I HAVE THE SUNSET over a rocky peak on my writing table. No, it's just a red-and-golden dahlia in a black stone vase. No, it's a sunset, if that's what the imagination says it is. All right, it's both.
Poetry is the genre that will have such things both ways. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century took this as their unwritten gospel. They indulged metaphor, if with a classical lucidity. They whistled it down to the seed in their hand. What seed? Metaphysics. The inside. The invisible. Come and eat, imaginary concretenesses, or how will we know if the inner life, which seems so renewable, so tender, so real, so immense, is anything but ghostly seed?
The proof was thus circular: essentially Airy figures (since metaphors are only imaginary resemblances—only language) to do the arithmetic of Airy Innerness. Surprising figures, for the substance of the metaphysicals was often sublime emotion, chiefly the miraculous arithmetic of love (both amorous and devout), in which one plus one equals One.
Classical and, classical but, sublime, John Donne, for instance, may have had all his wits about him—so much so that his wit wore imagination like a dashing great hat (as in the “pose of a Melancholy Lover” in the Lothian portrait of Donne)—yet he wrote like the most fantastical alchemist about a certain Elixir, which he called love, as if the great hat wore him, as a great hat may appear to do.
If one crosses classical lucidity with the sublime, the result, of course,