Category Archives: Metaphysical Poets

The Bottle, by Ralph Knevet

The poem below is an example of why formal poetry is not much read today. For reasons connected with both its virtues and its vices, this poem has not aged well: it is, for most of today’s readers, difficult to read—but if you’ve found your way to this site, you may have an advantage over most readers, and find it accessible enough. Give it a try; and then we’ll consider some of the difficulties of this poem (and style of poetry).


The Bottle
by Ralph Knevet

Thou bearst the bottle, I the bag (oh Lord)
Which daily I do carry on my back,
So stuffed with sin, that ready ‘tis to crack:
I have no unfeigned nectar for thy gourd,
Mine eyes will no such precious drink afford:
Yet both my heart, and eyes, are deserts dry,
Even Lybian sands, where serpents crawl and fly.

Yea the two extreme zones took up my heart,
For unto good, as cold as ice, I am:
But unto evil, like an Etna’s flame:
I paralytical seem in each part,
One utterly deprived of strength, and art,
When I should execute my master’s will,
But active am as fire, t’accomplish ill.

I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is:
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow;
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill,
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill.


Congratulations to you for making it through this poem; and bonus points if you got the imagery—which is the first difficulty here: for the primary image is no longer familiar to people today. “The Bottle” refers to a Lachrymatory, or tear-bottle, which captures and holds the tears of a mourner. Yes, these things did exist (in fact they still do), and would have been known to the original audience of this poem (though perhaps better-known in ancient times). And even if the reader had not ever used or seen a tear-bottle, they were expected to know the Biblical reference:

“Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy Book?” –Psalm 56:8

So the poet, whose original readers were familiar with both Biblical and classical imagery, would have easily discerned what the poet is saying: the Lord counts my every tear, but alas! I fail to mourn my sin; therefore deliver me from sin, o Lord, and I will both weep for my sin and cry for joy at my deliverance! Now today’s readers, unfamiliar with the Lachrymatory, can still pick this up (for the poet is not opaque); but it is with greater difficulty.

Speaking of original versus modern readers, the two groups tend to have much different tastes in subject matter. In Knevet’s time, religious poetry like this was more popular, for the religious community and the literary community had significantly more overlap than today; and in the last century, the dominant literary institutions have rather discouraged such themes (or at least, have been more given to praise other themes).

But the biggest problem with this poem is actually the syntax: Knevet’s word order is so far from natural speech it makes some of the lines rather difficult (and unpleasant) to read. Even granting that poetic diction allows for greater freedom in word order, Knevet has gone rather beyond the boundaries. His rearrangement of subjects, verbs, objects, and clauses may serve his rhyme, but they fail to serve his meaning (or clarity).

Now this is probably a greater poetic vice today than in Knevet’s time: for just as readers were once more familiar with classical imagery, so also were they once more familiar with classical languages—and in Greek and Latin, word order is much less strict than in English. Readers who were familiar with the freedom of word order in those languages may well have has a higher tolerance for such contravention of English syntax. But as poetic readership moved away from those languages, this tolerance fell; and by the beginning of the free verse era, such tortured word order was one of the significant reasons formal poetry was rejected.

Consider just that last stanza again, compared to natural syntax:


I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss,              Dismiss this unwieldy burden,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is:               And empty this heavy bag,
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow;             Then my tears shall fill your bottle—
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow,     Not only tears of sadness,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill,       But also tears of joy—
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill.         These shall fill your bottle to the brim.


Of course the natural syntax is not in meter. The challenge for a formal poet today would be to take the text on the right and re-work it into something metrical that is no less natural, so that it is readable as opposed to decipherable, and so that it can be spoken aloud and understood without having to be carefully repeated two or three times. But if a poet today wrote the text on the left, I would be rather inclined to call it bad poetry—at the very least, I’d have to say that the poet was writing for a very small audience (or for a dead one).

I still like this poem, by the way; for a poem does not have to be faultless to be enjoyable. But the faults ought to be recognized, so that we when we write, we do not make the mistake of throwing out the baby (poetic meter) with the bathwater (tortured syntax).


Redemption, by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit to him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts—
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.

Francis Quarles (1592-1644)

Francis Quarles was a surprise find for me–he’s missing from most introductory surveys of poetry. Which is a shame, because he’s absolutely brilliant in the way he represents human experience and religious imagery. See for yourself:

On Jacob’s Purchase

How poor was Jacob’s motion, and how strange
His offer! How unequal was th’exchange!
A mess of porridge for inheritance?
Why could not hungry Esau strive t’enhance
His price a little? So much underfoot?
Well might he give him bread and drink to boot:
An easy price! The case is even our own;
For toys we often sell our Heaven, our Crown.

On the Babel-Builders

Sure, if those Babel-builders had thought good
To raise their heaven-high tower before the flood,
The wiser sort of people might deride
Their folly, and that folly had salved their pride;
Or had their faiths but enterprised that plot,
Their hearts had finished what their hands could not;
‘Twas not for love of heaven: nor did they aim
So much to raise a building, as a name:
They that by works shall seek to make intrusion
To heaven, find nothing but their own confusion.

The Vanity of the World

False world, thou ly’st: thou canst not lend
The least delight:
Thy favors cannot gain a friend,
They are so slight:
Thy morning pleasures make an end
To please at night:
Poor are the wants that thou supply’st,
And yet thou vaunt’st, and yet thou vy’st
With heaven; fond earth, thou boasts; false world, thou ly’st.

Thy babbling tongue tells golden tales
Of endless treasure;
Thy bounty offers easy sales
Of lasting pleasure;
Thou ask’st the conscience what she ails,
And swear’st to ease her;
There’s none can want where thou supply’st:
There’s none can give where thou deny’st.
Alas! fond world, thou boasts; false world, thou ly’st.

