THOUGHTS ABOUT AND EXPERIENCES WITH
SOME METAPHYSICAL POETS: 1984 to 2014
Part 1:
When I was teaching English literature t...
of skirting-about on the edges of the writings and lives of the metaphysical poets, that
writing poetry has been a serious...
to fall upon the page from my fevered
brain or in its coolest moments while I
dwell in this small town by the sea, and
wat...
set out to prepare the way for that new
spiritual revolution in the middle of the
19th
century, the world had been slowly
...
out their content enough to drown people in a print and image glut that they can
scarcely lift their heads above--and whic...
Readers of Donne, like readers of any prose or poetry, need to concede that the
variety of possible interpretations of an ...
that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just
remember he loved his sister. Shakes...
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Thoughts-1984 to 2014-on the Metaphysical Poets

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When I was teaching English literature to matriculation students at a polytechnic in Perth Western Australia back in the early 1990s, in my last decade employed as a FT teacher and lecturer, I had my first serious and systematic contact with the metaphysical poets. It was, though, only a brief contact, since I was also up-to-my-ears-and-eyes in many other aspects of literature, to say nothing of the history and psychology courses I was also teaching at the time in a vocational college which did not then, and does not now, expect its charges to be highly-tuned to the intricacies of poetry in particular and literature in general.

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Thoughts-1984 to 2014-on the Metaphysical Poets

  1. 1. THOUGHTS ABOUT AND EXPERIENCES WITH SOME METAPHYSICAL POETS: 1984 to 2014 Part 1: When I was teaching English literature to matriculation students at a polytechnic in Perth Western Australia back in the early 1990s, in my last decade as a FT teacher and lecturer, I had my first serious and systematic contact with the metaphysical poets. It was, though, only a brief contact, since I was also up-to-my-ears-and-eyes in many other aspects of literature, to say nothing of the history and psychology courses I was also teaching at the time in a vocational college which did not then, and does not now, expect its charges to be highly-tuned to the intricacies of poetry in particular and literature in general. I had been introduced to the poetry of that metaphysical poet, George Herbert, back in about 1984, as close as I can recall after the passing of 30 years, by a fellow Canadian, who was himself a poet, Roger White. I had also come to know of several metaphysical poets as far back as the 1960s and 1970s: Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell and, perhaps even others but, except for several of Shakespeare's plays and his sonnets, I knew little of their special brand of poetic- writing. As was so often, virtually always, the case, getting 'into' the metaphysical poets or, indeed, a host of other specialties, was not on my agenda as an academic generalist, literary or otherwise. My time was also consumed by: getting my degrees, getting and being married, involvements in the Baha'i community, my several jobs as: teacher, tutor, taxi-driver, and lecturer, lover, and laborer, inter alia. I had also come to know, also in the 1980s when some of my first essays were published in newspapers, a little about Samuel Johnson who coined the term 'metaphysical poets', and I also knew a little about the fondness of the metaphysical poets for indulging in 'nice speculations of philosophy', a subject I had studied as far back as 1964 to 1965, in my second year at university majoring in history and philosophy. Part 2: By the time I retired from FT teaching in 1999, after a 50 year student-and- employment life, I also had come to know a little about the concept of writing from "within the object" which is the cornerstone of the Imagist theory in poetry. T.E. Hulme, its prominent theorist, articulated the metaphysics of the Imagist movement as derived from the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose work he translated and whose philosophy I had at least heard about as far back as the 1960s. Hulme, following Bergson, believed that by intuition alone one grasps a thing, as itself, or as Bergson explains: "By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it."1 I’m not that successful at writing this type of poetry, but I have become better at it in the last 20 years. I see now, as I gaze back over 70 years of living, and half a century 1 An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1903, trans. T.E. Hulme, ed. Thomas A. Goudge, Library of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis, 1955, pp. 23-24; and
  2. 2. of skirting-about on the edges of the writings and lives of the metaphysical poets, that writing poetry has been a serious occupation of mine for only the last 20 years: 1994 to 2014. I would like to increasingly draw on Hulme's philosophy of, this approach to, poetry in the years ahead in my own writing. Time would tell. Metaphysical poetry and pure poetry are at the core of the poetry of A.J. M. Smith. Arthur James Marshall Smith(1902-1980) was a Canadian poet and anthologist. Smith once asked William Pacey, back in 1957, "are metaphysical and pure poetry compatible?"2 William Cyril Desmond Pacey(1917-1975), was a pioneer of Canadian literary criticism. The pure poet has no aim other than accurate presentation. The metaphysical poet, on the other hand, inspired by a philosophic conception of the universe, is concerned with establishing relations among things and connecting experiences especially in unusual contexts.2 And so is this true of my poetry. I would draw the conclusion here that my work is both pure and metaphysical. 