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dissociation of sensibility

Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century

eliot poetry century metaphysical

a term originated by T. S. Eliot in his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, which first appeared in 1921 as a review of H. J. C. Grierson's edition of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1921). Eliot's approval of the poetry of Donne and others, which was of considerable influence in establishing the high regard in which their work has since been held, emphasized their possession of ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’; the ‘direct sensuous apprehension of thought’ and the ‘re-creation of thought into feeling’ characterizing the work of the Metaphysical Poets were lost in the course of the seventeenth century, when ‘a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered’. As an example of the consequences, Eliot notes that ‘Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose’. The theory of dissociation of sensibility provoked much discussion and has been challenged as a misleadingly simple analysis of historical developments in English poetry; the phrase is, however, strongly indicative of the desire shared by Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others to move beyond the debilitated conventions of the nineteenth century and establish a poetry capable of unifying a range of aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical elements. Within the immediate context of the essay of 1921, Eliot's observations on the dissociation of sensibility and the limitations it imposes relate to his defence of a measure of obscurity in poetry: modern civilization's ‘great variety and complexity…playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results’; his own work of the period achieved such results in presenting unsettling and disjunctive emotional and mental states with the conviction of ‘direct sensuous apprehension’ he commended in the poets of the early seventeenth century.

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