09C Eliot "The Metaphysical Poets" - richard lw clarke homepage


09C Eliot "The Metaphysical Poets" - richard lw clarke homepage

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3001 Notes 09C



This essay, one which ends up being more a self-defence and a call to rethink the English canon,

was written by Eliot in response to a recently published anthology of poetry, Metaphysical Lyrics

and Poems of the Seventeenth century: Donne to Butler, edited by Herbert Grierson, a collection

described by Eliot as a “provocation of criticism” (241). As the title indicates, it was devoted to the


Metaphysical poets, a group of 17 century English lyric poets, namely John Donne, George

Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell, who were not

highly thought of and even ignored prior to their ‘rediscovery by critics such Grierson in the early

Twentieth century and Eliot’s intervention in particular. The term, Eliot points out, “has long done

duty as a term of abuse or as the label of a quaint and pleasant taste” (241). Their influence on

Eliot was enormous, as a result of which he sought to canonise and reinsert them into the great

tradition of English literary history which, he thought, had taken a wrong turn sometime around the

time of Milton, leading poetry in the direction of the Romantics. Eliot’s goal here is to ask “to what

extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school . . . and how far this so-called school or

movement is a digression from the main current” (241).

Eliot begins by contending that it is “difficult to define metaphysical poetry” (241) and to

“decide what poets practise it and in which of their verses” (241). It is hard, he says, to find a

“precise use of metaphor, simile, or other conceit, which is common to all the poets and at the

same time important enough as an element of style to isolate these poets as a group” (242).

Donne and Cowley, he asserts, often used a “device which is sometimes considered

characteristically ‘metaphysical’; the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of

speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it” (242). Donne, for example, compares

two lovers to a pair of compasses. Elsewhere, however, one finds “instead of the mere explication

of the content of a comparison, a development by rapid association of thought which requires

considerable agility on the part of the reader” (242). At other times, too, Donne makes use of

“brief words and sudden contrasts” (242), that is, the “telescoping of images and multiplied

associations” (243).

It was Johnson, Eliot reminds us, who coined the term ‘metaphysical’ in his discussion of

Cowley in his famous Lives of the Poets. It was Johnson too who remarked that the hallmark of

their poetry was that ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.’ Eliot

stresses that Johnson’s point concerned the ”failure of the conjunction, the fact that often the

ideas are yoked but not united” (243). Eliot claims that a “degree of heterogeneity of material

compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind” (243) is in all poetry, even Johnson’s,

ironically. Though there is a “richness of association” (244-245), the “meaning is clear, the

language simple and elegant” (245). However, the “structure of the sentences . . . sometimes far

from simple, but this is not a vice; it is a fidelity to thought and feeling” (245).

Eliot contends that rather than trying to define Metaphysical poetry “by its faults” (245), we

should adopt the “opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to

the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age” (245). We should

consider “their virtue . . . something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but

ought not to have disappeared” (245). He thinks that Johnson “hit, perhaps by accident, on one of

their peculiarities, when he observes that ‘their attempts were always analytical’” (245) but failed

to realise that “after the dissociation, they put the material together again in a new unity” (245). In

their dramatic verse, the “later Elizabethan and early Jacobean poets” (245) express a “degree of

development of sensibility which is not found in any of the prose” (245). Influenced by Montaigne,

poets ranging from Jonson to Chapm an to Donne were “notably m en who incorporated their

erudition into their sensibility: their mode of feeling was directly and freshly altered by their reading

and thought” (245). In these writers, it is possible to detect a “direct sensuous apprehension of

thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling” (245). However, this is missing from later writers

like Tennyson. The difference

is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had

happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of

Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3001 Notes 09C


intellectual poet and the reflective poet. 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,

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 minds of the poet these experiences are always forming new

wholes. (247)

Eliot advances the following theory to explain the foregoing difference: 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. . . . 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. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so

magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of

others. The language went on and in some respects improved. . . . But while the

language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the

sensibility . . . is cruder. . . . The second effect of the influence of Milton and

Dryden followed from the first, and was therefore slow in manifestation. The

sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets

revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits,

unbalanced; they reflected. (247-248)

In one or two passages in Shelley or Keats, “there are traces of a struggle toward unification of

sensibility. But Keats and Shelley dies, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated” (248). This is the

most important legacy bequeathed by the Metaphysicals, a mantle inherited by Eliot, he believes,

leading him to conclude that the thought they have faults, they “at best, engaged in the task of

trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling” (248).

Eliot then asks, after “this brief exposition of a theory” (248), “what would have been the

fate of the ‘m etaphysical’ had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them , as it

descended in a direct line to them” (248). The answer: a different model of the poet from that

popularised by the Romantics would have prevailed: the “more intelligent he is the better; the

more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn

them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically” (248). Though it is not a necessity

that “poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject” (248), Eliot is of the view


poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilisation

comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity,

playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex 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 – we get in fact,

a method curiously similar to that of the ‘metaphysical poets,’ similar also in its

use of obscure words and of simple phrasing. (248-249)

This is true of poets like Jules Laforgue who are “nearer to the ‘school of Donne’ than any modern

English poet” (249). They have in common with “poets more classical . . . the same essential

quality of transmuting ideas into sensations, of transforming an observation into a state of mind”

(249). This is true, too, great French writers like Racine and Baudelaire who, though separated by

centuries, are the “greatest two psychologists, the most curious explorers of the soul” (249). Like

Donne, they looked beyond the heart (so favoured by the Romantics) and into the “cerebral

cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tract” (250). The same cannot be said, however, of

the Milton and Dryden through whom the rot set in in English poetry: they triumphed “with a

dazzling disregard of the soul” (249). This is why English poetry as it has come down to us via the

Dr. Richard Clarke LITS3001 Notes 09C


Romantics, in Eliot’s view, has “remained so incomplete” (249). And this is why, accordingly, the

Metaphysicals must regain their true place: for they are “in the direct current of English poetry”


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