Literally, ‘meta-‘ means ‘after’. So decoding ‘metaphysical’ gives us ‘after the physical’. These group of poets all used extremely complicated and eye-brow raising imagery, frequent paradox and intellectualized plots. Most importantly, their flair of huge doses of wit and an elaborate style stood them apart. They picked on philosophical matters concerning everyday life but gave them a twist of grotesquery or a mega- appeal. So to these genius minds, even the commonest of things appeared glamourous and unique. Therefore, even while asking serious questions, they never missed the wit and humor, surprising the reader.
These strange, sudden literary juxtapositions are called Conceits. These conceits are metaphors far- fetched and very dis- similar. Metaphors still have some apparent similarity, unlike conceits which are ‘beyond- physical’; hence the term ‘metaphysical’.
Example, these poets would compare highly unlikely things like a soul to a drop of dew- ‘On a Drop of Dew’ by Andrew Marvell– “So the soul, that drop, that ray/ of the clear fountain of eternal day…” and two lovers to a compass- ‘A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning’ by John Donne– “If they be two, they are two so/ as stiff compasses are two”. Technically, metaphysical topics cover a wide range of extra-literary territory- from science to spirituality and from religion to consciousness.
The term ‘Metaphysical’ poetry was given to us by Dr. Samuel Johnson in his book called ‘Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets- 1179-1781’. He studied in there, a group of some 17th century poets like Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell and most famously, John Donne. So that means, the poets did not even know they created a different flavor of poetry!