Sunday, November 7, 2010

Historical Perspective of The Metaphysical Movement

Donne was the acknowledged master of metaphysical poets. Others who belonged to this school of poetry were Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, and Vaughan. The poetry of all these poets was intellectual, analytical, psychological, bold and their favourite themes were death, love, and religious devotion. All of them were rebels who despised conventional poetic diction of the Elizabethan poets.
It has been remarked by a contemporary critic that the metaphysical poets led a revolt against “Elizabethan poetry which had a sweet clear lyrical note; which was profuse with beauty and rich in melody; which was smooth and natural; which without being careless, had the happy grace which seems to have been achieved without straining.....The metaphysical poets substituted compression instead of diffuseness of Elizabethans, and replaced the straightforward imagery and similes by subtle and unexpected comparisons. Likewise from description, they turned to analysis and from a healthy acceptance of the world to a somewhat morbid brooding on religion, and a probing of their souls. For smoothness, they substituted roughness of metre and for conventional love, they substituted realistic and cynical treatment of physical passion.”
Metaphysical poetry resolved itself into two broad divisions: (i) Love poetry and (ii) Religious poetry. The habit of writing both types of poetry, amorous and religious verses, is derived from Donne who wrote love poetry in the first period of his life and devotional lyrics in the later period, both with the same passion. Later in the middle of the seventeenth century, Cavalier poets like Carew, Suckling and Lovelace wrote only amorous verses. The devotional schools of metaphysical poets, Herbert, Crashaw and Vaughan dedicated their poetic gifts to the service of Christian religion. Thus, in later period, it split up into two—one group writing secular poetry (in imitation of Donne’s secular lyrics) and imitating all the techniques developed by John Donne. The religious school of poets got their inspiration from the religious hymns and sermons of Donne.
1.         Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)
He is considered, next to Donne, a great poet. His masterpiece is “The Mistress”—a typically metaphysical poem. He was a scholarly and learned poet and his muse excelled in learned conceits. He wrote a number of elegies, songs and religious poems. His Chronicle was appreciated by Johnson for its gaiety, facility and dance of words.
Abraham Cowley was, according to Johnson, the leading light of the ‘metaphysical school’, but he had nothing of the religious feeling which inspired Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. He resembles Donne in his search for conceits but lacked the passion which, with Donne, could fuse the most disparate materials into glowing poetry.
2.         Henry Vaughan (1622-1695)
He was a disciple of Herbert, yet has little in common with his master. His inspiration was not the English Church, but his perception of God in Nature—in this respect resembling Traheme, Blake, and Wordsworth later. He was a Welshman who attended Oxford, studied law in London, and during the Civil War returned to Wales to study medicine. For the rest of his life he lived the unexciting existence of a country doctor. The two parts of Silex Scintillans appeared in 1650 and 1655; in 1678 he published Thalia Rediviva. His talent was very uneven, and he was not always happy imitating Herbert’s complicated verse forms. Yet, when he achieves ecstasy, it is quite beyond anything Herbert could attain. His two best known poems are The Retreat which says, we are closest to God when we are children, and that as we live in the world, we forget our heavenly home, and expresses the poet’s desire to return there:
But I by back ward steps would move;
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return…..
and The World, with its wonderful opening lines:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light.
All calm, as it was bright...’
3.         Richard Crashaw (1612-1649)
He was a minister’s son, took his degree at Cambridge, and fled to the continent during the Civil War. There he became converted to Catholicism, went to Rome, and in 1647 entered the household of Cardinal Pallotto. The title of his first volume Steps of the Temple (1648) indicates his discipleship to Herbert A new volume Carmen Deo Nostro appeared in 1652. Crashaw is the most daring of the metaphysi­cal poets in his imagery, and his verse alternates between sublimity and uncertainty. His best known poems are The Tear, On The Blessed Virgin’s Bashfulness, and Upon the Body of Our Blessed Lord.
4.         George Herbert (1593-1633)
George Herbert has expressed the beauty of holiness more perfectly than any English poet. When he was at Cambridge, he was already writing religious verse. He entered the Church of England and became Rector at Bemerton, near Salisbury. He was very much interested in his work and it is with justice that Izaac Walton, his first biographer, called him “holy Mr. Herbert”. Sometimes he was troubled with a desire to participate in worldly affairs, but expressing the conflict in poetry brought him peace. When he was dying, he gave the main manuscript of his poems, none of which had yet been published, to a friend, with the request that they were to be published only if they could be of any help to “any dejected poor soul”, otherwise they were to be burned. The volume, called The Temple, came out in 1633, and made disciples of Crashaw and Vaughan. It had a large sale. Although he was a follower of Donne, there is a sweetness and saintliness peculiar to Herbert’s poetry. In common with other writers of this school, there are often startling images in his poem. Virtue compares the virtuous soul to seasoned timber, which:
