There are a handful of indisputable influences on Eliot’s early and most formative period as a poet, influences that are corroborated by the poet’s own testimony in contemporaneous letters and subsequent essays on literature and literary works. Foremost among those influences was French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, from whom Eliot had learned that poetry could be produced out of common emotions and yet uncommon uses of language and tone. A close second would undoubtedly be the worldrenowned Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri, whose influences on Eliot’s work and poetic vision would grow greater with each passing year.
A third influence would necessarily come from among poets writing in Eliot’s own native tongue, English. There, however, he chose not from among his own most immediate precursors, such as Tennyson or Browning, or even his own near contemporaries, such as W. B. Yeats or Arthur Symons, and certainly not from among American poets, but rather from among poets and minor dramatists of the early 17th century, the group of English writers working in a style and tradition that has subsequently been identified as metaphysical poetry.
The word metaphysical is far more likely to be found in philosophical than literary contexts. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophical inquiry and discourse that deals with issues that are, quite literally, beyond the physical (meta- being a Greek prefix for “beyond”). Those issues are, by and large, focused on philosophical questions that are speculative in nature—discussions of things that cannot be weighed or measured or even proved to exist yet that have acquired great importance among human cultures. Metaphysics, then, concerns itself with the idea of the divine, of divinity, and of the makeup of what is called reality.
That said, it may be fair to suspect that poetry that is metaphysical concerns itself with those kinds of issues and concerns as well. The difficulty is that it both does and does not do that. Thus, the question of what metaphysical poetry does in fact do is what occupies Eliot’s attention in his essay to the point that he formulates out of his considerations a key critical concept that he calls the dissociation of sensibilities.
Eliot’s essay on the English metaphysical poets was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement as a review of a just-published selection of their poetry by the scholar Herbert J. C. Grierson titled Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. In a fashion similar to the way in which Eliot launched into his famous criticism of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in “Hamlet and His Problems” by using an opportunity to review several new works of criticism on the play as a springboard to impart his own ideas, Eliot commends Grierson’s efforts but devotes the majority of his commentary otherwise to expressing his views on the unique contribution that metaphysical poetry makes to English poetry writing in general and on its continuing value as a literary movement or school. Indeed, as if to underscore his opposition to his own observation that metaphysical poetry has long been a term of either abuse or dismissive derision, Eliot begins by asserting that it is both “extremely difficult” to define the exact sort of poetry that the term denominates and equally hard to identify its practitioners.
After pointing out how such matters could as well be categorized under other schools and movements, he quickly settles on a group of poets that he regards as metaphysical poets. These include John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Henry Cowley, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and Bishop King, all of them poets, as well as the dramatists Thomas Middleton, John Webster, and Cyril Tourneur.
As to their most characteristic stylistic trait, one that makes them all worthy of the title metaphysical, Eliot singles out what is generally termed the metaphysical conceit or concept, which he defines as “the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of speech to the farthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it.”
Eliot knows whereof he speaks. He himself was a poet who could famously compare the evening sky to a patient lying etherized upon an operating room table without skipping a beat, so Eliot’s admiration for this capacity of the mind—or wit, as the metaphysicals themselves would have termed it—to discover the unlikeliest of comparisons and then make them poetically viable should come as no surprise to the reader.
Eliot would never deny that, while it is this feature of metaphysical poetry, the far-fetched conceit, that had enabled its practitioners to keep one foot in the world of the pursuits of the flesh, the other in the trials of the spirit, such a poetic technique is not everyone’s cup of tea. The 18th-century English critic Samuel Johnson, for example, found their excesses deplorable and later famously disparaged metaphysical poetic practices in his accusation that in this sort of poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Eliot will not attempt to dispute Johnson’s judgment, though it is clear that he does not agree with it. (Nor should that be any surprise either. Eliot’s own poetic tastes and techniques had already found fertile ground in the vagaries of the French symbolists, who would let no mere disparity bar an otherwise apt poetic comparison.)
