IAS (Admin.) IAS Mains English Literature: Questions 1 of 60


Appeared in Year: 2016

Describe in Detail


Self-conscious structuring of images in metaphysical poetry. (Paper 1)


Self-Conscious Structuring and Metaphysical Poetry

  • Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century extended the use of the term ‘metaphysical’ to include a group of seventeenth century poets who employed abstruse poetic procedures and imagery, both in secular poetry and religious poetry. He coined this term as a derogatory term. These poets are John Donne, Cleveland, Marvell, Cowley, Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw. These writers were, however, diverse in their themes and approaches, but they had in common a philosophical world view. Johnson called them ‘metaphysical’ to indicate a common poetic style, use of figurative language and meditative attitude. The term ‘metaphysical’ means beyond the physical world.
  • Their poems are written in knotted sentences in which it is hard to trace the line of argument. The arguments are joined together with wit and originality with powerful emotions. Ideas are far-fetched and far-ranging. Their imagery is extraordinary and their comparisons are most unexpected. One of the common characteristics which make them exceptional is their excellent use of metaphysical conceit. Metaphysical conceit is a figurative device used to capture thought and emotion as accurately as possible and makes ingenious comparisons between two apparently incongruous things or concepts.
  • John Donne is considered as the greatest of the writers of metaphysical poetry in which passion is interwoven with reasoning. Donne excelled in reflective imagination. His poems are rich in images. His imagery draws on the new learning of the English Renaissance and on topical discoveries and exploration such as alchemy, religion, mythology, sea-voyages, etc. In his poem, The Canonization, the images ‘flies or tapers’ are compared to the love of the lovers, who burn themselves out for each other՚s love.
  • They are even compared to a phoenix, which are united in love like the phoenix combining in itself the female and the male setting fire to themselves and rising anew from the ashes. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning uses the famous conceit ‘the pair of compasses’ in which the lovers are compared to the two feet of a pair of compasses. The lover՚s faces are compared to two hemispheres in the poem The Good Morrow. Death is personified and is presented as a slave to Fate, Chance, Kings, and Desperate men in the poem Death Be Not Proud. It shatters the common idea of death as powerful.
  • Vaughan uses imagery from the natural world. In his poem, The Retreat, he uses the images of clouds, flowers, bird, star, etc, and according to him “shadows of eternity” is reflected in clouds or flowers. Andrew Marvell՚s, another famous poet of this group, imagery is more complex. He addresses the love as “vegetable love” which will grow more and more as time passes by even to the extent of an “empire” , and time is referred to as a “winged chariot” , in his poem To His Coy Mistress. Herbert՚s imagery draws on every day and is familiar. He compares reason to a “good house wife” , God՚s grace as asilk twist” , suffering as harvest of thorns or blood-letting, love as God՚s bow or the host at a banquet. In his poem, The Collar, he makes a reference to ‘thorn’ and ‘blood’ which ignores the conventional religious symbolism of these terms.
  • Hence, we can see that the images used by the metaphysical poets differ from other poets because of its unexpected use of imagery and its self-conscious structuring which draws from Renaissance, discoveries, nature, everyday life, religion, etc.

Developed by: