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The Revival of Metaphysical Poetry

The Revival of Metaphysical Poetry: The History of Style, 1800 to the Present

Joseph E. Duncan
Copyright Date: 1959
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    The Revival of Metaphysical Poetry
    Book Description:

    The metaphysical style, as expressed in its most distinguished and distinguishable form by the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, has had an increasing influence on latter-day critics and poets. Thus it is important to an understanding of literary history to examine this revival. Professor Duncan traces the movement and analyzes changing interpretations of the style in the work of British and American poets and critics. He shows that much of the “new criticism” and the metaphysical poetry of T. S. Eliot and that of the metaphysical style has thrived on fresh critical interpretation and vital poetic experimentation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3704-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-5)

    Every revival is a new interpretation. Each period seeks out those elements in its cultural past with which it has an affinity and reshapes them in its own image to meet its own needs. Sometimes this tendency is a search for self-understanding and for a kind of cultural companionship. In reviving classical culture the Renaissance interpreted it anew, and the nineteenth century similarly reinterpreted Renaissance culture. Our own century has displayed a distinct taste for the seventeenth century’s mature thoughtfulness and its self-conscious awareness of tensions and problems. Evidence of this affinity is seen in efforts to reestablish a poetic...

  4. I Early Conceptions of Metaphysical Poetry
    (pp. 6-28)

    Critics have been in much more general agreement about who the principal seventeenth-century metaphysical poets were than about what metaphysical poetry is. But fortunately this general agreement provides valuable clues to an understanding of both the seventeenth-century and modern conceptions of metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical elements have been recognized in the work of Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chapman, and other English and Continental poets. However, the most representative metaphysical poets were John Donne, Edward Herbert, George Herbert, Aurelian Townshend, Henry King, John Cleveland, Andrew Marvell, and Abraham Cowley. Richard Crashaw was a metaphysical poet, but he was a special case. In the...

  5. II Seeds of the Revival
    (pp. 29-49)

    Carew had praised Donne for planting blossoms of “fresh invention” in the muses’ garden, but during the late seventeenth century and earlier eighteenth century the blossoms drooped sadly and went to seed. Under the influence of romanticism these seeds of the recent metaphysical revival slowly came to life, struggled to become adapted to an unfavorable intellectual climate during most of the nineteenth century, and finally flowered again during the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries.

    Early nineteenth-century critics frequently praised the “beauties” of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry with the enthusiasm of the discoverer while condemning its “faults” with the vigor of...

  6. III John Donne and Robert Browning
    (pp. 50-68)

    Few today would link Browning, the “Victorian,” with Donne, the herald of the modern sensibility. Browning’s poetry is certainly in many important ways very different from Donne’s. Yet the intellectual kinship between the two poets was very close and was recognized by some of Browning’s critics. Despite the vital differences in their philosophical ideas and in their aesthetic theories and practices, there were also important similarities. Coleridge and others associated with the Elizabethan revival started the metaphysical revival, but Browning gave it an added impetus that did much to carry it into the twentieth century.

    Many of Browning’s contemporaries and...

  7. IV The Beginnings of the Revival in America
    (pp. 69-88)

    In the United States, as in England, the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, generally neglected during the eighteenth century, were revived, re-evaluated, and imitated during the nineteenth century. The revival was relatively free of English influence. American critics generally appreciated the metaphysicals’ transcendental qualities, their hard core of thought, and the union of body, mind, and soul reflected in their poetry.

    Many American writers read and enjoyed the metaphysicals. Edgar Allan Poe maintained that the writings of the metaphysicals “sprang immediately from the soul — and partook intensely of that soul’s nature.” He remarked on the “simplicity and single-heartedness” of Cowley and...