Rather, Eliot finds that this kind of “telescoping of images and multiplied associations” is “one of the sources of the vitality” of the language to be found in metaphysical poetry, and then he goes as far as to propose that “a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.” What that means, by and large, is that these poets make combining the disparate the heart of their writing. It is on that count that Eliot makes his own compelling case for the felicities of metaphysical poetry, so much so that he will eventually conclude by mourning its subsequent exile from the mainstream of English poetic practice. It is this matter of the vitality of language that the metaphysical poets achieved that most concerns Eliot, and it is that concern that will lead him, in the remainder of this short essay, not only to lament the loss of that vitality from subsequent English poetry but to formulate one of his own key critical concepts, the dissociation of sensibility.
The “Dissociation of Sensibility”
Eliot argues that these poets used a language that was “as a rule pure and simple,” even if they then structured it into sentences that were “sometimes far from simple.” Nevertheless, for Eliot, this is “not a vice; it is a fidelity to thought and feeling,” one that brings about a variety of thought and feeling as well as of the music of language. On that score—that metaphysical poetry harmonized these two extremes of poetic expression, thought and feeling, grammar and musicality —Eliot then goes on to ponder whether, rather than something quaint, such poetry did not provide “something permanently valuable, which . . . ought not to have disappeared.”
For disappear it did, in Eliot’s view, as the influence of John Milton and John Dryden gained ascendancy, for in their separate hands, “while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.” By way of a sharp contrast, Eliot saw the metaphysical poets, who balanced thought and feeling, as “men who incorporated their erudition into their sensibility,” becoming thereby poets who can “feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” Subsequent English poetry has lost that immediacy, Eliot contends, so that by the time of Tennyson and Browning, Eliot’s Victorian precursors, a sentimental age had set in, in which feeling had been given primacy over, rather than balance with, thought. Rather than, like these “metaphysical” poets, trying to find “the verbal equivalents for states of mind and feeling” and then turning them into poetry, these more recent poets address their interests and, in Eliot’s view, then “merely meditate on them poetically.” That is not at all the same thing, nor is the result anywhere near as powerful and moving as poetic statement.
While, then, the metaphysical poets of the 17th century “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience,” Eliot imagines that subsequently a “dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Nor will the common injunction, and typical anodyne for poor poetry, to “look into our hearts and write,” alone provide the necessary corrective. Instead, Eliot offers examples from the near-contemporary French symbolists as poets who have, like Donne and other earlier English poets of his ilk, “the same essential quality of transmuting ideas into sensations, of transforming an observation into a state of mind.” To achieve as much, Eliot concludes, a poet must look “into a good deal more than the heart.” He continues: “One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.”
The point of this essay is not a matter of whether Eliot’s assessment of the comparative value of the techniques of the English metaphysical poets and the state of contemporary English versification was right or wrong. By and large, Eliot is using these earlier poets, whom the Grierson book is more or less resurrecting, to stake out his own claim in an ageless literary debate regarding representation versus commentary. Should poets show, or should they tell? Clearly, there can be no easy resolution to such a debate.
Eliot would be the first to admit, as he would in subsequent essays, that a young poet, such as he was at the time he wrote the review at hand, will most likely condemn those literary practices that he regards to be detrimental to his own development as a poet. Whatever Eliot’s judgments in his review of Grierson’s book on the English metaphysical poets may ultimately reveal, they are reflections more of Eliot’s standards for poetry writing than of standards for poetry writing in general. That said, they should serve as a caution to any reader approaching an Eliot poem, particularly from this period, since he makes it clear that he falls on the side of representation as opposed to commentary and reflection in poetry writing.
In addition to its having enabled Eliot to stake out his own literary ground by offering, as it were, a literary manifesto for the times, replete with a memorable critical byword in the coinage dissociation of sensibility, as Eliot’s own prominence as a man of letters increased, this review should finally be credited with having done far more, over time, than Grierson’s scholarly effort could ever have achieved in bringing English metaphysical poetry and its 17th-century practitioners back to some measure of respectability and prominence. For that reason alone, this short essay, along with Tradition and the Individual Talent and Hamlet and His Problems, has found an enduring place not only in the Eliot canon but among the major critical documents in English of the 20th century.
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