Deep dives: Marvell-ous Metaphysical poetry

Olivia Finlayson delves into the world of 17th century Metaphysical poetry

Olivia Finlayson
24th February 2021
What is your favourite literary genre/movement?
*internally screams at seemingly impossible decision*
Modernism? Realism? Surrealism? Romanticism? Satire? Metafiction? Afrofuturism? Cubism?...
Metaphysical poetry. 
Portrait of John Donne by an unknown artist c. 1595.
via Wikimedia Commons

Donne. Marvell. Herbert. Cowley. Vaughan. 

Metaphysical poetry emerged amongst the poets of the 17th century who used their explorations of philosophical possibilities to construct intellectually complex poems, exploring many commonplace themes in peculiar ways. 

The oxymoron of intellectually complex analogies, similes and metaphors, alongside the use of colloquial language and irony, defines the metaphysical poetry genre with the aim to be inspiring and thought provoking. In contrast to other passive forms of literature, metaphysical poets set out to use these complex and unusual comparisons and portrayals of common themes to present depictions of emotions and entities which rival pre-existing ideals.

Main themes portrayed within the metaphysical genre are: love, religion, morality, death, science and philosophy; typically, these themes are found to be overlapping, interlinking or contradictory through the poet's abstract approach to a well-known topic. Possibly most notably, John Donne's The Flea.

Is it possible to appreciate metaphysical poetry without taking into consideration the impact of cavalier poetry? 

Despite many differences between styles and genres, cavalier poetry contributes an additional concept into metaphysical poetry; the concept of entities such as Carpe Diem. Although metaphysical poetry primarily expresses emotions through unusual representations, the addition of entities can be seen through the work of Marvell as an underlying explanation for the emotions he expresses.

Marvell's poem To His Coy Mistress has been deemed both metaphysical and cavalier through his use of conceits to portray both emotion, yet also to emphasises the idea that time is running out. 

Marvell's personification of time in relation to the speaker's haste uses typical characteristics of metaphysical poetry as his conceit and wit use opposing rich, everlasting imagery and strong imagery of death to express sorrow in the destruction of chastity. His inclusion of the concept Carpe Diem, alongside the declaration of passion and desire for his lover, combines the expression of emotion and an entity to embody an abstract, metaphysical portrayal of desire. 

I initially found metaphysical poetry striking through Donne's body of work. Until discovering this poet, I had never seen such an abundance of ill-fitting and peculiar imagery to express surges of passion.

Donne's The Flea uses the analogy of a flea to express his desire to have a sexual encounter with his unrequited lover. His pretentiousness in using the imagery of the flea mingling their blood as a cue for them to have sex finally leads his lover to kill the flea to symbolise her lack of desire for him. Consequently, the speaker then justifies his actions to his 'lover', expressing that she would lose no more honour sleeping with him, as she has by killing the flea. 

Another example of a potent metaphysical poem is The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell; his use of the analogy of parallel lines to embody perfect love complexly implies that perfect love runs side by side and never meets. Thus, creating a new concept of idealised love.

Why is it still relevant? 

Metaphysical poetry is still relevant today as it continues to be influential to new and upcoming authors and pieces of literature. 

One of the most influential effects of metaphysical poetry can be seen through T.S. Eliot's admiration, in his early life, of Donne's combination of intellect and wit. Thus, emphasising the genre's ability to be mutated in relation to ever-changing modernity. 

For me, personally, it is one of the most prominent genres in the expression of the connection between mind and matter or body and soul. The balance of complexity is thought provoking without being too alienating and without simply enforcing a philosophical concept on the reader. Characterised by the sole focus around a conceit, it brings originality to the poems which is hard to be found elsewhere. The technicality woven within the content and form, yet purposely using colloquial language and known imagery, allows the poems to be relatable while primarily shocking, thus leaving a long-term imprint on the reader as they are left to decipher the meaning of the conceit and be exposed to an abstract viewpoint. 

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