John Donne as a Metaphysical Poet

John Donne as a metaphysical poet

John Donne: An English Poet

John Donne was an English poet, a soldier, and a scholar. He was born on January 22, 1572, in London. His family was recusant Roman Catholic, and at that time, that religion was illegal in UK. His father’s name was same as him. Donne received his early education privately. He joined Hertford College, Oxford at 11. He studied for three years at University of Cambridge. He couldn’t get a degree from these institutions because of his religion. He didn’t take Oath of Supremacy that was requirement for graduation. He also studied at Thavies Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. Donne began questioning his faith after death of his brother in prison due to protecting a Catholic priest. Donne travelled across Europe and fought alongside Earl of Essex. He became secretary of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, but lost his post when he married his niece of Sir Thomas Egerton secretly.

He had twelve children of which five died. His life circumstances were bad and he considered suicide but wrote Biathanatos, in his defence of not committing suicide. His wife died in 1617 after giving birth to a stillborn child. He wrote about loss of his love in his 17th Holy Sonnet. Cambridge University gave Donne an honorary doctorate in divinity in 1615. In 1623, he faced an almost fatal illness and wrote many meditations and prayers for health and sickness. He delivered his famous sermon Death’s Duel before King Charles I, at Palace of Whitehall in February 1631. John Donne died on March 31, 1631 and buried at St Paul’s Cathedral in London where he was a dean. (1) John Donne’s was most prominent of the metaphysical poets of 17th century. His contemporaries include Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Richard Crashaw, etc.

Now let us discuss about the most important metaphysical poet of that time, John Donne.

John Donne as a Metaphysical poet

John Donne is the most prominent of the metaphysical poets. The metaphysical poets were the people of learning. Donne, in his early poems, has also expressed his knowledge of society. He has presented the problems in it using criticism and satire. However, the subject of religion was the most important to Donne. He also wrote erotic poetry in his early career with unusual use of metaphors. His life has an obvious impact on his poetry and we can see him making references to his life, in his poetry. It is also believed that the death of his wife and friends made his poetry style kind of sombre and gloomy.

Characteristics of John Donne’s poetry

John Donne’s poetry is metaphysical because of uniqueness in his poetry and his search for questions. Wit is dominant in his poetry, and it is vague and makes use of improbable conceits. The themes of his poems include, paradoxes, fidelity, religion, Death and the Hereafter, both physical and spiritual Love, Interconnection between humanity, etc. Let us look at the unique and interesting characteristics of Donne’s poetry.

Donne was an intellectual and he has always used unique and new concepts in his poetry. He would ask questions in his poetry that people would not normally think about and prompt the reader to open his mind. In his ‘Death Be Not Proud’, he has talked to death as if it was a person and asked death upon death.

Because Donne provided such new philosophical ideas in his poetry, vagueness has become a prominent characteristic of his poetry too. There is no clear right or wrong, it is just that he would provide with an idea, and it depends on the reader now, how he perceives it. Due to this, most part of his poetry is obscure. One must read his writings several times to grasp a concept.

As wit is most important part of metaphysical poetry, so it is of Donne’s poetry too. He, in fact in metaphysical poetry, is called the “Monarch of Wit”. (2) His wit goes in all directions, from seriousness to humour. His intellectual abilities, syllogism, exaggeration, and irony also made wit in his poetry great.

Conceit is plentiful in John Donne’s poetry. Conceit is a comparison of most improbable things. John Donne has compared two lovers to two opposite sides of a compass in his poetry. In his ‘The Flea’, he has compared a flea to a marriage bed. In his, ‘The Sun Rising’, he has said that he could eclipse the Sun, as if he was a star. In his, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, he says that parting should be happy, and it should not be a cause of sadness, and death should be calm.

John Donne was the person to introduce sayings and maxims into metaphysical poetry. He, flouting the maxim of quality said that death gives peace to people, whereas it is looked upon as evil.


As we have seen above, John Donne is a metaphysical poet at its finest. The subject matter he selected for his poems, the use of imagery, irony, farfetched concepts and all, contributes in making him a great metaphysical poet. He used his poetry to search for himself and the questions he had. His poetry is more of a journey for him, a journey of love, self-discovery, understanding, and spirituality.

