poets was routinely avoided or placed in scare-quotes in literary histories, and the ‘race’ of metaphysical poets was more or less disbanded.

This is understandable but regrettable. There were poets in the seventeenth century who described themselves as 'the sons of Ben', that is of Ben Jonson. There were not poets in that period who described themselves as metaphysicals. This is a significant fact, but it does not mean that the metaphysical poets were purely a product of the way that literary history came to be written. Nor does it mean that the term metaphysical poetry is historically or critically empty. Throughout the seventeenth century there were poets who responded directly to the work of John Donne, and there are individual poems that directly invite comparison with his by their titles or subject-matter (wills, pictures, the separation of lovers). Some of these experimented with the self-consciously extravagant comparisons and the self-evidently flawed arguments that are among the most obvious characteristics of Donne's verse. It was not just later literary historians who came to apply the word metaphysical to poetry that engaged to excess in this kind of writing. In an undated letter, probably written in the 1630s, the poet and pamphleteer William Drummond of Hawthornden had complained of those who attempted to abstract poetry 'to Metaphysical Idea's and Scholastical Quiddities' (Drummond, 143). By the later seventeenth century the word metaphysical and its cognates were used with some frequency to describe inflated poetic comparisons or strained arguments. John Cleveland, who is sometimes regarded as marking the decay of the metaphysical manner into quick-fire displays of overblown wit, parodies a lover's hyperbolical praise of his mistress in these terms:

Call her the Metaphysicks of her Sex,And say she tortures wits, as Quartans [fevers] vexPhysitians; call her the Square Circle, sayShe is the very rule of Algebra.What ere thou understand'st not, say 't of her,For that's the way to write her Character.

The Hecatomb to his Mistresse, ll. 81–6, Cleveland, 52Henry Vaughan in a verse letter to Thomas Powell described the argument that

sever'd Friends by Sympathy can joynAnd absent Kings be honour'd in their coin

as 'Metaphysics' (Vaughan, 623). John Dryden, whose first published poem 'Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings' is often regarded as a very late work in the metaphysical vein, criticized Donne in his 'Discourse concerning the original and progress of satire' (1693) as one who

affects the metaphysics, 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, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this (if I may be pardoned for so bold a truth) Mr. Cowley has copied him to a fault.

Dryden, 2.19

Without doubt Samuel Johnson's choice of the word metaphysical to describe the followers of Donne was directly influenced by these earlier usages (the Cleveland passage is quoted in Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 to illustrate the definition of 'Metaphysicks'). The category of poetry that indulged in metaphysics was a live one for later seventeenth-century poets, but for them metaphysics was a word used to mark the point at which strongly argued verse bordered on self-parody.

There is more value than this, however, in the group name. Even in the earlier seventeenth century members of the core group of metaphysical poets were connected by a number of social, familial, and literary ties. Izaak Walton relates that Donne and George Herbert enjoyed 'a long and dear friendship, made up by such a Sympathy of inclinations, that they coveted and joyed to be in each others Company' (Walton, 57–8). Donne addressed poems to Herbert's mother, Magdalen, and preached her funeral sermon, as well as writing a poem to Herbert's brother, Edward, Lord Herbert. Herbert of Cherbury in turn read both Donne's poetry and that of his own brother with care, and was a friend of Thomas Carew and Aurelian Townshend. Henry Wotton was the addressee of epistles in both verse and prose from his close friend John Donne, and at one point intended to write a life of Donne. Henry King (whose father ordained John Donne) was in daily contact with Donne at St Paul's Cathedral, where the older poet was dean while King was chief residentiary. Donne bequeathed to King a portrait of himself dressed in his winding-sheet. Not surprisingly King's verse is haunted by that of his friend, from whom he received manuscripts, as well as books and themes for sermons.

Later in the century there were other close groupings of poets, who, although not linked by direct personal familiarity with Donne and Herbert, were bound to each other by ties of family, friendship, and literary consanguinity. Thomas Stanley was a cousin of Richard Lovelace and the nephew of William Hammond, and became a friend of John Hall, one of the most underrated of the minor metaphysical poets. Cowley was a friend and eventually elegist of Richard Crashaw. Pockets of metaphysicality also survived in several institutions: it cannot be an accident that Henry King, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, and John Dryden all attended Westminster School. But by the later seventeenth century the bonds of friendship and affinity that had linked Donne and Herbert were in the main replaced by looser ties of literary indebtedness. Declaratory utterances to imagined or absent addressees who are summoned into being by the force of the speaker's eloquence are common among poems by members of these networks, as are works that explore the balance and imbalance between the demands of the body and the spirit. Direct attempts to persuade, either through comparisons or through arguments that self-consciously display their logical elisions, are also among the most evident legacies left by Donne to his poetical heirs.

