Harmonious Discord: Modern Metaphysical Poetry

Aviva Dautch

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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T.S. Eliot saw both literary and historical resonances between the Seventeenth and Twentieth Centuries, claiming, “this poetry and this age have some peculiar affinity with our own poetry and our own age”, utilising Discordia Concors as a model for his own writing. According to Samuel Johnson’s famous complaint about the Metaphysical Poets, “the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together” but in Eliot’s understanding, heterogeneity is “compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind”, a desire to unify what is fragmented which seems driven by his religious sensibility. In my dissertation I argue that, while the task of the contemporary writer is not necessarily to compel into unity, the mode of Discordia Concors is a useful one for a religious poet writing in the modern world.

In the introduction I trace the history and usage of the terminology “Metaphysical Poets” and outline characteristics of a modern metaphysical aesthetic. Then, in a series of essays titled with quotations from Eliot’s poems, I read modernist and contemporary religious poets against their metaphysical predecessors in order to explore different dimensions of “harmonious discord”. Firstly, I describe war poet Isaac Rosenberg as an embryonic modern metaphysical, due to his biographical circumstances and deliberate artistic choices, as well as his reading of John Donne. The second essay compares the prayer poetry of Israeli poet-soldier Yehudah Amichai to that of poet-priest George Herbert, weighing up the countervailing tensions in their work created by the pull between faith and politics. The third analyses the use of biblical images in the eco-poetics of John Burnside and Andrew Marvell, tracing how they employ Judeao-Christian conceits in long poems mapping bodies of land that carry the scars of both real and symbolic wars. I conclude with a summary of how I employ modern metaphysical techniques and consider my poetic praxis in light of my reading. 

For this practice-based PhD, the critical dissertation is accompanied by a collection of my own poems with a modern metaphysical aesthetic, entitled ‘We Sigh For Houses’.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Shapcott, Joanne, Supervisor
  • Hampson, Robert, Advisor
  • Motion, Andrew, Advisor
Award date28 Sept 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • poetry

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