Baroque Poetics

Thomas Philipott Poems (1646)

I’d assumed this introductory fragment of a research proposal, knocked together in Sheffield during the mid-1990s while doing some part time lecturing there, had long since been lost to the obsolete technology of the floppy disc; but sorting through a box of filed papers recently, a print-out surfaced. The piece was an attempt to introduce a possible PhD thesis, and I had a few interviews around it, but it was generally agreed that trying to rewrite the history of English poetry with a cross disciplinary polemic about a whole (in my opinion, somewhat neglected) strand of poetry written between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries was probably not quite the kind of thing anyone would want to support. Fortunately, while as far as I know the English poetic version of the proposed thesis has yet to appear, Mary Ann Caws did publish her excellent study of baroque aesthetics in the visual arts ‘The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter’ with MIT Press in 1997, around two years after I’d given up circulating this proposal, which at least vindicated some of my thinking. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit it: I still think there’s a wonderful anthology to be compiled, gathering examples of this strain of writing from a coherent tradition in English that runs pretty much unbroken from Richard Crashaw, via Shelley, Swinburne and Dylan Thomas, all the way into the twenty-first century.

“Living Brest to Chrystall Masse”: Thomas Philipott’s Poems (1646) and the Poetics of the English Baroque


L.C.Martin, introducing a reprint of Thomas Philipott’s little-known Poems (1646), is quick to acknowledge that Philipott “was not a poet of major importance”, his work of interest “in its relations with that of poets enjoying a more established reputation, notably Donne, Crashaw and Vaughan”. While broadly correct in this assessment, qualified, anyway, by adding that “he was at least as good a poet as a number of others to whom posterity has been kinder”, Martin goes on to raise an interestingly contentious point, of some relevance to this essay: “In his lighter vein, and in his elegiac and panegyric verse, Philipott often illustrates all too well what Dr Johnson described as ‘a voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange’. Neither Cowley nor Cleveland has, for example, anything more ingeniously trivial than the threefold metamorphoses in his lines ‘To a Gentlewoman viewing her selfe in a glasse’.”

That “ingeniously trivial” is the point at issue here, resting as it does on an unspoken agreement with Johnson’s use of ‘nature’ as an unproblematic measure against which a poem’s rhetorical tropes may be set and objectively judged. Martin’s quotation, drawn from Johnson’s discussion of Metaphysical poetry in the Life of Cowley, where the use of ‘nature’ as a measure of value runs constant, needs examination to fix what Johnson’s definition of nature might be, and what Martin’s use of the same term might mean. For Johnson, the central weakness of the Metaphysicals was that: “…they neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter nor represented the operations of the intellect […] Their thoughts are new but seldom natural. The reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.”

“Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before”, he adds, an objective antithetical to the Johnsonian canons of value outlined in the same essay: “Great thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not pretending to minuteness … Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty could have little hope of greatness, for great things cannot have escaped former attention.” It is a theme that reoccurs in the Preface to Shakespeare, where Johnson writes approvingly that: “Shakepeare is above all writers…the poet of nature; the poet who holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and life…” That “faithful mirror of manners and life” provides the key to Johnson’s use of ‘nature’, and to a whole view of the function of art.

The terms of condemnation in the Life of Cowley are revealing, and the passages selected for comment from Cowley, Donne and Cleveland are variously faulted for “enormous and disgusting hyperboles”, “grossness of expression”, for being “grossly absurd … such as no figures or licence can reconcile to the understanding”, “indelicate and disgusting”, and “yet more indelicate”, all terms that point towards a “Puritanism of the imagination” noted by Al Alvarez and derived from the theories of Francis Bacon.

Alvarez makes a strong case for a Baconian “background of ideas” to Johnson’s comments on the metaphysicals. Poetry, for Bacon: “…commonly exceeds the measure of nature, joining at pleasure things which in nature would never have come together, and introducing things which in nature would never have come to pass … This is the work of the Imagination.” This reads very like a passage from which Johnson’s famous line about “heterogenous ideas … yoked by violence together” might have been paraphrased, and the assault on the imagination in Bacon (“God forbid we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world”) has its distinct counterpart in Johnson’s insistence on the descriptive and his denial of the transformative impulses of poetry, his setting out of ‘common-sense’ and ‘wilful extravagance’ as mutually exclusive terms with strong positive and negative charges.

This is a priority that comes directly from Baconian ‘new philosophy’, as Alvarez points out: “The proper subject of poetry is the blight of philosophy; the wilfulness, perhaps, and the conceit, but also the primacy of the individual to judge, analyse and recreate his own experience. Bacon’s force and originality was devoted to replacing fallible, self-centred rationation with the difficult impersonality of natural experiment and observation.”

