Genevieve Taggard

’s Introduction To Circumference (1929) Essay, Research Paper CIRCUMFERENCE "My business is circumference." Emily Dickinson in a letter to Colonel Higginson, July 1862.

’s Introduction To Circumference (1929) Essay, Research Paper


"My business is circumference."

Emily Dickinson in a letter to Colonel Higginson, July 1862.

For some centuries English critics have been at work to revise or

apply the term metaphysical given John Donne and his school. The word does very

well, I think, if we use it of poetry, to describe a state of mind, not to designate a

system of thought with the exactitude of the philosopher or the scientist.* "Dryden

gave the term metaphysical to the odd terminology of Donne’s poetic philosophy," says

Gosse, "and Johnson borrowing the suggestion, defined the school to describe not

Donne only, but all the amorous and philosophical poets who succeeded him, and who

employed a similarly fantastic language, and who affected odd figurative inversions. The

influence of Donne upon the literature of England," Mr. Gosse concludes, "was

singularly wide and deep, although almost wholly malign."

I have been attempting to collect into a book what may be considered the most malignant

of Donne’s verses, together with others since his time, down to the present, which seem to

bear them a good comparison, not merely from the school commonly supposed to be

metaphysical, but from English and American poets generally. There are more poems of this

genre than poets; with many lyric and dramatic minds, the metaphysical is a mood

assumed for the moment, or one manner of approach, not a constant quality. Unless we agree

to use Donne as the measure of the metaphysical poet, and draw all others to scale, we

must admit to begin with, that in searching for the Metaphysical Poem we are only after an

abstraction. A long search, however, among many approximations, and repeated varieties,

gives a reader a certain knack at imagining the purest possibility of treatment, of which

the poems one encounters are only less acute designs.

I must state at the outset that I find only two genuinely metaphysical poets of the

first order of clarity in the entire span of our poetry. So far as an unscholarly

knowledge can contend, with the use of a definition that comes from a study of forms and

habitual choices of material, I find this kind of mind perfectly exampled only in John

Donne and Emily Dickinson. Dante, Goethe and Lucretius live in other languages.

"Metaphysical poetry," says Grierson, in his excellent introduction to Metaphysical

Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, "in the full sense of the term, is a

poetry which, like that of the Divina Commedia, the De Natura Rerum and

perhaps Goethe’s Faust, has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the

universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence.

These poems were written because a definite interpretation of the riddle, the atoms of

Epicurus rushing through infinite empty space, the theology of the schoolmen as elaborated

in the catechetical disquisitions of St. Thomas, Spinoza’s vision of life sub specie

aeternitatis, beyond good and evil, laid hold on the mind and the imagination of a

great poet, unified and illumined his comprehension of life, intensified and heightened

his personal consciousness of joy and sorrow, of hope and fear, by broadening their

significance, revealing to him in the history of his own soul, a brief abstract of the

drama of human destiny. ‘Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge–it is as

immortal as the heart of man.’ Its themes are the simplest experiences of the surface of

life, sorrow and joy, love and battle, the peace of the country, the bustle and stir of

towns, but equally the boldest conceptions, the profoundest intuitions, the subtlest and

most complex classifications and ‘discourse of reason,’ if into these, too, the

poet can ‘carry sensation,’ make of them passionate experiences communicable in vivid

and moving imagery, in rich and varies harmonies."

Johnson and Dryden described the seventeenth century poet as a man of learning who drew

on his knowledge for his phrases, symbols and comparisons, and who treated of matters

"beyond physics." The eighteenth century being unable when it made its

definition to know the work of Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Browning, and Blake, should

be pardoned for covering them all, and leaving, still, room for another kind of poet–in

no way defining a temperament that marks John Donne from John Keats. However, the

eighteenth century does have in mind something it has not defined. Taking Donne as an

example, it wished to describe a scientific sharpness and an angularity; a saltiness of

phrase designated by them as "wit"; and a coldness that made it possible for the

mind to probe itself, as it writes of itself, lavishly and unmercifully. All this was

concealed under the large word, learning. "Beyond physics" involved God,

the universe, and the soul’s torments–psychological poetry.

Such a poet is born with a salty sanity in his bones. He will take neither (Keatsian)

sensuous assurance of life, nor (Miltonic) moral glory, nor a Poesque exit into madness.

What he needs to find is a thoughtful pattern for the universes need in him so pressing

that he is inclined to himself present the universe with that pattern when it is lacking.

Ideas being for this temperament as real as grass blades or locomotives, the poet’s

imagination is always riding the two horses in the circus, Idea and Fact; they gallop neck

and neck in his work, he has a genius for both the concrete word and the dazzling concept.

