Saturday, 23 January 2016

Let's Get Metaphysical

I've swapped the gym for the metagym today, and a bout of heavy poetics.

To some, they're The Magnificent Seven; to others, they're The Hateful Eight; alternatively, they're The Divine Nine; even, at a stretch, The Dirty Dozen! It all depends on how you cut it.

We're talking 17th century Metaphysical Poets here and the exact number who qualify, regardless of the slightly flippant descriptions applied above, is somewhat subjective.  That is because the nine poets listed in the rather striking image below (the balance of the dozen being Abraham Cowley, Robert Southwell and Thomas Traherne) were not regarded as a movement or a set at the time they were writing (variously from the 1590s to the 1690s).  Most of them never corresponded one with the other, let alone made acquaintance. The latest born of them, Marvell and Vaughan, were only ten years old when John Donne died in 1631. So the concept of a clique of Metaphysical Poets was somewhat erroneous, a critical classification in hindsight, dating from the 18th century. Several of these poets were more commonly termed Cavalier or Baroque Poets during their lifetime - and yet all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, exemplified elements of what has come to be called the Metaphysical or unified sensibility and the later poets were certainly influenced by the earlier ones.

They were, by and large, latter-day renaissance men of the world, men of prodigious intelligence, some of noble birth, many of them university-educated - theologians, lawyers, courtiers and statesmen. More than a few of them had travelled the road of excess before arriving at the palace of wisdom.

The 'metaphysical' nature of their writing derived from a number of tendencies: a delight in corralling together disparate ideas to intrigue or shock the reader; a use and extension of far-fetched or unusual metaphors; dazzling displays of intellectual wit; being given to philosophising equally on grand themes and minutiae; a sensibility that revelled in experience; and perhaps above all the ability to combine intellectual thoughts and feelings or sensations into a unified experience and to express it as such via the afore-mentioned verbal gymnastics.

Everybody has their own favourite Metaphysical and mine is Henry Vaughan. This is his world...

The World
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
   All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
   Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd, In which the world
   And all her train were hurl'd;
The doting Lover in his queintest strain
   Did their Complain,
Neer him, his Lute, his fancy, and his flights,
   Wits sour delights,
With gloves, and knots the silly snares of pleasure
   Yet his dear treasure
All scatter'd lay, while he his eys did pour
   Upon a flow'r.

The darksome States-man hung with weights and woe
Like a thick midnight-fog mov'd there so slow
   He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad Ecclipses) scowl
   Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
   Pursued him with one shout.
Yet dig'd the Mole, and lest his ways be found
   Work't under ground,
Where he did Clutch his prey, but one did see
   That policie,
Churches and altars fed him, Perjuries
   Were gnats and flies,
It rain'd about him bloud and tears, but he
   Drank them as free.

The fearfull miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
   His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one peece above, but lives
   In feare of theeves.
Thousands there were as frantick as himself
   And hug'd each one his pelf,
The down-right Epicure plac'd heav'n in sense
   And scornd pretence
While others slipt into a wide Excesse
   Said little lesse;
The weaker sort slight, triviall wares Inslave
   Who think them brave,
And poor, despised truth sate Counting by
   Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar'd up into the Ring,
   But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I), thus to prefer dark night
   Before true light,
To live in grots, and caves, and hate the day
   Because it shews the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
   Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the Sun, and be
   More bright than he.
But as I did their madnes to discusse
   One whisper'd thus,
This Ring the Bride-groome did for none provide
   But for his bride.

                                  Henry Vaughan (circa 1650)

Pelf is my word of the week, a derogatory term for wealth or money (from which pilfer is derived).

Thanks very much for reading. Have a dead good week, S;-)


Annie Walton said...

Thank you for this delightful poem!
I don't know of his work but I will now research and read more of Henry thank you for the introduction xx

I find it exciting and intriguing to read the words of a writer from the mid 1600's to be invited through his words into that time is a privilege.
I felt like that when I stood before the paintings of Rembrandt last year in The Late Works exhibition.