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As we have seen, rather than avoid the moral and ethical complexities of his day, Donne embraced them, but not without considerable anguish. Recall the details of his life. The Meditations offer reflections on the mind-matter controversy, man's relationship with God, and the role of suffering in existence. Do not expect Donne to treat these matters conventionally; he does not. The famous criticism, later modified by Eliot, that Donne's images are "heterogeneously yoked together by violence" (Dr. Johnson) is true, but whereas Johnson concluded Donne violated the mimetic theory, T.S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest modern poet and critic, saw the "yoking" as impressive, and his criticism helped to define Donne as a great poet.


From LIVES OF THE POETS (Abraham Cowley) in which Johnson discusses the “metaphysical Poets

Source: Abrams, M.A. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume II. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979, p. 2361.

Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms. About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets, of whom in a criticism on the works of Cowley it is not inappropriate to give some account.

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses; and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.

If the father of criticism has rightly denominated imitative art, these writers will without great wrong lose their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything: they neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter nor represented the operations of intellect. Those however who deny them to be poets allow them to be wits. Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries that they fall below Donne in it, but maintains that they surpass him in poetry.

If wit be well described by Pope as being "that which has been often thought, hut was never before so well expressed" They certainly never attained nor ever sought it, for they endeavored to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Pope's account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous; he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.

If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which though not obvious is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new. but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.

But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors: (harmonious discord) combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances In things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. As they were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising, they had no regard to that uniformity of sentiment which enables us to conceive and to excite the pains and the pleasure of other minds: they never inquired what on any occasion they should have said or done, but wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature; as beings looking upon good and evil, impassive and at leisure; as Epicurean deities making remarks on the actions of men and the "vicissitudes of life, without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only to say what they hoped had been never said before.

Nor was the sublime more within their reach than the pathetic; for they never attempted that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration. Sublimity is produced by aggregation, and littleness by dispersion. Great thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness. It is with great propriety that subtlety, which in its original import means exility [thinness] of particles, is taken in its metaphorical meaning for nicety of distinction. Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation. Their attempts were always analytic: they broke every image into fragments, and could no more represent by their slender conceits and labored particularities the prospects of nature or the scenes of life, than he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.
What they wanted however of the sublime they endeavored to supply by hyperbole their amplification had no limits: they left not only reason but fancy behind them, and produced combinations of confused magnificence that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined. Yet great labor directed by great abilities is never wholly lost: if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth: if their conceits were farfetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme and volubility of syllables.



from: The Metaphysical Poets as reprinted in: Abrams, M.A. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume II. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979, pp. 2300 ff.

Eliot begins by recalling the comments of Johnson just cited; he notes, "...The force of this impeachment [Johnson's "heterogeneous" remarks] lies in the failure of the conjunction, the fact that often the ideas are yoked but not united...But a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet's mind is omnipresent in poetry..."

Eliot cited several examples from metaphysical poetry that to him demonstrates how "...the extended comparison is used with perfect success." As argued in Traditional and the Individual Talent, he believes that poets are products of their own times and what their present has subsumed from past ages:

"A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary; the mind of the poet...experiences are always forming new wholes....The poets of the seventeenth century...possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience...the possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is, the better the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability."

"It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject. We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a redefined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary language into his meaning."

Read the following Meditations:

Click below to find an index on line:--(The poetry index will appear first; scroll down to the Meditations).

Meditation IV

Meditation XIV

Meditation XVII