Metaphysical Poetry Lecture

In this video, we’re going to be discussing
metaphysical poetry. So, metaphysical poetry starts happening around the Renaissance, which
you’ve learned in your history class. This is a rebirth of learning. Poets are getting
even more creative. Shakespeare is on the scene, so it’s the 1600s, late 1500s. The
metaphysical poets weren’t even friends or anything, but this push for creativity during
the Renaissance made metaphysical poetry what it was. The fundamental aspect of metaphysical poetry
is that the work is characterized by the usage of conceits. Some of you may have had the
word “conceit” on your vocabulary flashcards, so you know that a conceit is an exaggerated
comparison. The conceits that these poets were using were extremely inventive, and usually
the poems had to do with thinking about love or religion, or sometimes death and like I
said, this is going on in seventeenth century England, like Shakespeare, but he wasn’t a
metaphysical poet. Don’t misunderstand me mentioning him in this video and think that
he was. The metaphysical poets were using these exaggerated,
sometimes grotesque, comparisons as a sort of reaction against the overly elevated language
of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets. Rather than comparing a woman to a blossoming
flower, the metaphysical poets might have compared her to a more industrial tool, or
something equally as (seemingly) random. To break down the roots of the word “metaphysical”,
meta means “above or beyond” and physical means “earthly or concrete,” so the metaphysical
poets moved concrete symbols beyond their meaning into more philosophical symbols, as
we’ll see in just a minute. So, back to what a conceit is. If you haven’t
had conceit as one of your vocabulary words, it’s kind of like a metaphor. It’s an exaggerated
comparison between two very unlike things. And, in a conceit, the two things are so unalike
that the reader doesn’t even want to compare them. It’s an uncomfortable comparison, but
the poet skillfully makes the comparison acceptable to the reader. The way you unpack the meaning of a conceit
is you pull out the associations you may have with the two things being compared. One example is this very famous poem, “The
Flea” by John Donne, whom we’ll talk more about in a minute. It says, “Oh stay! Three
lives in one flea spare where we almost, yea more than married are. This flea is you and
I, and this our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.” OK take a second and reread that. Pause the
video if you need to. So, in other words, what John Donne is saying
here is, “Oh stay!” or “Don’t go! This little flea has my blood, your blood, and its own
blood. And so our bodily fluids are already mixed in the flea, so we might as well have
sex even though we’re not married.” So, John Donne uses this flea as kind of the
idea of “We’re already mixed together in there, so madame let’s go ahead and get in bed.”
So, the comparison between the flea and marriage is not one that one would normally make. If
someone said to you that fleas are closely related to sex, you might laugh or think they’re
weird, but the metaphysical poets make it work. Once he’s finished the poem, you can
understand, like, “Oh, I can see how that would work.” Going back to John Donne, it looks like “John
Don-nay” or something like that, but it is pronounced “Dunn,” like “You’re done with
that assignment.” His most famous poem is “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” which
we’ll examine a bit of later on. As I said, John Donne wrote during the late 1500s, early
1600s, so he was alive at the same time as Shakespeare. I’m not sure if they knew each
other or not, but that would be neat if they did.

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