In Donne’s case the two horses got to galloping apart after a time–he saw that he finally

must take to one or the other. Religion and Philosophy fascinated his mediaevalism–a

grave-yard of ideas that might be dissected or shown to have a functioning structure. But

Science fascinated him too, Gallileo and Copernicus gave him the food his imagination

craved; from them, for a time, he constructed his new philosophies–having played at paste

till qualified for pearl–until the labor of putting raw science in relation to the

world’s cultural knowledge got to be too difficult. Such a labor is not the work of one

man; a poet may only perform it with some group to pick and cull for him. And because

Donne had to have a coherent universe, even though a fictitious one, he went over to God.

Perhaps my definition will seem to my readers to cover a large number of poets still.

Shakespeare’s mind lived in a metaphysical country and the image of its bigness casts a

shadow over all who have written since. But his dramatic and human gifts enrich on one

hand where his lyricism etherializes on the other, this faculty, so that we have it only

best expressed in speeches in the plays, in single ejaculations, unexcelled and

unravelled; and in the less musical sonnets. Milton, who had learning, and who did his

best in his mammoth fashion, to construct a scheme worthy of God and Man, lacks the wit

and the impudence and has none of the subjective sense that makes the dilemma of the

metaphysical mind. Pope and Dryden used metaphysical material. Pope delighted in changing

the shape of an idea into a metal ribbon. Dryden built a word cathedral of regular, formal

prosody. Keats is the clearest possible example of what a metaphysical poet is not. His

truth is in essence, not in pattern; he knows the substance of life to be sufficient; any

scheme was to Keats, extraneous. Whether this belief would have continued in him is a

matter for speculation–as he grew into his forties and fifties, the romantic philosophy

might have beaten itself out into a hardness and the meaning of design. The Eve of St.

Agnes is sensuous in the highest possible fulfilment.

Beyond a mortal man impassioned far

At these voluptuous accents, he arose

Beside this Donne’s

Then since that I may know

As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew

Thy selfe; cast all, yea this white

linnen hence. . . .

is cold and mental, however human; curiosity is its deepest impulse.

Coleridge and Poe, with Swinburne, Rossetti and the rest of the noisy, windy, wild

young poets abandon the world of metaphysical exactitude for mad splendors–their poetry

is a kind of projected psychology; they show what the mind may feel and imagine if

inflated and elongated. The true metaphysician is subjective, but he wants his mental

stuff unstimulated; the complete abnormal does not interest him. Blake, fierce and tender,

who saw visions on English greens, made a lamb and a tiger with a simplicity and an

insight one step beyond the mind. Science, for him was a hellish invention against the

spirit of man. He says "Go winged thought, widen his forehead, " of the

negro–and means what he says. Metaphysicians do not mean what they say: they propose

possibilities; their world is all hypothesis compact. Making mind and emotion one, as no

one else but Keats has approximated, Blake says: "A tear is an intellectual

thing." The metaphysician is neither fierce nor tender, as was Blake. He is a stoic,

and has small joy in even that attitude.

Wordsworth and Shelley both meditate continually on man’s destiny, the universe’s

destiny, and cover much, with Tennyson, that Donne (our metaphysical measure) if a modern,

would attempt. But they separate themselves off by an attitude of worship; a lack of

saltiness and homeliness. When Wordsworth tried to be homely he wrote the Idiot Boy; when

Tennyson tried to be terse, he wrote In Memoriam which succeeds now and then in

being simple. When Shelley wrote the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty he filled it with

vague hues, full of desire, but as removed from the earth as a blowing cloud. Vague

nobility is not the metaphysician’s favorite note. Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson were

all a little too bright and good for human nature’s daily food. Donne’s frank eroticism

which they lack makes a good beginning for the whole self–unities are essential–the

whole universe, the whole man. In the end God becomes his unity and to Him he speaks

curtly, as to an honored inescapable fact, with his own antagonistic majesty:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which was my sin, though it was done before?

Wilt thou forgive that sin; through which I run,

And do run still; though still I do deplore?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

For I have more.

Browning most clearly has characteristics that link him with Shakespeare and Donne, and

give him the task of taking up the actual world as where they put it down. He has a rich

human variety, and an ability to ponder in all sanity the unravellings of the mind. He

wants his people dynamic, not anatomics, however: She had a heart somehow too soon made

glad, is too alive when taken in its context. Donne, or Shakespeare, only, of all

English poets, might have written, in Browning’s place, The Light Woman. Splendid

and broad as Browning’s blade is, at times it lacks the keen edge of the lightly acid

gentlemen, his two forbears. His dramatic monologues desert the nicety of metaphysical

tracing; first and last, (with noble exceptions) he runs to God a little too swiftly,

because of a lack of subtlety, I think, or a love of benignity.

For all these swift judgments exceptions abound; in the poet most foreign to this as a

constant state of mind, there are moods when the metaphysical comes uppermost. Blake,

Wordsworth, Browning all write approximates of what I would call the pure metaphysical

poem; and of their many poems I hope I have chosen the best for my collection.

