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Metaphysical Poetry
Dr Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century literary figure, following a suggestion by John Dryden, labelled a school of poets of the early seventeenth century the metaphysical poets, because of their emphasis on the intellect or wit as against feeling and emotion. Johnson was not alone in believing these poets defective. But contemporary poets, particularly T.S.Eliot, have praised and imitated the metaphysical poets, and their reputations (especially that of John Donne) are much higher now than they were before the twentieth century.

Metaphysical poetry has come to be defined by its style rather than its content. The emphasis is on paradox: as Dr. Johnson put it, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”. The method of development is frequently the ingenious, often witty, elaboration of a conceit (a metaphor or analogy carried to great lengths). Other characteristics include an argumentative structure, the use of puns, the use of surprising caparisons, and the use of learned or scientific allusions. Metaphysical poetry also represented a revolt against the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry and especially the typical Petrarchan conceits (like rosy cheeks, eyes like stars, etc.). The total effect of a metaphysical poem at its best is to startle the reader into seeing and knowing what he has not really noticed or thought about before.

Chief among the metaphysical poets are John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
1 June 2002

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