The Metaphysical Poets
Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ was first published as a review of J.G. Grierson’s edition of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the 17th Century. But the essay is much more than a mere review; it is a critical document of much value and significance. It is one of the most significant critical documents of the modern age. It has brought about a revaluation and reassessment of interest in these poets who had been neglected for a considerable time. Eliot has thrown new light on the metaphysical poets, and shown that they are neither quaint nor fantastic, but great and mature poets. They do not represent a digression from the mainstream of English poetry, but rather a continuation of it.
It is in this essay that Eliot has used, for the first time, the phrases ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’ and ‘Unification of Sensibility’, phrases which have acquired world-wide currency and which, ever since, have had a far reaching impact on literary criticism.
Eliot examines one by one with suitable illustrations the characteristics which are generally considered ‘metaphysical’. First, there is the elaboration of a simile to the farthest possible extent, to be met with frequently in the poetry of Donne and Cowley. Secondly, there is the device of the development of an image by rapid association of thought requiring considerable agility on the part of the reader that is a technique of compression. Thirdly, the Metaphysicals produce their effects by sudden contrasts. Thus in the line, “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”, the most powerful effect is produced by sudden contrast of the associations of ‘bright hair’ and ‘bone’. But such telescoping of images and contrasts of associations are not a characteristic of the poetry of Donne one. It also characterizes Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare, Webster, Tourneour and Middleton. This suggests that Done, Cowley and others belong to the Elizabethan tradition and not to any school. The dominant characteristics of Donne’s poetry are also the characteristics of the great Elizabethans.
Eliot then takes up Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of Metaphysical Poetry, in which the great doctor has tried to define this poetry by its faults. Dr. Johnson in his Life of Cowley points that in Metaphysical Poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But Eliot says that to bring together heterogeneous ideas and compelling them into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is universal in poetry. Such unity is present even in the poetry of Johnson himself, The Vanity of Humah Wishes. The force of Dr. Johnson’s remark lies in the fact that in his view the Metaphysical poets could only ‘yoke’ by violence dissimilar ideas. They could not unite them of fuse them into a single whole, however this is not a fact. A number of poets of this school have eminently succeeded in uniting heterogeneous ideas. Eliot quotes from Herbert, Cowley, Bishop King and other poets in supports of his contention. Therefore, he concludes that Metaphysical poetry cannot be differentiated from other poetry by Dr. Johnson’s definition. The fault, which Dr. Johnson points out, is not there, and the unity of heterogeneous ideas is common to all poetry.
Eliot shows that Done and the other poets of the 17th century, “were the direct and normal development of the precedent age”, and that their characteristic virtue was something valuable which subsequently disappeared. Dr. Johnson has rightly pointed out that these poets were ‘analytic’; they were devoted to too much analysis and dissection of particular emotional situations. But Dr. Johnson has failed to see that they could also unite into new wholes the concepts they had analyzed. Eliot shows that their special virtue was the fusion of heterogeneous material into a new unity after dissociation. In other words, metaphysical poetry is distinguished from other poetry by unification of sensibility, and subsequently, ‘dissociation of sensibility’ overtook English poetry, and this was unfortunate.
The great Elizabethans and early Jacobians had a developed unified sensibility which is expressed in their poetry. By ‘sensibility’ Eliot does not merely mean feeling or the capacity to receive sense impressions. He means much more than that. By ‘sensibility’ he means a synthetic faculty, a faculty which can amalgamate and unite thought and feeling, which can fuse into a single whole the varied and disparate, often opposite and contradictory, experiences. The Elizabethans had such a sensibility. They were widely read, they thought on what they read, and their thinking and learning modified their mode of feeling. Eliot gives concrete illustration to show that such unification of sensibility, such fusion of thought and feeling, is to be found in the poetry of Done and other Metaphysical poets, but it is lacking in the poetry of Tennyson, Browning and the Romantic Poets.
After Donne and Herbert, a change came over English poetry. The poets lost the capacity of uniting thought and feeling. The ‘unification of sensibility’ was lost, and ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in. After that the poets can either think or they can feel; there are either intellectual poets who can only think, or there are poets who can only feel. The poets of the 18th century were intellectuals, they thought but did not feel; the romantics of the 19th century felt but did not think. Tennyson and Browning can merely reflect or ruminate, i.e. meditate poetically on their experience, but cannot express it poetically. Eliot says, “Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” In other words, the metaphysical poets had a unified sensibility which enabled them to assimilate and fuse into a new wholes most disparate and heterogeneous experiences. They could feel their thoughts as intensely as the odour of a rose, that is to say they could express their thoughts through sensuous imagery. In his poems, Donne expresses his thoughts and ideas by embodying them in sensuous imagery and it is mainly through the imagery that the unification of sensibility finds its appropriate expression.