2 William Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets, p. 203, and Herbert Grierson, ed. Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921) p. xiii. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ A METAPHYSICAL POET Part 1: Helen Vendler, an American poetry and literary critic, in her analysis of the poetry of George Herbert(1593-1633), points out that Herbert "thrust his mind into whatever nourished it to find out the ingredients of the nourishment."1 I found this description of Herbert's intellectual appetite to be a very apt one to describe my own mental processes and predilections. I would like to think I possess Herbert's felicity in describing his most tenuous feelings; that I possess the suggestiveness which acts like an aura around a bright clear centre, his unparalleled intellectual elegance, his fidelity to the experience which he sets out to describe, his ability to constantly reinvent and revise in the process of writing a poem, his ability to renounce and surrender the claims of the ego, his ability to delight the reader at least in some places with a poetry which was a mechanism for devouring experience. Part 2: Of course, that is only what I'd like to think, but alas and alack! I will leave it to readers of my work to assess what I achieve in my poetic ramblings.-Ron Price with thanks to 1 Helen Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert, Harvard UP, London, 1975, p.6. I want to bring so many things to life, squeezing drops of their essence & so 2 Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets, p. 203 and Herbert Grierson, ed. Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921) xiii. 2 The Metaphysical Poets, edited by Helen Gardner, Penguin, London, 1972(1957), p.15.
  3. 3. to fall upon the page from my fevered brain or in its coolest moments while I dwell in this small town by the sea, and watch the tides go up-and-down in the river on which my wife has spent some portions of her life as far back as the '50s. I want to indulge in nice speculation, but not tax my readers with close-pack, dense with meaning, requiring an axe. I do not expect to be read by all and sundry, just to be understood by the small audience for whom I write in my most personal style. This is a variant of the metaphysicals1 four-hundred years after their start, & I provide deep thoughts in a common language for yet another warlike, and variously tragic age's practical realism. 1 A school of poetry begun in the 1590s. Ron Price 16/9/'01 to 12/5/'14. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ MANKIND In the century after Columbus arrived in America(1492-1592), the concept of the planet as one system began to take form. It is not the purpose of this prose-poem to outline all the features of this slowly evolving concept of the earth as the heritage of all humankind. The metaphysical poet John Donne(1572-1631) wrote: “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. Therefore, the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness......No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”--John Donne from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, ‘Meditation XVII’. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) worked as a jurist in the Dutch Republic. With Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law. He was also a philosopher, theologian, Christian apologist, playwright, and poet. Nicolas Copernicus' epochal book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death in 1543, is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 9 September 2010. So it was by the time Shaykh Ahmad
  4. 4. set out to prepare the way for that new spiritual revolution in the middle of the 19th century, the world had been slowly moving toward and seeing itself as one integrated whole, one planetary system. The process has been slowly evolving now over more than five centuries, say, 1492-2014---planetization of mankind. And in the middle of this great, epochal shift, the 600 year period from 1492 to 2092, two precursors and two-god men appeared on history’s stage to provide the key integrating mechanism for the unification of the world in one common faith, one common system, the political and religious unification of the species. This spiritual revolution was universal, out of people’s control, was inevitable: for the very survival of humankind was at stake after unity of chiefdoms, clans, tribes, city states and nations had been achieved in the millennial-long history of this planet. This is the road toward which a harrassed humanity, travelling it would seem oft’times at the speed of light, bleeding & wretchedly oblivious of its God from its calvary to an ultimate resurrection in a far-off future time-age. Ours is the duty, however dismal the scene, to labour serenely now to lend our share to the operation of forces which are leading a humanity out of valleys of misery & shame to the loftiest summit of its power and glory in the future years, some far-off golden age.1 1 Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come, Baha’i Pub. Trust, New Delhi, 1976(1941), p. 129. Ron Price 9/9/'10 to 12/5/'14. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ LETTERS MINGLE SOULS As I have quoted from time to time in my correspondence over the last 50 years, and in emails and internet posts in the last 20, a previous letter/email: "Letters mingle souls.” These are the words of the poet John Donne who continued: “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” I like to think some of this mingling still goes on but, it seems to me in this Facebook-twitter age, with the print and electronic media spilling
