Donne and the Metaphysical School of Poetry

John Donne (1573-1631), a devout churchman and a great preacher of sermons rose to be the Dean of St. Paul’s. His early poems are outspokenly erotic and sensual and were published only after his death. His divine poems are equally passionate in expressing his complex and deep religious emotion. Donne is generally considered a rebel in poetry. Impatient of conventions, Donne revolted against the Spenserian tradition both in matter and manner. He did not like its allegory, pastoralism, romantic, chivalric over-rich style and smooth versification. He regarded Spenser’s Platonic love a humbug and decided to treat love as a physical appetite honestly and realistically. Against Spenser’s “heavily brocaded language and the monotonous music of his stanza”, Donne deliberately adopted a colloquial language.

Donne’s habit of philosophizing, of leading a subject into strange, dim and unexpected vistas of though earned him the tile of ‘metaphysical poetry. The ecstasy of union of two souls in love is a simple idea but it is treated in such a way that only a reader gifted with a special sixth sense can grasp it.

Donne was intensely, even violently passionate, and at the same time given to intensive and melancholy meditation. This blend of passion and thought, this integrated sensibility is the distinguishing quality of Donne’s poems in which he shows real tenderness are those addressed to his wife. He employs hyperboles, fanaticism, transition from one extreme to the other, juxtaposition of the trivial and the sublime, of the colloquial and the grandiloquent to arrest attention. His divine poems show his religious exaltation.

The newness of Donne’s poetry had a strong appeal to the test of the time, and was widely practiced from 1630 to 1660. Besides Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan and Traherne were the important Metaphysical poets. Before taking our leave of the Metaphysical school of poetry, a word must be said about the term itself. The term ‘metaphysical’ was first used for Donne by Dryden and was later applied to him and his school by Dr. Johnson in his discussion of Cowley. The term refers to the hair splitting subtlety of Donne’s philosophical reasoning. Explaining the term metaphysical, Dr. Johnson writes “The Metaphysical poets were men of learning and to show their learning was their whole endeavour … They copied neither nature nor life. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural, they he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perversity of industry they were ever found.”

Donne’s numerous illnesses, financial strain, and the deaths of his friends all contributed to the development of a more somber and pious tone in his later poems.

The change can be clearly seen in ‘an Anatomy of the World,” (1611), poem that Donne wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. This poem treats the death of the girl in an extremely morose mood, expanding her death to the Fall of Man and the destruction of the universe.
This change may also be observed in the religious works that Donne began writing during the same period. His early belief in the value of skepticism now gave way to a firm faith in the traditional teachings of the Bible. Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious poems. The passionate lines of these sermons would come to influence future works of English literature, such as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which took its title from a passage in Meditation XVII, and Thomas Merton’s No man is an Island, which took its title from the same source.


Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many men, on the grounds of his belief that those who die are sent to Heaven to live eternally. One example of this challenge is his Holy Sonnet X, from which come the famous lines “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mightily and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Even as he lay dying on Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death’s Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.

Some characteristics of metaphysical poetry include:

tendency to psychological analysis of emotion of love and religion

a penchant for imagery that is novel, “unpoetical” and sometimes shocking, drawn from the commonplace (actual life) or remote (erudite sources), including the extended metaphor of the life “metaphysical conceit” simple diction (compared to Elizabethan poetry) which echoes the cadences of everyday speech

form: frequently an argument (with the poet’s lover; with God; with oneself)

meter: often rugged, not “sweet” or smooth like Elizabethan verse. This ruggedness goes naturally with the Metaphysical poets’ attitude and

purpose: a belief in the perplexity of life, spirit of revolt, and the putting of an argument in speech rather than song.

The best metaphysical poetry is honest, unconventional, and reveals the poet’s sense of the complexities and contradictions of life. It is intellectual, analytical, psychological, and bold; frequently it is absorbed in thoughts of death, physical love, and religious devotion.


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