metaphysical poetry

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As a metaphysical poetry (English metaphysical poetry ) a current in the English poetry of the baroque in the 17th century is referred to, especially in contrast to the cavalier poets . However, the term metaphysical poets was only coined in literary history about a century and a half later and first appeared in Dr. Johnson's Life of Abraham Cowley (1779). In later literary-historical or literary-critical accounts, the concept of metaphysical poetry was unspecifically extended to poets of other epochs.

The problem of the literary-historical concept of “metaphysical poetry”

Poets such as William Wordsworth , Samuel Taylor Coleridge , Percy Bysshe Shelley , George Gordon Byron and John Keats , who were later assigned to this literary current by literary scholars and critics, did not see themselves as "metaphysical poets" but rather as " romantics "; at first it is not very clear what is supposed to be metaphysical about her poetry . Such a classification seems rather absurd, especially for her love poetry, since her love poetry is characterized by a sensuality and often downright physical drasticness, which is rather polemically opposed to the sublime metaphysics of Petrarchan love.

Even poets such as Andrew Marvell , George Herbert or Richard Crashaw hardly saw themselves as metaphysical poets in the sense of a unified literary school; Such a designation is also hardly appropriate for their religious poetry, which in no way returns to the metaphysical certainties of medieval scholasticism , but in its insistent questioning struggles for the truth of the inner experience of grace .

conceptual history

The antecedents to the literary critical coinage of the term “metaphysical poetry” clearly shows that poets like John Donne and his students were only associated with metaphysics in a pejorative sense from the start. The contemporary poet William Drummond of Hawthornden , for example, already pejoratively characterizes their poetry as entangled in “ Metaphysical Ideas, and Scholastical Quiddities ” in order to denounce the hermetically dark pictorial quality of their lyrical language as a departure from classical clarity.

In the same vein, John Dryden accused Donne in 1693 of confusing the thinking and feeling of the fair sex with metaphysical-philosophical speculations ( "He affects the metaphysics [...] and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy" ). The "metaphysical" aspect of Donne's poetry is characterized here as mere affectation , wholly inappropriate in love poetry. The poet only wants to show off his wit and wit by hair-splitting metaphysical, philosophical and theological speculations in the game of an erotic discourse.

Johnson finally takes up this negative view in his accusation that the metaphysical poets are indeed educated ( "men of learning" ); However, their only concern is to show off their education ( "to show their learning was their only endeavor" ). From the point of view of the classicist conception of wit (Eng. joke, ingenuity), which should find its test above all in the discovery of new, but of course always obvious or conclusive similarities, the "metaphysical" wit is objected to as dysfunctional, abstruse and forced unnatural .

The proponents of this metaphysical poetry are united by an interest in philosophical questions, although metaphysical is not to be understood here as the adjective of metaphysics, but rather derives from the arbitrary, negatively connoted description of the poets in question by their main critic Samuel Johnson, which already has its beginnings in in his work The Lives of the Poets (1744).

Metaphysical conceits

Despite their pejorative judgment, the critics of the first so-called metaphysical poets found a perfectly accurate and precise description of the pictorial structure of their poetry, which in the early 17th century was essentially called conceit (from the Italian concetto ).

In the conceit , two areas of reality that are as far apart as possible are connected in a pointed exaggeration in the most amazing metaphorical form possible. Thus, in addition to magic and alchemy or logic and mathematics, the newer natural sciences as well as theology and metaphysics are scoured in their remotest stocks of knowledge in order to create surprisingly new and surprisingly relevant conceits .

At the same time, these knowledge systems themselves are no longer seen as binding, but rather turned into image donors of a metaphorical game. In this respect, the early modern modernity of metaphysical poetry springs precisely from an anti-metaphysical approach, in which metaphysics becomes just one random game material among others.

Stylistic and thematic characteristics

A key stylistic feature of metaphysical poetry is the conscious differentiation from Elizabethan poetry or Petrarchism , the common literary movements of the time, which is expressed in the criticism of social norms and values.

In terms of stylistic history, the metaphorical play of the conceits breaks above all with the conventional ornamental and transparent imagery of Elizabethan poetry. No longer are conventional hunting images or topical seafaring allegories unfolded with great attention to detail; instead, there is an extremely extensive compression geared toward darkness or mystery. For example, in Donne's poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning , the separated lovers are compared to the two legs of a circle, or in The Definition of Love the union of lovers is compared to the projection of the globe onto a disc of the astrolabe .

If a conceit is spun out more broadly, as in Donnes Air and Angels , it is only a question of always using a specific area of ​​the picture, such as the scholastic idea of ​​the body made of air, which makes it possible for angels to become visible to people to gain new and subtle analogy references to the love experience and the relationship between body and soul in the erotic union.

Popular themes of the 'metaphysical poets' are love and religion, which are often treated in the form of an argument, in conversation with an unfaithful lover, with God or allegorical figures such as death, or even in soliloquy. Word games ( puns ), oxymora and paradoxes , but especially the aforementioned metaphysical conceits - far-fetched, particularly elaborate metaphors - are stylistic devices that are particularly common in metaphysical poetry.

