What is Metaphysical Poetry?

Learn the definition of metaphysical poetry and explore its origin. Discover the characteristics of metaphysical poetry, and view its examples here.

Metaphysical poetry

The word ‘Metaphysical Poetry’ is a philosophical concept used in literature where poets portray the things/ideas that are beyond the depiction of physical existence.

Etymologically, there is a combination of two words ‘meta’ and ‘physical in the word “metaphysical”.’ The first word “Meta” means beyond.

So metaphysical means beyond physical, beyond the normal and ordinary. The meanings are clear here that it deals with the objects/ideas that are beyond the existence of this physical world.

Let us look at the origin of this poetic form in more detail.


Origin of the Word Metaphysical Poetry

Samuel Johnson coined the term “Metaphysical Poetry” in his book “Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1179-1781).

He coined the term “Metaphysical poets” to describe a loose group of 17th-century poets. The group was informal, and most of the poets in this category had never met or read each other’s work.

Among the most well-known poets in this group are John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Richard Crashaw, and others.

In his writing, he noted that all of these poets had the same wit and conceit in their poetry.

Definition of Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is a genre of poetry that deals with deep and profound subjects like spirituality, religion, etc.

It is a highly intellectual form of poetry and presents the world to its readers in a different way. It asks questions that science cannot answer. This poetic form prompts the readers to question their reality and existence.

It takes one beyond the physical world and gives new perspectives through its imagery, wit, and paradox.

Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

Below are some of the characteristics of metaphysical poetry:

1. One of the main characteristics of metaphysical poetry is its dramatic manner and direct tone of speech. There is a dramatic beginning to the poem “The Canonization” in the first line.

Here is the line: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love”.

2. Concentration is an important quality in metaphysical poetry in general, particularly in Donne’s poetry. The reader is limited to one idea or line of argument in all of his poems. Donne’s poems are short and tightly woven.

The main point of “The Extasie” is that the function of man as a man is being performed worthily through various acts of love. He returns to the theme without digression.

3. A metaphysical poem would be best described by an expanded epigram. Nothing is described in detail, and no word is wasted.

The style has a wiry strength to it. Though the verse forms are usually simple, they are always effective in reinforcing the poem’s meaning.

4. Fondness for conceits is a major character of metaphysical poetry. Donne often uses fantastic comparisons. The most striking and famous one used by Donne is the comparison of a man who travels and his beloved who stays at home to a pair of compasses in the poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”.

5. Wit is another characteristic of metaphysical poetry. So, here we find various allusions and images relating to practicality in all areas of nature and art and learning– to medicine, cosmology, contemporary discoveries, ancient myth, history, law, and art. For instance, in “The Extasie”, Donne uses the belief of the blood contains certain spirits which act as an intermediary between soul and body.

6. Metaphysical Poetry is a blend of passion and thought. T. S. Elliot thinks that “passionate thinking” is the chief mark of metaphysical poetry. There is an intellectual analysis of emotion in Donne’s Poetry.

Though every lyric arises out of some emotional situation, the emotion is not merely expressed, rather it is analyzed. Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” proves that lovers need not mourn at parting.

7. Metaphysical Poetry is a fusion of passionate feelings and logical arguments. For example, in “The Canonization”, there is passion expressed through beautiful metaphors.

8. Metaphysical Poetry is the mixture of sensual and spiritual experience. This trait is particularly noticeable in Donne’s poetry.

Even though it is not explicitly discussed in poems like “The Canonization” and “The Extasie,” the great metaphysical question is the relationship between the spirit and the senses.

Donne frequently refers to the soul and spiritual love. “The Extasie” is about the lovers’ souls negotiating with one another outside of their bodies.


Read metaphysical poetry with an open mind. It is not trying to persuade readers to think in a certain way, but it does provide a new way of thinking. Metaphysical poets are highly intellectual and learned individuals. Readers’ minds are opened up, their range of thought expands, and they are awakened by their writings.

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