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On the Metaphysical

The term Metaphysics first appeared in the 1560s meaning "branch of speculation which deals with the first causes of things". It was derived from the Greek title of the 13 treatises which traditionally were arranged after those on physics and natural sciences in Aristotle's writings.

In our own century, the Reverend John Polkinghorne, one of the greatest living writers on science and religion, has been quoted as saying:

'It would be intellectually lazy not to ask what happened before the Big Bang. But for that we need a greater physics, a Metaphysics.'

His use of the term 'Metaphysics' points to a situation where there can be no hard cold facts, no empirical evidence, a situation where reason fails us. Increasingly, we are aware that those fundamental questions that are at the heart of existence - Who am I?; Where did I come from?; Why am I here?; What is being? - the questions that physics has always attempted to explain, continue to elude us. The closer we get to answers, the more we find new questions and can only move cautiously towards some understanding through analogy and metaphor.

It was Samuel Johnson, who in 1740 coined the term 'Metaphysical Poetry' to describe the work of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert and others, claiming that in their poetry

'the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.'

But looking more closely at the poetry of these poets from our own century, maybe our faith in Johnson's views needs to be reevaluated. In our March concert we will be pairing Renaissance and Baroque song and instrumental music with poems of Donne, Herbert, Marvell et al. Comparing the lyrics of for instance, John Dowland's 'Come Again Sweet Love' (1597):

Come again! that I may cease to mourn

Through thy unkind disdain;

For now left and forlorn

I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die

In deadly pain and endless misery.

with Donne's 1611 poem, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

Dull sublunary lovers' love

(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,

That our selves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

the anguish of Dowland's unknown lyricist emerges clearly and directly while Donne's ardent feelings become not less, but more sublimely evoked through the use of metaphor. They are gold beaten to an airy thinness and therefore so refined that there is no way of a direct knowing: reason must be abandoned and metaphor suffice. Yet the music that Dowland writes to accompany this verse and the music of other late Renaissance and Baroque composers on our programme is complex, ornate, at times intellectual and yet deeply moving. After all, these composers were hearkening back to the ideas of the Greeks who believed that music had the power to communicate and to evoke any feeling in the listener. If the lyrics to their songs were obvious and direct, maybe the music was in itself a metaphor!

We hope that on the 11th of March you will be not only instructed, surprised by and admiring of both the poetry and the music but will be swept away and illuminated. Looking forward to seeing you there!


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