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Ben Jonson followed particularly classical rules in his poetic and dramatic work. He was a
classicist. He was a champion of discipline and symmetry and regularity. So, he was not in
favour of bold liberty that was taken up by Donne in his poetical compositions. But, Jonson
appreciated Donne as well as revolting against Petrarch’s Conventions in Elizabethan poetry.
Like Donne, Ben Jonson revitalized English lyric poetry which had lost its glamour, vitality
and vigor. Ben Jonson considers Donne as “a first poet in some things”. Major characteristics
of his poetry are as under:

Donne was the first poet who included thought and idea in poetry side by side:
Donne neglected the Elizabethan conventions straightaway. He expressed his changing
personal moods. He infused the realistic mood of personal urge and immediacy in his lyrics.
In the Middle Ages, poetry was divorced from thought and reason. It was purely written for
expressing emotions and feelings. Petrarch’s influence was dominant factor in Elizabethan
poetry because of advent of Renaissance. Thus, by and by, the Elizabethan poetry became
lifeless and vigourless. Donne’s lyric poetry is quite reverse to that age.

Originality in diction marks Donne’s poetry:

This originality in diction includes words not merely from the vocabulary of science but from
colloquialism. He selected colloquial diction which has vigour, freshness and originality. He
discarded literary words and phrases which became rusty because of repetition.

Donne deliberately rejected the conventional conceits:

Donne deliberately rejected the conventional conceits and images such as flowers, sky,
moon, river and stream etc. He coined new images which were an outcome of popular belief
of scientific discoveries. His vocabulary is rich and diversified. He uses the resources of
colloquial, stale and commonplace words which may be yoked with a set of learned
technical terms. Consequently, there is production of unusually odd effect.

Donne rejected Elizabethan tradition in lyric poetry:

His rhythmical structure is governed by the nature of passion, feeling and mood and at the
same time it is in perfect accord with the diction, imagery and attitude in a poem. His love
poems are not concerned with limited number of moods of love as is in the case of
Elizabethan lyrics of love. He is the first poet who has described ecstatic joy of fulfilled love.
Originality in imagery and use of sound:
Donne was the first English poet who has used facts of scientific discoveries of his time in
the poetry—the objects which are utilized in the laboratories such as compasses and the
globe with the maps of earth pasted on it and various other objects derived from various
branches of science like biology, physics and chemistry.

His poems have unique loud sounds….now melodious, now complicated and twisted almost
beyond comprehension, but never really harsh.

Donne’s rhythmical effect:

Grierson has described him as on of the first masters of elaborate stanza in which he has
rejected the tradition. His lines and phrases are resolved in the complex and harmony of the
whole group. He plays with rhythmical effects as with conceits and words and seems to be
bent upon startling readers into alertness.

Donne’s revival in twentieth century:

The poetry and criticism of T.S.Eliot has brought the revival of Donne to full flowering. Eliot
applied the poetic devices of Donne in his poetry of the volumes of 1917 and 1920. He found
his artistic devices necessary for the contemporary poetry. Thus, he has been considered the
Poet’s poet in the history of English poetry. Other critics like Richards, Leavis and Graves
noted Donne’s poetry possessing richness, vitality and vigour of living poetry. These critics
exalted Donne, while Dryden and Dr Johnson condemned and degraded him by their

Written and Composed By:

Prof. A. R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell Phone: 03339971417
The term “metaphysical” can be interpreted as beyond nature. Dryden was the first to use
the term in connection with Donne by saying that he affects the metaphysics. Dr Johnson
later described Donne and his followers as the metaphysical poets. However we can not call
Donne’s poetry metaphysical if the term is to imply the exposition of some philosophical
system of the universe. The qualities which he enumerated about Donne’s poetry are valid.

What is Metaphysical Poetry?

The term “metaphysical poetry” implies the characteristics of complexity, intellectual tone,
abundance of subtle wit, fusion of intellect and emotion, scholarly allusions, dramatic tone
and philosophic element.

