- The Metaphysical Poets
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[ 375 The Metaphysical Poets1 By collecting these poems from the work of a generation more often named than read, and more often read than profitably studied, Professor Grierson has rendered a service of some importance.2 Certainly the reader will meet with many poems already preserved in other anthologies, at the same time that he discovers poems such as those of Aurelian Townshend or Lord Herbert of Cherbury here included.3 But the function of such an anthology as this is neither that of Professor Saintsbury’s admirable edition of Caroline poets nor that of the Oxford Book of English Verse.4 Mr. Grierson’s book is in itself a piece of criticism, and a provocation of criticism; and we think that he was right in including so many poems of Donne, elsewhere (though not in many editions) accessible, as documents in the case of “metaphysical poetry.” The phrase has long done duty as a term of abuse, or as the label of a quaint and pleasant taste. The question is to what extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school (in our own time we should say a “movement”), and how far this so-called school or movement is a digression from the main current. Not only is it extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry, but difficult to decide what poets practise it and in which of their verses. The poetry of Donne (to whom Marvell and Bishop King are sometimes nearer than any of the other authors) is late Elizabethan, its feeling often very close to that of Chapman. The “courtly” poetry is derivative from Jonson, who borrowed liberally from the Latin; it expires in the next century with the sentiment and witticism of Prior.5 There is finally the devotional verse of Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw (echoed long after by Christina Rossetti and Francis Thompson);6 Crashaw, sometimes more profound and less sectarian than the others, has a quality which returns through the Elizabethan period to the early Italians.7 It is difficult to find any precise use of metaphor , simile, or other conceit, which is common to all the poets and at the same time important enough as an element of style to isolate these poets as a group. Donne, and often Cowley, employ a device which is sometimes considered characteristically “metaphysical”: the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it. Thus Cowley develops the commonplace comparison 1921 376 ] of the world to a chess-board through long stanzas (“To Destiny”), and Donne, with more grace, in “A Valediction,” the comparison of two lovers to a pair of compasses.8 But elsewhere we find, instead of the mere explication of the content of a comparison, a development by rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader. On a round ball A workeman that hath copies by, can lay An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia, And quickly make that, which was nothing, All, So doth each teare, Which thee doth weare, A globe, yea world by that impression grow, Till thy tears mixt with mine doe overflow This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.9 Here we find at least two connexions which are not implicit in the first figure, butareforceduponitbythepoet:fromthegeographer’sglobetothetear,and the tear to the deluge. On the other hand, some of Donne’s most successful and characteristic effects are secured by brief words and sudden contrasts: A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,10 where the most powerful effect is produced by the sudden contrast of associations of “bright hair” and of “bone.” This telescoping of images and multiplied associations is characteristic of the phrase of some of the dramatists of the period which Donne knew: not to mention Shakespeare, it is frequent in Middleton, Webster, and Tourneur, and is one of the sources of the vitality of their language. Johnson, who employed the term “metaphysical poets,” apparently having Donne, Cleveland, and Cowley chiefly in mind, remarks of them that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”11 The force of this impeachment lies in the failure of the conjunction, the fact that often the ideas are yoked but not united; and if we are to judge of styles of poetry by their abuse, enough examples may be found in Cleveland to justify Johnson’s condemnation. But a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the...