Genevieve Taggard's Introduction to Circumference (1929)
"My business is circumference."
Emily Dickinson in a letter to Colonel Higginson, July 1862.
For some centuries English critics have been at work to revise or apply the term metaphysical given John Donne and his school. The word does very well, I think, if we use it of poetry, to describe a state of mind, not to designate a system of thought with the exactitude of the philosopher or the scientist.* "Dryden gave the term metaphysical to the odd terminology of Donne's poetic philosophy," says Gosse, "and Johnson borrowing the suggestion, defined the school to describe not Donne only, but all the amorous and philosophical poets who succeeded him, and who employed a similarly fantastic language, and who affected odd figurative inversions. The influence of Donne upon the literature of England," Mr. Gosse concludes, "was singularly wide and deep, although almost wholly malign."
I have been attempting to collect into a book what may be considered the most malignant of Donne's verses, together with others since his time, down to the present, which seem to bear them a good comparison, not merely from the school commonly supposed to be metaphysical, but from English and American poets generally. There are more poems of this genre than poets; with many lyric and dramatic minds, the metaphysical is a mood assumed for the moment, or one manner of approach, not a constant quality. Unless we agree to use Donne as the measure of the metaphysical poet, and draw all others to scale, we must admit to begin with, that in searching for the Metaphysical Poem we are only after an abstraction. A long search, however, among many approximations, and repeated varieties, gives a reader a certain knack at imagining the purest possibility of treatment, of which the poems one encounters are only less acute designs.
I must state at the outset that I find only two genuinely metaphysical poets of the first order of clarity in the entire span of our poetry. So far as an unscholarly knowledge can contend, with the use of a definition that comes from a study of forms and habitual choices of material, I find this kind of mind perfectly exampled only in John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Dante, Goethe and Lucretius live in other languages.
"Metaphysical poetry," says Grierson, in his excellent introduction to Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, "in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which, like that of the Divina Commedia, the De Natura Rerum and perhaps Goethes Faust, has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.
These poems were written because a definite interpretation of the riddle, the atoms of Epicurus rushing through infinite empty space, the theology of the schoolmen as elaborated in the catechetical disquisitions of St. Thomas, Spinoza's vision of life sub specie aeternitatis, beyond good and evil, laid hold on the mind and the imagination of a great poet, unified and illumined his comprehension of life, intensified and heightened his personal consciousness of joy and sorrow, of hope and fear, by broadening their significance, revealing to him in the history of his own soul, a brief abstract of the drama of human destiny. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the heart of man.' Its themes are the simplest experiences of the surface of life, sorrow and joy, love and battle, the peace of the country, the bustle and stir of towns, but equally the boldest conceptions, the profoundest intuitions, the subtlest and most complex classifications and discourse of reason, if into these, too, the poet can carry sensation,' make of them passionate experiences communicable in vivid and moving imagery, in rich and varies harmonies."
Johnson and Dryden described the seventeenth century poet as a man of learning who drew on his knowledge for his phrases, symbols and comparisons, and who treated of matters "beyond physics." The eighteenth century being unable when it made its definition to know the work of Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Browning, and Blake, should be pardoned for covering them all, and leaving, still, room for another kind of poet--in no way defining a temperament that marks John Donne from John Keats. However, the eighteenth century does have in mind something it has not defined. Taking Donne as an example, it wished to describe a scientific sharpness and an angularity; a saltiness of phrase designated by them as "wit"; and a coldness that made it possible for the mind to probe itself, as it writes of itself, lavishly and unmercifully. All this was concealed under the large word, learning. "Beyond physics" involved God, the universe, and the soul's torments--psychological poetry.
Such a poet is born with a salty sanity in his bones. He will take neither (Keatsian) sensuous assurance of life, nor (Miltonic) moral glory, nor a Poesque exit into madness. What he needs to find is a thoughtful pattern for the universes need in him so pressing that he is inclined to himself present the universe with that pattern when it is lacking. Ideas being for this temperament as real as grass blades or locomotives, the poet's imagination is always riding the two horses in the circus, Idea and Fact; they gallop neck and neck in his work, he has a genius for both the concrete word and the dazzling concept. In Donne's case the two horses got to galloping apart after a time--he saw that he finally must take to one or the other. Religion and Philosophy fascinated his mediaevalism--a grave-yard of ideas that might be dissected or shown to have a functioning structure. But Science fascinated him too, Gallileo and Copernicus gave him the food his imagination craved; from them, for a time, he constructed his new philosophies--having played at paste till qualified for pearl--until the labor of putting raw science in relation to the world's cultural knowledge got to be too difficult. Such a labor is not the work of one man; a poet may only perform it with some group to pick and cull for him. And because Donne had to have a coherent universe, even though a fictitious one, he went over to God.