Concentration is an important quality:

Concentration is an important quality of metaphysical poetry in general and Donne’s poetry
in particular. The reader is held to one idea in all his poems. His poems are brief and closely
woven. For example, in “The Ecstasie”, the function of man as man is rightly performed.

Fondness of Conceits:
Fondness for conceits is a major characteristic of metaphysical poetry. All comparisons
discover likeness in things unlike: but in a conceit we are made to acknowledge likeness
even being strongly conscious of the unlikeness. Donne often employs fantastic
comparisons. The most famous is the comparison of a man who travels and his beloved who
stays at home to a pair of compasses.

Subtle and striking wit:

Metaphysical poetry is marked with striking and subtle wit. The conceits display a great deal
of wit. Allusions to medicine, cosmology, ancient myth, history, law are abundant in Donne’s
poetry. The logic in “The Flea” is undeniable. Donne’s wit assumes different moods and
attitudes reflecting his perception of the complexity of life. Wit is evident in paradoxes
employed in the poems such as “Death thou shalt die”, “batter my heart”.

Combination of passion and thought:

Combination of passion and thought is a peculiar characteristic of metaphysical poetry, and
is another form of wit. Thus, there is unification of sensibility. T.S. Eliot says that there is an
intellectual analysis of emotions in Donne’s poetry.
The use of colloquial speech:
The use of colloquial speech marks metaphysical poetry, as for as Donne is concerned. This is
especially apparent in the controversial opening of many of his poems. In many of his
poems, Donne arrests our attention both by the content and the dramatic style of his

Donne’s Love Poems are especially entitled to be called metaphysical:

Donne’s love poems are especially entitled to be called metaphysical in the true sense.
Poems such as “The Good Morrow”, “The Anniversary”, “The Canonization” and “The
Ecstasie” raise the great metaphysical question of the relation of the spirit and the senses.
They raise it not as an abstract problem, but in the effort to make the experience of the
union of human powers in love and the union of two human beings in love, apprehensible.
Often Donne speaks of the souls of the lovers which come out of their bodies to negotiate
with one another.

Metaphysical poetry of Donne is marked with wit, blending emotion and feelings. Donne
represents very well the school of metaphysical poetry. He brought the whole of his
experience in his poetry. He uses colloquial speech. These qualities are present in Donne’s
poetry. Grierson has rightly said that Donne is metaphysical not only by virtue of his
scholasticism but by his deep reflective interest.

Written and Composed By:

Prof. A.R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell Phone: 03339971417
A conceit is basically a simile, or comparison between two dissimilar things. In conceit, the dissimilarity
between the things compared is so great that the reader is always fully aware of it while having to concede
the likeness implied by the poet. Thus Dr Johnson pointed out that the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked
together in the metaphysical poetry.

Far-fetched images, departing from the conventional Elizabeth’s type:

Far-fetched images mark Donne’s poems. Conceits may be brief like a spark made by striking two stones
together. Comparison is not confined to any single point. Fresh points of likeness are drawn up and brought
to the attention of the reader. The poet sets out to prove the legs of compasses in “A valediction:
Forbidding Mourning.” Another clever conceit is in “The Flea” where the flea becomes the marriage bed.
The comparison is not clear but the poet unfolds the likeness logically.

Metaphysical conceits are drawn from a wide range of subjects:

Indeed, Nature and art are used for illustrations, comparisons and illusions. The images are not
conventional: they do not repeat the well-worn poetic devices of the lady’s cheeks looking like roses or her
teeth like pearls. The conceits employed by Donne are learned. They display the poet’s thorough knowledge
of a wide range of subjects, such as science, exploration, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and many
more. The conceits thus give the poetry an intellectual tone.

In single poem, we may have images drawn from cartography, geography, myth and natural science. “A
Valediction: Of Weeping” employs images from a variety of sources. The lover’s tears are like precious coins
because they bear the stamp of the beloved(image from mintage), the tears are pregnant of thee--- a
complex image showing the impression of the beloved’s reflection in the drop of tear along with the
meaning and life given to the tears by the beloved’s reflection in them. Next, the beloved’s tears are
compared to the moon which draws up seas to drown the lover in her sphere (image from geography).

