In his 1921 essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, T. S. Eliot made several of his most famous and important statements about poetry – including, by implication, his own poetry. It is in this essay that Eliot puts forward his well-known idea of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, among other theories. But what did Eliot mean by ‘dissociation of sensibility’? And how did even Eliot himself come to distance himself from the idea?
Like another one of Eliot’s most famous and influential critical terms – namely, the concept of the ‘objective correlative’ – the notion of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ which set in during the seventeenth century is often misinterpreted or only partially grasped. Eliot put forward this idea in a review of a new anthology, Herbert J. C. Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century. Eliot uses his review of Grierson’s anthology, however, as an opportunity to consider the value and significance of the metaphysical poets in the development of English poetry. We have previously summarised Eliot’s argument in his essay here.
But what we’re concerned with here is a remark that Eliot makes towards the end of the essay, where he talks of how, in English poetry, a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in during the seventeenth century. The key statement made by Eliot in relation to this ‘dissociation of sensibility’ is arguably the following: ‘A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.’ Or, as he had just said, prior to this, of the nineteenth-century poets Tennyson and Browning: ‘they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.’
In other words, whereas poets like Donne, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, felt their thoughts with the immediacy we usually associate with smelling a sweet flower, later poets were unable to feel their thought in the same way. The change – the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, i.e. the moment at which thought and feeling became separated into two distinct kinds of ‘sensibility’ or experience – occurred, for Eliot, in the mid-seventeenth century, after the heyday of metaphysical poetry when Donne, Herbert, and (to an extent) Marvell were writing.
This watershed moment, this shift in poetry, is represented, for Eliot, by the two Johns, two major poets of the later seventeenth century: John Milton and John Dryden. Both poets did something consummately, but what they did was different. Dryden’s style was far more rational and neoclassical; Milton’s was more focused on sensation and feeling. What had been conjoined in the earlier poetry of John Donne – who thought and felt with equal intensity – has become separated into two different qualities by the time Milton and Dryden are writing. Think of it like the chemical element water, comprising atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, being separated into two separate elements. You get two different things, which only formed water when they came together.
It is worth noting, although Eliot doesn’t make this point, that the Romantics – whose work rejected the cold, orderly rationalism of neoclassical poets like Alexander Pope and, before him, John Dryden – embraced Milton, and especially his Paradise Lost. Wordsworth references Milton in several of his sonnets, while Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is steeped in Milton.
So, what Eliot meant by the dissociation of sensibility was a separation of thought from emotion in the work of English poets following John Donne, who wrote poetry between the 1590s and the 1620s. However, it’s worth noting that Eliot himself went on to dissociate himself from the concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’: he used the phrase in an essay from 1921, but in 1925 he revised the theory from dissociation of sensibility to what he called disintegration of intellect. And this disintegration set in after Dante, some three centuries before Donne. Indeed, as Ronald Schuchard points out in one of the best studies of Eliot’s work, Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art, Donne was actually complicit in the ‘disintegration of intellect’ during the Renaissance.
Why? Eliot grounded his theory in religious schism as much as in literary criticism, identifying a rift in Donne’s philosophy (if we can use that word for it) between Calvinist ‘ontologism’ and the Jesuits’ ‘psychologism’. Because of the conflicts and contradictions between these two worldviews which Donne had assimilated, his thinking is split between them and lacks the totality and unity that Dante’s medieval Catholic worldview possessed.