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Metaphysical Hot Air Balloons
Baroque Poets

Metaphysical Hot Air Balloons
  • English Literary Criticism (by )
  • Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets ... Volume Vol. 1 (by )
  • The Metaphysical Poets (by )
  • Poems of John Donne : Volume 2 (by )
  • The Works of Abraham Cowley; Volume: 1 (by )
  • The English Poems of George Herbert (by )
  • The poetical Works of Andrew Marvell (by )
  • Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs... (by )
  • The Complete Works of Richard Crashaw (by )
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The Metaphysical poets were a loose group of poets coined as a movement after the fact by their common love for analyzing feeling rather than expressing it, their use of irony, paradox, obliqueness that forces the reader to confront consciousness itself, and the use of conceits through sometimes strained, extended metaphors.

In his essay “The Lives of the Poets,” Samuel Johnson described their use of conceits unfavorably as “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” He further opines:

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased." (p. 97, English Literary Criticism)

Johnson may not have been wrong to call them out on pretension and lack of rhythmic flow. Although their poetry pushed the boundaries of metaphors as well as poetry itself, some of the conceits might still feel like words digging their own graves. Take a portion of John Donne's poem "The Flea":

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this fiea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas! is more than we would do. (p. 54 Poems of John Donne Vol. 1)
The literary guts that push a craft forward never tread lightly. Twentieth century American poet T. S. Eliot led a resurgence of interest in the metaphysical poets with his essay "Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler," a counter-argument to Johnson's still pinching indictment. Eliot writes,

"A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

Whether their conceits made their poetry full of hot air or whether their deep introspection made them truly pretentious for pretension's sake, metaphysical poetry as a genre was too broad a stroke. A perhaps more accurate definition proposed for these poets was Baroque poets, being that they all wrote poetry in the Baroque period and did not actively build a cohesive metaphysical school for their writing. 

By Thad Higa

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