Metaphysical Shadows: The Persistence of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Marvell in Contemporary Poetry examines the ways in which the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Andrew Marvell continues to speak to working poets today. Modern Anglophone poets, from T. S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish in the 1920s and 1930s to Seamus Heaney, Maureen Boyle, Alfred Corn, Anne Cluysenaar, Kimberly Johnson, and Jericho Brown in the twenty-first century, have found in the work of John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Andrew Marvell a strikingly modern intellectualism, an emotional intensity, and a verbal richness that have inspired their own poems. Traces of this inspiration appear in echoes, allusions, direct responses, and similarities in approach and method as poets create new work in their own distinct voices. Such contemporary engagements furnish us with cues for how literary studies might approach the literature of the past without sacrificing it in the name of critique. They also demonstrate the continuing relevance of seventeenth-century English metaphysical poetry in the twenty-first century. The poems of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Marvell still have the power to cast shadows.
Sean H. McDowell is associate professor of English at Seattle University.
A Note to the Reader
Metaphysical Shadows: An Introduction
Part I. Varieties of Shadows
Chapter One: Echo and Allusion: “The Extasie” Behind Seamus Heaney’s “Chanson d’Aventure”
Chapter Two: The Answer Poem: Anne Donne on the Isle of Wight
Chapter Three: Shared Subjects: Andrew Marvell, Archibald MacLeish, and Brendan Kennelly
Chapter Four: Modal Resemblances: “Metaphysical,” “Meditative,” and the Poetry of Donne, W. B. Yeats, and Ronald Johnson
Part II. Late 20th— and Early 21st—Century Shadows
Chapter Five: What Did Suffice: Scintillas of Vaughan in the Poetry of Anne Cluysenaar
Chapter Six: Donne, Heaney, and the Boldness of Love
Chapter Seven: The Depth of Herbert’s Voiceprint in the Poetry of Alfred Corn
Chapter Eight: Verbal Relish in the Poetry of Donne and Kimberly Johnson
Chapter Nine: The Tradition and the Individual Talent: Jericho Brown and the Donnean Note
Shadow Instruction: An Afterward
About the Author
A scholar, a poet, a teacher, Sean McDowell knows how to read and make his reading speak. Metaphysical Shadows offers a wonderfully multi layered linking of past and present in its engagement with a varied range of 20th and 21st century poets as they think through and write with Donne, Vaughan, Herbert and Marvell. The more one reads this fascinating and evocative study the more one wants to read.
Sean McDowell’s Metaphysical Shadows represents a vital contribution to a century-long conversation, initiated by T.S. Eliot, of revaluing the impact on contemporary poetry of early modern English poets under the sign of Donne. What sets McDowell’s study apart is its attention to inclusiveness: to expanding the boundaries of who might be represented—and part of the strength of this book is its mix of familiar and new faces—and to assessing the multiple ways poets today find sustenance in the past. In this latter capacity especially, Metaphysical Shadows goes a long way toward developing a wider critical vocabulary for understanding the nature of poetic influence. It does so, too, always conscious of teasing out connections from below rather than imposing them from above, sensitive to the merits of the individual poets and their poems, and to the different attractions they felt toward the peculiar magnetic qualities of their precursors. Written with eloquent clarity, Metaphysical Shadows will appeal to anyone wishing a trusty guide through the troubled waters of today’s culture wars.
Beautifully written, Metaphysical Shadows shows how specific poems (and poetry more generally) carry a special wisdom about human experience. In this wide-ranging, expansive, yet tight book, each chapter is rich, bringing in many poets (some I have only discovered here) before focusing on a few specific poems that bear imprints of engagement with specific poems from the past. We see how each poet engages in intimate conversations with an earlier poet, but Sean McDowell is also a voice in the conversation, bringing them together over the centuries, and offering his own eloquent insights. He brings together not just past and present, but also suggests there is a transnational and transhistorical community of poets. I cannot imagine a better explanation than this book of the value of poetry and literature, of Donne and those “metaphysicals” to us now, when the humanities and literary studies have been so sharply attacked.
Whatever the vagaries of university funding, poetry is not dead. Nor are the dead really dead; we are often most alive in our conversations with them. Teacher-scholar-poets like McDowell are most likely to encourage more reading of poetry for “the news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound put it. Readers of the “metaphysicals” and the seventeenth-century British lyric will find in McDowell’s engaging study new ways of conversing with old friends.