Tag Archives: Metaphysical Poets

#bookaday (14): An old favourite

The occupational hazard of being a lecturer is that some literary favourites are also on the reading list, and so they become encrusted with layers of pedagogical questions, and it’s hard to return to the moment when they were genuinely new and personal.  Sometimes that’s great: you re-read the text and it now contains memories not of your own personal reactions, or not only, but of conversations you’ve had and people you’ve known; passages connect back to insightful commentaries in student essays.   But sometimes it can prevent you having a personal relationship to the text, and then it’s a relief that not everything is teaching fodder.

The texts that are least encrusted are the ones that I read between the start of my A-levels and the end of my BA degree, and which I’ve never or scarcely ever taught. I was first introduced to the Metaphysical Poets at sixth-form college, King James’s College, Henley-on-Thames.  At that date Oxford had an entrance exam for English Literature, and those of us thinking of applying were advised to do additional reading beyond the syllabus and prepare for the exam.  The Metaphysicals were considered ideal Oxford-exam material, and it appears that in May 1985 I bought Jack Dalglish’s 1961 edition of them in preparation for the exam that November.


That the Metaphysicals were considered suitable suggests that T. S. Eliot still exerted considerable influence over ideas of what was considered erudite.  (Though a student in the year above me who had successfully applied to St Hugh’s reported that her interviewer interrupted one response by saying ‘I don’t want to know what T. S. Eliot said; what do you think?’)  Scarcely two and a half pages into Dalglish’s Introduction he has quoted Eliot’s 1921 ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (‘A thought to Donne was an experience ….’), and by the end of the third page, there he is again (‘the intellect was at the tip of his sense.’)  Over the page, we encounter the inevitable example, the famous pair of compasses from ‘A Valediction, forbidding mourning’.  Oxford tutors marking the entrance exam must have been heartily sick of compasses.

But although my critical judgements were probably neither well informed nor refined, I’m glad to have had that early introduction to the Metaphysicals and above all to John Donne.  It was in Dalglish’s anthology that I first encountered ‘A nocturnal upon S. Lucies day’ and its end-of-year melancholy, and Holy Sonnet xiv, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, which I loved for its breaking of regularities (‘knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’).  He’s brilliant at coming up with dramatic opening lines that draw you into the poem, though to my surprise I see Dalglish’s anthology doesn’t include ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this..’.  There’s an amazing range of tones and voices in Donne’s poetry, even in Dalglish’s selection. There’s also  a great deal of what looks like adolescent angst: ideal material for a seventeen-year old.

Dalglish’s notes I don’t remember, though I’m sure I must have used them: if we got any additional tuition for the Oxford exam, it was no more than a class or two. Dalglish seems very concerned to assert the masculinity of the poems (‘vigorous’ comes up a lot, and there’s at least one ‘sinewy’) and keen to remind us of their connection to normal speech.  Here the ghost of F. R. Leavis also haunts the text: Dalglish studied under Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge, from 1946-48. I think it was already clear that this was an ancient and foreign critical idiom; I seriously hope I never commended anything for being  vigorous, sinewy, or tough. The edition itself I remember fondly, for all that the cover looks austerely pedagogic: it was printed on good paper, and the margins allowed plenty of space for annotation.


This early encounter gave me a good foundation: I went back to Donne in the second-year of my degree, now armed with the Penguin Complete English Poems and a Penguin selection of the sermons, and wrote an essay that was positively New Critical in its fascination with imagery of circles, loops, and spheres.  I taught Donne a little when I was first at Bangor in seminars on the first-year Jacobean literature module; just enough to revive my interest and not so much as to taint him.  And insofar as I’m planning to write a book on the neo-metaphysicals of the 1920s and 1930s (Herbert Read, Michael Roberts, William Empson, and others), they’re still with me, ‘vigorous’ as ever.