UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Form and vision in four metaphysical poets Bellette, Anthony Frank


The relationship between form and content in the religious verse of the metaphysical poets is of great importance in tracing the development of a tradition which includes such dissimilar poets as Donne and Traherne. The nature of the personal religious experience, as expressed in the religious poetry of the first half of the seventeenth century, undergoes significant change. This change is most apparent in the verse of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne, and may be described basically in terms of the time when individual soul and God are united. For Donne this union is unattainable in the present and is to be found only after death, as the Divine Poems and the Anniversaries demonstrate; in the poems of Traherne, however, it is experienced at the moment of birth and becomes a continuing, present reality. As we trace in the work of the four poets the gradual bringing into this world of the soul's union with God, we discover also a process in which the barriers of the self are broken down. Individual personality becomes increasingly identified with the Divine Personality, and finally nothing intervenes between present reality and the long-sought vision. This vision, symbolized in Donne's Anniversaries by the liberation after death of the soul of Elizabeth Drury, is progressively interiorized in the verse of the later poets, and in Traherne's lyrics finds a new embodiment in the living experience of the poet. Such a change can be traced in the forms the poets use. We may find not only in the inner structure of line and stanza, but also in the total visual arrangement and organizing principle of a poem or group of poems, formal equivalents to the kind of vision expressed. The Anniversaries and Divine Poems of Donne and the poems in Herbert's The Temple are notable for the complexity of their controlling figures and the intricacy of their verbal structure. In Vaughan's Silex Scintillans and in the poems of Traherne, however, we find simpler and more flexible organizing principles and a corresponding decline in the use of complex symbols and conceits„ In general, the formal and structural changes which occur between Donne and Traherne may best be seen as a progressive simplifying and paring down -- a removal, in the verse itself, of all that might stand between individual soul and God. But while the nature of the actual religious experience changes in the four poets, and with it the inner structures and outer forms of their verse, there remains one single, informing vision of God. God is encountered and described in different ways, but His essential nature is recognized as changeless and unconditioned. In the same way we must examine the different formal principles within a larger context. In all four poets the concept of the poem as a celebration of and a sacrifice to God remains constant. In all four poets the act of poetic creation itself is analogous to the greater creative Act of God; the poems themselves are individual acts of praise which celebrate as they embody the multiplicity-in-unity of the Creation. Within this context a study of the best and most characteristic verse of these poets shows that there is nothing accidental or unplanned in the methods of organization each used to convey his religious experience. The different poetic forms we encounter, many of them unique, are our first and most compelling guide to the spiritual core of the poetry; they are the means by which we recognize not only the uniqueness of the individual experience, but also its place in the larger framework of universal praise.

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