Perhaps my definition will seem to my readers to cover a large number of poets still. Shakespeare's mind lived in a metaphysical country and the image of its bigness casts a shadow over all who have written since. But his dramatic and human gifts enrich on one hand where his lyricism etherializes on the other, this faculty, so that we have it only best expressed in speeches in the plays, in single ejaculations, unexcelled and unravelled; and in the less musical sonnets. Milton, who had learning, and who did his best in his mammoth fashion, to construct a scheme worthy of God and Man, lacks the wit and the impudence and has none of the subjective sense that makes the dilemma of the metaphysical mind. Pope and Dryden used metaphysical material. Pope delighted in changing the shape of an idea into a metal ribbon. Dryden built a word cathedral of regular, formal prosody. Keats is the clearest possible example of what a metaphysical poet is not. His truth is in essence, not in pattern; he knows the substance of life to be sufficient; any scheme was to Keats, extraneous. Whether this belief would have continued in him is a matter for speculation--as he grew into his forties and fifties, the romantic philosophy might have beaten itself out into a hardness and the meaning of design. The Eve of St. Agnes is sensuous in the highest possible fulfilment.
Beyond a mortal man impassioned far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose
Beside this Donne's
Then since that I may know
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy selfe; cast all, yea this white
linnen hence. . . .
is cold and mental, however human; curiosity is its deepest impulse.
Coleridge and Poe, with Swinburne, Rossetti and the rest of the noisy, windy, wild young poets abandon the world of metaphysical exactitude for mad splendors--their poetry is a kind of projected psychology; they show what the mind may feel and imagine if inflated and elongated. The true metaphysician is subjective, but he wants his mental stuff unstimulated; the complete abnormal does not interest him. Blake, fierce and tender, who saw visions on English greens, made a lamb and a tiger with a simplicity and an insight one step beyond the mind. Science, for him was a hellish invention against the spirit of man. He says "Go winged thought, widen his forehead, " of the negro--and means what he says. Metaphysicians do not mean what they say: they propose possibilities; their world is all hypothesis compact. Making mind and emotion one, as no one else but Keats has approximated, Blake says: "A tear is an intellectual thing." The metaphysician is neither fierce nor tender, as was Blake. He is a stoic, and has small joy in even that attitude.
Wordsworth and Shelley both meditate continually on man's destiny, the universe's destiny, and cover much, with Tennyson, that Donne (our metaphysical measure) if a modern, would attempt. But they separate themselves off by an attitude of worship; a lack of saltiness and homeliness. When Wordsworth tried to be homely he wrote the Idiot Boy; when Tennyson tried to be terse, he wrote In Memoriam which succeeds now and then in being simple. When Shelley wrote the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty he filled it with vague hues, full of desire, but as removed from the earth as a blowing cloud. Vague nobility is not the metaphysician's favorite note. Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson were all a little too bright and good for human nature's daily food. Donne's frank eroticism which they lack makes a good beginning for the whole self--unities are essential--the whole universe, the whole man. In the end God becomes his unity and to Him he speaks curtly, as to an honored inescapable fact, with his own antagonistic majesty:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it was done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin; through which I run,
And do run still; though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Browning most clearly has characteristics that link him with Shakespeare and Donne, and give him the task of taking up the actual world as where they put it down. He has a rich human variety, and an ability to ponder in all sanity the unravellings of the mind. He wants his people dynamic, not anatomics, however: She had a heart somehow too soon made glad, is too alive when taken in its context. Donne, or Shakespeare, only, of all English poets, might have written, in Browning's place, The Light Woman. Splendid and broad as Browning's blade is, at times it lacks the keen edge of the lightly acid gentlemen, his two forbears. His dramatic monologues desert the nicety of metaphysical tracing; first and last, (with noble exceptions) he runs to God a little too swiftly, because of a lack of subtlety, I think, or a love of benignity.
For all these swift judgments exceptions abound; in the poet most foreign to this as a constant state of mind, there are moods when the metaphysical comes uppermost. Blake, Wordsworth, Browning all write approximates of what I would call the pure metaphysical poem; and of their many poems I hope I have chosen the best for my collection.