Eliot then proceeds to examine the close similarity between the age of Donne and the modern age, and the consequent similarity between the sensibility of the Metaphysicals and the modern poets. The Metaphysicals are difficult and the poet in the modern age is also bound to be difficult. Hence the modern poet also uses conceits and methods very much similar to those of the Metaphysicals who also lived in complex and rapidly changing times. Like them the modern poet also transmutes ideas into sensations, and transforms feelings into thought or states of mind. Elliot’s comments apply not only to Baudelaire and Laforgue, but to his own poetry.
In other words, Donne and the other Metaphysicals are in the direct current of English poetry, and the modern poets are their direct descendants. This current flows direct from the Elizabethan age rightly up to the modern age. Only, and unfortunately, this continuity was broken for some time under the influence of Milton and Dryden who are great masters of language, but not of the soul. The poet has different faculties and sensibilities, he must achieve a unification of his sensibilities, and must express this unified sensibility in his poetry. Only such a poetry would be complete; but it would be complex and difficult. The Metaphysicals, as well as the moderns, have this complexity, and also this completeness and maturity.
Dissociation of sensibility is a literary term first used by T. S. Eliot in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets”. It refers to the way in which intellectual thought was separated from the experience of feeling in seventeenth century poetry.
Origin of terminology
Eliot used the term to describe the manner by which the nature and substance of English poetry changed “between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning.” In this essay, Eliot attempts to define the metaphysical poet and in doing so to determine the metaphysical poet’s era as well as his discernible qualities.
|“||We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden.||”|
Theory of dissociation of sensibility
The theory of dissociation of sensibility rests largely upon Eliot’s description of the disparity in style that exists between the metaphysical poets of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century and the poets of the late seventeenth century onward. In “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot claims that the earlier grouping of poets were “constantly amalgamating disparate experience” and thus expressing their thoughts through the experience of feeling, while the later poets did not unite their thoughts with their emotive experiences and therefore expressed thought separately from feeling. He explains that the dissociation of sensibility is the reason for the “difference between the intellectual and the reflective poet.” The earlier intellectual poet, Eliot writes, “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.” When the dissociation of sensibility occurred, “[the] poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected.” Thus dissociation of sensibility is the point at which and the manner by which this change in poetic method and style occurred; it is defined by Eliot as the loss of sensation united with thought.
Eliot uses John Donne’s poetry as the most prominent example of united sensibility and thought. He writes, “[a] thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Eliot’s apparent appreciation of Donne’s ability to unify intellectual thought and the sensation of feeling demonstrates that he believes dissociation of sensibility to be a hindrance in the progression of poetry. Eliot asserts that despite the progress of refined language, the separation between thought and emotion led to the end of an era of poetry that was “more mature” and that would “wear better” than the poetry that followed.
Eliot, later on in his career, was challenged with the thought that the dissociation within literature had been caused by the English Civil War in the mid 17th century. He did not agree or disagree to this theory but rather stated, ‘cryptically that he thought it might have been caused by the same factors as those which brought about the Civil War’.
Alternative literary interpretations
In his article “T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Dissociation,” Allen Austin describes dissociation of sensibility as a concept that “involves not only the integration of sensation and idea…but also a special kind of thought—a detached intellectuality combined with passion.” Austin asserts that Eliot defines this term in order to provide a rationale for the combination of wit and emotion. He explains that Eliot sees the dissociation of wit and emotion as not only the separation of intellect and sensibility, but also the separation of the conceptual image from the intellectual idea. Austin claims that Eliot uses dissociation of sensibility to describe more than just the dissociation of thought from feeling; he asserts that Eliot also explains the separation of “language from sensibility,” using Eliot’s claim that “while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude” as evidence. He also cites “The Metaphysical Poets” and the concept of dissociation of sensibility in claiming that Eliot’s appreciation of thought united with emotion is also a method of defending his own poetry, as his writing reflects the metaphysical poets’ style of combining wit and feeling.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his essay “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” uses Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility in reference to the presence of race in literature. Gates claims that race has lost its voice in contemporary literature, and that modern critics do not see race as a factor of more than intrinsic value in literary theory. He writes: “For millions who originated outside Europe, however, this dissociation of sensibility has its origins in colonialism and human slavery.” Gates goes on to infer that, in this context, dissociation of sensibility reflects the way in which literature, in this sense analogous to thought, is dissociated from race and otherness (which parallel Eliot’s idea of feeling).
- Eliot, T.S., "The Metaphysical Poets," Selected Essays, 3rd ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. pp. 281–91.
- Austin, Allen. “T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Dissociation.” College English. Vol. 23, No. 4. (Jan., 1962), pp. 309–312.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.” The Critical Tradition. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 1998. 1575-1588.
- Rajan, Balachandra. “Eliot, T. S.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Second Edition 2005. The Johns Hopkins University Press. <http://litguide.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/view.cgi?eid=85>.
- Barry, P (2009). Beginning theory: Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory (3rd). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
- ^ abEliot, T. S. "The Metaphysical Poets"Archived 2008-03-14 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Barry, Peter (2009). Beginning theory: An introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 26–27.
- ^Austin, Allen. “T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Dissociation”
- ^Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.”