Metaphysical Poetry

Posted: January 22, 2018 in Uncategorized

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John Donne’s standing as a great English poet, and one of the greatest writers of English prose, is now assured. However, it has been confirmed only in the present century [principally because of the criticism of T. S. Eliot]. The history of Donne’s reputation is the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other body of great poetry has fallen so far from favor for so long and been generally condemned as inept and crude [principally because of the criticism of Samuel Johnson].

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John Donne
(1572 – 1631)

I don’t know how it could be possible that anyone in class would never have read John Donne. But considering that students are now arriving at the university without ever having read Charles Dickens (not their fault!), it might be well to post these here. This is the kind of thing that made high school students, back in my day anyway, stop in their tracks and declare in a moment of self-discovery and conviction, I will be a poet too! Your results may vary. In any case, John Donne is the most exemplary of the so-called Metaphysical Poets, disparaged by Samuel Johnson for their irrationality. As I said in class today, T. S. Eliot celebrated and sought to rehabilitate them, precisely because their complete immersion in the act of writing revealed what a mind looks like when it is wholly active, and the various operations – mental and linguistic (because we think in the medium of a specific language, the two are always the same) – the mind can perform. Genuine psychological studies, for Eliot, emerge not from laboratory experiments, but rather from watching the mind wholly absorbed in the process of thinking, feeling, and creating – which are really just three different aspects of the same activity. This is everything that got lost with the isolation of the detached and calculating ego. Eliot claims the discovery precipitated a major derailment of English poetry, from which it had yet to recover. His call for a return to these poets of the English Renaissance is a central component of his attempt to call the English-speaking public back to its sense and correct this problem.

May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon and remission of all your sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“The breath goes now,” and some say, “No,”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

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Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10)

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Batter my heart, three person’d God (Holy Sonnet 14)

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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Hymn To God, My God, In My Sickness

Since I am coming to that Holy room,
Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made Thy music ; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before ;

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map
, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die ;

I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;
For, though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me ? As west and east
In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific sea my home ? Or are
The eastern riches ? Is Jerusalem ?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar ?
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place ;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me ;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in His purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord ;
By these His thorns, give me His other crown ;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”

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