John Donne as a Metaphysical poet

Metaphysical poetry is an outpouring of dissatisfaction with Elizabethan poetry’s traditional structure and content. By metaphysical poetry, we mean a new school of poetry that includes elements such as a sudden and striking start, difficulty, dramatic quality, combining of desire and intelligence, reasoning and wit, conceits and illustrations, conceptual and descriptive tone, and the use of colloquial language, among others. In order to assess Donne as a metaphysical poet, we must engage in an analytical assessment of his main poems and their qualities.

John Donne, whose literary popularity faded before he was rediscovered in the early 20th century, is recognised today as the foremost exponent of a form of verse known as “metaphysical poetry,” which developed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Andrew Marvel, George Herbert, and Robert Herrick are among the great metaphysical poets. Unusual poetic forms, sophisticated figures of speech used to complicated and startling metaphorical conceits, and learned subjects presented according to quirky and unexpected lines of reasoning are all common features of metaphysical poetry.

Each of these traits may be found in Donne’s poetry. His unsettling, unconventional meters; his fondness for ambiguous puns and double meaning wordplays; his frequently used peculiar metaphors (in one poem, he equates love to a carnivorous fish; in another, he prays with God to purify him by rapping him); and his oblique thinking are all hallmarks of the metaphysicals, truly united in Donne as in no other poet.

Metaphysical poetry as an expanded epigram:

The reader is held to one concept or line of argument throughout all of his poetry. His poetry is concise and intricately constructed. The central argument of “The Ecstasy”, for example, is that by various acts of love the role of man as man is being worthily performed. The poet does not stray from the main topic. Metaphysical poetry might be best described as an expanded epigram. Nothing is detailed in depth, and no word is wasted. The style has a sinewy power to it. Verse forms are often basic, yet they are always effective in reinforcing the poem’s meaning.

A great example of an expanded epigram is “Valediction: A Forbidding Mourning.” The poem revolves on a single concept. It is solely about the poet’s passionate bond with his sweetheart, and how they will never be emotionally separated even if the speaker dies. He goes on to use the instance of a compass to describe this nature. He claims that just like the two legs of compass, the poet and his beloved are impacted by each other’s activities. Donne says at the end of his description, “Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun.” The poet claims that his lover’s solidity drew him back to her. This is when the poetry takes a turn. Therefore,  Donne’s metaphysical poetry might be described as an “expanded epigram.”

Use of conceits in Donne’s poems:

Metaphysical poetry is characterized by a love for conceits. Of course, all comparisons find similarity in things that are dissimilar; yet, in a conceit, we are forced to accept the similarity while being acutely aware of the dissimilarity. The compass depicts the relationship between lovers: two distinct yet connected bodies. It may be the most popular conceit in all of metaphysical poetry. Donne’s use of compass as a conceit is another example of his employing the language of expedition and conquest to depict relationships and emotions of people in love. Donne correlates his soul and his beloved’s to a twin compass in his famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. A twin compass, often referred to as a draftsman’s compass, has two legs, one immovable and the other moving. The speaker takes on the role of the moveable leg in the poem, while his partner takes on the role of the fixed leg. To his moving foot, the speaker says that his beloved will play the “stationary foot.” Despite the fact that the speaker “must” move away, he will do so in a “just” and faithful manner. The compass’s legs form a circle that begins and finishes exactly where it started. Because the speaker aims to “end where I began,” returning to his beloved after his travels, this conclusion also conveys a promise of reunion. True love, according to the speaker, can sustain any separation and will always bring lovers back together.

Use of wit in Metaphysical poetry:

Metaphysical poetry is marked by stunning and nuanced wit. The conceits, in particular, show a great deal of wit. As do the countless references and imagery connecting to nearly every aspect of nature, art, and education. Donne’s poetry is full of references to medicine, theology, ancient myth, modern discoveries, art, history and law. 

“The Flea”, for example, has an unmistakable hard core of logic, despite the poem’s obvious lightheartedness. Donne’s wit takes on various moods and attitudes, reflecting his understanding of life’s complexities. The poem’s wit shines through in the contradictions it employs. The lover is his own “executor and legacy” in “The Legacy”. Several poems include such contradictory statements.

Combination of emotion and cognition:

Metaphysical poetry has a unique combination of emotion and cognition, which is another sort of wit. In metaphysical poetry, there is a “unification of sensibility,” to use T.S. Eliot’s words. Donne’s poetry contains an intellectual study of emotion. Every line is inspired by an emotional experience, yet the feeling isn’t just communicated; it’s analyzed. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” demonstrates that couples do not have to grieve when they separate ways. “The Good Morrow” says that lovers are the greatest possible hemispheres that make up a whole globe, while “The Canonization” indicates that lovers are saints of love.


Donne’s contradictory inclinations sometimes compel him to contradict himself. For example, in one of his poems, Donne concedes, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” On the other hand, in another poem, he writes, “Death I recant, and say, unsaid by me / Whate’er hath slipped, that might diminish thee.” His inconsistencies are a reflection of the great opposing forces in play in his poetry and in his soul, not of careless thinking or duplicity. Donne, who lived a period after Shakespeare, used his conflicted personality to become the finest metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century, and one of the great masters of all time among writers of inner struggle.  

Leave a Comment