With emphasis on John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan, this essay explores metaphysical poetry’s strange meditations on the theme of freedom. This poetry displays—vividly, idiosyncratically, and with important differences—what Alain Badiou suggests and what Hannah Arendt famously claims about freedom: that it is best understood not as sovereignty but as natality, being freed from life’s automatic routines and partaking, in a sense, of a second birth. Rather than conjure free movement—whether through self-control, capable pursuit of self-interest, or unimpeded intellectual inquiry—metaphysical freedom involves being drawn, overwhelmed, and transformed from without, all so as to enter a strange state of rest. While Arendt is ultimately humanistic in her understanding of freedom and natality, ascribing an important role to agency, freedom in metaphysical poetry plunges subjects into states to which they contribute virtually nothing, states of such intensity as to be hardly recognizable as human. Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan engage with concepts of liberty predictably, given their contexts and ours, but also in ways that are unpredictable and occasionally even startling.
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James Kuzner; Metaphysical Freedom. Modern Language Quarterly 1 December 2013; 74 (4): 465–492. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-2345136
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