“Imagination here is not, by Bacon’s lights, virtuous”, he adds, and notes that Bacon’s assault on metaphysical poetics was aimed ultimately at the philosophy of The Schoolmen, and the kind of scholasticism that had turned medieval theology into a kind of prototype academic theory, endlessly nitpicking the minor nuances and finer points within debates it seemed noone had ever been asked to consider the actual purpose of. Unfortunately, taken rather too literally, the effect of Bacon’s attempt to rationalise philosophy was to lead somewhat later to the literalisation of poetics. This is certainly the impression given in Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare,where praise is framed wholly by the “faithful mirror” that must reflect generic, universal truths in a language prescribed by convention and sanctioned by consensus:

“[Shakespeare’s] characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.”

Leaving aside the question of Johnson’s accuracy or otherwise in relation to Shakespeare’s characterisation, it is clear from this that assumptions are being made in advance of observation about what the “faithful mirror” must reflect, and about what is or is not truly natural. The mirror will show us what we already know to be the case. Johnson’s conception of nature as a measure of aesthetic judgement thus excludes the particular in favour of the generic, and the specific individual consciousness in favour of the representative type. Johnson advocates a poetry of “manners and life”, grounded in a nature composed of clearly separable and unchanging classifications of behaviour.

This is not exactly the position being taken when Martin quotes Johnson’s “voluntary deviation from nature” as a critical comment on Philipott’s ‘wilful extravagance’ in ‘To a Gentlewoman … ‘, but what is at issue in all these accounts of poetic value is a question about the nature of both art and human thought in which for Johnson, as for Bacon before him, human thought exists per se, is natural, and is open to some form of objective description and study. There may be certain key differences in some of the emphases between Bacon, Johnson and twentieth century critics of the Metaphysicals, but it seems that the insistence on ‘an extraversion of the imagination’ (as Alvarez puts it) is common to all. Alvarez concludes his own commentary on “the extraversion of the imagination” by disputing the emphasis of Johnson’s judgements only to reinstate his criteria in another guise. The alternative to Johnsonian extraversion, then:

“… was that of analysis. It meant, particularly in its degenerate forms, that words were turned in on themselves in endless equivocations and arguments, in endless dialectical sophistry. I do not think that the Restoration writers were ever willing to see it in anything but its degenerate shape. That is why, following Bacon and Hobbes, they described all Metaphysicians in the image of a spider spinning his web out of his own guts”. Alvarez goes on to praise Donne and Herbert as “writers who used logic to analyse vividly dramatised personal situations with complete fidelity to psychological realism, and linked their analysis to the kind of intellectual themes which preoccupied their particular brand of tough intelligence” [my italics] The language of Alvarez’s praise, like that of Johnson’s condemnations in the Life of Cowley, remains objectifying and grounded in descriptive recognition as the ultimate arbiter of poetic value.

In this sense, then, it can be argued that the recuperation of the Metaphysicals in the twentieth century has amounted less to an alteration of the Johnsonian canon of poetic decorum as a change of emphasis within it. Instead of assuming, as Johnson does, that nature must be interpreted as a common-sense set of generic standards, a “faithful mirror of manners and life”, the twentieth century proposes that this same mirror must be directed inward on the same terms, retaining “complete fidelity to psychological realism”; the difference is more in what is examined than how, in content rather than means. The metaphorical, transformative functions of poetry are excised under both sets of criteria and the use of artifice remains prescribed within strict realist limits. The poem is expected to follow not the transformative impulse of a “willed extravagance”, but to root its invention in what Martin describes as “a recognition that contrast and irony, complexity and surprise, are essential elements of human thought.”

This is the underlying assumption made in Eliot’s enormously influential essay The Metaphysical Poets. Published in 1921, the year before The Waste Land, this is one of the key texts in the reinstatement of Metaphysical poetry in the twentieth century. Eliot rightly emphasises the stylistic diversity of the grouping, but consistently emphasises those poets – John Donne, Henry King, Lord Herbert of Cherbury – whose work can be accomodated within slightly adjusted Johnsonian standards and, in Eliot’s view, deserve exemption from the general observations in the Life of Cowley. Thus, Lord Herbert’s ‘Ode upon a Question moved … ‘, “stanzas which would … be immediately pronounced to be of the metaphysical school” are praised in terms Johnson would have approved: “The meaning is clear, the language is simple and elegant”, writes Eliot. “It is to be observed that the language of these poets is as a rule simple and pure [ … ] The structure of the sentences, on the other hand, is sometimes far from simple, but this is not a vice; it is a fidelity to thought and feeling. The effect, at its best, is far less artificial than that of an Ode by Gray”. [my italics]

