What is it about the metaphysical poets that captivate the student’s heart and mind? There is something pure and perfect about the poetry of that band of poetic pilgrims. It seems their work is poetry par excellence. There is a reason for this sense that in their verse we can do no worse. This is because their poetry succeeds in being a vehicle for the absolute in a way that no other school of poetry quite does.
The paragon of these poets is the gentle priest George Herbert and the best way to tell his story is to tell a story:
There once was a young man from an aristocratic family who went off to a splendid university town. There he excelled in language, music and oratory. He was a man of glorious birth and good connections. The king himself honored him and called him to high office. But the gentle Englishman chose instead to be a country priest. He went to a tiny country village and lived in a large house beside a river that flowed down to a meadow on which stood beautiful cathedral. The man helped the poor people in the village and ministered to the sick. He was a country parson, so he went to church to pray. He was also a poet, a prophet and a priest, his fellow poet Henry Vaughan called him “a most glorious saint and seer.”
The “metaphysical poets” were given that name because they wrote paradoxical and pure poems about mysterious subjects. In their own way they were authors of fairy tales. They were fantasy poets for they wrote not of elves, but angels; not of Neverland, but the ‘Everland’ of eternity. To discuss such extraordinary subjects they used very ordinary objects. George Herbert wrote about a collar, a meal, a path, a friend, and as he did he referred to a spiritual attachment, a mystical meal, a mysterious journey and an invisible friend. The metaphysical poets were intellectual and witty. They liked the swordplay of wordplay. They unlocked bizarre worlds with bizarre words.
This is really why George Herbert was a metaphysical and why his poetry was so pure. ‘Meta’ means ‘to change’ or magically transform, and he and his friends used language to magically change their readers’ perception, and as they changed their perception they changed them. It was, if you like, metaphysical metamorphosis through metaphors. The metaphysical poets leapfrogged from ordinary things to extraordinary things with a dash of wit and a flash of insight.
In doing so they show us what every poet does. He constantly reads into the ordinary world extraordinary realities. A rose, for the poet, is not just a rose, but his lover. A tree is not a tree, but a key that locks together earth and sky. A bee is not just a bee, but a miniature miner of nectar, a minute manufacturer of honey. For the poet the bee creates the food of angels and so becomes a winged messenger for the winged messengers of God.
To think is to make connections, and to make unusual connections is the wildest and most wonderful kind of thinking. Anyone can see the connection between a black dog and his collar, some people might see a dog collar and see a priest, but only a poet sees that every priest is a black dog in a white collar. Poets are gymnasts. They use language as a trampoline not just to do backflips, but to ascend higher into the sky than the rest of us can do. As they do their verbal barrel rolls, they are simply doing us the service of showing us what all of us do whenever we use language at all.
When I use a word I make a connection between a concrete object and and an abstract subject. In other words, I connect the thing I can see with the idea I cannot see. If my beloved is named Lucy, then when I say, ‘Lucy’ I connect my beloved not only with my mental image of my beloved, but with Love, and when I say ‘love’ I think not only of my beloved’s name, but of her face, her hair, her smile, the way she smacks a tennis ball, the way she shrieks with laughter, sobs in grief and burns the dinner.
Whenever we use any word in any way we are being metaphorical and metaphysical because words help us transcend the merely physical. Words take us into the realm of ideas, and the realm of ideas is next door to the realm of ideals. Humans have language, and we forget what a startling gift it is. Animals grunt. Humans make poems. A gorilla may be taught sign language, but he will never write a sonnet.
This is why poetry is important and why the metaphysical poets matter. They reveal to us the mystery of language itself. This is why poetry matters in a utilitarian age. We are inclined to use language as a tool—to insist on a simple denotation for every word. In contrast, poetry opens us up with ambiguity and uses symbols to help us soar. In a world where the cynic sees through everything, poetry helps us see into everything for locked within the ordinary world are mysteries that make us wonder and marvels that cause us to worship.
This essay is an expanded excerpt from Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.