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.