The Metaphysical Poets

For a more extended discussion of the
attributes of the Metaphysical poets,
see the
John Donne page.

| George Herbert | Richard Crashaw |
Henry Vaughan | Abraham Cowley |


George Herbert

Considered the finest of the religious metaphysicals, Herbert (1593-1633) was an Anglican poet who struggled for years between choosing a religious life or one that was both academic and public.

His collection of religious poems, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633), shows him both

Herbert is perhaps best known for his technique of exploring analogies between emblematic objects--such as the human body or parts of the church building and its furniture--and religious truths. He does so primarily through the use of shaped verse.

What is Shaped Verse?

Shaped verse is a poem so constructed that its printed form suggests its subject matter or its theme.

Alternate terms to describe shaped verse are figure poem, pattern poem, and carmen figuratum.

Herbert's use of shaped verse is rooted both in the use of the "hieroglyph" in Christian art throughout the Renaissance and in the emblematic tradition.

From John Donne, whose poems Herbert saw in manuscript, the younger poet learned to combine

However, Herbert's poetry differs from Donne's in four essential ways:

Like Donne, Herbert writes poetry which grabs the reader's attention by its opening statement of theme, but unlike Donne, he maintains interest and excitement by the unexpected ways he transforms traditional Christian material.

Herbert's poetry is thus marked by alternating modes of shock and repose: conflict is balanced by calm trust, disturbed speculation by simple faith, ingenious language by simplicity of statement.

The ultimate struggle or conflict in Herbert's poetry is between the world and complete surrender to God.


Richard Crashaw

A Catholic convert, Crashaw (1612/13-1649) very nearly lived the last part of his life exiled among the religious metaphysicals. Although like Herbert he is considered a religious metaphysical, Crashaw's poetry reveals a sensibility and a technique markedly different from that of either Herbert or Donne.

His collection of poetry entitled Steps to the Temple (1646) clearly refers to Herbert's earlier work, which he is said to have admired. Crashaw's poetry, however, is far removed stylistically from Herbert's.

Crashaw's poetry is characterized by a deliberate search for startling and paradoxical expression meant specifically to shock and excite the reader. He achieves this goal in three related ways:

Quite simply, Crashaw depicts the spiritual world in sensuous terms, a throwback to the earlier mystical writings of such women writers as Julian of Norwich.


Henry Vaughan

Vaughan (1622-95) considered himself the disciple of Herbert, but while his poetry does contain verbal echoes of this older poet's work, his most characteristic work have an individuality of tone that sharply distinguishes them from any other metaphysical poetry.

His poetry reveals that Vaughan is acutely aware of a veil separating time from eternity, as well as man from God, and that in his verse he constantly attempts to penetrate this separation and close the breach.

Whereas Herbert saw in the natural world and in natural objects a collection of hieroglyphs of the Christian story, Vaughan sees in it a world of creatures and things who because of their primitive state are in closer touch with spiritual reality.

In keeping with this idea, Vaughan also celebrates childhood, for he believes that the child's innocence brings him closer to God.


Abraham Cowley

By the time of Cowley (1618-67), the metaphysical tradition had essentially run its course.

A thoughtful poet, Cowley incorporates into his work some of the major philosophical currents of his day, and his writing often suffers thematically because some of these currents have proven quite shallow.

Cowley is best known for his abilities as a classicist: his imitations of Pindar set the stage for the 18th century love of the Pindaric ode.

What is a Pindaric Ode?

The Pindaric Ode, after Pindar, is the term used to describe the regular ode: a strain of exalted lyrical verse which has a single purpose and a single theme.

The Pindaric Ode is characterized by a division into units containing three parts:

  • strophe
  • antistrophe
  • epode

He attempted a religious epic, Davideis, but was not able to finish it. It is interesting primarily for how it characterizes Cowley himself: as a transitional writer who looked forward to 18th century neoclassicism but also looked back to the metaphysical poets who came before him.

Cowley's poetry is important basically for showing the progressive restriction of the poet's intellectual and emotional world as the 17th century moved toward its final phase.

In his 1921 essay "The Metaphysical Poets," T.S. Eliot uses the term "dissociation of sensibility" to describe how poets in the 17th century adopted a kind of disjunction between thought and feeling: what resulted was poets who thought but neither felt their thoughts nor fused thought and feeling in their poetry. Many see such a "dissociation of sensibility" acting most particularly in Cowley's poetry.