Metaphysical Definition

Metaphysical is a philosophical concept used in literature to describe the things that are beyond the description of physical existence. It is intended to elucidate the fundamental nature of being and the world and is often used in the form of argument to describe the intellectual or emotional state an individual goes through. It is deliberately inserted to make the audience think about the things they had never imagined. Although it is often considered a complex phenomenon, it, however, plays a pivotal role in advancing the idea of the text.

In literature, metaphysical is often used with poetry. It is a type of poetry written during the seventeenth century.  Etymologically, “metaphysical” is a combination of two words ‘meta’ and ‘physical.’ The meanings are clear that it deals with the things that are beyond this the existence of the physical world.

Features of Metaphysical Poetry

  1. Metaphysical texts are based on wit and often deal with serious questions about the existence of God and the tendency of human beings to perceive this world.
  2. In metaphysical poetry, serious issues are discussed with a touch of humor. In this sense, it makes the seriousness a bit light in intensity.
  3. Metaphysical poetry elevates the readers of their normal existence to make them question the unquestionable.
  4. Metaphysical texts offer comparisons of unlikely things and are loaded with conceits, paradoxes, irony, and
  5. They are argumentative, intellectual, realistic and rational in their approach.

Examples of Metaphysical elements in Literature

Example #1

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne

“If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

The poem appreciates the beauty of spiritual love. The poet has painted a vivid picture of his eternal bond that keeps him attached to his beloved even when they are apart. This is a very good example of metaphysical text in literature as Donne has used metaphysical conceits to show the comparison between the spiritual aspect of a person and a physical thing in the world. He has compared his spiritual and holy love with the feet of a geometrical compass.

Example #2

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

The poet, being an obsessive lover, has used strenuous argument throughout the poem to convince his shy mistress to be intimate with him. He provides different arguments to persuade her. He compares speedy time with “wingèd chariot hurrying near” and compares his slowly growing love with “vegetable love.” These are all abstract ideas presented through a cascade of images. The examples of the metaphysical argument are shown through the use of puns, paradoxes, classical myth, historical and Biblical references.

Example #3

The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

The poem comprises the sentiments of the speaker who wants to retreat to his innocent childhood. The central metaphysical characteristic of the poem is the conceit he has used to compare life to a long journey. Through this conceit, the poet unfolds a philosophical thought that the soul relates to heaven before this earthly existence. The poem expresses his profound hope that he might venture back to the state he initially came from.

Example #4

The Pulley by George Herbert

“When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.”

This poem is one of the famous metaphysical religious poems. The poet has used a mechanical device, pulley, as a metaphysical conceit to reveal the truth of why human beings are so restless in the world.  He says that wisdom, strength, pleasure, honor and several other blessings are the greatest rewards God has bestowed upon man. But when humans are at rest, they gradually lose all these characteristics. To pull them back on track, God should deprive them of rest. However, this bizarre and mysterious philosophy is possible only in metaphysical poetry.

Metaphysical Poetry Meaning and Function

Metaphysical poetry serves as a pause for the audience. It provides them with an opportunity to ponder over the ideas that are not commonly seen and are unique. The challenging approach of metaphysical poetry allows the readers to concentrate on the things that exist beyond this world. It also allows the writers to express their inner thoughts in the verses though higher cognitive skills are required to understand the concepts and abstract ideas presented in metaphysical texts.