But in either the welltrodden or the ragged by-paths of English-American poetry I can

only discover one mind whose predominant flavor is in Donne’s world. Emily Dickinson,

nineteenth-century recluse, and the seventeenth-century Dean of St Paul’s were both

attempting a revolutionary technique, and a plain homely grandeur. Neither quality has

been very well understood. That angularity complained of by Johnson and Dryden in Donne,

became the snare of Colonel Higginson’s platitudes when he tried to give Emily

Dickinson helpful criticism. What these critics could not see was that both these poets

were deserting formal composition for the subtlest of all techniques–the form of an idea.

Critics have demanded an external lyric gloss of many poets who should have gone on

eliminating to the metaphysical extent. Ideas are irregular; they are beautiful in their

entire uniqueness as pure form when simply revealed as idea, not as some form of

expression. To give an idea no form but itself, to show it as organic by an inner music,

as if the bones of a skeleton were singing in their own rhythm–that is the technical

obsession of the metaphysical poet. Beside him every other poet becomes a little diffuse

and decorative.

Emily confessed her desire when she wrote to "scalp the naked soul." Few

poets would pretend to so little, or do so much. Where Donne allows his cerebral fancy and

his pedantry to spin out, past his climax (which so often comes in one line or two,

followed by a larger climax, not so acute) Emily says, making of one thought the design of

a poem:

The heart asks pleasure first,

And then excuse from pain;

And then those little anodynes

That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep,

And then, if it should be

The will of its Inquisitor

The liberty to die.

Such a sharp knife has rarely flashed in literature. In the same world of the mind’s

comment on the mind, find:

What fortitude that soul contains

That it can so endure

The accent of a coming foot

The opening of a door

Donne if anyone might have conceived:

Pain has an element of blank


The brain within its groove

Runs evenly and true.

The wit, the power to make an epigram which Donne’s age so loved, is all in Emily

Dickinson. A poem made into a prose sentence reads as follows:

"Surgeons must be very careful when they take the knife. Underneath their fine

incisions, stirs the Culprit, Life!"

It is the same colloquial downright phrase that Donne so used, to say:

I am two fools I know

For loving and for saying so

In whining poetry;


If the unborn

Must learn, by my being cut up and torn

Kill and dissect me love; for this

Torture against thine own end is,

Racked carcasses make ill anatomies.

The mind of Emily Dickinson has the power of a microscope. To the small facts that fall

so well within a woman’s knowledge she applies the enlarging gift of her imagination–with

the result that she does just what Blake wanted himself to do: She sees the world in a

grain of sand. She gives us universe in atoms, makes a death in eight lines wild and

gigantic as a dramatist of pure terror:

We noticed smallest things–

Things overlooked before,

By this great light upon our minds

Italicized, as ‘twere.

The last stanza of this poem is perhap[s the most purely majestic writing done in our


Donne does not inspect Dickinson’s minutiae—he tries to get the seen and the

unseen into one scope. He complains of science:

The new philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of Fire is quite put out;

The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to look for it.

And freely men confess that this world’s spent

When in the Planets and the Firmament

they seek so many new; they see that this

Is crumbled out again to his atomies.

The mass of science, hinted by the half discoveries of his age, was so enormous that

Donne’s mind could not put it in order. He needed order:

Poor soul, in this thy flesh what dost thou know?

Thou know’st thy self so little, as thou know’st not

How thou did’st die, nor how thou was’t begot.


* *

We see in Authors, too stiff to recant

A hundred controversies of an Ant

And yet one watches, starves, freezes and sweats,

To know but Catechisms and Alphabets.

So we have Donne–a mind, said De Quincy, which gives us "thoughts and

descriptions which have the fervent and gloomy sublimity of Ezekiel or Aeschylus." A

mind religious because cosmological with neither real awe nor love for the God who was so

necessary to it;–irreverent, racy, actual and at times pedantic and fragmentary in the


Donne’s collapse as a rebellious and worldly intellect–when by the voltage of his work

we are forced to conclude that he had more intensity, and cut of us a bolder facet than

Emily Dickinson–makes the significant suggestion for us that it was less possible to

follow the bent of such a mind in his day than it was in 1850, or than it is today.

Science is lamented and deplored by contemporary romanticists. For the metaphysical poet,

Science is the freedom of the universe–and in the future our greatest poets may well be

poets of this mind. Some Moses striking a rock on the desert Mr. Eliot describes as the

wasteland and with his touch liberating a vast unused mentality; the excitement of

enormous sweeps, the dizziness of looking in all directions at the surrounding fact.

*"The poet is a valued member of the community, for he is known to be a poet; his

value will increase as he grows to recognize the deeper insight into nature with which

modern science provides him. The metaphysician is a poet, often a very great one, but

unfortunately he is not known to be a poet, because he strives to clothe his poetry in the

language of reason, and hence it follows that he is liable to be a dangerous member of the

community."—Karl Pearson: Grammar of Science, Part I, p. 17.

from Circumference: Varieties of Metaphysical Verse, 1456-1928. Ed. Genevieve

Taggard. New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1929.


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