The Metaphysical Poets: Late 16th – 17th centuries

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The term "metaphysical," as applied to English and continental European poets of the seventeenth century, was used by Augustan poets John Dryden and Samuel Johnson to reprove those poets for their "unnaturalness." As Goethe wrote, however, "the unnatural, that too is natural," and the metaphysical poets continue to be studied and revered for their intricacy and originality.

John Donne, along with similar but distinct poets such as George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell, developed a poetic style in which philosophical and spiritual subjects were approached with reason and often concluded in paradox. This group of writers established meditation—based on the union of thought and feeling sought after in Jesuit Ignatian meditation—as a poetic mode.

The metaphysical poets were eclipsed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by romantic and Victorian poets, but twentieth century readers and scholars, seeing in the metaphysicals an attempt to understand pressing political and scientific upheavals, engaged them with renewed interest. In his essay "The Metaphysical Poets," T. S. Eliot, in particular, saw in this group of poets a capacity for "devouring all kinds of experience."

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was the most influential metaphysical poet. His personal relationship with spirituality is at the center of most of
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John Donne
his work, and the psychological analysis and sexual realism of his work marked a dramatic departure from traditional, genteel verse. His early work, collected in Satires and in Songs and Sonnets, was released in an era of religious oppression. His Holy Sonnets, which contains many of Donne’s most enduring poems, was released shortly after his wife died in childbirth. The intensity with which Donne grapples with concepts of divinity and mortality in the Holy Sonnets is exemplified in "Sonnet X [Death, be not proud]," "Sonnet XIV [Batter my heart, three person’d God]," and "Sonnet XVII [Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt]."

More about John Donne and a famous sonnet

George Herbert (1593 – 1633) and Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) were remarkable poets who did not live to see a collection of their poems published. Herbert, the son of a prominent literary patron to whom Donne dedicated his Holy Sonnets, spent the last years of his short life as a rector in a small town. On his deathbed, he handed his poems to a friend with the request that they be published only if they might aid "any dejected poor soul." Marvell wrote politically charged poems that would have cost him his freedom or his life had they been public. He was a secretary to John Milton, and once Milton was imprisoned during the Restoration, Marvell successfully petitioned to have the elder poet freed. His complex lyric and satirical poems were collected after his death amid an air of secrecy.


See Poets.org for more information. Information here is taken from their “National Poetry Almanac.”


The Romantic Poets: Late 18th – Mid-19th centuries
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"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." - William Wordsworth, "Father of Romantic Poetry"


"The Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the heart of man."

--William Wordsworth, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"


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William Wordsworth
Romanticism was arguably the largest artistic movement of the late 1700s. Its influence was felt across continents and through every artistic discipline into the mid-nineteenth century, and many of its values and beliefs can still be seen in contemporary poetry. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact start of the Romantic movement, as its beginnings can be traced to many events of the time: a surge of interest in folklore in the mid- to late-eighteenth century with the work of the brothers Grimm, reactions against neoclassicism and the Augustan poets in England, and political events and uprisings that fostered nationalistic pride.


Romantic poets cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural. Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. German romantic poets included Fredrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and British poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley,
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Edgar Allen Poe
George Gordon Lord Byron,
and John Keats propelled the English Romantic movement. Victor Hugo was a noted French Romantic poet as well, and romanticism crossed the Atlantic through the work of American poets like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, now referred to as Late Romantics or Transcendentalists.


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Emily Dickinson
The Romantic era produced many of the stereotypes of poets and poetry that exist to this day (i.e., the poet as a highly tortured and melancholy visionary). Poets later in the movement, who also included American great Emily Dickinson, began to explore the connections between religion and science as well as the psychological underpinnings of human behavior.



More about Emily Dickinson







The Modern Poets: Late 19th - Mid-20th centuries
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"That's not it at all, that's not what I meant at all"
--from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot

Springing out of frustration with the previous century's affected and stereotyped writing, modernism emerged in the first part of the twentieth century from poets who ruthlessly rejected poetic conventions to write iconoclastic and experimental poetry in free verse.

To these revolutionary poets, traditional poetic forms and diction seemed outmoded and too genteel to suit an era of technological advances (the airplane, the automobile) and global violence (World War I). Using fragmented, non-chronological, heavily contextualized, and innovative structures, these poets produced a poetry that was notably non-egalitarian and frustrated many readers for its seemingly encrypted messages and its disregard for the shared conventions of meaning. This strategy resulted in work that was largely inaccessible to the common reader. In fact, the poetry mirrored the confusion that accompanied the end of World War I with its profound disillusion with the traditional values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when avant-garde experiments (including cubism, constructivism, futurism, Acmeism, and imagism) would inexorably establish a new dispensation, which was called modernism.

Ezra Pound, the most aggressively modern of these poets, made "Make it new!" his battle cry. In London Pound encountered and
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T. S. Eliot
encouraged his fellow expatriate T. S. Eliot, who wrote what is arguably the most famous poem of the twentieth century — “The Waste Land” --using revolutionary techniques of composition, such as the collage. Both poets turned to untraditional sources for inspiration, Pound to classical Chinese poetry and Eliot to the ironic poems of the 19th century French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue.

Among the American poets who stayed at home, Wallace Stevens -- a mild-mannered executive at a major insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut -- had a flair for the flashiest titles that poems have ever had: "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle." Stevens, the aesthete par excellence, exalted the imagination for its ability to "press back against the pressure of reality."

What was new in Marianne Moore was her brilliant and utterly original use of quotations in her poetry, and her surpassing attention to the poetic image. What was new in E. E. Cummings was right on the surface, where all the words were in lower-case letters and a parenthesis "(a leaf falls)" may separate the "l" from "oneliness."

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W. C. Williams
William Carlos Williams
wrote in "plain American which cats and dogs can read," to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. "No ideas but in things," he proclaimed. In succinct, often witty poems he presents common objects or events--a red wheelbarrow, a person eating plums -- with freshness and immediacy, enlarging our understanding of what a poem's subject matter can be. Unlike Williams, Robert Frost favored traditional devices -- blank verse, rhyme, narrative, the sonnet form -- but he, too, had a genius for the American vernacular, and his pitiless depiction of a cruel natural universe marks him as a peculiarly modern figure who is sometimes misread as a genial Yankee sage.


More about Robert Frost

Of the many modern poets who acted on the ambition to write a long poem capable of encompassing an entire era, Hart Crane was one of the more notably successful. In his poem "The Bridge," the Brooklyn Bridge is both a symbol of the new world and a metaphor allowing the poet to cross into different periods, where he may shake hands in the past with Walt Whitman and watch as the train called the Twentieth Century races into the future.