John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets

English, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies

College of Arts and Law


Code 22332

Level of study Third/Final year

Credit value 20

Semester 1

Pre-requisite modules You must have completed at least two years of appropriate study in this discipline.

Module description

In his 1921 essay `The Metaphysical Poets', T.S. Eliot famously observed that, `A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.' Is this alleged fusion of thought and feeling the hallmark of so-called metaphysical poetry? Or is this apparent synthesis instead `a kind of discordia concors', as Samuel Johnson put it, in which `the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together'? This module sets out to explore the nature, varieties, and influence of metaphysical poetry, taking as its corpus of texts selected poems by John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Edward Herbert of Cherbury, and others. Through close reading of the subjects, themes, and rhetorical and metrical forms of these works, you will be invited to explore broader questions of literary genre and poetic tradition, politics and religion, sexual and gender relations, and textual transmission and reception (including discussion of the roles of manuscript, print, and the social history of lyric poetry). The module aims to place the writers studied in relation to other contemporary groupings of English poets, such as the Spenserians, the Tribe of Ben, and the Cavalier Poets, as well as considering the reaction to and legacy of metaphysical poetry found in later poetic movements, such as the Augustans, Romantics, and Modernists. Characterised by its often outrageous logic, urgent argumentation, querulous wit, and `discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike', metaphysical poetry invariably elicits a criticism in kind: from Eliot and Empson, to Vickers, Fowler, Carey, and Ricks. Wide reading of such commentaries will aid your analysis and evaluation of the poems in question, and even bring into serious question the validity of the term `metaphysical poetry’ itself.

Teaching and learning methods

Seminar and plenary session