Metalanguage of metaphysical poetry


Metalanguage of metaphysical poetry



One of the major poetic models for modernist poetry in English, it is noted by many, is metaphysical poetry, especially the poetry of John Donne. Metaphysical is a term that Samuel Johnson used to describe the poetry of Donne and his followers. Though it was Dryden who first hinted at the idea of Donne’s poetry affecting the metaphysics, the name for this school of poetry was a contribution of Johnson’s wit. He famously commented on the use of conceits in metaphysical poetry: disparate ideas are violently yoked together. Though the term metaphysical was a negative assessment in its initial use, subsequently it has remained as a term to identify a group of poets headed by Donne.

Here let me limit myself to only Donne. There is nothing new in saying that metaphysical poetry is argumentative. Or in saying that in Donne’s poetry wit or verbal cleverness is dominant. Wit as a particular feature of Donne’s poetry has I believe many dimensions – its dialogue with tradition, with various fields of knowledge of his time, the interweaving of irony, word play and conventions, use of hyperbole and so on.

I feel that apart from all these, Donne’s poetry is remarkable for one more quality: it is often about language itself. About the potentialities of the language, about constructing a way of viewing or merely arguing that serves to display precisely that: the ability to argue. Take his poem Sun Rising for example. It is presented to us as a love poem. A series of declarations that in effect is supposed to suggest the intense physical love between the speaker and his beloved make up the poem. But the declarations are addressed to the Sun. The speaker avows to defy the Sun and even suggests that Sun should orbit the lovers’ bed, as it is the world.

Now, on the face of it the poem seems to suggest that the speaker is dramatically presenting the idea that ‘love is truth’. But if we attend to the paradoxes in the poem we notice that for the poet his theme is less important than the argument he is developing. He is unconcerned with consistency as long as argumentation is brilliant. He risks contradiction so that the space opened in his logical deductions allows him a wit. Thus what happens is that the poem keeps calling our attention to the manner in which the poem is developing at the level of the possibilities of meaning. What all can be said if one pursues a line of argumentation is what gets emphasized. The emotion of love or the desire to prolong love eternally recedes to the background and the clever manner in which language and its statement making properties are exploited to develop an argument are foregrounded. Thus the poem in one sense is about the possibilities of language itself. Donne’s metaphysics is actually a metalanguage.

Here is Donne’s Sun Rising:        


by John Donne

        BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
        Late school-boys and sour prentices,
    Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
    Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

        Thy beams so reverend, and strong
        Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
    Whether both th’
Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

        She’s all states, and all princes I ;
        Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
        Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
        In that the world’s contracted thus ;
    Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
    To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.


2 responses »

  1. Yes. What you are describing though is not really as modern as you suggest. Donne used the paradoxical alchemical language of his time as a basis for his linguistic wit; but his effects were Mannerist, an application of deceptive architectural and aesthetic principles to poetry. This has been well documented.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Did I suggest it is modern? I guess what I said is that Donne’s poetry became a model for many modernists. You are right about Donne’s exploration of the other fields of knowledge and use of the principles from those in poetry, and it certainly is a much discussed issue.

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