Sunday, 10 February 2008

Journal #4: Metaphysical Poets and the Chimæras of Perspective

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #4
Metaphysical Poets and the Chimæras of Perspective
Samuel Johnson, in his section on Cowley in Lives of the English Poets, characterizes metaphysical conceits as "the most heterogeneous ideas ... yoked by violence together," and he means it to be derogatory. Even though I have expressed an interest in mixed wit, concerning the comparison of both sound and sense, I must join T. S. Eliot in defending Donne and the other metaphysicals; the metaphysical conceit has given me great pleasure in the past and I think it is unworthy of this derision.
To my mind, the metaphysical conceit operates as a metaphor or analogy: the speaker uses an easily understood idea to illustrate the idea the speaker wants the audience to understand. The primary difference between a metaphysical conceit and a simile is that, in the conceit, the two parts are not 'like' or 'as' each other--or, at least, not on the surface. It requires a certain intellectual effort to understand the connection. This, perhaps, is what Johnson dislikes: that the effect is unnatural, not automatic, and difficult.
I would argue that hard work reaps better rewards. Not only is the reader flushed with the satisfaction of having solved some wrinkle in 'Elegy 19'--which may be reward in itself--but the reader is given new perspective. For instance, Donne dances on the edge of heresy in Holy Sonnet 18; he likens the church to an adulterous wife and says the most adulterous church is best. A simpler metaphor would be saying that a church is like a [holy] host: the more open to guests, the better. But this will tell us nothing new; only when he changes the understanding of 'open', and plays with the idea of the Church being Christ's bride do we get this new perspective. The idea of ownership of conquest of a woman is challenged in this sonnet--if a woman is like a church, then she cannot be owned by any one person, or, for that matter, any person at all. Thus the metaphysical conceit, in its complexity, forces the puzzler to re-examine those relationships hitherto assumed to be 'simple.'
The heterogeneous nature of the ideas give yet another advantage, and that is fascination. The Greeks had a monster called a Chimæra[1] which operated on the same principle: a lion, a goat, and a dragon were all bundled violently and uncooperatively into a single beast. The Greeks had many similar creatures--centuars, harpies, sphinxes--and the Egyptians worshipped others--Anubis, Horus, Hathor. These beings are powerful because they are memorable, and they are memorable because they are unnatural and shocking: we cannot tear them from our mind. The metaphysical conceit is similar. The very unnatural, at times heretical, union of ideas fascinates us, and we find that we are unwilling to let go until we have figured out exactly how they work. Thus, I remember Donne's poetry and forget Johnson's. The metaphysical conceit provides both a changed perspective and a fascination that gives it more power than a simile.
[1] I use the 'æ' intentionally to emphasize the conjoining of disparate elements. This is less 'sense' and more 'sound' (or sight): I could also say that it is an æsthetic decision, but that would just be silly.

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