  8. V The Catholic Revival and the Metaphysicals
    (pp. 89-112)

    During the nineteenth century the metaphysical style was allied with a Catholic and Anglo-Catholic point of view much as it had been during the seventeenth century. The metaphysical revival and the Catholic revival cross-fertilized each other. Though the Catholic revival was God-centered in a way that the romantic revival was not, both the Catholic revival and the metaphysical revival apparently owed something to the romantic movement. Cardinal Newman pointed out that Sir Walter Scott had turned men’s minds toward the medieval period and hence toward the Catholic Church and asserted that Coleridge had indirectly “made trial of his age, and...

  9. VI The Metaphysical Revival 1872–1912
    (pp. 113-129)

    It has been generally assumed that the contemporary revival of Donne and other seventeenth-century metaphysicals began with the publication of Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne in 1912 and that the recent critical theories about the sensibility reflected in metaphysical poetry were first presented in some essays by Eliot that appeared in the early 1920’s. In reality, however, Grierson’s edition marked the end of the first stage of the metaphysical revival. His edition was in part the cause of the renewed interest in Donne which reached a scholarly climax in 1931 with the observance of the tercentenary of his death....

  10. VII Yeats, Donne and the Metaphysicals
    (pp. 130-142)

    Maturing as a poet with the metaphysical revival as a part of his intellectual milieu, W. B. Yeats made a place for himself in the metaphysical tradition because of a passionate lifelong desire to weld the world together through his poetry. During the seventeenth century an increased emphasis on correspondences and analogy had helped to hold together a universe threatened by the new science. Yeats similarly tried to recapture the unity, harmony, and vitality of a world that he felt modern science was transforming from a living organism to a complex of opposing forces and abstract theories. Always aware of...

  11. VIII Eliot and the Twentieth-Century Revival
    (pp. 143-164)

    As the high priest of the modern metaphysical revival, T. S. Eliot has been consistently honored but often misunderstood. His followers have repeated his theories about the unified sensibility in metaphysical poetry without realizing how Eliot’s ideas had been developed or how much they had changed. Similarly, they have both imitated and explicated the “metaphysical” techniques in his poetry without a clear conception of metaphysical poetry or of the important differences between Eliot and the seventeenth-century poets. In short, his followers have usually not understood the ways in which Eliot, as critic and poet, crystallized and vitalized — then partly...

  12. IX Metaphysicals and Critics since 1912
    (pp. 165-181)

    After the Grierson edition in 1912 the chorus of praise for Donne and the metaphysicals swelled to a great crescendo during the Donne tercentenary in 1931 and has in fact continued. The movement was given impetus by Eliot’s writings on the metaphysical poets, other publications, and various special events, but was relatively unaffected by Eliot’s change of taste during the 1920’s. These later critics proceeded from the interpretations of the earlier period of the revival, but their key conception became that of Donne the modern. They greatly extended the base of the movement and seemingly proclaimed almost everywhere that Donne...

  13. X The Metaphysical Florescence
    (pp. 182-202)

    As critics evaluated poetry more and more in relation to its metaphysical qualities, a host of modern poets turned more and more to metaphysical techniques. Influenced partly by fad and partly by a desire to be true to themselves and the contemporary spirit, these poets went back to Donne, hailed Eliot as their master, or evolved their own metaphysical style. Although a diligent search would probably turn up something metaphysical in a majority of modern poets, particularly significant interpretations of the metaphysical style occur in the work of Wallace Stevens, the Fugitives, Elinor Wylie, Read, Edith Sitwell, and Empson.


  14. Retrospective
    (pp. 203-206)

    Throughout the history of the metaphysical revival — the history of a style — the metaphysical style has continued both to maintain its identity and integrity and to stimulate fresh critical interpretation and vital poetic experimentation. As the stylistic embodiment of an idea or attitude, the metaphysical style has sought a hard-won integration from the disturbing complexity and diversity in the universe and in the individual. This quest for integration has given function and meaning to the correspondences, conceits, ambiguity, and thought-feeling relationships that have helped express it. The metaphysical revival, beginning as part of an antiquarian dusting off of...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 209-222)
  16. Index
    (pp. 223-227)