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[ 709 The Percy Graeme Turnbull Memorial Lectures The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry Three lectures delivered at The Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, USA in January 1933 T. S. ELIOT Lecture I: Toward a Definition of Metaphysical Poetry Lecture II: The Conceit in Donne and Crashaw Lecture III: Laforgue and Corbière in our Time Textual Note 710 ] Lecture I Toward a Definition of Metaphysical Poetry1 It is not my intention, in three lectures, to cover the whole ground of what is ordinarily called “metaphysical poetry.” Out of the group of poets commonly included under that term in extension, I shall only refer to the principal members. On the other hand, I shall have something to say about other poets, both more ancient and much more modern, who seem to me to have some relation to the subject; and in this way to support a tentative definition of metaphysical poetry. The purpose of these lectures is indeed to arrive somewhere near a definition. For there is an obvious difficulty about the term as we use it, most conveniently, to designate a number of poets more or less contemporary, or belonging to two generations which overlap, we will say from Donne to Cowley, in the seventeenth century. So long as we use the term “metaphysical poetry” merely as standing for the work of these poets, we get along well enough. But we cannot be content with that, and we try to discover what this “metaphysicality” is that they have in common. But the moment we define “metaphysicality” in any way at all satisfactory, we find that not all of these poets appear to share it, and that what they all have in common is something else, something local in time and place. What we have to do, in the end, is to impose a meaning, rather than to discover it. We have on the one hand an idea, or a term which appears to stand for an idea; and on the other, a considerable mass of literature which appears to embody this idea. Nothing, at first sight, more easy. We have only to evolve from our own minds a definition of what metaphysical poetry ought to be, then apply it, separate the metaphysical authors from the nonmetaphysical , and if we incline to be more analytical, the metaphysical from the non-metaphysical part of the former authors’ writings. But consider the idea and the concrete product more closely. This term “metaphysical ,”usedbyDrydenandadoptedbyJohnson,wasfirstusedasaconvenient term pointing to a certain number of poets; it was as much defined by its material, as defining it.2 It was first used by persons who were not themselves metaphysicians, or of a very philosophical cast of mind, and they certainly did not employ the term with any thought of Lucretius or Dante [ 711 Toward a Definition of Metaphysical Poetry in their heads. The more metaphysical branches of philosophy were neither much practised, nor in very high repute in England, either in the age of Dryden or in the age of Johnson. There is room also for asking whether the term may not somewhat have altered in meaning between the time of Dryden and that of Johnson. We have even to ask whether the termcanremaininuse,justifiably,forthepoetstowhomitwasfirstapplied. We must remember that we have been using it not only for a larger number of poets than that which Dryden and Johnson had in mind, but for these poets seen in a different order of merit. There is no evidence that Johnson had in mind, or would have included, many poets who seem to us to belong to this category: Crashaw, Marvell, King, the two Herberts, Vaughan, Benlowes and of course Traherne who was not known, pass unmentioned. Johnson speaks of Donne and Ben Jonson as setting the fashion (he makes a vague reference to Marino) and enumerates as their “immediate successors” who still wore some shreds of honour in his own time, Suckling, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Cleveland and Milton. Waller, Denham and Milton he presents only to withdraw instantly; Suckling he dismisses as negligible; there remain only Cowley and Cleveland, and these two, with Donne, are the poets from whose work he draws all the illustrations in his famous essay.3 And remember that he attaches a higher value to the work of Cowley than to that of Donne. Dryden, in his “Preface to Sylvae,” refers to Cowley with what seems to us unmeasured praise; and in his references to Donne, appears more impressed by the Satires, than by any other...


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