This essay originally appeared as a review in the London Times Literary Supplement on October 20, 1921, focusing on the book Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century. T.S. Eliot explores three key questions in this essay: the nature of the metaphysical poets as a school or movement, their divergence from the mainstream poetry of their time, and the relevance of studying these poets in the modern age. The essay can be summarized under the following headings:
1) Definition of Metaphysical Poetry
According to Eliot, defining metaphysical poetry is a challenging task. It becomes particularly difficult when attempting to determine which poets practiced it and in which of their poems. Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Cowley, and Donne are often classified as metaphysical poets. However, there is no consistent employment of metaphors, similes, or other conceits that is universally shared among these poets.
Donne and Cowley, in particular, utilize a device that is often considered characteristic of metaphysical poetry: the elaborate development of a figure of speech to its utmost ingenuity. For example, Donne compares two lovers to a pair of compasses. These poets also exhibit rapid association of thoughts, demanding agility from the reader. Donne achieves more success than Cowley by using concise words and sudden contrasts to create powerful effects.
While Johnson applied the term "metaphysical poets" primarily to Donne, Cleveland, and Cowley, he criticized their poetry for forcefully yoking together heterogeneous ideas. However, this practice of yoking ideas without unifying them is not inherently blameworthy, as it is observed in the works of several poets, including Johnson himself. Eliot concludes that Johnson, despite being an astute and discerning critic, failed to define metaphysical poetry based on its faults.
Eliot takes an alternative approach to defining metaphysical poetry. Instead of labeling these poets as metaphysical, he refers to them as "the poets of the seventeenth century." He suggests that these poets represent a direct and natural progression from the preceding age. Without prejudice, Eliot investigates whether their virtues hold lasting value. He emphasizes the synthetic quality displayed by these poets and commends them for successfully uniting elements that resist unification, such as thought and feeling, poetic and unpoetic, form and content.
2) Dissociation of Sensibility
In the seventeenth century, the poets possessed a sensitivity capable of embracing diverse experiences, be they simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastical. However, a dissociation of sensibility emerged during this period, carried forward by the prominent poets Milton and Dryden. As the language became more refined, the emotional depth diminished. Language became increasingly unnatural and artificial, leading to a decline in the significance of feeling.
This development culminated in the sentimental age of the early eighteenth century, during which poets rebelled against rationality. Although Shelley and Keats showed signs of striving for a reunification of sensibility, their efforts were cut short. Reflective poets like Tennyson and Browning then dominated the literary landscape. Had there been no gap between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, poets like Donne might not have been categorized as metaphysical. It is important to acknowledge that these poets, like others, possess various flaws.
3) The Metaphysical Poets and the Modern Age
While it is not an essential requirement for poets to be interested in philosophy or any specific subject, our contemporary civilization demands complexity and variety. Playing upon a refined sensibility, the intricacies and diversity of our civilization necessitate poets to produce refined and varied results. To achieve this, poets must become increasingly comprehensive, allusive, and indirect in order to convey their meaning, often resorting to techniques resembling conceit. Consequently, modern poets find themselves drawing closer to the metaphysical poets, as both employ obscure language and employ simple phrasing to convey complex ideas.
In conclusion, Eliot defends the metaphysical poets against accusations of quaintness, obscurity, wittiness, and unintelligibility, noting that even serious poets may display these qualities. The metaphysical ideas are not exclusive to this particular group of poets but can be found in the works of others as well.
From this essay, we can draw three main conclusions: firstly, the defining quality of metaphysical poets lies in their commitment to merging diverse ideas into a cohesive whole; secondly, the label of metaphysical poetry would not have been applied if there had not been a dissociation of sensibility between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and thirdly, modern poets are increasingly resembling the metaphysical poets in their use of language and ideas, positioning the metaphysical poets within the ongoing trajectory of English poetry.