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Old Friday, June 24, 2005
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Post The Metaphysical Poets

This essay was originally a review in the London Times Literary Supplement (October 20, 1921) of the book Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century. In this essay, Eliot discusses three questions: To what extent did the so-called metaphysical form a school or a movement? How far is this so-called school or movement a digression from the main current? What is the importance in the modern age, of the study of these poets? The essay may be summarized under four headings:

According to T. S. Eliot, it is extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry. The difficulty arises when we are to decide what poets practised it and in which of their poems. The poetry of Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Cowley and Donne is usually called metaphysical. However, it is difficult to find any precise use of metaphor, simile or other conceit, which is common to all these poets. Donne and often Cowley, “employ a device which is sometimes considered characteristically metaphysical: the elaboration of a figure of speech to the farthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it”. Donne develops a comparison of two lovers to a pair of compasses. Sometimes we find in them “a development by rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader”. Donne is more successful than Cowley because in developing comparisons, he uses brief words and sudden contrasts:

“A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”

where the most powerful effect is produced by the sudden contrast of the associations of “bright hair” and of “bone”. So it is to be maintained that metaphysical poetry is the elaboration of far-fetched images and communicated association of poet’s mental processes.

Johnson employed the term ‘metaphysical poets’, apparently having Donne, Cleveland and Cowley chiefly in mind. In their poetry, he remarks:

“the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”.

The force of this accusation lies in the fact that often the ideas are yoked but not united. But this is not blameworthy in itself, as it has been practised by a number of poets and even by Johnson himself. Johnson, shrewd and sensitive critic, Eliot concludes, failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults.

Eliot adopts the opposite method to define metaphysical poetry. Instead of calling these poets metaphysical, he calls them “the poets of the seventeenth century”. He assumes that these poets were the direct and normal development of the precedent age. Without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical’, we may consider “whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable”.

Eliot lays emphasis on the synthetic quality in these poets. Eliot praises the metaphysical poets for their successful attempt to unite what resists unification. To unite thought and feeling, the poetic and unpoetic, form and content, was the main quality of the metaphysical poets. Eliot points out the difference by dividing the poets into two kinds: intellectual poets and reflective poets.

“Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their though as immediately as the odour of a rose. A though to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly merging disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular fragmentary”.

In the mind of the poet experiences are related to one another and from new wholes.

The poets of the 17th century possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult or fantastic. In the 17th century dissociation of sensibility set in and Milton and Dryden, the two great poets carried on with this process. While the language became more refined, the feeling became cruder. The language became unnatural and artificial. But this development of language reduced the importance of feeling. The logical conclusion of the influence of Milton and Dryden was that:

“The sentimental age began early in the 18th century and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative”.

In Shelley and Keats, there are traces of a struggle towards unification of sensibility. But they died and reflective poets Tennyson and Browning held the ground. If there had been no gap between the 17th and 18th centuries, poets like Donne would not have been called metaphysical. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults.

It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject. But our present civilization demands the poets to be difficult.

“Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and refined results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”.

Hence we get something which looks very much like the conceit. If this is done, the poets of the present age will draw closer to the metaphysical poets, because both use obscure words and simple phrasing.

In the end, Eliot defends the metaphysical poets that the charges such as quaintness, obscurity, wittiness and unintelligibility are found even in serious poets. The metaphysical ideas are not simply the possession of this group of poets. They are found in other poets as well.

From this essay we can draw three conclusions: First, the main quality of the metaphysical poets is their fidelity to thought and feeling, an attempt to merge into one whole the most heterogeneous ideas; secondly, if dissociation of sensibility has not taken place during the 17th century and a gap had not occurred, they would not have been called metaphysical; thirdly, modern poets are tending to become like them in their use of language and ideas and hence the metaphysical poets are in the direct current of English poetry.
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