The Life of Cowley is a famous piece of prose literature by Samuel Johnson (1709-84). Here he criticizes the metaphysical poets. We know criticism is a literary work where the good side is criticized and the bad side is also criticized. In this work, Johnson criticizes the Metaphysical poets and highlights the good points in them. Jonson raises several objections against Metaphysical poets in his writing.
Reasons for Writing the Work:
When Johnson was near to the end of his literary career, one day a friend asked him why he was not writing biographies of poets. Then he wrote this book “Lives of the Poets” on the advice of his friend. This book was published in three volumes from 1779 to 1781. In this book he has written biographies of 56 poets and their literary works. While publishing their literary activities, sometimes he gave them a lot of reputation and sometimes he gave them severe criticism. He basically explained which literary works were not correct or which could have been done better in one word, he criticized them. Johnson wrote about several poets of the period, notably the Metaphysical poets.
Cowley was a Metaphysical poet of his time. Before Johnson wrote the book “The Life of Cowley”, many people may not have known Cowley, but when Johnson wrote the book about Cowley in detail, in a large format, Cowley came to everyone’s attention. Johnson highlights Metaphysical poets by discussing Cowley’s biography.
Introduction to Metaphysical Poets:
Johnson begins his treatise by introducing the Metaphysical poets. He called them a group of pretend poets and criticized them. He says that Metaphysical poets are not poets, they mainly seek to substitute a new idea through their writings. They mainly want to highlight the physical relationship. Johnson also said that one cannot become a poet by writing two or four lines of poetry together in rhythm, Metaphysical poets are not poets, they have connected all ideas together. He said, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together;”
But whatever Jonson criticizes, the Metaphysical poets invented a new concept. They did not show the love physically but showed the love from Soul to Soul (from one soul to another soul). The idea they invented gave birth to a new type of poetry.
Criticism of Poetry:
Johnson divides poetry into mimetic and pragmatic. He strikes at Metaphysical poetry from these two different perspectives. According to Johnson, the first failure of the Metaphysical poets was that Aristotle’s first characteristic of true poetry, namely that “poetry must be living and art imitated from nature”, was not found in their literature at all. They have neither imitated life nor imitated nature in the practice of poetry. As a result, their poetry was far from the truth of life.
Johnson discusses the second aspect of their failure, saying that their poetry did not move readers in the way that real poetry would. Johnson praises their literary works, but Johnson tries to prove that Metaphysical poems cannot soothe the reader in the same way that a melodic, cohesive, and beautiful true literary work satisfies the reader. To prove his point, Jonson questions the Metaphysical poem’s main subject, “Wit,” the kind of wit they employ in their poems.
Criticism of Metaphysical Poets for Use of Wit:
Johnson is the first to reveal that the true poetic value of the metaphysical poets lies hidden within their witty humor. To illustrate this point, Johnson first cites the example of John Dryden, who admitted that he surpassed John Done and his contemporaries in poetry but was inferior in “Wit” meaning wit and humor. The main theme of their poetry was “wit”. Jonson presents “wit” in two separate figures to criticize them.
According to Alexander Pope, “wit” is what is thought about but not expressed clearly. Based on this definition, Johnson says the Metaphysical poets are complete failures. Because they expressed their single thoughts and were very careless in the choice of words in poetry. They used their personal thoughts in the poem. Johnson then explains another definition of “wit”. “Wit” is what is natural and what is new. After giving this definition Johnson says that metaphysical thinking is quite new but it is not natural at all. And because of their unusual thinking, these poems have become an annoyance in the reader’s mind.
After explaining these two songs, Johnson says that “wit” has no similarity with metaphysical poetry, that is, “wit” is not useful in metaphysical poetry. Because of this argument, Johnson once again succeeded in criticizing the Metaphysical poets. Jonson points to Metaphysical poems as the examples of a type of Discordia Concors. Discordia concors refers to the juxtaposition of two different types of imagery, i.e. to find the most mundane similarities between things that are apparently different. Johnson further criticized the metaphysical poets saying that the metaphysical poets violated the decency in their poems and they used more “wit” in their poems than necessary.
Use of Conceits in Poetry by Metaphysical Poets:
Johnson criticizes Metaphysical poets for their use of conceits in their poems. Conceits are comparisons between two distant things. The complaint here is that the Metaphysical poets used their invented conceits in their poems. But in actual sense, the concepts used by the Metaphysical poets later awakened in people and due to the use of these concepts, the Metaphysical poets are still remembered by everyone.
Metaphysical Poets Exposed through Abraham Cowley:
Johnson highlights the faults of the metaphysical poets first and the good points to a lesser extent. Through his interpretation of the life story of Abraham Cowley, Johnson shows that Metaphysical poets express all their thoughts together in a way that does not look good to the ordinary eye. Johnson calls Cowley the best of all Metaphysical poets.
However, in response to Johnson’s criticism of the Metaphysical poets through this literary work, T.S. Eliot wrote a literary criticism called “Metaphysical Poets” and answered all of Johnson’s questions and made Metaphysical poets from zero to hero. And since then till today no literary man has dared to criticize the Metaphysical poets. Indeed the Metaphysical poets were geniuses.