Prominent works of John Donne include Sweetest Love, The Dream, The Ecstasy, Batter my heart, three person’d God, No Man is an Island, The Canonization, The Good Morrow, etc.

About Authoress: The article “John Donne as a Metaphysical Poet” was written by Sayeda Javaria. (

What is Metaphysical Poetry? (Definition and Characteristics)

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 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 word metaphysical poetry in more detail.

Origin of the word Metaphysical Poetry

In the book Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1179-1781)”, the author Samuel Johnson made the first use of the word Metaphysical Poetry. He used the term Metaphysical poets to define a loose group of the poets of 17th century. (1) The group was not formal and most of the poets put in this category did not know or read each other’s writings. This group’s most prominent poets include John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Richard Crashaw, etc. He noted in his writing that all of these poets had the same style of wit and conceit in their poetry.

The types of questions metaphysical poetry may make you ask yourself can be:

  1. Is our world real or a projection?
  2. Is there an afterlife?
  3. Can souls time travel?
  4. Is God out there?
  5. Are we restricted in our bodies or free?
  6. Is fate real?

There are just so many questions like that, which otherwise we might ignore. The thing that is obvious here is that none of these questions has a definite answer in science. It is all about belief and philosophy.

Definition of Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is a genre of poetry that deals with deep and profound subjects like spirituality, religion, etc. It is highly intellectual form of poetry and presents the world to its readers in a different way. It asks questions that science cannot answer. Metaphysical poetry 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.

Definition in Merriam Webster Dictionary

Highly intellectualized poetry marked by bold and ingenious conceits, incongruous imagery, complexity and subtlety of thought, frequent use of paradox, and often by deliberate harshness or rigidity of expression

Characteristics of Metaphysical poetry

Metaphysical poetry talks about deep things. It talks about soul, love, religion, reality etc. You can never be sure about what is coming your way while reading a metaphysical poem. There can be unusual philosophies and comparisons that will make you think and ponder.

Even though it talks about serious stuff, it talks about it in a humorous way. The tone is sometimes light. It can be harsh sometimes too. The purpose is to present a new idea and make the reader think.

Another characteristic of such poetry is that it is unclear. Because it provides such complicated themes, the idea of metaphysical poems is somewhat not definite. It is different for every person. It depends on the perception and experiences of the reader. Every person will take something different out of the same poem based on their beliefs and understanding.

Metaphysical poetry is also short. It uses brief words and conveys a lot of ideas in just a small number of words. There are many maxims in this type of poetry too. John Donne introduced sayings into metaphysical poetry.

The unusual comparison of things in poetry is one of its unique and most interesting characteristics. The unusual comparison is conceit. Conceit compares very dissimilar things. For example bright smoke, calling lovers as two points of compass, taking soul as dew drop, etc.

Other unique feature of this poetry is Platonic Love. The word is taken after Plato. Platonic love is a non-romantic love. There is no lust or need of physical contact. It is spiritual love and is mostly for God.

It arouses some extreme level of thoughts and feelings in the readers by asking life-altering questions. (2)

Prominent works in Metaphysical Poetry

Some of the great metaphysical poetry works by metaphysical poets include:

The Flea, The Sun Rising, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Death Be Not Proud, by John Donne, The Collar, The Pulley, by George Herbert, The Retreat, by Henry Vaughan, The Definition of Love, To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell, etc.


Metaphysical poetry is to be read with an open mind. It is not purposely trying to convince readers to think in a certain way but it provides a new way of thinking. Metaphysical poets are highly intellectual and people of learning. Reader’s minds open up, their area of thinking expands, and they awaken by their writings. The challenging approach of such poetry develops the concentration of readers on the things that exist beyond this physical world. It also permits the poets to state their inner thoughts in the poetry though higher cognitive skills are required to digest the abstract ideas and concepts coined in metaphysical texts of poetry.

About Authoress: The article “What is Metaphysical Poetry?” was written by Sayeda Javaria. (