The metaphysical poets is a term applied to some English poets of the 17th century whose work is characterised by wit, a love of conceits, complex argument, and unexpected use of similes and arguably extravagant comparisons. Among the poets who have been so categorised were John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell and Thomas Traherne. They were not a movement as such, though one can trace a pattern of influence between some of them, particularly between Herbert and Vaughan. Some of their poems start from something very concrete - for example sunrise or a flower - and move on to an exploration of religious or philosophical themes or of the nature of love and relationships.
The term "metaphysical" to describe the poets dates back to John Dryden, who disliked this poetic style, and said disparagingly of Donne, "He affects the Metaphysics... in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy". Samuel Johnson picked up the term metaphysics in his Life of Cowley, where he wrote that "about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets".
At the end of the seventeenth century metaphysical poetry generally fell out of favour (though some of George Herbert's more straightforward poems continued to be admired): it did not accord with the poetic conventions approved by such writers as Dryden and Alexander Pope. Samuel Johnson's account of them continued by saying that "the metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to shew it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they wrote only verses . . . " This typically oracular statement about the predominance of learning ignores the fact that several of the leading writers (Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan and Traherne) set out to express genuine religious experience. For most of the others the religious element was quite strong, though in some cases as a form of atonement.
The first part of the twentieth century saw a big revival of interest in the metaphysicals, championed by Herbert Grierson, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, who placed Donne, rather than John Milton in the mainstream of English poetry. This was in part due to the establishment of the new university discipline of English literature, in which the display of learning, which Johnson had decried, gave scope for academic discussion. More recently there has been a swing back to a more balanced assessment.
Two major anthologies of the metaphysical poets are:
- Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Donne to Butler, selected and edited by Herbert Grierson, Clarendon Press, 1921
- The Metaphysical Poets, introduced and edited by Helen Gardner, Penguin Books 1957
- Johnson, S. Lives of the English Poets: Cowley. 1779
- Drabble, M, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. revised edition 1995