An object in itself is a matter of perception. The same holds true for both words and for their collective amalgamation in poetry. As such, the sphere of meaning inhabited by each word suffers attrition and mutation over time, and so do terms and poems. Phonemes mingle and mash until doh and blog find their way into the OED, and become words. Diametrically opposed to these new formations, many good words have died for lack of use. One word has survived by adding new meanings onto itself like grammatical camouflage in this anti-rhetorical world.
My first recollection of the word metaphysical harkens back to my middle school days. My friend Ariella turned to me in class and said, "My dad cheated on his metaphysics exam… He peeked into his neighbor’s soul." I started cracking up, laughing that uncontrollable laugh that gets you sent out of the room. That was the definition of metaphysical to my young self. With the introduction of the term metaphysical poet, I have rediscovered its original meaning. With a little logic, the two definitions, both in their own way, can be construed as correct. After all, as Merleau-Ponty says, "poetry… is essentially a variety of existence."
When we read or take in any sensory information, our dendrites create chemical pathways. So, any one memory is not stored in a cell, per se, but in a series of connections deep within the brain. This chemically neurological factor will allow for both definitions.
The term metaphysical has undergone a radical ideological transformation in its everyday use since its inception and since it was utilized for poetry and prose writers in the 1600s. The first instance of this term, literally meaning after the physics, is found in the title of Aristotle’s treatise on first principles that followed his work on physics. Later, Samuel Johnson coined the term metaphysical poet in his Life of Cowley, writing, "about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed metaphysical poets." He borrowed this term from Dryden, and before Dryden the term was used by Drummond of Hawthornden who wrote of poets who make use of "Metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities".
In addition to its root-based and original definition of something "based on speculative or abstract reasoning", the term metaphysical, in the 21st century idiom, also signifies, as in the joke, the immaterial and supernatural. In this paper, I will make the term metaphysical undergo a reclamation of meaning by dissecting the term from a phenomenological perspective, and then sewing it back together by example into its "fine and witty" self.
The simple definition of a metaphysical poem is one marked by conceits. A conceited poem is not one that would have a title like "You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Paper is About You", but one that contains an extended or exaggerated metaphor or simile. In the language of the contemporaries of the 17th century metaphysical poets this poetry was defined by "strong lines." Lines, in this case, mean lines of logic or reasoning, strands of thought that run through the piece, holding it together, as it were, like a sartorial thread.
The reader must unravel the poem. In 1591, Anthony Bacon, when recommending Sir Henry Savile’s translation of Tacitus, extolled Tacitus because he "hath written the most matter with the best conceit in the fewest words of any Historiographer", and followed with "But he is hard. Difilicia quae pulchra; the second reading will please thee more than the first, and the third than the second." The direction of poetry, therefore, became one of "More matter and less words."
With respect to these ancients, the poetry of the time turns denser, more tightly interlaced, and, in most cases, more brief. This concentration of style can be seen in both the poetry of Ben Jonson and of John Donne. One of the more apt descriptions of the style is "sinewy". From the metaphor of the threaded argument, we now turn to a metaphor of exposed musculature. Indeed, the well-written and well-thought out conceits of these poems can be seen as a complex body. In doing so, we can find its "soul". In Maurice Merleai-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, he states, "It is well known that a poem, though it has a superficial meaning translatable into prose, leads, in the reader’s mind, a further existence which makes a poem."
This brings the reader to the second characteristic of metaphysical poetry, its use of conceits. This is where density of words combines with density of thought. A conceit is an extended metaphor or "comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness, or, at least, is more immediately striking."
Long conceits set a task of proving the likeness to the reader. John Donne’s A Valediction: forbidding mourning introduces the conceit of two lovers being a compass, where, in this case, his wife was the fixed foot. This excerpt reveals his conceit:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’other doe.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
And growes erect, as it comes home.
Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
Like th’other foot, obliquely runne;
They firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne.
The method of the conceit is obvious, as described by Donne, and quite visual. While the reader must admit the connection between the relationship and the compass, at the same time, the reader will keep in mind the "unlikeness." It is the dual nature of these conceits that allows the term metaphysical to claim its modern meaning. The connection is immaterial, perhaps beyond natural, but quite real, as is represented in the feeling and notions felt by the reader. That which unites the dual meaning is the metaphorical correlation inherent in the metaphysical poetry.
But this knowledge must be worked out. In the words of Dame Helen Gardner, "It does not attempt to attract the lazy and its lovers have always a certain sense of being in a privileged class, able to enjoy what is beyond the reach of vulgar wits." In a phenomenological way, the conceit hits home in a more deserved manner.
Neurologically, the chemical pathways in the brain that determine memory are more rigorously utilized while reading metaphysical poetry, and, in the case of repeated readings, the pathways are continually redefined. Therefore, the memory is more permanent. The moment of "aha," more sublime. These poems use language in such a way that "the existential modulation, instead of being dissipated at the very instant of its expression, finds in poetic art a means of making itself eternal." It is this characteristic, as reflected and magnified by the seventeenth century metaphysical poets, that allows both definitions of metaphysical to be used in its description.