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Metaphysical Poetry - By: Hussein Ghunaim

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Metaphysical Poetry - By: Hussein Ghunaim Empty Metaphysical Poetry - By: Hussein Ghunaim

Post by Admin on Tue Dec 11, 2007 8:49 pm

Metaphysical Poetry

Definition and historical background
The term "metaphysical" when applied to poetry has a long and interesting history. Metaphysical poetry is concerned with the whole experience of man, but the intelligence, learning and seriousness of the poets means that the poetry is about the profound areas of experience especially - about love, romantic and sensual; about man's relationship with God - the eternal perspective, and, to a less extent, about pleasure, learning and art.
Metaphysical poets 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 do.
Here is another definition of Metaphysical poetry in term of relationship with ‘object’. Metaphysical poetry is that in which a fundamental paradox in the nature of the object is considered. Of course, as the metaphysical poets knew, love is the most paradoxical of human affects, and therefore the one that best lends itself to metaphysical consideration. Although the subject is passion and its complicated effects on human behaviour, the metaphysical poets demonstrate a mastery of philosophical analysis in their sensitive treatment of complex feelings.
Although the nature of poetry is metrically expressive, poets in the 17th century thought of their craft very differently than we do today. For us, poetry is a fundamentally emotional and romantic movement. However, in the 17th century, poetry was above all an expression of "wit" – the poetic form itself expressed little more than one's own ability to play with rhythms and conventions. What was expressed by the meter was not necessarily expected to bear any relation to what was expressed by the prose content of which it consisted. For this reason, these poems strike us as a little odd: the function of the words is primarily analytical, not expressive; and the function of the meter is primarily to express something about the poet's own sense of his creativity, rather than to express any kind of attitude about the content. For them, the art of poetry was much more like a game or sport. This is just something to bear in mind when you read these poems.

Important metaphysical poets
The most important metaphysical poets are: John Donne (who was perhaps the most famous of all the metaphysical poets), George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Saint Robert Southwell, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan and George Chapman. The following poets have also been sometimes considered metaphysical poets: Thomas Carew, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, Edward Herbert, Richard Leigh, Richard Lovelace, Katherine Philips, Sir John Suckling, Edward Taylor.

A Comparison between two metaphysical poems:
Here, I would like to compare two "metaphysical" poems from the seventeenth century. These three poems are excellent examples of the genre of metaphysical poetry.

In "Love's Growth", John Donne wrestles with the paradox of purity and growth.
Love's Growth
John Donne

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.

But if this medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessénce,
But mixed of all stuffs, paining soul, or sense,
And of the sun his working vigour borrow,
Love's not so pure and abstract as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their Muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contémplate, sometimes do.

And yet not greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament,
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love's awakened root do bud out now.

If, as in water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make;
For, they are all concentric unto thee,
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring's increase.

Donne tells us his concern in the opening four lines:

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;

The reasoning here is clearly that purity and plasticity are mutually exclusive properties. If his love is capable of undergoing vicissitude, Donne indicates, it calls into question his former belief that it had been pure. Donne elaborates and makes more specific his concern in the next two lines: "Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore / My love was infinite, if spring make it more." Here the paradox becomes clear: if love undergoes an increase in its intensity, it was, and necessarily remains, finite or relative; it could not have been absolute or infinite, or it could logically not have undergone growth in the first place.
Donne expands and explores the substance of this problem in the rest of the first stanza. Love is a "medicine ... which cures all sorrow / With more" – it exceeds in power even the darkest sorrow, which means, at least, that sorrow is definitely finite, and that love is at least greater than this compelling finite passion. It is thus tempting to make of it a "quintessence," something "pure and abstract;" but this is the idle speculation of those who "have no mistress but their Muse," those who have not experienced love. On the contrary, Donne tells us, someone who has experienced love in its springtime changes perceives it to be "mixed of all stuffs, paining soul, or sense. And of the sun his working vigour borrow[s;]" it is "elemented." It seems to go through cycles of vigour, sometimes passive and sometimes active: "Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do." As a natural phenomenon, love manifests as a composite, melded continually into compositional relationships with "paining soul" and with the natural world.
Donne begins with an exclusive disjunction, whereby (or so it seems):

Either: love grows;
Or: love cannot wither.

