Posted in Essay, Niamh Clune, Poems/Poetry

Defining Metaphysical Literature

John Donne 1572- 1631

The term, Metaphysical literature, originally referred to poetic works from the 17th century and defined intellectually challenging poetry.

Striving to incorporate the incorporeal, the transcendental, the noumenal, the subject matter itself posed a problem and poses it still. According to philosophers such as Nietzsche and Kant, nothing can be known about noumenal reality, not even that it exists. Yet, throughout the ages, humankind has striven to express the notion of soul, the fervour and truth accompanying vision and revelation, the divinity that speaks from within.

Early metaphysical poets such as John Donne extended metaphors that compared very dissimilar things. This was to make us think, to try to express the paradoxical nature of all things metaphysical. After all, in the search for truth and meaning, a truth is only considered a truth if it expresses both opposites and everything in between. Such is the struggle of the writer of metaphysics who attempts to clothe philosophical ideas plucked from the ethers of universal thought.

T.S. Eliot is a fine example of a more modern metaphysical poet. He wrestles with noumenal experiences using extended metaphor, as the Things of God’s cannot be known in any other way.

Hermann Hesse 1877 – 1962

In terms of modern metaphysical literature, writers such as Paolo Coelho, Herman Hesse, and Jean Paul Sartre weave philosophical concepts into simple stories to which most can relate. These stories make us think. They make us question the meaning of life. They ask us to reach beyond the world of tangible reality and allow soul into life.

These days, modern metaphysical/visionary literature often crosses genres and enters into the little celebrated field of magic realism. In this genre, the supernatural is part of tangible reality; spirit and nature are interwoven, inseparable, and unquestioned, and the extraordinary is made ordinary. Metaphysical literature tells tales of the inner life. Usually these tales are told simply, in prose that reaches to express the beauty inherent in us and in the world about us. Its task is to give voice to soul and its yearning to transcend the suffering of everyday reality.

430564_3240554249063_1337353112_n-1orange-petals-cover_page_001DR. NIAMH CLUNE (On the Plum Tree) ~ is the author of the Skyla McFee series: Orange Petals in a Storm, and Exaltation of a Rose. She is also the author of The Coming of the Feminine Christ: a ground-breaking spiritual psychology. Niamh received her Ph.D. from Surrey University on Acquiring Wisdom Through The Imagination and specialises in The Imaginal Mind and how the inborn, innate wisdom hidden in the soul informs our daily lives and stories. Niamh’s books are available in paperback (children’s books) and Kindle version (The Coming of the Feminine Christ). Her Amazon page is HERE.


When I was a little girl (a very, very long time ago), I used to love learning new, really big words like ‘discombobulate’. As I grew, my love of words grew too, until I loved them so much, I could not stop writing them down. One day, as I was scribbling a particular word, a very peculiar thing happened. The word shouted at me, “Stop! Don’t put me there!” As you can imagine, I was shocked and nearly fell off my chair. When I recovered somewhat, I said to the word, “Could you stop shouting, please? I am not used to it.” Can you guess what happened next? No! I thought not. The word said, “I might be small, but I will misbehave if you do not use me properly. I will not tell the story you would like me to tell. I will say something entirely different!” I dropped my pen. I hoped that by dropping my pen, the word would stop talking. Alas! It did not. It carried on chitterchobbling, even after the ink had dried. I was in a pickle. I could not allow my words to run away with my story, now could I? I don’t know about you, but when this sort of thing happens, there is only one thing left to do if you prefer not to spend your time arguing. “Very well,” said I. “I will do as you ask if you will just be quiet and allow me to concentrate.” Since that day, I have been paying special attention to every word I invite into my stories. After all, a story should say exactly what it means to say and not be led astray. With love from Dr. Niamh, Ph.D in Learning Through The Imagination and Founder of Dr Niamh Children's Books.

17 thoughts on “Defining Metaphysical Literature

  1. Very interesting post, Niamh, very. I recognise that, in any poetry, which has any depth to it, human response to certain situations lies in that metaphysical state, which causes us to draw on a deeper level of understanding, what is it that truly makes us tick; Such is the poet’s lot..!

    I am interested in the word noumenal. If phenomena describe, or are described by the senses and noumena are not, then the latter excludes the physical: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and combinations thereof. These are merely the physiological phenomena, which are in turn our responses to certain stimuli, including and chiefly the products of emotion, the voices of our soul. Oh, what grist to the poet’s mill … 🙂

    I suspect that, in John Donne’s time, it would have taken much more courage to speak of the metaphysical, which may have been considered heretical, running counter to strict religious doctrine of the time, which would have insisted that everything came from our creator; every aspect of our lives were explained by Him? I admit I have not read much of John Donne’s poetry, though I do own a very small (literally) and ancient book of his work. However, I have read little of Paolo Coelho and nothing of Hermann Hesse, and Jean Paul Sartre’s work, so that needs rectifying sometime.

    Reading list … where did I put my reading list?


  2. PoetJanstie: Thank you for taking the time to leave such a comprehensive response. The senses that engage with the noumenal are the inner senses such as feeling and intuition (I do not mean intuition in the populist sense. I mean the ability to cross boundaries of time into a future sense of something.) Nothing can be known of noumenal reality ~ not even that it exists. All we have; therefore, is metaphysical conjecture which must be based on a “matching” of inborn, innate knowledge hidden in the soul, and its correspondences in the outer world. When inborn knowledge breaks through into people’s personal lives and stories, we experience transcendence for a fleeting moment. The poet’s task is to capture such moments in my humble opinion. All we have to tell the story of divinity is metaphor.


  3. Niamh, For myself, I can’t imagine life without a search for the metaphysical…it seems to be ingrained in humanity. Just considering the history of myth underlines this, at least for me. I recently listened to a course from The Great Courses (The Teaching Company) entitled something like “Spirituality and the Brain.” The professor was a neurologist and neuroscience researcher. The point I took from it, to put it simply, is that we are wired for something beyond that which we can experience through the senses. There was an interesting diversity of reviews on the website, of course–based on each reviewer’s point of view. And I do believe that poetry is emerging ever more as a way of expressing our metaphysical insights. Thanks for this post.


    1. And thank you for your great comment, Victoria. Yes we are able to perceive that which cannot be perceived by our physical senses. I describe it as an internal organ of sight, which is able to perceive those thing that exist under mind…the nameless, pre-verbal, numinous flashes of insight ~ direct-spirit-knowing.


    1. Yes! Patricia…all are… Metaphysics is just a specific and little understood medium that makes art from philosophy and aspires to bridge the often-constructed chasm between science and art.


  4. Donne- and Marvell- and Vaughan- used extended metaphors, certainly- but they chose to compare things- not because they were similar to each other, but because they were wildly different. Think of Donne comparing two lovers to a pair of compasses, Marvell comparing his love to geological ages.

    But metaphysical poetry also implies some argument, some progression. It’s not a collection of pretty pictures, or pretentious self indulgence- it’s banging two or three disparate ideas and then watching the sparks.


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