Life of Cowley
Johnson’s description of [metaphysical wit] begins with introducing Metaphysical poets; he accuses them of being a bunch of showing off versifiers instead of true poets whose verses are a mere celebration of their extreme knowledge of the planet and scientific studies. In fact, Johnson and his contemporaries didn’t use the term “metaphysical” adequate to “spiritual” or con to “physical”; it rather connotes the philosophical and scientific aspect of the poetry rich with strange conceits like compasses, ether, etc. only at hand for a scholar, not a poet. Johnson condemns these poets of being an excessive amount of concerned with rhyme. Poetry, he believes, is what engages men’s hearts and exposes their eyes to the “softness of love” as within the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton.
Johnson then attacks the poetry from two different angles: mimetic and pragmatic. The Metaphysicals’ first failure, consistent with Johnson, might be acknowledged through Aristotle’s criteria for true poetry – as imitative art: Metaphysical poetry is way from the truth by copying neither “nature” nor “life”. He then approaches the poetry from another angle which is its failure to affect the reader the way true poetry does. In other words, Johnson attempts to prove that Metaphysical poetry, though admirable, isn’t ready to please the reader as a harmonious, unified, and delightful piece of poetry, soothing the minds of the readers. so as to prove so, he questions the central anchor of Metaphysical poetry, namely “wit”:
He first confirms that the truth value of their poetry only lies within the merit and extent of their wit. Even Dryden admitted that he and his contemporaries “fall below Donne in wit, but surpass in poetry”. But so as to attack this anchor, he wittily provides two different definitions of ‘wit’. consistent with Pope, wit is what “has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”. supported this definition, Metaphysical poets have did not such wit, since they “just tried to urge singular thought, and were careless of diction”, and language. Here Johnson wittily and boldly questions even Pope’s definition, and provides a replacement concept of ‘wit’, as being “at once natural and new”. Thus Metaphysical thoughts “are often new, but seldom natural”. actually the unnaturalness of their poetry is what makes them unpleasing to the mind of the reader.
Having put the 2 previous definitions of ‘wit’ aside as not working within the case of metaphysical poets, Johnson then takes a step further to define their wit as an example of Discordia concurs; “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike”. He decries their roughness and violation of decorum, the deliberate mixture of various styles, this type of wit they need “more than enough”.
Johnson could seem to condemn the pragmatic failure of metaphysical poetry as “not successful in representing or moving the affections”, but is really leaving the bottom for the values of their poetry but providing subjective definitions for pragmatic and mimetic values of true poetry:
If by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is directly natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it’s that which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this type the metaphysical poets have seldom risen.
Johnson here knowingly emphasizes the importance of the reader in producing the ultimate poem, and if by any chance Metaphysical conceits fail to prove “natural”, “just” or “obvious”, they’ll address be so in once more and place, because it really happened within the 20th century and therefore the strange conceits and fragmentation of images seemed so natural to the shattered subjects (readers) of the post-war time. As Goethe remarks, “the unnatural, that too is natural,” and therefore the metaphysical poets still be studied and revered for his or her intricacy and originality due to the very naturalness of images found in their once supposed far-fetched conceits. Such evaluations totally depend upon the context, the understanding of the reader, and therefore the time it’s being read.
Johnson’s other criteria for wit was being “new” to the reader, but how could a conceit prove new if over-used? actually , if a conceit or thought becomes a frozen metaphor, it’ll lose all its magic and wit; and this factor is additionally contingent the time and era during which it’s read.
His ending, however, is that of good judgment and sometimes admiration instead of condemnation: “if they often threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far fetched, they were often well worth the carriage”. aside from finding a sort of ‘truth’ in their poetry, he also confirms a variety of valuable features in their poetry like “acuteness”, “powers of reflection and comparison”, “genuine wit”, “useful knowledge”, and eventually “more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment”.
Johnson’s view of Metaphysical poets, though not totally confirming, proved to be fair and influenced by his own era’s literary canon – which valued imitativeness and unity over fragmentation and metaphysical expressions. we should always confine mind that metaphysical poetry was a reaction against the deliberately smooth and sweet tones of much 16th-century verse, a courageous act even against the literary canon of their own time. which is why the metaphysical poets adopted a method that seems so energetic, uneven, and rigorous and far appealing to the uninterested 20th-century reader.
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