Of the true metaphysical conceit, the critic James Smith (in “On Metaphysical Poetry”) says, hesitating before his extravagant language, “it is at the same time startling and not startling.” Smith is trying to get at what makes a metaphysical conceit genuinely metaphysical, and what separates it from other conceits of the era. He has provided an example:
But, putting together the lines in which Elizabeth Drury’s body is said to think, and those in which she is invited to become a father, it is surely not impossible to become aware of an important difference between the two. The first image, like the second, is startling; but also it is plausible, satisfying, natural or—the contradiction forces itself upon and should perhaps not be resisted—not startling. I mean this: that while the elements of the second figure, female virginity and fatherhood, come together only for a moment, at that moment cause surprise and perhaps pleasure, and then immediately fly apart; body and thought, coming together, remain together. Once made, the figure does not disintegrate.
Smith is at his best when he distinguishes Donne’s from poetry that draws on metaphysics without being “metaphysical”: “Dante presents us with the fait accompli: he and Beatrice are at the end of their mystic journey, and it does not trouble him how. Donne, on the other hand, tries to follow Elizabeth Drury point by point: the problem of how the journey was made possible interests him at least as much as the fact that it was made.” Earlier in his essay, Smith has explained why Thomas Aquinas is a metaphysician as Lucretrius and Dante were not: “there is the pursuit rather than the attainment of truth; and such value as their work possesses seems to depend wholly on the pursuit.” It is Smith’s point that “Donne’s turbulence, springing from his being full of problems” is of a common nature to “Thomas’s subtlety or elusiveness.” For Smith, the essential metaphysical problem is that of the one and the many, and Donne’s poetry arises from his perceiving it around him. For true metaphysicians, among which Smith counts Donne, “it is impossible to take a single step in any direction, without brushing against metaphysics.” Most will find this notion strange: “It is conceivable, however, that there should be a few who, aware of the difficulty of metaphysical problems, see them lurking behind any action, however trivial, they propose.” Such, Smith believes is Donne.
To me, that description describes instead a poet like Wallace Stevens and when Smith suggests that “Such people will be in a state of great disturbance or at least excitement,” he imputes a characteristic of Donne’s poetry to the character he has described, rather than recognizing it as an element of Donne’s aim. For Donne’s poetry, to build off Smith’s argument in a slightly different direction, does not only respond with turbulence to the metaphysical puzzles it perceives, but, in its abrupt modulations of cadence, its swerves at line-endings, its demands on the ear, startles the metaphysical quarries from the thickets of his circumstances so that he might pursue them. Whereas for Stevens, the metaphysical pursuit is in the open already, Donne raises it from the ground (or bed). The figures of speech, the metaphysical conceits, do not only describe or trace the metaphysical problem, but aim to argue that it there is one by forcing it to reveal itself. That is why the style of Donne, sudden, bracing, braced as it is, is not only effective in the poems that are most fully metaphysical; even when the metaphysical puzzles remain latent or half-realized, it has startled into being more aspects of its being than the world had disclosed before. (Granted, their revelation, their identity with what is, suggests the problems of metaphysics and the one and the many, or identity and change, might be drawn out; such a poem of only half-articulated metaphysical conceit is “Elegy 19”). The rhythm, the register, the rhetoric are all participants in the pursuit and the effort to raise the object of pursuit; the opposing figure in English poetry would perhaps be Wordsworth, looking into the depths of memory and being at the strange creatures of Truth and Time and Life swimming far below.