No single one of these elements constitutes a metaphysical style, and it would also be wrong to suppose that all of them must be present in a given poem for it to be regarded as belonging to the tradition. It is also incorrect to believe that a poet who sometimes wrote poems in a metaphysical manner was always and in every poem a metaphysical. The metaphysical style was various. It also changed in response to historical events. Donne's Poems and Herbert's The Temple were both posthumously printed in 1633. Those publications immediately extended the literary communities of their authors through time and space, and the fact that both volumes were posthumous had a significant effect on the kind of influence they exerted. Donne and Herbert rapidly became models for imitation, but they could also be regarded as ideal representatives of an age that had passed. Imitation of them could therefore become an act not just of nostalgia, but of politically or theologically motivated nostalgia—as occurs most notably and heavy-handedly in the high Anglican pastiches of Herbert included in The Synagogue by Christopher Harvey, which was regularly bound with The Temple after 1640. In the political and ecclesiastical upheavals of the 1640s the metaphysical style moved on. Imitating Herbert in particular could signal a desire to resist the depredations suffered by the English church during the civil war. Richard Crashaw's Steps to the Temple (1646) explicitly links itself by its title to Herbert's volume. The editions of 1646 and 1648 include 'On Mr. G. Herberts Booke', which declares 'Divinest love lyes in this booke'. Henry Vaughan's preface to the second volume of Silex scintillans (1655) ascribes to Herbert's influence his conversion from writing secular poems, and he marks the debt by adopting the titles of several poems by Herbert for his own works. By the second part of Silex these allusions to Herbert carried a political charge, intimating Vaughan's resistant attitude to the forcible ejection of conservatively minded ministers from churches in his native Wales by commissioners acting under the parliamentary ordinance for the propagation of the gospel.

The gradual replacement of networks of closely connected individuals by relationships between dead authors and their readers is perhaps a central reason for the emergence of metaphysics (in the pejorative sense) in later seventeenth-century verse. The two later poets stigmatized by Johnson as 'metaphysical', Cleveland and Cowley, knew Donne only as a voice in a book. Efforts to reanimate that voice often show signs of strain. But the move from personal to textual connection between members of the group did not always have undesirable consequences. Andrew Marvell, who ever since John Aubrey's 'Brief life' has tended to be regarded as an isolated figure in the literary landscape, has perhaps the most distinctive poetic voice of any member of the group. By describing pastoral figures with wounded or sullied innocence who argue perplexedly about their own fate and the unattainability of their own desires, Marvell transformed the metaphysical style into an idiom appropriate for a period of political division and national crisis. He was not entirely disconnected from its other practitioners: he was at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the same time as Abraham Cowley, and he wrote a commemorative poem for Henry, Lord Hastings, in Lacrymae musarum (1649), a volume that included poems by Dryden as well as John Hall. He and Hall were both among those who composed dedicatory poems for Richard Lovelace's Lucasta (1648). Like Cleveland, Marvell owed his reputation in the later part of his career largely to his political and satirical poems, but his posthumously published Miscellaneous Poems (1681) shows that a reader of earlier metaphysical verse who actively responded to his changing times could transform the idiom of his predecessors.

Although there never was a group of poets who defined themselves as ‘the metaphysical poets’, there was none the less a set of networks of writers who composed poems that it makes sense to call metaphysical. This consisted first of a group clustered around Donne, and later of a dispersed textual community in which readers of his verse learnt from and adapted a variety of its features to suit their times. Marvell's rueful and bruised representations of impossible arguments in times through which it was painful to live was the last significant contribution to this tradition of writing:

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,But Fate so enviously debarrs,Is the Conjunction of the Mind,And Opposition of the Stars.

Marvell, 33


  • The poems of John Cleveland, ed. B. R. Morris and E. Withington (1967)
  • The complete works of Richard Crashaw, ed. A. B. Grosart, 2 vols. (1873)
  • The works of William Drummond of Hawthornden (1711)
  • Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker, 2 vols. (1900)
  • T. S. Eliot, ‘The metaphysical poets’, Selected essays, 3rd edn (1951), 281–91
  • H. Gardner, ed., The metaphysical poets (1957)
  • H. J. C. Grierson, ed., Metaphysical lyrics and poems of the seventeenth century: Donne to Butler (1921)
  • S. Johnson, The lives of the most eminent English poets: with critical observations on their works, ed. R. Lonsdale, 4 vols. (2006)
  • A. Marvell, Miscellaneous poems (1681)
  • G. Saintsbury, ed., Minor poets of the Caroline period, 3 vols. (1905–21)
  • The life and letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ed. L. P. Smith, 2 vols. (1907)
  • A. Symons, ‘John Donne’, Fortnightly Review, 66 (1899), 734–45
  • The works of Henry Vaughan, ed. L. C. Martin (1957)
  • I. Walton, The lives of Dr John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr Richard Hooker, Mr George Herbert (1670)