The Metaphysical poets were a group of writers of the 17th century, whose leader was John Donne, that reflected the crisis of their age through a new way of writing. The phrase “Metaphysical poetry”, which identifies the literary production of this period, was created later and could be misleading: in fact in its literal meaning it concerns with the main problems of nature, universe and man’s life. Although Metaphysical poetry can’t be considered a real literary movement, the poets who wrote during this period had some common features: they were men of “wit”, that was the capacity of dealing with lots of subjects, such as geography, alchemy, natural science, medicine and so on. Besides they made a large use of the “conceit”, a particular kind of metaphor whose language was much more difficult and rich of latinisms and archaic words. Through the choice of a style so difficult and elevated, the poets tried to pin down what seemed ungraspable. Dramatic element are one of the most important characteristic of their poems, basing on different verse- forms.
During the 18th century these poets and their art were obscured by the success of the Enlightenment. Their importance was revalued only by a modern writer, Thomas Eliot, who understood that their way of writing was deeply influenced by the crisis of that period.
John Donne was
born a few years after Shakespeare. His parents were both Catholic, so the
education he received allowed him to have a perfect knowledge of Latin and
Greek. His literary career started with the composition of some love lyrics and
satires, which had a great success among his circle of friends. When an
From now he lived in poverty and illness and decided to take the holy orders: soon he became Dean of St Paul’s, but above all one of the most admired preachers of London, whose sermons attracted big crowds of people from every corner of the town.
Donne’s sermons became immediately famous, while his literary production was little known outside the circle of his friends: his importance as a poet was known only after his death.
This production includes:
Songs and Sonnets;
Sermons or Meditations.
Donne was an innovator, who sacrificed melody, courtly grace and mythological references in order to create a new way of writing, based on two things: “wit” and “conceit”. This choice refers to style, imagery, language and form.
He liked to surprise the reader with a vivid speech and to present a man deeply absorbed in the personal experiences of his own. The tones of the language are vary and often change with an extraordinary rapidity.
Sensual and spiritual imagery
Donne rejected the conventional forms. His imagery is characterised by the struggle between physical and spiritual; his poems are rich of metaphors, which allude both to religion and to physical love. The main images of Donne’s poetry are “Death” and “World”, the world of lovers. These images are always joined. His works concern with lots of subjects, like the “wit” wanted, and every argument is conceived to create strong emotions.
The Metaphysical conceit
Besides to a large use of the conceit, Donne’s poetry is characterised by the “roughness”: it consists of the use of rhyme, metre, alliteration and other sound effects.
Life and main works
John Milton’s literary production reflects the main aspects of his time. His life can be divided into three periods:
The first period includes his
education and his first political experiences: he learnt Latin, Greek and
Italian and wrote his first poems, all about religious themes. So he started to
travel around Europe and when came back to
The second period includes his main public offices and his prose production. The pamphlets he started to write were based on his knowledge of Latin and among them we can remember Aeroitica, about the freedom of he press; Of Education, dealing with the importance of culture; Eikonoklastes; explaining the king’s execution. During this period the poet became Latin Secretary to the Council of State, but he chose to turn back to poetry because of the loss of his sight. He also continued to write anti- monarchical pamphlets until the year of Restoration.
The third period was the one of
disillusion, during which he was imprisoned because of his political ideas and
soon released. It was the period of his masterpieces: Paradise Lost,
whose central theme is the fall of Satan in the Hell, is an epic poem:
author lived during the scientific revolution, he based his universe on the old
Ptolemaic system: in fact he judged the Copernican universe too wide and found
easier to work in a more limited world, like the Ptolemaic universe was. In
Satan is the
hero of the poem:
The style of the poem is elevated, based on the Latin syntax and rich of latisisms, using a new kind of blank- verse.