Whether a “faithful mirror”, “a fidelity to thought and feeling”, or “a complete fidelity to psychological realism”, it is clear that in this model, all poetic effect must be subordinated to an approximation of an authentic and impersonal psychological process. Martin picks up this theme in his introduction to Philipott’s Poems (1646) noting that “the more valuable kind of Metaphysical poetry [ … ] was actuated less by wilful extravagance than by a recognition that contrast and irony, complexity and surprise, are essential elements in human thought”, a judgement in which the implicit function of poetry is to hold up a Johnsonian “faithful mirror of manners and life” to its reader. Alvarez’s summary of Baconian objections to the imagination appear to provide the ground zero for much of this: “Imagination is not virtuous. It is not the disciplined messenger between sense, reason and action. It is the mind working, building upon itself, or holding, at best, a warping, magnifying mirror before the entranced reason …”

For Eliot, this was an objection grounded, at least in part, in a reaction against lingering Victorian poetic habits, and the perceived tendency of bad poets to affect Romantic sentiments in formulaic poetic styles. Against this, Eliot claimed a return to a pre-­Romantic unified sensibility capable of reflecting even on its own disintegration. Yet his assumptions about poetic function seem close to the inherited Romantic equation of poetic truth with the extent to which ‘live thought’ is trapped on the page – the extent to which, reading the poem, we feel ourselves to be in the presence of the poet’s mind, unvarnished on the clinical white page and able to speak directly to us, with only minimal mediation.

David Trotter has raised numerous questions about the real ‘objectivity’ of this and quotes Eliot’s description of the artist as “an Eye curiously, patiently watching himself as a man”, a definition that clearly links Eliot’s conception of the artist’s role with the Baconian experimental scientist, and places the imagination itself under the same “faithful mirror” in which Johnson observed “manners and life”. Yet Trotter also links Eliot’s poetics to a Romantic tradition concerned that, after the loss of Johnson’s ‘common reader’, and “while the overall numbers of readers increased, the identity of the individual reader could no longer be known or deduced … an author might want to identify the few individual readers who, among a mass of the idly curious, read him for the right reasons. Where competence could not be taken for granted, it would have to built up or singled out – somehow – by the poem itself.”

He might also have added that this competence would be increasingly “built up or singled out” by criticism, and the involvement of poets in setting out the poetic norms by which they hoped to be judged. That these norms have remained broadly Johnsonian, ­placing emphasis on philosophical rather than poetic integrity, is an issue directly affecting the reception of a broad range of poetic strategies with other priorities.


“Many of the words seem to be used only for their sound”, writes J.M.Cohen of Hart Crane in 1966. “It is when theory and rhetoric inflate [his] statement, when words take command of sense, that [his] poems fail, much as those of Swinburne failed in the last century … ” This failure, for Cohen, is grounded in “… the new licence granted by the Surrealists to poets in general, to substitute strong physical imagery, unobserved at first hand, for the more disciplined imagery that has been subjected to the reasoning mind.” The effect of these Johnsonian criteria on twentieth century poetics is summarised by Edward Larissy, who picks up on David Trotter’s general argument about the construction of readers through rhetorical strategies and expands on it.

Larissy notes Trotter’s observation that much contemporary criticism revolves around the issue of comparison and imagery rather than other poetic resources such as rhetoric, music or genre. The key point here, as Larissy points out, is that this “empiricist spirit…readily misrepresents the past […] I am no longer surprised when I hear an interpreter refer to the ‘concreteness’ of Donne’s poetry, offering the stiff, twin compasses as an example […] Of course, it is to Eliot’s 1921 account of Donne that we owe the ‘physical’ Donne [but] could one not claim that contemporary ‘accuracy’, ‘fidelity’, ‘description’ and ‘comparison’ are largely an extension of prejudices begotten by Eliot and Pound and nurtured by Leavis?”

Alvarez’s argument linking Johnson’s empiricism to Baconian ‘New Philsophy’ and the continued use of broadly Johnsonian poetic standards in twentieth century criticism, indicate that Eliot, Pound and Leavis inherit rather than beget these prejudices. They are assumptions that appear rooted, ultimately, in the tensions generated by the English Reformation, in the rise of Protestantism and the suppression of Catholicism. If a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ exists in England, its appearance in the Seventeenth century perhaps consolidates a long process of adjustment to Protestantism. If poetics, as appears to be the case, became caught in the crossfire of a philosophical and theological conflict, our inheritance of standards based on ‘accuracy’, ‘fidelity’, ‘description’ and ‘comparison’ is clearly part of a general inheritance of secularised Protestant assumptions about the role of art.

