Two forces opposed each other in 17th century England over a range of cultural, religious and political issues. One group, members of royalty or royal sympathizers, supported the reign of Charles I. The other group consisted of deeply religious people who were mostly middle class and sympathetic to a Puritan form of Protestantism. Most, but not all, 17th century English poets wrote from the perspective of one of these two groups. The royalists were known as "Cavalier poets," and the religious poets were referred to as "Metaphysical poets. "
The Principal Players
The best-known Metaphysical poets are John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell. John Milton, the author of "Paradise Lost," is sometimes included in the ranks of Metaphysical poets and at other times is specifically excluded. The principal Cavalier poets are Sir John Suckling, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew and Richard Lovelace.
Origins of Metaphysical Poetry
The Metaphysical poets were all influenced by the Elizabethans, Shakespeare among them, even though Shakespeare's preeminence among Elizabethans was not assured in the 17th century. Thomas Sackville, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sydney and playwright Christopher Marlowe were equally influential. Elizabethan poetry tended toward grand subject matter, such as Spenser's epic recasting of the English roundtable legends in "The Faerie Queene." Elizabethan poetry was often lyrical and expansive in tone, with elaborate metaphors cast in iambic pentameter, the 10-beat verse form perfected by Shakespeare.
Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry
In Metaphysical poetry, the Elizabethan attraction to important subjects turned toward spirituality and the religious experience, with an emphasis on man's relationship with God, mortality and our shared humanity, as in Donne's famous poetic meditation, which begins, "No man is an island / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main." The Metaphysical conceit that employs extended metaphor and elaborate wordplay is evident here. The poem continues to explore the geographical metaphor through all but the final two lines: "And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; / It tolls for thee." The abrupt tonal shift from geographic metaphors to the direct address to the reader is further emphasized by the concluding line's abrupt warning. The irregularity of the versification scheme -- the abrupt tonal shifts, the argumentative ending and the elaborate use of metaphor -- all characterize Metaphysical poetry.
Origins and Characteristics of Cavalier Poetry
Elizabethan court poet Ben Jonson influenced the Cavaliers, whose poetry is secular, sometimes profane and sexually frank. Subject occupations were often relatively mundane, although heartfelt, as in Andrew Marvell's plea "To His Coy Misstreses," which begins, "Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime. / We would sit down, and think which way / To walk, and pass our long love’s day." Cavalier poetry is generally stylistically simpler than the best Metaphysical poetry: Marvell's poem is arranged in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter -- eight beats alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables, a form also used by Ben Johnson. The poems are often clever and less often deep -- in part a reaction to the seriousness of the Metaphysicals. Poets of both schools, however, shared a frank love of rich and lyrical language, and both built in various ways on the formal achievements of the Elizabethans.