Recently, I was reading Samuel Johnson’s splendid Life of Abraham Cowley, a minor poet of the English Civil War, wherein he takes to task the whole school of metaphysical poets of which Cowley was a part, a school which includes John Donne, Andrew Marvell and John Cleveland, for their use of far-fetched and disparate images. One passage of Cowley which he particularly censures against as ‘grossly absurd, and such as no figures or license can reconcile to the understanding’ runs
Woe to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room,
‘Twill tear and blow up all within,
Like a grenado shot into a magazine.
Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts
Of both our broken hearts,
Shall out of both one new one make;
From hers, the allay; from mine, the metal take.
Johnson isn’t wrong in finding these verses to be absolutely terrible poetry. Yet the poem’s central image, which he treated with such derision, has gone on to bedeck the cover of a best-selling album, and can now be found on posters, stencils, tattoos and accessories. It is in fact one of the most instantly recognisable images of the past decade.
In his famous essay on the metaphysical poets, T.S. Eliot presents the case for a strong relationship between metaphysical and modernist poetry, arguing that “the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. Hence we get something which looks very much like the conceit – we get, in fact, a method curiously similar to that of the ‘metaphysical poets’ “. I fancy the old elitist would have been horrified if he could have seen how far away from the difficult and exclusive world of modernist poetry and into popular culture the influence of the metaphysical poets would extend.