The Best Examples of Metaphysical Poetry in English Literature

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

What is ‘metaphysical poetry’, and who were the metaphysical poets? The term, which was popularised by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, is often used to describe the work of poets including John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell, although Johnson originally applied it to the poetry of Abraham Cowley. Although the heyday of metaphysical poetry was the seventeenth century, the techniques employed by metaphysical poets continue to be used by modern and contemporary poets: see, for instance, the poetry of William Empson or the contemporary poems found on Calenture.

Below are some of the best and most illustrative examples of ‘metaphysical poetry’ from its golden age: poems which highlight the conceits, extended metaphors, wordplay, and paradoxes which many poets associated with the label ‘metaphysical’ embraced and utilised in their work.

1. John Donne, ‘The Flea’.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea 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 pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do …

Like many of the best metaphysical poems, ‘The Flea’ uses an interesting and unusual conceit to make an argument – in this case, about the nature of physical love. Like Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (see below), ‘The Flea’ is essentially a seduction lyric. Since this flea has sucked blood from both me and you, the poet says to his would-be mistress, our blood has already been mingled in the flea’s body; so why shouldn’t we mingle our bodies (and their fluids) in sexual intercourse? Of course, this rather crude paraphrase is a world away from the elegance and metaphorical originality of Donne’s poem with its extended metaphor …

2. John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time …

This is one of Donne’s most celebrated poems, and it’s gloriously frank – it begins with Donne chastising the sun for peeping through the curtains, rousing him and his lover as they lie in bed together of a morning. Its ‘metaphysical’ quality is evident in Donne’s planetary imagery later in the poem: especially when he taunts the sun for being unlucky in love because its natural partner, the world, is already spoken for (because Donne and his beloved are the world) …

3. Anne Southwell, ‘An Elegie written by the Lady A: S: to the Countesse of London Derrye supposeinge hir to be dead by hir longe silence’.

Although all of the best-known metaphysical poets are men, it isn’t true that metaphysical poetry in the seventeenth century was solely the province of male poets. Anne Southwell (c. 1574-1636) proves this: born only a couple of years after Donne (probably), Southwell penned this metaphysical ‘elegy’ in which the Ptolemaic and Platonic versions of the universe are used as a way of understanding the power of prayer. This poem is not available elsewhere online, so we reproduce the first few lines below:

Since thou fayre soule, art warbleinge to a spheare,
from whose resultances, theise quickned weere.
since, thou hast layd that downy Couch aside
of Lillyes, Violletts, and roseall pride,
And lockt in marble chests, that Tapestrye
that did adorne, the worlds Epitome,
soe safe; that Doubt it selfe can neuer thinke,
make fortune, or fate hath power, to breake a chinke.
Since, thou for state, hath raisd thy state, soe farr,
To a large heauen, from a vaute circular,
because, the thronginge virtues, in thy brest,
could not haue roome enough, in such a chest,
what need hast thou? theise blotted Lines should tell,
soules must againe take rise, from whence they fell.

4. George Herbert, ‘The Collar’.

I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store …

George Herbert (1593-1633) went to the grave without seeing any of his poetry into print; it was only because his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, thought they were worth salvaging that they were published at all. In this poem, Herbert’s speaker seeks to reject belief in God, to cast off his ‘collar’ and be free. (The collar refers specifically to the ‘dog collar’ that denotes a Christian priest, with its connotations of ownership and restricted freedom, though it also suggests being bound or restricted more generally. Herbert, we should add, was a priest himself.) This central collar-metaphor signals this as one of Herbert’s greatest achievements in metaphysical poetry.

5. George Herbert, ‘The Pulley’.

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
‘Let us,’ said he, ‘pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.’

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay …

Another of Herbert’s poems whose paradoxes and wordplay show him to be one of the greatest metaphysical poets. ‘The Pulley’ is a Creation poem which imagines God making man and bestowing all available attributes upon him – except for rest. Work is important so that man should worship the God who made Nature, rather than Nature itself. We suppose one way of looking it is to say that God is advocating hard work as its own reward, and justifying having just one day of the week as a ‘day of rest’ on which to worship Him. Man should be ‘rich and weary’ – rich not only in a financial but in a moral and spiritual sense, too, we assume.

6. Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’.

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of His bright face …

The Welsh-born Vaughan (1621-95) is less famous than some of the other names on this list, but his work has similarly been labelled ‘metaphysical’. This poem is about the loss of heavenly innocence experienced during childhood, and a desire to regain this lost state of ‘angel infancy’, playing upon the double meaning of ‘retreat’ as both refuge and withdrawal.

7. Andrew Marvell, ‘The Definition of Love’.

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing …

If we were going to try to pin down the term ‘metaphysical poetry’ to a clear example, we could do worse than this poem, from Andrew Marvell (1621-78). In ‘The Definition of Love’, Marvell announces that his love was born of despair – despair of knowing that the one he loved would never be his, because he and his beloved run on parallel lines which means they can never intersect and come together. In other words, those who are best-suited to each other (if we interpret the ‘parallel’ image thus) are often kept apart (this poem has been interpreted as a coded reference to homosexuality: two men who love each other are ‘parallel’ in being the same gender, but seventeenth-century society decreed that they could never be together). A clever poem, but also a powerful one about frustrated love.

8. Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood …

Marvell, addressing his sweetheart, says that the woman’s reluctance to have sex with him would be fine, if life wasn’t so short. But such a plan is a fantasy, because in reality, our time on Earth is short. Marvell says that, in light of what he’s just said, the only sensible thing to do is to enjoy themselves and go to bed together – while they still can. The poem is famous for its enigmatic reference to the poet’s ‘vegetable love’ – which has, perhaps inevitably, been interpreted as a sexual innuendo, and gives us a nice example of the metaphysical poets’ love of unusual metaphors.

For a good anthology of the metaphysical poets, we recommend Metaphysical Poetry (Penguin Classics). Continue to explore Early Modern poetry with these Renaissance poems, these John Donne poems, Marvell’s best poems, and George Herbert’s greatest religious verse.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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