T. S. Eliot’s influence upon Modern Literary Criticism: Unification of Sensibility and Dissociation of Sensibility

In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered.

- T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965) 
 Selected Essays, "The Metaphysical Poets"

By ‘Unification of sensibility’, T. S. Eliot means ‘a fusion of thought and feeling’, ‘are creation of thought into feeling’, and ‘a direct sensuous apprehension of thought’. He argued that the Metaphysical poets, together with the Elizabethan and the Jacobean dramatists, had a mechanism of sensibility which could accommodate any kind of experience. Eliot points out to Donne's most successful and characteristic effect secured by 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 associations of 'bright hair' and of 'bone'… This telescoping of images and multiplied associations were characteristic of some of the dramatists of the period Shakespeare, Middleton and Webster, and is one of the sources of the vitality of their language. He further states that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age. However, a dissociation of sensibility set in after the age of Donne, in the late 17th century; there was a split between thought and feeling. The influence of Dryden and Milton has been particularly harmful in this respect.

In essays and lectures
and as well as an 
editor of The Criterion,
T. S. Eliot profoundly
influenced modern
literary criticism 
and provided 
a literary forum
for many prominent
contemporary writers.

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, and 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. 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. 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. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became cruder. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the "Country Churchyard" (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the "Coy Mistress." 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. In one or two passages of Shelley's "Triumph of Life," in the second "Hyperion" there are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.

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 were better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability. It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject.

Our civilization 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.


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