Yet Larissy’s extension of Trotter’s linkage of this “empirical spirit” to contemporary poetics is convincing, and casts light on the ways in which a transformative poetics might have come to be misunderstood in our time. Trotter, outlining Eliot’s sources and influences, notes the distinction made in Julien Benda’s Belphegor of 1918 (“which Eliot considered a model of the new ‘classical’ consciousness”) between “two types of sensibility, ‘plastic’ and ‘musical’, the one poised and compact, the other dizzy and diffuse. Women, it turns out, were mostly ‘musical’, and Benda cited the example of a young countess whose “whole process of thought is an array of disconnected somersaults, her reasoning a cyclone of impressions, her opinion a jingle of images.”

Trotter also cites Max Nordau, “another pundit who wandered through fashionable boudoirs denouncing them for their lack of severity,” whose book, “robustly titled Degeneration, caused quite a stir on publication; it was translated into English in 1895 and read by Eliot at Harvard sometime between 1908 and 1914.” Nordau “claimed to hear a ‘sound of rending’ in the fabric of tradition” and noted a tendency towards “disconnected and antithetical effects” in the fashionable mansions he frequented: “Such effects could not be comprehended or held within a single point of view; indeed, they were meant to destroy the unified and stable point of view … of anyone who observed them. It seemed to Nordau that modern culture had created a class of people who actually revelled in such disorientation.”

The ‘competence’ of such people to read, rather than merely to show ‘idle curiosity’, about poetry was surely in doubt, and Eliot’s attempts to construct his ideal reader involved mending that “fabric of tradition” by the imposition of a neo-Classical, Johnsonian severity and impersonality. This emphasis on the ‘plastic’ mode over the ‘musical’, with its ‘masculine’ over ‘feminine’ associations, will prove a crucial one in any reassessment of a Baroque poetics, and if neither Eliot’s poems nor Donne’s bear out all the prescriptions of his criticism, the emphasis in The Metaphysical Poets on the descriptive, the physical and the authentic has tended to shape and ultimately distort the reading of Baroque poetry in our own time.

Larissy, coming at this problem from another perspective, frames this project in relation to Romanticism: “… we return to the old problem of the individual, isolated yet aspiring to common meaning, confronting a world from which the deity has absconded or which seems to give, at best, parsimonious evidence of transcendence … The alienation of contemporary society has exacerpated the old Romantic problem of how (or whether) to infuse a world of fascinating but chaotic sense-data with transcendent meaning when one is deprived of agreed myths [ … ] This state of affairs is rendered piquant by the continuing tendency of poets … to associate Romanticism with all the bad, vague qualities they suppose to be exorcised by their empiricism, which they conceive of as anti-Romantic.”

For both Trotter and Larissy, contemporary concerns remain defined by the “Romantic preoccupations and methods [that] arose out of the empiricist philosophies of the Enlightenment” and “the spirit of anti-pathos”. Eliot’s reading of the Metaphysicals falls into this same narrative, as Donne is recuperated on the grounds of empiricism, of “fidelity to thought and feeling” and the rejection of artifice and inauthenticity, all of which links directly to the superficial, but rhetorically exaggerated Modernist rejection of Romanticism, particularly in its ‘decadent’ late-Victorian form, on terms frequently drawn from Romanticism itself.

For Larissy, this Romantic-empirical strain of criticism grounds both Eliot’s and Martin’s comments in terms he describes as assuming: “… the autonomy of objects, the presentation of the movement of the mind ‘on the spot’, the poem as living letter, the oscillation between subject and object …” Larissy supplements this by pointing out that “to these should be added the disavowal or disguise of these debts, and the characterisation of Romanticism as marked by ‘feminine’ vagueness and sentimentality.” The siphoning out, in other words, of the ‘plastic’ components of Romanticism, while the movement itself is branded as predominantly ‘musical’.

It is important in any attempt to understand the modern critical tendency to denigrate baroque and mannerist poetic strategies to take this central ambivalence within modernism about its own Romantic inheritance into account, and the various ways in the debts are concealed are important. It is precisely this ambivalence that shaped the terms on which the Metaphysicals were recuperated in the twentieth century, and it has been crucial in deciding the selection and types of Metaphysical poetry to be recovered.

