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Metaphysical poetry, Two Metaphysical poets: John Donne and John Milton



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Metaphysical poetry

General features


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.





Two Metaphysical poets:

John Donne and John Milton


John Donne

Life

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 expedition against Spain was organised, he decided to leave as a volunteer: so he experienced lots of adventures and when came back to England found in front of himself  the prospect of a successful political career. He ruined his bright future by marring a sixteen- years- old, who gave him twelve children.

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.

Main works

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;

Elegies;

Satires;

Divine Poems;

Sermons or Meditations.

Unconventional poetry

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.



John Milton

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 England decided to side with Cromwell and Parliament, that admired his great religious tolerance. Later  he married the daughter of a Royalist, but she soon abandoned him because of his intellectual stature, too high for her. This experience brought him to justify divorce in a series of pamphlets.

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, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost, whose central theme is the fall of Satan in the Hell, is an epic poem: Milton chose this genre because of the importance of the arguments he wanted to deal with. In fact the epic poem, born before writing as long narrative texts recited in front of an audience, celebrates the deeds of a hero, and because of the struggle between two opposing religious forces, Milton’s masterpiece can be called a “religious epic poem”. The events take place in Hell, Heaven and Eden, while the characters are no longer warriors, but Satan, God, Christ and Man. Milton decided to exchange the traditional themes for more spiritual and philosophical arguments, reflecting the spirit of the period he lived.

Although the 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 Milton’s universe God sits on his throne surrounded by the nine orders of angels; the tenth was turned into a dreadful reign because of the rebellion of an angel, Satan. This reign was called Hell, out f which God created the Earth, fixing it in the centre of the universe.

Satan is the hero of the poem: Milton gave him all the characteristics of the traditional heroes: courage, leadership and ambitions, which turn into the desire of attacking man, a God’s creature, and of escaping from Hell. Satan can be considered an autobiographical character: his rebellion against God seems to reflect the rebellion of the author against the king and the Church of England.

The style of the poem is elevated, based on the Latin syntax and rich of latisisms, using a new kind of blank- verse.  






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