The witty character of these conceits essentially consists in the fact that comparisons which at first appear ridiculous in the end appear completely logical and coherent in themselves, which ultimately gives the metaphysical poets an extremely positive evaluation.

Elliptical syntax , metrical irregularity, and a more colloquialism are other hallmarks of the works of metaphysical poets.

In contemporary accounts, this new style of metaphysical poets is referred to as strong lined to emphasize its semantic density and energetic rhythm as a prominent difference from the previous style. Characteristic of the desired darkness in contrast to the classic clarity is also a new density of arguments and an emphasis on the language used, which can also be expressed in colloquial expressions. Many of the metaphysical poems speak out of a concrete situation and urgently appeal to someone opposite. In The Flea , for example, donne presupposes the intimate gathering of lovers; with the words " Mark but this flea " the narrator turns to his beloved, and then, from the mixture of her blood in the flea that bites her, makes an imaginative argument for the withdrawal of love.

Similar impulsive or dramatic gestures or turns of speech can be found in numerous other poems by the metaphysical poets , often in the very first lines, in order to effectively undermine the expectations of a poetically elevated or polished style of speech.

Not only the love poetry, but also the religious poetry of the metaphysical poets shows a comparable dramatic quality: It often expresses a moving struggle with God or for mercy in an inner dialogue or a dialogue with God. Even the more contemplative poems of the metaphysical poets usually start from a concrete situation, which then leads to a deepening meditation .

The first metaphysical poets were among the contemporaries of the important Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists; Against this background, the dialogical movement and stylistic tension between poetic imagery and energetic colloquial phrases in her poems did not arise by chance in terms of literary history.

sacralization of the erotic

Above all, with Donne 's canonization , a provocative new conception of love arises in the metaphysical poetry in literary history, in which sexuality and physical desire also appear as a sacred mystery that is no longer owed to the sacrament of marriage , as was the case with Spenser . After a dramatic prelude, in which the speaker is reproached by his counterpart, a friend, for example, because of his all-consuming, ruinous love passion, the lover presents himself and his beloved as saints and unfolds a wealth of new analogies and aspects from this conceit : They renounce for a supreme good of all worldly ambitions and are therefore saints; her death means resurrection and new life; their union is a religious mystery, as it makes two people one; later lovers invoke them as saints of love in hymns and prayers as models of complete escapism and devotion.

What is new is not Donne's use of unconventional religious images in an erotic discourse, but his use of religious metaphors to sanctify her kind of love. In contrast to the Petrarchan convention of religious exaltation through the sublimation of love into the spiritual, Donne's poem sanctifies love as a physical-sexual experience in imagery bordering on the blasphemous . With a central play on words “We die and rise the same, and prove/Mysterious by this love” , the religious mystery of death and resurrection is connected with the orgasm ( “die” ) and the newly awakening lust ( “rise” ). In The Extasie , Donne also insists on the inseparable unity of physical and emotional love experiences.

With impulsive verbal gestures and the conceits , the abstract is brought together with the material and physical; the body, its senses and its sensuality are thus introduced with renewed emphasis into the lyrical discourse of metaphysical poets.

main agent

John Donne is generally regarded as the main representative and father of metaphysical poetry, who is regarded as particularly witty (dt. witty) through his famous metaphysical conceits , above all in his poems The Flea and A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning .

Crucially, however, the metaphysical poet movement and the critique it embodies is not seen as an official counter-movement to the dominant literary currents. On the contrary, the first metaphysical poems were recited exclusively in private circles and, especially in the early days of John Donne , were not yet intended for a wider audience. The importance attached to this poetry today is mainly based on an afterthought.

The most important metaphysical poets were:

In the 20th century, metaphysical poetry was modeled particularly on English-speaking modern poets; TS Eliot acknowledged this influence in a 1921 essay.


web links


  1. more detailed Manfred Pfister : The early modern period: From Morus to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , p. 108.
  2. more detailed Manfred Pfister: The early modern period: From Morus to Milton. In: In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , pp. 108f.
  3. more detailed Manfred Pfister: The early modern period: From Morus to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , p. 109.
  4. more detailed Manfred Pfister: The early modern period: From Morus to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , p. 109.
  5. more detailed Manfred Pfister: The early modern period: From Morus to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , p. 110.
  6. Manfred Pfister: The early modern period: from Morus to Milton. In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (ed.): English literary history. 4th, adult edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02035-5 , pp. 110f. See also Clay Hunt 's comprehensive interpretation of Donne 's The Canonization for more detail: John Donne's "The Canonization". In: Willi Erzgräber (ed.): Interpretations Volume 7 · English literature from Thomas More to Laurence Sterne . Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1970, pp. 112-137, especially pp. 114-116 and 118ff.
  7. TS Eliot: The Metaphysical Poets. In: Times Literary Supplement . October 20, 1921.