It is in these terms that Martin’s introduction to Philipott’s Poems (1646) dismisses Philipott’s “threefold metamorphosis” as “ingeniously trivial”: the poem is, in the end, framed on terms antithetical to an empiricist poetic that demands textual coherence, and psychologically plausible utterance, however the poetics of that utterance might be complicated in practice. Against this consensus, then, it seems impossible to argue that Philipott’s jeu d’esprit might be more than a diverting but ultimately hollow exercise in conceit for its own sake. ‘To a Gentlewoman viewing her selfe in a glasse…’, after all, is about as far removed from Eliot’s demand for “fidelity to thought and feeling” or Alvarez’s “psychological realism”, as it seems possible to get. It is, to use a phrase, a very poetic poem, with only a punning similarity to Johnson’s “faithful mirror”:

Cruel faire one, think this Glasse
Wherein you now behold your face
Was compos’d of one who dyed
For love of you, since he applyed
His liquid and dissolving eyes
So long with teares to sacrifice
To your disdaine, that to relieve
His Bankrupt and impoverish’d griefe
With a fresh stock of moysture, hee
Melted to a spring, which see
The cold but charitable North,
(Lest a fountaine of such worth
Should by vulgar lips be tasted
Or profanely be exhausted)
Congeal’d into a Chrystall Masse
Of which was form’d this Looking-glasse:
And as your figure faire did rest
Within this Lovers living brest,
So still you see it doth appeare,
Though turn’d to Chrystall, harbour’d there.

The movement, as Martin describes it, from “lover melted by grief into a stream, stream congealed into crystal by ‘the cold but charitable North’, crystal formed into a mirror wherein, as formerly in his heart, her figure now lies reflected,” is indeed ingenious, and an artifice of some accomplishment. Yet it is also easy to see a justice in some of Martin’s objections. Ingenious it may be, but its movements from image to image, line to line, and from image to meaning, are a contrived and suspiciously mechanical set of manouevres. Beside the sheer weight of Donne’s apparent presence in the Holy Sonnets, with their vividly dramatised writing of the torments of faith, Philipott is self-evidently lacking.

But this does not appear to be Martin’s primary ground for complaint. It is the ‘wilful extravagance’ displayed, the “voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange”, that divorce the poem from any convincing rendering of authentic utterance or authorial presence. Despite being based on a statement of grief so overwhelming its victim dissolves into a stream of tears, Philipott makes no attempt whatsoever to dramatise this emotional turbulence in a realistic way. The language is not mimetic, the metamorphoses executed with an almost mechanical efficiency. All is rhetorical and declarative: the voice of the poem and its subject are disjunctive, at odds with one another, and no perceptible emotional investment is made by Philipott in his language.

Yet I’d argue – in the spirit of presenting a test-case – that there is a coherent strategy at work in this poem that moves it beyond the “ingeniously trivial”, and that this strategy depends on both the integrity of Philipott’s central conceit and our approach to reading through it, by means of metaphor, rather than from it, by direct reference to a recognisable shared experience. Philipott does not offer psychological realism, or any apparent connection with the emotional state described, but constructs a mechanism whose calculated workings reflect the very freezing of emotion at the (icy) heart of the poem. Considered less in terms of speech and more at the level of image, the lines work in a fashion that reminds me of nothing so much as the strange experience of hearing synthesizers and machines performing plangent, melancholy music; a similar disjunction between form and content, method and effect, seems crucial to this poem’s memorability and impact on the reader.


L.C. Martin (ed): Thomas Philipott: Poems (1646) (Reprints series no.4, Liverpool University Press, 1950)

Samuel Johnson: Life of Cowley in J.P. Hardy (ed): Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: A Selection (Oxford University Press, 1971)

Samuel Johnson: Preface To Shakespeare in D.J. Enright/Ernst de Chickera (eds): English Critical Texts (Oxford University Press, 1962)

Al Alvarez: The Metaphysicals and the Metaphysicians in The School Of Donne (Chatto & Windus, London, 1961)

Francis Bacon: De Augmentis in Works IV [quoted in Alvarez, ibid]

Francis Bacon: The Great Instauration in Plan of the Work; Works IV [quoted in Alvarez, ibid]

T.S. Eliot: The Metaphysical Poets in D.J Enright/Ernst de Chickera (eds): English Critical Texts (Oxford University Press, 1962)

David Trotter: The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American English and Irish Poetry (Macmillan, London & Basingstoke, 1984)

J.M. Cohen: Poetry of This Age: 1908- 1965 (Hutchinson, London, 1966)

Edward Larissy: Reading Twentieth Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects (Blackwell, Oxford, 1990)

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