Reference to sea discoveries, new worlds and the hemispheres of the earth occurs in most of Donne’s
poems, reflecting contemporary explorations. War and military affairs also provide a source for Donne’s
conceits, not only in his love poems, but in his religious poems as well. In “Batter My Heart”, he compares
himself to an occupied town.

Images can not be condemned for being far-fetched:

One can not condemn images only if they are out of place in the context in which they are used. In Donne’s
poems, very seldom is an image used without relevance. Donne’s images stimulate one to think. They bring
one to awareness of the new angles from which an experience can be viewed. The images, though, are
unconventional, but are undeniable. In “Go and Catch the Falling Star” a string of unconventional imagery is
used to describe the view that there is no woman in the world both beautiful and true. Donne’s conceits are
used to illustrate and persuade. They are instrument of definition an argument.

Donne’s use of conceits is skilful. It is also, in most cases, appropriate. It makes us concede justness while
we are admiring its skill, as Helen Gardener says. The poet has something to say which the conceit urge and
help to forward. The purpose of an image in Donne’s poetry is to define the emotional experience by an
intellectual parallel. Donne’s imagery brings together the opposites of life, all in one breathe.
Dr Johnson criticizes Donne and the metaphysical poets on the following grounds:

1. That their poetry is academic and imperfect and that their sole purpose is to show their learning.
2. That they neither copy nature nor life. They have not imitated anything, though poetry is the art of
3. That their wit is neither natural nor new; it is a combination of dissimilar images or the discovery of
occult resemblances. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.
4. That they are not successful in representing or moving the affections: they write as beholders than
as partners of human nature; their remarks are like those of Epicurean deities on the actions of men
and the change of fortune of life, without interest and without emotion.
5. Neither the sublime nor the pathetic is within their reach, for sublimity is produced by aggregation
and synthesis not by analysis and novelty.
6. That by and large, their poetry is rough and unmusical.

First and foremost, we must bear in mind that Johnson is a classicist; he goes by tradition and the old
models. Donne started a new school of poetry which had more of the Renaissance spirit of discovery and
analysis than the beaten track. Sweetness of verse is not his goal. He wants to infuse thought into emotion
and to analyze human feelings. His poetry has fundamental brain work and logic.

Secondly, Dr Johnson indirectly pays a compliment to their learning, though it can not be said that the
display of learning is their sole purpose in writing poetry. Dr Johnson writes: “To write on their plan it was
at least necessary to read and think……In reading carefully the work of this race of authors, the mind is
exercised either by recollection or inquiry.” In view of Dr Johnson’s favorable remark, we may not further
pursue the charge of display of learning made against the school of Donne.

Thirdly, the charge of strange wit made against Donne is quite true. The wit of Donne is based on
“Conceits”. As such this kind of wit requires great subtlety and minuteness.

Undoubtedly, this wit is base don scholasticism, on medieval learning, but that is not a matter of shame.
Johnson realizes the difficult nature of their wit and though he calls it “False conceits”, he admits that they
struck out unexpected truth.

Fourthly, the charge of lack of imitation in metaphysical poetry is not a defect. Imitation may be the goal of
average poetry, but creation of interpretation of life is the object of high poetry. Poetry is not mere copy of
life; it is something more because it is the result of imagination of the poet.

Fifthly, the charge that the metaphysical poets write as beholders and not partakers of human nature and
that their comments are like those of outsiders is not maintainable because they relate their personal
experiences in their poems. Donne deals with his love adventures and his relations with various women as
well as his affection for his wife. The fact is that the metaphysical are frank and outspoken, analyzing their
personal experience and emotions in their poems.

Sixthly, sublimity is not the sole aim of metaphysical, though some of them have written about their inner
experiences and spiritual conflicts. Of they do not synthesize their feelings, because their wit lies in their
faculty of analysis.