Dryden once remarked:
Donne affects metaphysics not only in his satires but in amorous verses, too, where nature only should reign.
Though Donne was influenced by the sixteenth and the seventeenth century poets, yet he did not tread on the beaten track. His concept of poetry was unconventional. In his poetry, intellect takes the form, primarily, of wit by which heterogeneous ideas are yoked together by violence. The seventeenth century poets labeled his poetry as ‘strong line poetry’, mainly, on account of his concise expression and his deliberate toughness. In his life, he was never called a metaphysical poet. After his death, his poetry was re-evaluated and some other important features were found in it, which won the name of a metaphysical poet for John Donne.
Grierson’s defines metaphysical poetry as:
Poetry inspired by a philosophical concept of the universe and the role assigned to human spirit in the great drama of existence.
This definition is based on the metaphysical poetry of Dante, Goethe and Yeats. So “metaphysical” is applicable to poetry who is highly philosophical or which touches philosophy.
Combination of passion and thought characterizes his work. His use of conceit is often witty and sometimes fantastic. His hyperboles are outrageous and his paradoxes astonishing. He mixes fact and fancy in a manner which astounds us. He fills his poems with learned and often obscure illusions besides, some of his poems are metaphysical in literal sense, they are philosophical and reflective, and they deal with concerns of the spirit or soul.
Conceit is an ingredient which gives a special character to Donne’s metaphysical poetry. Some of his conceits are far-fetched, bewildering and intriguing. He welds diverse passions into something harmonious.
When thou weep’st, unkindly kinde,
(Sweetest love, I do not go, line 25)
My lifes blood doth decay.
(Sweetest love, I do not go, line 28)
When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,
(A Valediction: of weeping, line 8)
Here lies a she-sun and a he-moon there
All women shall adore us, and some men.
His approach is based on logical reasoning and arguments. He provides intellectual parallels to his emotional experiences. His modus operandi was “to move from the contemplation of fact to a deduction from it and, thence, to a conclusion”. He contemplates fidelity in a woman but, in reality, draws it impossible of find a faithful woman.
Lives a woman true, and faire.
He does not employ emotionally exciting rhythm. His poetry goes on lower ebb. Even his love poems do not excite emotions in us. Even in a “Song” while separating, he is logical that he is not parting for weariness of his beloved.
But since that I
Must dye at last, ’tis best,
To use my selfe in jest
Thus by fain’d deaths to dye;
His speculations and doctrines are beyond common human experience. His ideas are beyond the understanding of a layman and are a blend of intellect and emotions making his approach dialectical and scholastic. He asks his beloved in “The Message” to keep his eyes and heart because they might have learnt certain ills from her, but then, he asks her to give them back so that he may laugh at her and see her dying when some other proves as false to her as she has proved to the poet.
Donne was a self-conscious artist, therefore, had a desire to show off his learning. In his love poetry, he gives illustrations from the remote past. In his divine poems, he gives biblical references like the Crucification.
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?
Get with child a mandrake roote.
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall.
Metaphysical poetry is highly concentrated and so is Donne’s poetry. In “The Good Morrow”, he says
For love, all love of other sights controules.
For, not in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt’ring bright, can love inhere.
Hee that hath all can have no more.
His poetry is full of arguments, persuasion, shock and surprise. Instead of conventional romantic words, he used scientific and mathematical words to introduce roughness in his poetry; e.g. he used the words ‘stife twin compasses’, ‘cosmographers’, ‘trepidation of the spheres’ etc.
Paradoxical statements are also found in his poems. In “The Indifferent” Donne describes constancy in men as vice and ask them:
Will no other vice content you?
In “The Legacy” the lover becomes his own ‘executor and legacy’. In “Love’s Growth” the poet’s love seems to have increased in spring, but now it cannot increase because it was already infinite, and yet it has increased:
No winter shall abate the sring’s increase.
He deals with the problem of body and soul in “The Anniversarie” of the individual and the universe in “The Sunne Rising” and of deprivation and actuality in “A Noctrunall”. In his divine poems he talks about the Crucification, ransom, sects / schism, religion, etc.
Donne is a coterie poet. He rejects the Patrarchan tradition of poetry, adopted by the Elizabethans. The Elizabethan poetry was the product off emotions. He rejected platonic idealism, elaborate description and ornamentation. He was precise and concentrated in poetry while the Elizabethan are copious and plentiful in words.
To conclude, he is more a seventeenth century poet than a metaphysical poet. There are some features in his poetry which differentiate him e.g. he is a monarch of with and more colloquial than any other seventeenth century poet. If other seventeenth century poet bring together emotions and intellect, he defines emotional experience with intellectual parallels etc. Still he writes in the tradition of the seventeenth century poets.