The arrival of the Renaissance and the Church Reformation and the humanism that followed paralleled the advent of the Metaphysical period in poetry. This period also coincided with the death of Elizabeth I and the subsequent weakening of the strong monarchy of the Tudors.
The Metaphysical poets were few in number. They reacted against the Elizabethan literary style and ideas. They rejected the conventional ideal of love held by Elizabethan poets and their indifference to real experience. Where the Elizabethans saw love as a romantic pleasure to be described in general terms the Metaphysicals attempted to analyse personal and intimate experiences of love (and indeed other experiences) on particular occasions. The emphasis was on the experience – things happening now, and so, immediacy was a particular characteristic of their poetry.
They rebelled against accepted ideas, e.g. the deification of nature and the notion of the greatness of kings. Their themes were usually serious, and often satirical. Religion was a constant topic because there was an uncertainty as to what was the true religion. There was little reference to contemporary matters, political or otherwise, but the problems of the time were often reflected in the poetry, especially the religious issues.
The poems were not aimed at a ‘public’ readership, but rather at the intellect of their own closely-knit group.
With the reaction against Elizabethan ideas and techniques, the old rhetorical contrived style gave way to a more condensed style, following more closely the wording and rhythms of everyday speech; and to Metaphysical ‘wit’ (not necessarily funny or amusing, but an awareness, an intelligence, an application of learning); and to the ‘conceit’ (a figure of speech with a fanciful image, or an unusual comparison between two very dissimilar things based on something alike in the two)
There was a variety of tone and imagery in a single poem. The style was argumentative and logically worked out, but often there was no relation between the start of the poem and the finish. The form, i.e. the technique of a poem was less important than the content, the meaning. There was often a dramatic approach, an abruptness of phrase, a question, a dramatic use of punctuation.
T.S. Eliot wrote that in the last 250 years brainwork and emotion have tended to become separate in poetry, to its loss. This is worth remembering when we discuss ‘sincere feeling’. In Elizabethan and Renaissance poetry the first person was used, but since the lyric poetry of the time was linked with the music, the ‘I’ was ambiguous: it might have been as sincere as the ‘I’ of the Romantics, but also as insincere as the conventional ‘I’ of contemporary ‘Pop’ music. Even the devotional poems of Vaughan are not certain to be sincere. Yet the conventions of the poetry of the time were important, and ‘wit’ (with its cryptic ‘crossword puzzle’ approach) was as important as emotion, sensibility, or piety in poetry. So while spontaneous cries from the heart may have been lacking, so also were self-pity and sentimentality. There was no question of ‘sincere feeling’ being essential to a poem if the imagined feeling was well created. It is essential to understand that our own experiences are often recounted and ‘‘adorned’’ in the retelling; yet the original emotion is nonetheless sincere for this.
This also applies to humour in Metaphysical poetry. We sometimes fail to realise that a dry humour may accompany some great crisis in our lives, and that sometimes people die with a joke on their lips. The Metaphysicals often deliver spectacular philosophical ideas, and set out highly emotional situations in an off-hand way, and accompany them with humour and sometimes with paradox.
Finally, Samuel Johnson suggested that the Metaphysical poets were clever men, anxious to show off their cleverness, who had little real ability or interest in poetry. “There is”, he writes, “no freshness of thought or accuracy of description, nor are their words chosen carefully.” It is a point of view!
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