What well-advised ear regards
What earth can say?
Thy words are gold, but thy rewards
Are painted clay:
Thy cunning can but pack the cards,
Thou canst not play:
Thy game at weakest, still thou vy’st;
If seen, and the revy’d deny’st:
Thou art not what thou seemst; false world, thou ly’st.

Thy tinsel bosom seems a mint
Of new-coined treasure;
A paradise, that has no stint,
No change, no measure;
A painted cask, but nothing in’t,
Nor wealth, nor pleasure:
Vain earth! that falsely thus comply’st
With man; vain man! that thou rely’st
On earth; vain man, thou dot’st; vain earth, thou ly’st.

What mean dull souls, in this high measure,
To haberdash
In earth’s base wares, whose greatest treasure
Is dross and trash!
The height of whose enchanting pleasure
Is but a flash?
Are these the goods that thou supply’st
Us mortals with? Are these the high’st?
Can these bring cordial peace? false world, thou ly’st.

Nahum 2.10

She’s empty: hark, she sounds: there’s nothing there
But noise to fill thy ear;
Thy vain enquiry can at length but find
A blast of murmuring wind:
It is a cask, that seems as full as fair
But merely tunned with air:
Fond youth, go build thy hopes on other grounds:
The soul that vainly founds
Her joys upon this world but feeds on empty sounds.

She’s empty: hark, she sounds: there’s nothing in’t
The spark-engendering flint
Shall sooner melt, and hardest raunce shall first
Dissolve and quench thy thirst;
Ere this false world shall still thy stormy breast
With smooth-faced calms of rest:
Thou mayst as well expect Meridian light
From shades of black-mouthed night,
As in this empty world to find a full delight.

She’s empty: hark, she sounds: ‘tis void and vast;
What if some flattering blast
Of fatuous honor should perchance be there,
And whisper in thine ear:
It is but wind, and blows but where it list,
And vanishes like a mist:
Poor honor earth can give! What generous mind
Would be so base to bind
Her Heaven-bred soul a slave to serve a blast of wind?

She’s empty: hark, she sounds: ‘tis but a ball
For fools to play withal:
The painted film but of a stronger bubble,
That’s lined with silken trouble:
It is a world, whose work and recreation
Is vanity and vexation?
A hag, repaired with vice-complexion, paint,
A quest-house of complaint:
It is a saint, a fiend; worse fiend, when most a saint.

John Donne (1572-1631)

John Donne was a devout churchman as well as a brilliant poet. Today, moderns often assume that the two do not go together; but Donne was a complete man, able to celebrate both human and divine love.

Donne’s poetry is purposely complicated with extraordinary imagery, drawn from science, philosophy, religion, politics and economics. Such “conceits,” as they were called, are challenges to the reader to think about the content–and delights to those readers who recognize the wit of the comparisons.

Enjoy the following sample of Donne’s lyrics.

Love’s Growth

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Me thinks I lied all winter, when I swore,
My love was infinite, if spring make’it more.

But if this medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixt of all stuffs, paining soul, or sense,
And of the Sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no Mistress but their Muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament,
Stars by the Sun are not enlarg’d, but shown.
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From loves awakened root do bud out now.

If, as in water stir’d more circles be
Produc’d by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For, they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Love’s Diet

To what a cumbersome unwieldiness
And burdenous corpulence my love had grown,
But that I did, to make it less,
And keep it in proportion,
Give it a diet, made it feed upon
That which love worst endures, discretion.

Above one sigh a day I’allow’d him not,
Of which my fortune, and my faults had part;
And if sometimes by stealth he got
A she sigh from my mistress’ heart,
And thought to feast on that, I let him see
‘Twas neither very sound, nor meant to me.

If he wrung from me’a tear, I brin’d it so
With scorn or shame, that him it nourish’d not;
If he suck’d hers, I let him know
‘Twas not a tear, which he had got,
His drink was counterfeit, as was his meat;
For, eyes which roll towards all, weep not, but sweat.

What ever he would dictate, I writ that,
But burnt my letters; When she writ to me,
And that that favor made him fat,
I said, if any title be
Convey’d by this, Ah, what doth it avail,
To be the fortieth name in an entail?

Thus I reclaim’d my buzzard love, to fly
At what, and when, and how, and where I choose;
Now negligent of sport I lie,
And now as other Fawkners use,
I spring a mistress, swear, write, sigh and weep:
And the game kill’d, or lost, go talk, and sleep.

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why doest thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lover’s seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys, and sour prentices,
Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to morrow late, tell me,
Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those Kings whom thou sawst yesterday,
And thou shall hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honor’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.
Thou sun art half as happy’as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

The Relic

When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
(For graves have learn’d that woman head,
To be to more than one a bed)
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mis-devotion doth command,
Then he, that digs us up, will bring
Us to the bishop, and the king,
To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men;
And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

First, we lov’d well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we lov’d, nor why;
Difference of sex no more we knew
Than our guardian angels do;
Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals
Which nature, injur’d by late law, sets free;
These miracles we did, but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

Woman’s Constancy

Now thou hast lov’d me one whole day.
To morrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou Antedate some new made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons, which we were?
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,
So lovers contracts, images of those,
Bind but ‘til sleep, death’s image, then unloose?
Or, your own end to Justify,
For having purpos’d change, and falsehood; you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these scrapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by to morrow, I may think so too.

Death Be Not Proud

Death be not proud, though some have calléd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with Poison, War, and Sickness dwell;
And poppy and charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.