I had to add the parenthetical comment to the title of this column or it would have been dismissed on its surface by readers like me. Although I dabble at poetry myself, I never voluntarily choose that genre for reading. And metaphysics? As a practical pastoral theologian, I have little interest in abstract philosophies.
I have just discovered metaphysical poetry, and it is quite intriguing.
How well read are you? Do you read broadly, deeply, or both? Unfortunately, most of us restrict our reading to a rather narrow scope. This is due to two factors.
First of all is our lack of time. Few enjoy the leisure hours to indulge in the sheer pleasure of reading simply for joy.
A second dilemma arises from the deluge of new books being published every day.
It is tempting to retreat in the spirit of C.S. Lewis to the classics, and not waste our time on a volume until it has proven its worth by remaining in print. Alas, digital technology devastates that metric, since even the most worthless tripe can remain in virtual print indefinitely.
As a semi-retired pastor, I enjoy more time than I did when I was serving full time, but I still limit my reading primarily to theology, history, current events, and anything related to C.S. Lewis. I seldom have time to explore the treasure of literature that is freely available to us.
I recently spent some time doing just that.
I read some writing advice from the pen of Francis Quarles (1592-1644) who is best known for his book Emblems. It is representative of a genre (called “emblem books”) that flourished in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here are two enjoyable observations:
If thou desire to make the best advantage of the muses, either by reading, to benefit thy selfe, or by writing, others, keep a peacefull soul in a temperate body: a full belly makes a dull brain; and a turbulent spirit, a distracted judgement: the muses starve in a cook’s shop, and a lawyer’s study. (LXXIX).
If thou intend thy writings for the publique view, lard them not too much with the choice lines of another author, lest thou lose thy own gravy: what thou hast read and digested being delivered in thy owne stile becomes thine: it is more decent to weare a plaine suit of one entire cloth, than a gaudy garment checquered with divers richer fragments. (XCVII).
Lewis was, of course, intimately acquainted with Quarles’ work. Like everyone else, however, he was more influenced by the literary contribution of John Donne (1572-1631). Like Quarles, Donne is considered one of the English “metaphysical poets.”
These writers offered used “conceits,” which were similar to analogies, but compared things that were clearly different from one another. It requires significant skill to convince a reader of the similarities of things that are deeply unlike one another.
In his essay “Dante’s Similes,” Lewis discusses the subject in detail.
It will be easily seen in what sense Dante’s similes are ‘metaphysical.’ The connexion between the two members is real, ontological, intelligible, and the material need not be in itself beautiful or may be even grotesque—as when Time is represented as a tree growing downwards with its roots in a vase which is the Primum Mobile (Paradiso, XXVII, 118). And this certainly connects them, in one way, with what literary critics call ‘Metaphysical’ conceits, meaning the conceits used by Donne and his followers.
But there are only two points of contact—first, the difficult and (at first sight) unpoetical nature of the material, and, secondly, the intellectual rather than emotional connexion between this material and the thing compared with it. The spirit in which they are used is not the same in Donne and in Dante. In Donne, the connexion, though intellectual as in Dante, is as momentary, as incapable of life beyond the immediate context, as the connexions in Homer or Virgil.
It may be true that Donne cannot court a mistress without bringing in scholastic philosophy, law, chemistry, and cosmography. But he has no interest in these things except as toys and does not care in the least what place they have, if any, in the real universe—if, indeed, there is a real universe outside the present emotion. The longer you look at Donne’s comparison of the lovers to the compasses, the less alike they will seem, and the more certain you will become that the innumerable differences between them are a more interesting and fruitful field for thought than the single analogy.
But in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are interesting as long as you live. This, of course, is no disparagement to Donne: a witty love song, whether salacious or saturnine, is not meant to be chewed over like the great Comedy which made its author lean. If I seem to be breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, it is only because I want to avoid a misunderstanding which would hinder our reading both of the great and of the little poet.
Sample Their Works (for free)
If you are able to carve out a few hours of your time to delight in the rich banquet provided by the three writers mentioned above, visit these links to download their books in the digital version of your choice.
(This edition is elegantly illustrated!)
The elaborate image at the top of this column is one of the illustrations found in the copy of Emblems linked to above.