Shakespeare's metaphysical poem: allegory, metaphysics, and aesthetics in 'The Phoenix and Turtle'

Ted Tregear*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Long treated as a poetic curio or a biographical riddle, Shakespeare’s poetic contribution to the 1601 Loves Martyr—usually known as ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’—has recently been reclaimed as an experiment in metaphysical poetry. This essay sets out to ask what that means: for the poem, for metaphysical poetry, and for metaphysics itself. It argues that Shakespeare draws on the language of metaphysics, and its canonical problems, to test the relationship between poetic and philosophical thinking. It follows the poem as it charts the efforts, and failures, of both allegory and metaphysics to apprehend the thought-defying love between phoenix and turtle. It shows how that love engages the dilemma of the particular and the universal, a dilemma native to metaphysics since Aristotle, but felt most acutely in the realm of aesthetic experience. And it suggests that, in sounding out the limits of metaphysical reason, Shakespeare’s poem allows for poetry to think in a way that metaphysics cannot. ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ ends in mourning: for the death of phoenix and turtle, and for the demise of the metaphysical transcendentals they seemed in hindsight to uphold. That mourning might nonetheless offer poetry its vocation, as the space where reason might remember and reflect on the object of its loss.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberhgad055
Pages (from-to)635-651
Number of pages17
JournalReview of English Studies
Issue number316
Early online date14 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023


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