The Search of the Metaphysical Poets
Who were the English Metaphysical Poets, and why were they called that?
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
— John Donne, The Sun Rising.
Metaphysical poetry originated towards the end of the 16th century in England. It is popularly understood as an obscure and complex lyrical expression, which, for its time, used unconventional structures and themes, such as the technique of writing poems in a dramatic and colloquial voice (similar to a theatrical monologue). Additionally, it was characterized by the use of long and extremely ornamented metaphors, known as conceits.
Among the “metaphysical” poets, who were headed by John Donne, considered the first Metaphysical Poet and the creator of the style which would represent the group, we find Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Abraham Cowley y Richard Crashaw.
Metaphysical poetry is considered obscure because, to read it attentively, we must understand some of the ideas that permeated the mindsets of the artists of the time. Among many others, there was the notion of the universe as a harmoniously organized system, divided in planes that correspond to each other; some of the most important ideas of English humanism; the birth and establishment of the Anglican Church journeys of discovery, and the conquest of new foreign lands during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The work of the so-called Metaphysical Poets was also deemed “obscure” because of its apparent ambiguities: paradox, for instance, was an essential dialectic game in their poetry. The work could also be understood as dialectics because it considers opposing pairs: body-soul, life-death, God-man, concrete-abstract and, in particular, the confrontation between the world of science and that of emotions.
The English Metaphysical Poets never formed a group, nor did they comprise a literary school or an artistic current; many of them never even met and they never knew that the generations of poets to come would categorize them as such, thanks to the stylistic traits they shared: long and complex metaphors, how they emphasized the poetic voice’s wit, the use of paradox and their taste for subjects such as sacred and profane love, or the confrontation between man and God.
“Metaphysical” as a category might seem imprecise; the name could suggest that these poets wrote about the nature of the universe in metaphysical terms, when in fact their poetry is metaphysics in a much more literal sense: this group of authors was profoundly interested in issues that went beyond the visible and what could be proven in a rational sense. They dealt with the interaction between the mundane and the ethereal, but they took it to a terrestrial stage. Afterwards, through poetry and its metaphorical mechanisms, they transformed this reality into an extraordinary environment.
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