  5. 5. out their content enough to drown people in a print and image glut that they can scarcely lift their heads above--and which were not around in Donne’s time--not much serious mingling gets done outside the quick-hits of: "I like this and I don't like that," and "here I am with my dog, Harold"....sort of dialogue. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In the London Review of Books Christopher Ricks wrote a review of John Carey's 1981 book John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (Faber, 300 pages). I have drawn extensively on that review in my brief essay below. Sir Christopher Bruce Ricks(b.1933) is a British literary critic and scholar. He is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and Co- Director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University. He was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford from 2004 to 2009. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Section 1: Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single- minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord.’ Carey’s book is itself alive with the kind of energy which it attributes to Donne. This book provides a masterful portrait of Donne, as man and preacher and poet. But Carey does not just praise the poet John Donne in this biography. Donne's poems, writes Carey, "are as thrillingly pointless in their way as the tearing up of telephone directories." Carey goes on: "Donne found scientific speculation, like theological speculation, compelling as well as pointless. There was a wealth of life in John Donne's world that was grist to his poetic mill, and all the quirks and feats of learning, all the vaulting ambition of thought, and the imperiousness of his self- assertion, were also grist to Carey’s mill. Carey admires the poetry, paradoxically and, for me, surprisingly, for its being callous, brutal and pitiless. "What we require in a writer," says Carey, "is not amiability, but the power to show us alternative ways of experiencing the world." But are these alternative ways of experiencing the world, writes the reviewer Christopher Ricks, wiser and saner than others. The rest of this review of Carey's book on the life and work of John Donne deals with endless Lit. Crit. hair-splitting, some of which I found useful. I will not try and deal with this aspect of the review and its many permutations and combinations. Section 2:
  6. 6. Readers of Donne, like readers of any prose or poetry, need to concede that the variety of possible interpretations of an author and his work is many. But, unless we establish and trust a certain arrangement of words as the object to which an interpretation corresponds, we have no means of judging whether one interpretation is any more plausible than another. The wording of a literary work is a fixed entity, that is, it is determinate, and this is the base for the range of plausible interpretations. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON JOHN DONNE Part 1: In the London Review of Books in October 2006, Colin Burrow also wrote a review of Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs(Viking, 600 pages, 2006). That review had some very useful things to say about literary biography, the sorts of things I might say about John Donne, or any other metaphysical poet, in relation to their poetry, and the sorts of things readers of this now lengthy post might take away from the little I have to say about Donne's life. Part 2: I will quote liberally from that review, and leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about the merits and demerits of writing about the life of a poet as a way of understanding his verse. Burrow begins: "Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or the chatter on a train, part of the life-experience of millions. Such biography gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip. What’s more, it saves them the trouble of reading history or poetry for that matter. This is not to mention the possible ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism in one's effort to appreciate a poem." Part 3: Burrow continues: "But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving, or a search for a key to a life. Wordsworth? Well,
  7. 7. that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just remember he loved his sister. Shakespeare? Didn’t you realise he was the Earl of Oxford?" "The other problem," says Burrows, "with literary biography is that even the best examples can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom--epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins. These generic pressures set up a conflict between literary biography and what it’s like to read most poems." And, finally: "Reading poems is usually, if things go well, a process of losing and finding one’s balance, and then wondering if one has really grasped the thing after all. The energy of poems often comes from the kinds of non-understanding they generate: you get one strand, start to be convinced, and then another cuts across and pulls you in a new direction. When those poems are solemnly presented as evidence or symptoms of a life one’s immediate reaction is to protest that their vitality, which depends on a plurality of disintegrating perspectives, might be a bit like life as it might feel to live it (confusion, moments of triumph, realisations that it isn’t that easy, surges of power, cross-currents of frustration), but it is not at all the matter of a biography....." ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I will leave, now, the above reflections on a school of poetry after some 30 years of varying degrees of contact with it. It is a type of poetry which "makes demands upon the reader and challenges him to make it out. It does not attempt to attract the lazy and those who write this type of poetry do not expect to be read by all and sundry. The reader is held to an idea or a line of argument."1 -Ron Price with thanks to Helen Gardner(1908-1986), former emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, in The Metaphysical Poets, Penguin, London, 1972, p.17.

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