But in either the welltrodden or the ragged by-paths of English-American poetry I can only discover one mind whose predominant flavor is in Donne's world. Emily Dickinson, nineteenth-century recluse, and the seventeenth-century Dean of St Paul's were both attempting a revolutionary technique, and a plain homely grandeur. Neither quality has been very well understood. That angularity complained of by Johnson and Dryden in Donne, became the snare of Colonel Higginsons platitudes when he tried to give Emily Dickinson helpful criticism. What these critics could not see was that both these poets were deserting formal composition for the subtlest of all techniques--the form of an idea. Critics have demanded an external lyric gloss of many poets who should have gone on eliminating to the metaphysical extent. Ideas are irregular; they are beautiful in their entire uniqueness as pure form when simply revealed as idea, not as some form of expression. To give an idea no form but itself, to show it as organic by an inner music, as if the bones of a skeleton were singing in their own rhythm--that is the technical obsession of the metaphysical poet. Beside him every other poet becomes a little diffuse and decorative.
Emily confessed her desire when she wrote to "scalp the naked soul." Few poets would pretend to so little, or do so much. Where Donne allows his cerebral fancy and his pedantry to spin out, past his climax (which so often comes in one line or two, followed by a larger climax, not so acute) Emily says, making of one thought the design of a poem:
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then excuse from pain;
And then those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep,
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die.
Such a sharp knife has rarely flashed in literature. In the same world of the mind's comment on the mind, find:
What fortitude that soul contains
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot
The opening of a door
Donne if anyone might have conceived:
Pain has an element of blank
The brain within its groove
Runs evenly and true.
The wit, the power to make an epigram which Donne's age so loved, is all in Emily Dickinson. A poem made into a prose sentence reads as follows:
"Surgeons must be very careful when they take the knife. Underneath their fine incisions, stirs the Culprit, Life!"
It is the same colloquial downright phrase that Donne so used, to say:
I am two fools I know
For loving and for saying so
In whining poetry;
If the unborn
Must learn, by my being cut up and torn
Kill and dissect me love; for this
Torture against thine own end is,
Racked carcasses make ill anatomies.
The mind of Emily Dickinson has the power of a microscope. To the small facts that fall so well within a woman's knowledge she applies the enlarging gift of her imagination--with the result that she does just what Blake wanted himself to do: She sees the world in a grain of sand. She gives us universe in atoms, makes a death in eight lines wild and gigantic as a dramatist of pure terror:
We noticed smallest things--
Things overlooked before,
By this great light upon our minds
Italicized, as twere.
The last stanza of this poem is perhap[s the most purely majestic writing done in our country.
Donne does not inspect Dickinsons minutiaehe tries to get the seen and the unseen into one scope. He complains of science:
The new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of Fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this worlds spent
When in the Planets and the Firmament
they seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
The mass of science, hinted by the half discoveries of his age, was so enormous that Donne's mind could not put it in order. He needed order:
Poor soul, in this thy flesh what dost thou know?
Thou know'st thy self so little, as thou knowst not
How thou did'st die, nor how thou was't begot.
* * *
We see in Authors, too stiff to recant
A hundred controversies of an Ant
And yet one watches, starves, freezes and sweats,
To know but Catechisms and Alphabets.
So we have Donne--a mind, said De Quincy, which gives us "thoughts and descriptions which have the fervent and gloomy sublimity of Ezekiel or Aeschylus." A mind religious because cosmological with neither real awe nor love for the God who was so necessary to it;--irreverent, racy, actual and at times pedantic and fragmentary in the extreme.
Donne's collapse as a rebellious and worldly intellect--when by the voltage of his work we are forced to conclude that he had more intensity, and cut of us a bolder facet than Emily Dickinson--makes the significant suggestion for us that it was less possible to follow the bent of such a mind in his day than it was in 1850, or than it is today. Science is lamented and deplored by contemporary romanticists. For the metaphysical poet, Science is the freedom of the universe--and in the future our greatest poets may well be poets of this mind. Some Moses striking a rock on the desert Mr. Eliot describes as the wasteland and with his touch liberating a vast unused mentality; the excitement of enormous sweeps, the dizziness of looking in all directions at the surrounding fact.
*"The poet is a valued member of the community, for he is known to be a poet; his value will increase as he grows to recognize the deeper insight into nature with which modern science provides him. The metaphysician is a poet, often a very great one, but unfortunately he is not known to be a poet, because he strives to clothe his poetry in the language of reason, and hence it follows that he is liable to be a dangerous member of the community."Karl Pearson: Grammar of Science, Part I, p. 17.
from Circumference: Varieties of Metaphysical Verse, 1456-1928. Ed. Genevieve Taggard. New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1929.
Return to Genevieve Taggard