Metaphysical poetry is poetry that explores a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of existence and of knowledge. There are a number of trademark characteristics that feature in these poems that technically define them as metaphysical. Some of these features include the use of intellectual and reasoned persuasion, conceits, confrontational arguments and personification. In this book the metaphysical section looks at poems written before 1770 and by analysing three poems, I am hoping to identify the features that are most common in metaphysical poetry. I think it is important to discuss these features in order of importance to try and identify the main features with which you could identify a metaphysical poem. The poems I will look at are “To His Coy Mistress”, by Andrew Marvell, “The Sun Rising”, by John Donne, and “To Daffodils”, by Robert Herrick.
Immediately, by looking at these poems, I can see that the purpose of all three poems is to persuade using reasoned logical arguments. In, “To His Coy Mistress”, with a series of arguments, Marvell is trying to persuade his shy love interest to have a sexual affair with him. This form of structured argument is favoured as oppose to the traditional practise of courting a woman. Because he has been courting this lady for so long and has yet succeeded in bedding her, he is frustrated and decides to embark on a different choice of tactic.
This cleverly written poem aims to persuade her with an argument that is sectioned in three parts. In the first, he explains how things would and should be if they had the time. He tells her that if time weren’t an issue he would love her till “the conversion of the Jews”. This is ironic because the Jews will never convert to Christianity and this emphases the extent to which he would be prepared to wait for her virginity had he time. He tells her that if there were time to court, the way that she is torturing him would be “no crime.”
The use of the word “crime” is very strong and would inevitably make the lady feel like a criminal, guilty of tormenting this poor man. In the second part of the argument, Marvell turns to a more realistic note, telling her frankly that there is no time for games. He explains that with “time’s winged chariot hurrying near” they are fighting a war against time, where, if they don’t hurry things along, they will loose the battle with time. He even tells her that if she doesn’t have sex with him, the “worms” shall take her virginity when she dies. With this cruel argument, Marvell is hoping that he can scare her into sleeping with him. The argument closes with a section that tells her how they should seize the moment. By using the simile “like amorous birds of prey”, he is telling her that she should forget her coyness and make passionate love with him.
The second poem in this section that uses an argument to persuade is “The Sun Rising.” In this poem, Donne is in bed with his lover and with the sun coming up, the daylight is making their sexual appetite disappear. With this poem he is trying to persuade the sun to go away and leave them in the dark to make love. He says the sun is “unruly” to rise and a “saucy pedantic wretch”. From this, he is telling the sun that he is outrageous for halting his enjoyment and at the same time desperately dull for not appreciating how wonderful sex is. This use of opposites is otherwise known as an oxymoron.
He tells the sun to go and wake up other people, like the “king”, and the “the schoolboys and sour pretences” because he is wasting his energy on someone who doesn’t care. For him and his lover do not care for “the rags of time” because their love is stronger than time, “Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime.” He also asks him why he feels so powerful, “so reverend and strong” when his lover shines more brightly than the sun, and that he is surprised that “her eyes have not blinded thine.” In this argument Donne is trying to belittle the sun, steal his confidence and therefore, persuade him to leave him in peace.
In “Daffodils”, Herrick is trying to persuade the flowers that he loves so dearly, to stay with him forever, begging, “stay stay.” He compares the life cycle of a daffodil to that of humans explaining that like spring flowers have a short life, so do people. He tells the daffodils that if he waits till the “evensong”, which is a metaphor for winter, they can go together. He his trying to convince the flowers that they will not have to wait very long for him to die because humans have “as short a spring” as flowers do.
Another characteristic that comes to my attention and features in all three poems is the poet’s use of geographical and scientific features, such as time and the cosmos to guide their arguments. In “To His Coy Mistress”, the theme of time and the lack of it is the main theme of the poem and strengthens his argument to his mistress. He also mentions places such as the “Indian Ganges” and the river “Humber” as part of his argument to show her how patient he would be if they had time. Even if she were on the other side of the world, he would wait. In “The Sun Rising”, geography and the cosmos is included in Donne’s argument. He tells the sun that his lover is so precious and that her eyes are so bright, that the sun may very well see the riches of “th’ Indias” in her eyes.
He also makes the sun feel powerless by telling it that the two lovers are the centre of the universe, “thy sphere” and that the sun is not. In “To Daffodils”, time and the cycle of life is the key theme of the poem. When Herrick compares the life of a daffodil to a human life he uses the different times of day as metaphors for the different seasons of the year. The “early rising” is the spring, “noon”, is the afternoon and “evensong” is the winter. By making this sort of comparison, he is making the daffodils relate to him and therefore encourage them not to leave when springtime ends. He encourages the daffodil slowly first, pleading with them to stay till the day is over, till the year is over and eventually till his human life is over, so that he can go with them.
The last feature that occurs in all three of these poems is the use of personification. In “To His Coy Mistress”, time is personified when he tells his mistress that “time’s winged chariot hurrying near” means they are really fighting a personal battle with time, a war in which they have no way of winning if they do not seize the moment and have sex. In “The Sun Rising”, the whole poem is dedicated to the sun, indicating that the sun indeed has human characteristics in the eyes of John Donne.
Further evidence of this is when he labels the sun as a “busy old fool” which clearly personifies the sun. In “To Daffodils”, the same principle applies when Herrick dedicates a whole poem to persuading the flowers not to leave him. By using the personal pronoun, “you” to address the daffodils he is personifying them as though they were humans. This love of personification by metaphysical poets is not the most prominent characteristic of metaphysical poems but it does feature in all three poems, so evidently it is one of the favoured devices.
From my analysis there are many features which tend to define metaphysical poetry that occur frequently, and there are many more that I have not mentioned in this essay. However for me, these three are the characteristics that crop up most in these particular poems and undoubtedly, the use of a logical structured argument is not only popular but in most cases is the central purpose of the poem.