TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

The first extract in bold below was the title of one of my first essays as an undergraduate: imagine, I’d never read the metaphysicals, and there I was, having to grapple with Eliot’s modernist, post-symbolist take on the subject. The second is a central topic in literary thinking about poetry. Here’s the extract from Eliot’s piece; he retrieves Donne and the rest from the dustbin they’d been confined to by Johnson and the Victorians, but in a backhanded way. Was he right?

From T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

…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 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 mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

John Donne:

John Donne: via Wikimedia Commons

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, Guinizelli, 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. 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; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

After this brief exposition of a theory–too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction–we may ask, what would have been the fate of the “metaphysical” had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; 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. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

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2 thoughts on “TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

  1. Ha! I take your point about being too intellectually naïve for Donne & Co, but also for some students too innocent in other ways. I studied Donne as a ‘mature aged’ student in my twenties, and had been married for some years by then. I vividly recall the blushes of the 19-year-old students when the tutor attempted to unravel The Flea in first semester. That was a world ago in the 70s…it wouldn’t happen now though the students would still struggle with the poetry as you say.
    But was Eliot right? I can only answer for myself: Donne wears better for me. I remember his poems well and with affection, the others not so much. But here’s the thing: the more quintessentially English the poets became (country churchyards, daffodils &c) the less they reached the soul of an Australian with a different sensibility anyway.

    • I was certainly thrown in at the deep end with that assignment- though I had studied Eliot’s poetry as a set text at A level (pre-university) So was aware of his style and methods. But it was my first exposure to Donne & co, so yes, quite an epiphany. Donne’s devotional verse is as passionate and powerful as his erotic poems – so maybe that’s what Eliot meant, among other things. How strange to study the English poets in Australia’s very different setting…but if they’re good enough they surely travel well.

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