John Donne: A Great Metaphysical Poet
Introduction: John Donne is the leader and founder of the Metaphysical School of Poetry. His poetry is a revolt against the popular current. First of all Dryden used the term 'Metaphysical' for Donne's poetry. He said, 'Donne affects the metaphysics'. Later on Dr. Johnson called John Donne and his followers 'the metaphysical poets'. Since then the word metaphysical has been used for John Donne and his followers.
What is Metaphysical Poetry?: The term metaphysics means something supernatural and transcendental. Its sense is 'what is beyond physical'. It is concerned with fundamental problems of life and death and soul even after death. The term metaphysical poetry means poetry dealing with metaphysical subjects. These subjects are - nature of universe, movements of stars and planets and the whole relationship of man to God.
Major Characteristics: We should cast a glance at the major characteristics of metaphysical poetry before we proceed to examine John Donne as a metaphysical poet. Novel thought and expressions, conceit, wit, obscurity and learning are the main characteristics of Metaphysical poetry. All these important characteristics are found in Donne's poetry.
John Donne as a Metaphysical Poet: When Dryden, Johnson and Dowden called Donne a Metaphysical poet, they referred to the style of John Donne. But when Thomas De Quincey disagreed with them, he toned up Donne's subject matter. His poetry is metaphysical because of his individualism and his quest for learning. His poetry is full of wit. It is obscure and it indulges in far-fetched conceits. It fuses thought and emotion. It is logical, analytical and mystical.
Learning: The Metaphysical poets were men of learning. Their poetry reveals their scholarship. From this point of view, John Donne is a great metaphysical poet. To show his learning is his chief object. In his poetry he has twisted his vast learning. Due to this his poetry becomes very difficult to understand. In Donne's poetry, there is always an antithesis between natural and divine knowledge. Donne's preoccupation with mortality and death fills his poetry with a macabre element. In his fine sonnet 'Death, Be Not Proud' he hates death and says:
One short sleep past, Wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
New Thoughts and Expressions: Donne's poetry is purely intellectual and it makes an appeal to the intellectuals. His thoughts are often new. He has expressed his thoughts in a unique manner. In short, he played with thoughts. In 'The Canonization' 'The Flea' and 'Death Be Not Proud' one can easily find Donne's new thoughts and expressions.
Obscurity: Obscurity is one of the important features of John Donne's poetry. In his poetry we find obscurity and vagueness of the subject. This is linked with sensibility of literary wit and philosophical conceptions. He frequently combines dissimilar ideas. Thus his poetry is harsh, obscure and puzzling. Saintsbury is right when he calls him a very great and very puzzling poet.
Wit: Wit is one of the chief characteristics of Metaphysical poetry. This important feature can be found everywhere in Donne's poetry. It fashions his feeling and thought. Passion, sentiment and sensuality are subordinated to wit. His wit is unique in the discovery of comparison and analogies. It is realistic and straightforward. It looks to run side by side with humour and irony. The heterogeneous material is compelled into unity by the rapid association of thoughts. ‘The Flea' is a beautiful example of it.
Conceit: Conceit is also an important feature of Metaphysical poetry. Donne makes an abundant use of conceits in his poetic world. It is an instrument to reveal wit. The conceit is a comparison between two unlike objects or things. In short, it is a far-fetched comparison. Donne's conceits are far-fetched and his imagery is obscure. We can easily point out some of the conceits in Donne's poetry. In his popular poem 'The Flea' the flea becomes a marriage bed. It is because it bites the beloved after biting the poet:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Conclusion: As a poet of love, too, Donne is a Metaphysical poet. For him love is not physical but spiritual. Thus it can be said that Donne plunged deep in Metaphysical pursuits. His selection of subject matter, his treatment, his diction and style prove him to be a true and great metaphysical poet.