Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Metaphysical Poets

The Metaphysical Poets: A Study in Religious Experience by Helen C White, 411 pages

They are a diverse group: the intellectually omnivorous John Donne, the saintly rural vicar George Herbert, the questing exile Richard Crashaw, the country doctor Henry Vaughan, and the very nearly forgotten Thomas Traherne.  Their lives stretched from 1572 to 1695.  At the same time, they were clearly linked - young Herbert knew old Donne, Crashaw was a disciple of Herbert's literary executor Nicholas Ferrar, and Vaughan credited his conversion to his reading of Herbert.  All were rooted in the Anglican Church of Andrewes, Hooker, and Laud, although pulled in various ways by Catholicism (Donne, Crashaw), Puritanism (Traherne), and Hermeticism (Vaughan).  All were suspicious of enthusiasm, all sought a way to express their religious experiences in poetic form, and all succeeded to some degree.

White conducts a reasoned, careful examination of these authors and their works, with each getting a biographical chapter followed by a critical chapter, along with introductory chapters on the historical period.  There aren't extensive selections from the poets, however, so readers not already somewhat familiar with at least some of their works are unlikely to profit much - this is a study, not an introduction.

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