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Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical Poetry

An Introduction


The term "metaphysical" refers to philosophical speculations beyond the sensory: notions such as time, God, human nature, faith, death, love, eternity




Existing in the material world

(above or beyond)

Metaphysical Poetry

The metaphysical poets is a term coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of English lyric poets of the 17th century whose work was characterized by the inventive use of elaborate comparisons and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know one another or read one anothers work.


Major Metaphysical Poets

John Donne (15721631)

George Herbert (15931633)

Andrew Marvell (16211678)

Saint Robert Southwell (c. 15611595)

Henry Vaughan (16221695)

Anne Bradstreet (American) 1612-1672

Edward Taylor (American) 1642-1729


What They Do

Metaphysical poets attempt to explain the emotional and spiritual elements of life in concrete, rational and logical terms.

They attempt to define our sentiments by logical syllogisms or in scientific terms.


Many of the poems are built up on a logical structure (this is sometimes called dialectic - a use of argument whereby a statement is given, then challenged to provide a new conclusion). They challenge our intellect ,and this is a key aspect of the pleasure of reading metaphysical poetry.





new conclusion

Use of Paradox

A paradox is a statement that appears to be self-contradictory but actually reveals a new and important truth. The Christian idea that we can only gain our life by losing it is an excellent example of a paradox.


Verbal Skill and Wit

The Metaphysicals loved puns and clever plays on words


Hyperbole over exaggeration


The metaphysical conceit (aka the controlling metaphor

Like similes and metaphors, a conceit establishes a relationship between two things for the sake of comparison, but for a conceit the comparison has to be strange or outrageous. A conceit is also often elaborate and extended as the points of comparison and contrast are worked out by the poet.




No Man Is an Island

No man is an island, entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were:

any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,

and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

John Donne



Make a Conceit

Life is a highway.

I am going 100 miles an hour.

Now add to it


Memento Mori latin for remember that you must die orin mind of death

An obsessive awareness of death and human mortality, often presented in the visual art of the day in the form of a "memento mori" or a skull painted at the side of paintings to remind viewers of the brevity and vanity of human life.


Carpe Diem

Closely related to the memento mori is the theme of carpe diem, seize the day.


Imagery and Comparisons

Tne Metaphysicals drew their imagery and comparisons from a variety of sources, including


Kingship and rule






Poetry on the Literature Test


AP Literature Test

Metaphysical Poetry

Romantic Poetry

Modern Poetry


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