Metaphysical Verse of John Donne – Cogent Reasons

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The word “metaphysical” has been defined differently by various writers, e.g. R.S. Hillier writes:

“Literally, it has to do with the conception of existence, with the living universe and the man’s place therein. Loosely it has taken such meanings as these difficult, philosophical, obscure, ethereal, involved, supercilious, ingenious, fantastic, and incongruous. “

Dryden was the first to use this epithet Metaphysical poetry to cover the poetic work of Donne, Crowly, and other contemporaries. Dr. Johnson has pointed out the following peculiarities of metaphysical poetry:

  1. They were men of learning who made a pedantic display of their strange knowledge.
  2. They affected a peculiar “wit” which may be described as a kind of “Discordia Concours” a combination of dissimilar images discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.
  3. Their fondness for analysis, which broke an image into bits, led them to the dissection of emotion rather than a direct and impassioned expression of it.
  4. Harshness and irregularity of their verse which is poetry only to the eye, not to the ear.

When we weigh the poems of Donne in the pans of metaphysics, we find that Donne’s love poems can be specially entitled to be called metaphysical”, because they possess more or less all the peculiarities and characteristics mentioned above and quite several cogent reasons in their support. Poems such as “The Good Morrow”, “The Anniversary” and “The Extasy” can be referred to in support of this argument.

“The Good Morrow” is a love poem. Its last stanza leads us to its metaphysical quality. The lovers look at each other and each of them sees his or her image in the other’s eyes. The poet compares their faces to two hemispheres, which make up the earth’s sphere. He claims that the two hemispheres of their faces are better than the geographical hemispheres because they do not have the “Sharp North and the declining west”. The “Sharp North” means coldness to which their love is not subject, and the “Declining West” symbolizes decay and death or setting of the sun, from which the lovers are free:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plainer hearts do in the face rest,
When can we find two better hemispheres?
Without Sharpe North, with declining west?

Similarly, “The Anniversaries”, shows metaphysical peculiarities when we read its second stanza, which tells us the dialogue between a lover and his beloved:

Two graves must hide thine and my coarse
If one might, death were no divorce
Alas, as well as other princes, wee
Who prince enough in one another bee
Must leave at last in death, these eyes, and ears
Offend with true oaths, and with sweet salt tears

Your and my dead bodies would be buried in two separate graves. If they were buried in the same grave, death even would not part us. Like all other princes, we two in the eyes of each other, must die one day and be deprived of our eyes and ears. Which shed sweet tears and hear pleasant oath of love respectively, when we are alive.

For another cogent reason in support can be extracted from another love poem “The Extasy”. On its reading, one can find that it is a complex and metaphysical poem dealing with the twin aspects of love, physical and spiritual. Some critics like Logouts find in it a plan for sedation with emphasis on the physical nature of love while others like Helen Gardner find in it an affirmation of spiritual love. In fact, it deals with the relationship of the body and the soul in love:

This Extasie doth underplay
(We aid) and tell us what we love,
We see by this, it was not sexed,
We see we saw not that did move

The poet says that our souls have reached a stage, which revealed to us, what we did not know earlier. We realized that love was not a sexual experience. We discovered the first time that love really is a matter of the soul and not of the body.

The peculiarities mentioned earlier are present in Donne’s poetry in the earlier stages of his love poetry and later on in his divine poems. Grierson aptly sums up: “Donne is metaphysical not only under his scholasticism but by his deep reflective interest in the experiences of which his poetry is the expression, the new psychological curiosity with which he writes of love and religion.”

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