Metaphysical poets: A group of seventeenth-century English poets who wrote lyrics, often in the form of an argument, characterized by their analytical approach, originality, wit, and intellectual tone. The metaphysical poets were linked less by a common worldview than by a style or mode of writing stemming from their reaction against idealized Elizabethan love poetry. Common elements included the use of colloquial language; rough or irregular rhythmic patterns; and the metaphysical conceit, an elaborate, original comparison between two highly dissimilar things that presents the esoteric or commonplace in an unfamiliar way. Poets considered part of the group include John Donne, the leading figure; John Cleveland; Abraham Cowley; Richard Crashaw; George Herbert; Andrew Marvell; Thomas Traherne; and Henry Vaughan.

The term metaphysical is something of a misnomer, since the metaphysical poets tended to be more concerned with how to regard God and women than the essence of reality. Moreover, as initially used, the term was critical or even derogatory. Neoclassical writer John Dryden, the most noted critic of the Restoration Age, used the term metaphysics to disparage Donne’s poetry in “A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire” (1693), writing that he “affects the metaphysics … in his amorous verse, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts.” Subsequently, neoclassical writer and critic Samuel Johnson applied the term metaphysical in Life of Cowley (1779) (in Lives of the Poets [1779—81]) to the broader group of poets, criticizing their use of wit: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought.”

Following a long period of critical disregard and obscurity, interest in the metaphysical poets was revived in the twentieth century with the publication of Scottish literary critic H. J. C. Grierson’s anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler (1921) and poet T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), in which Eliot contrasted what he regarded as the unified poetic sensibility of the metaphysical poets with the dissociation of sensibility, or divergence of thought and feeling, that he claimed subsequently emerged in English literature.

EXAMPLE: Donne’s “The Dissolution” (published posthumously in Songs and Sonnets [1633]) begins with a speaker wondering how lovers who are “made of one another” can be separated by death:

She’s dead; and all which die

To their first elements resolve;

And we were mutual elements to us,

And made of one another… .

The poem ends with a surprising metaphysical conceit in which the speaker compares his soul to a bullet that, though fired after the soul of his beloved, will nonetheless overtake it:

And so my soul, more earnestly released,

Will outstrip hers; as bullets flown before

A latter bullet may o’ertake, the powder being more.