The second term is necessary for love to be pure; but the first is what we are confronted with in actual experience. Hence the problem: If love is a flux, if it can wax, it is conceivable that love could also wane. If it can flow, it might also ebb. If it's compositional, it could not be self-sufficient. Each term of this seems to imply the negation of its opposite.
In the second stanza, Donne dissolves the paradox by challenging the dilemma in true Aristotelian form. Love does not really grow; this is only the appearance. What in fact occurs, Donne says, is that love becomes "more eminent." The love itself doesnot change in essence; rather, it has more of an opportunity to affect action. The signs of love, "Gentle love deeds," manifest "From love's awakened root." As the concentric waves spread from the first ring on a pond, or the concentric spheres that form a single heaven, love "such additions take" – love's manifestations increase, though the essence of love itself remains the same. Furthermore, Donne says, nothing is lost in winter of what is gained in spring:

As princes do in times of action get
New Taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring's increase.

Love's growing power to manifest its essence is thus given the surety, if not of death, then at least of taxes.
In this manner the metaphysical point is resolved; love is both pure and eternal, and yet growing. In its essence it is pure, but its power to manifest in existence is strengthened by outside phenomena, like the onset of spring. The speaker is therefore not a liar for having sworn infinite love in the winter; spring has simply brought him a renewed energy with which to better express the infinite in finite form.

A slightly different kind of love is that of the penitent to God. This is a theme George Herbert takes in his poem, "Love [III]".

Love (III)
George Herbert


Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, "You shall be he."
I the unkind, ungrateful? "Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says love, "and taste my meat:"
So I did sit and eat.

The contradiction here is clearly between the penitent's desire to share the company of love, and his own feeling of unworthiness.
The contradiction is drawn in the first two lines: "Love bade me welcome; but my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin." The penitent knows that he is not judged by love, but nevertheless judges himself unworthy of love. This theme is elaborated in the rest of the first stanza, and in the second; Love personified offers hospitality, but the penitent makes it clear that he considers himself "unkind, unworthy." He canot accept Love's invitation.
The paradox here is simple. Love is ever-inviting and all-forgiving. By love's standard of itself, the object of love is always deserving. However, love is a thing of absolute beauty and honour. Love is perfection; but humans are never perfect. By the object's own self-assessment, he can never be worthy of love, because he knows himself to be flawed and love to be unblemishable. Love is always open but forever prohibited.
Of course, this poem is about religious love and not romantic love, and therefore Herbert has a theological way to resolve this paradox. "'And know you not,' says love, 'who bore the blame?'" The penitent is absolved of his responsibility for his own shortcomings; someone else – Jesus – has already taken the blame. This means that the penitent's dues have already been paid in advance; his worth is pre-redeemed. As soon as this is mentioned, the penitent relents: "My dear, then I will serve." The paradox is conveniently dissolved.
The paradox is only resolved in this poem if we consider religious love.* Romantic love is not so easy to accept, and therefore this poem, while resolving its own dilemma, alerts us to a further, possibly more troubling one. Romantic love, too, is also perfect and forgiving, ever-inviting; but as with religious love, the lover is never worthy, by his own estimation, of the love. However, in the case of romantic love, there is no one to assume responsibility for our own shortcomings. Love becomes caught in this tortuous tension of desire and guilt. It never becomes a kingdom, as if they say heaven does, because it still has too much of the prison about it.
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In both of these works, as in many others of the 17th century, we see a careful presentation of a strange philosophical contradiction in the nature of an object – in these cases, love. This technique forms the essence of a genre of abstract, metaphysical poetry.

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References:
1. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/growth.htm
2. http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/poetry/metaphys.htm
3. http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/themes/95/95605.html
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_poets
5. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/metaphysical

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