Metaphysical poets like John Donne use complex, dramatic expressions and a variety of literary devices like extended conceits, paradoxes, and imagery in colloquial and personal language that challenges ideas of morality, traditional love, and carnality; it is intellectually inventive even jarring sometimes because it mixes and links two unlike things to create extended metaphors and anecdotes that is unique in comparison to previous poets of his era particularly Edmund Spenser (Budra 3).
Such poets did examine and write on similar ideas like the notion of carpe diem and tempus fugit, but John Donne and other Metaphysical poets like Andrew Marvel use exotic language and literary tools in different matter to describe unconventional themes, argumentative at times, linking the physical with the spiritual qualities or vice versa, ultimately creating metaphysical poetry.
In this essay, I will define the term metaphysical and look at how Metaphysical poets like John Donne use literary devices, rhyme schemes, and manners in which he unfolds his irregular ideas to grasp the uniqueness of his style in poems like “The Flea”, “The Indifferent”. and “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” to be seemingly anti romantic and less pure, different than Petrarchan norms.
The word Metaphysical, meaning beyond reality, is made up of two words, “meta” which means beyond or across, and “physical” which means the physical matter surrounding us. Donne crosses the barriers in poetry between the physical world and the spiritual non-physical world to create unique extended conceits that makes up one of the characteristics of Metaphysical poetry.
Metaphysical conceits are actually one of the main instruments to Donne’s central arguments (Budra 3). Literary conceits compare two dissimilar subjects and use an exaggeration of conventional emotions; Metaphysical conceits on the other hand work with spiritual objects to create a more extended metaphor, linking the subjects or things together logically.
For example, in Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” , he compares the lovers souls with the points of a compass when he says “If they be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two”. He argues and explains how distance does not effect them since their love is very strong, even if they are apart; they are connected by the strength of their souls such as the opposition of magnetic poles. Ronald Corthell argues that what makes his love paradoxes unique is “improvisation of neo-platonic themes” (Ronald 78). Having a compass to describe the lover’s soul is already unconventional but it works very well by using the object logically, building on the idea, time and space to coherently link everything.
Ronald describes Donne’s love poetry as central and the idea of mutual love is an attempt to confront the issues between public and private domains (Ronald 99). He also argues that the poem “The Indifferent” is ridiculing Petrarchan conventions of love because she is to be promiscuous in order for him to liken her (Ronald 65). Ronald uses some of Freud’s theories such as psychoanalytical approaches to tackle Donne’s poems like “The Indifferent” and “Batter my Heart”.
He argues that Donne’s poems denote a sadomasochistic fantasy instead since Freud argues that when boys fantasize about being beaten, they’re also taking part of a woman being beaten in their unconscious fantasy as it may be repressed or fear of turning a woman. For example Donne says “I am being beaten by my father” is actually him being violated by his parent (Ronald 154).
On other hand, Spenser has a correlation to the blazon tradition and Petrarch’s conventional love of having an ideal lover failing to give up to seduction. For example in Amoretti Sonnet 13 “Whiles her faire face she reares up to the skie / And to the ground her eie lids low embaseth”, the lover describes his lady, her posture and clue to her being, ultimately painting a visual allegory making her a religious emblem. (Budra 3) Spenser uses conceits and imagery quite differently, in a more hyperbolic function giving symbolical meanings but no higher entities to link between like souls or spiritual, other than time of course (Budra 3).
Another example of Donne’s witty conceits is the poem of seduction “The Flea”. The male lover is using everything to his advantage convincing the female to have sex with him by using a flea as a medium between them, having to suck their blood and mingle together. The male argues that they are unionized while she threatens then kills the flea, paradoxically, he reverses his argument over the lady’s triumph and openly contradicting himself, saying that they might as well have sex because loss of virginity is as trivial as a flea’s death, something small and minor (Budra 3). Donne takes it further by adding a holy element, the union between the three. “O stay, three lives in one flea spare / Where we almost, yea, more than married are.” Donne also alludes to religious imagery by creating a “holy trinity” between the male, female, and the flea (Budra 3).
The monologue/dialogue language, mingling of the blood and flea as a union between the two lovers itself is a smart conceit, yet alluding the allegorical religious notion creates the uniqueness of the poem because it creates more extended metaphors than the usual, working altogether giving its “Metaphysics”. In Spenser’s case, he uses Paradoxes in a not so similar matter. Sonnet 75 is an anecdotal story about how two lovers will be forever immortalized through the actual text. “One day I wrote her name upon the strand / But came the waves and washed it away”. The ocean and tides here is a symbol for eternity and transitory cycles. Spenser’s allegory is through the implied narrative of tides, union and death, linking “less” spiritual matter to his love in compared to Donne’s blazons (Budra 2).
Both Spenser and Donne use Iambic Pentameter as the base, but Spenser invents and uses a more complex anti-Petrarchan scheme; fixed 14 lines, a unique rhyming interlock quatrains ABAB BCBC CDCD EE now called Spenserian sonnets. The structure works to his benefit because of flexibility and the way he unfolds the story, clear Volta complements the buildup and resolution in comparison to Donne where sometimes his Volta may seem unrestricted like changing the base of his argument in “The Flea”. Donne and other Metaphysical poets use a Petrarch’s style, sometimes tweaked when structuring their poems, “problem Octave” ABBA ABBA and “solution Sestet” CDE CDE (Budra 2).
After all, why topics of love? Because it is the “safest” topic to discuss at the time. In regards to John Dryden’s writings, Robert identifies Metaphysics as how Donne affects the metaphysics and how natural the mind seems to work with the idea of love (Robert 227). Metaphysical poetry Challenges conventional Petrarchan ideas of love for example when Donne is in love with another woman who’s in love (Ronald 102). Donne tries to show the psychological realism and tension of love through his poems. Metaphysical poets usage of argumentative extended conceits offers far more unique metaphors and allusions than their “hyperbole” predecessors.
An attempt to explain Metaphysical conceits is giving spiritual qualities and importance to insignificant things or matter, and linking them logically altogether. The core difference between the metaphysical poets and others perhaps not in the themes, moreover in how they use literary tools and the fashion of conveying spiritual ideas to the physical world rationally.
Budra, Paul. “Wyatt, Surrey, and Petrarch” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 15 Jan. 2016. Seminar
Budra, Paul. “Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 01 Feb. 2016. Seminar
Budra, Paul. “John Donne.” English 203 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 22 Feb. 2016. Seminar
Corthell, Ronald. Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: the Subject of Donne. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997. Print.
Donne, John. “The Flea” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 1596. Print.
Donne, John. “The Indifferent” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 1591- 1592. Print.
Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 1598. Print.
Ray, Robert H. A John Donne Companion. New York.: Garland Publishing, 1990. Print.
Spenser, Edmund. “Amoretti #13.” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 677. Print.
Spenser, Edmund. “Amoretti #75.” The Longman Anthology: New York: Pearson, 2010. Page 679. Print.