...though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
The Pulley tells how God gave Man every blessing but restfulness because:
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.
The Collar finds the poet apparently tired of a virtuous, self-denying life, and yearning for the world’s pleasures:
But as I raved, and grew more fierce and wild
At every woe,
Methought I heard one calling, ‘Child’:
And I replied, ‘My Lord’.
5.         Thomas Traherne (1634-1674)
Thomas Traheme published no poetry during his lifetime. His very name was forgotten until a manuscript of his poems was discovered and published in 1903. Another manuscript was discovered in the British Museum and published in 1910. Traheme is often verbose and prosy, but at some moments he achieves wonderful rapture. He is at his best when dealing, like Wordsworth later, with the simple things in nature and childhood. One of his best poems is Shadow in the Water.
6.         Marvell (1621-1678)
Andrew Marvell is in something of a class by himself, and is a kind of forerunner of the classicism that was to come later in the century. Marvell was a man of such scholarly attainments that he won the praise and friendship of Milton. After Milton became blind, he was appointed the great poet’s assistant in affairs of State, (1657), and two years later he was elected to Parliament. He continued to be re-elected there until his death. He took his political duties so seriously, however, that he neglected his considerable poetic gifts. It is rather remarkable that despite his being a partisan of Cromwell, he was able to win the respect of Charles II. He is the author of a number of satires, written mostly during the Restoration, and of some fresh and virile lyrical poems. Of the latter his most celebrated are On A Drop Of Dew, and The Garden, with its beautiful lines:
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade…..
7.         Wither (1558-1667)
Wither’s poems are The Shepherd’s Hunting of the Church (1641) and his satire Abuses Stript and Wipt (1630). Though Wither’s descriptions show the exquisite sense of beauty and his sweet moral tone, his conceits, his metaphysical style, a passion for ingenious verse and unexpected conceit, all mar the beauty of his poems.
8.         Thomas Carew
His poems are rather short lyrics and they gained a considerable admiration in his day. His extraordinary sensuality has probably had some influence upon the opinion of the later ages but Carew is preeminently beautiful and one of those who gave a cultivated grace to lyrical poetry. His lyrical poems show his affinity on the one hand to the great Elizabethans and on the other hand to the metaphysical poets. Carew has little sensibility. He had a reputation for dryness. His longest and his best poem The Rapture betrays his limitation as a poet. It is an invitation to Celia to enjoy forbidden passions without scruples. Carew wrote a fine elegy on John Donne which shows John Donne’s influence on Carew. Yet, Donne left few traces on his poetry.
9.         Robert Herrick
Robert Herrick is the greatest poet among Cavalier metaphysical poets. His only collection of poems Hesperide contains his secular and sacred poetry. The total number of secular verses is nearly 200 while the number of the religious verses is only 270. Herrick’s works constitute a section of short poems “brought together on no principle and without any order”. He loved disorder in poetry as much as in woman’s dress. He mingles the coarsest epigrams with poetry.
Broadly speaking, the metaphysical poetry was a “revolt against the romantic conventionalism of Elizabethan love poetry”. The tendency of Donne, Cowley and others towards psychological analysis of the emotion of love and religion, their fondness for the novel (strange) and the shocking, their use of the “conceits” and the extremes to which they sometimes carried their technique resulted frequently in obscurity, rough verse, strained imagery, repulsive realism, and violation of good taste. These faults gave them in the eighteenth century a bad reputation that still clings to them in spite of a modem revival of sympathetic interest in their work”.
With the beginning of neo-classical movement by the Restoration, this type of metaphysical poetry was viewed with contempt. The new standards were those of clarity and order. It was not until 1920 that the social temper was in tune again with metaphysical sensibility. There are several reasons for the revival of interest in metaphysical poetry in the twentieth century. There is distaste for romantic idealism and Victorian preaching. The forms of Victorian poetry were too loose and sensuous. There is today a reasoned demand for a hard intellectual verse, compressed and idiomatic technique. Our themes are also different from those of the Romantics. We stress in poetry a detached and ironic analysis of mental phenomena. The intellectual doubts and unrest were experienced by a poet like Donne in the earlier part of the seventeenth century. In the seventeenth century as well as the twentieth century a few poets have felt the need for the principle of unity and for a harmony which might give a coherent view to our disconnected knowledge. As a result of a fragmentation of sensibility very similar to that of the seventeenth century, modem poetry tends to express itself through witticisms, elaborate similes and abrupt transitions.

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