2.20.2009

TSE on Metaphysical Wit

This week I re-read TS Eliot's early essay, "The Metaphysical Poets". Tremendously influential, the essay helped set the course for the New Critical era to come, & more. Here Eliot coined the phrase "dissociation of sensibility" - the idea that with the coming of Enlightenment rationalism, the former unity of sensibility - the mutual interpenetration of thought & emotion - fell apart. The new rationalist order had a name and a place for every thing under the sun - an order - but with order came emotional detachment and perceptual laziness. Milton & Dryden were very great writers, but they set the pattern : they pondered, they reflected, they discoursed with great wisdom... but they were not engaged - dramatically, emotionally - with their own perceptual discoveries in life.

Eliot was countering an almost-equally influential position of Restoration poet-critic Samuel Johnson, who chided the "metaphysical" poetry of the early 17th century - Donne, Cowley, King & others - as a kind of quaint, eccentric, arcane, belabored mannerism. Metaphysical "wit" was a "violent yoking together" (rather than a reasonable synthesis) of absurdly disparate things : and as such, it was out of touch with the ordinary, the everyday, the real as it is. For Eliot, on the other hand, these poets - Donne, King, Crashaw, Herbert, Marvell, & others - represent the "main stream" of English poetry. Their "wit" was an expression of a vivid, lively engagement with experience - a dramatic grasp, an exploratory perception - which is of the essence of poetry. Whereas the discursiveness of Enlightenment poetry was a stylistic falling-away - an emotional & perceptual blindness - leading to windy, anemic, sentimental, boring poetizing... & which continued on into the Victorian age, with Tennyson's bland generalizations (Eliot conveniently skips over the Romantic era).

One of the lines of interest here for the "plumbline", is the connection Eliot makes between a healthy, unified "sensibility" and a sense of drama. The excerpts he quotes from the Metaphysicals emphasize the poet's personal gusto & nervous excitement - they are, to repeat, engaged : and thus the resulting poems are to some extent mini-dramas. They are not lectures, sermons, or long stories - they are dramatic moments of pain, joy, perception, insight. (Perhaps this quality was an inheritance from the glory days of Elizabethan theater.)

This nexus of engagement, drama, and history - the social web of mutuality - would seem to be an influencing factor, as we "weigh in the balance" (O Plumbline) our own poetry & that of others. Is the writing, as Joseph alludes to some tendencies, merely "about" writing itself - a self-enclosed word-game? Is it merely imitative of a current popular idiom? Or has something truly happened to the poet - & the poem? (Even if the event is just a striking perception of some heretofore-unseen relation, some new aspect of things.)

1 comment:

Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, I want to pursue this notion of drama, but for the moment, just let me remark that you and I both seem to have roots in Eliot and the first generation of Modernists. Something really went wrong, though, when those Modernists got taken into the American classroom and dogmatized by the New Critics.