The Metaphysical Poets by T. S. Eliot

Eliot regarded the Metaphysical poets as representatives of his ideologies concerning poetry. He had praised the metaphysical poets to a great extent. In his essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he has highlighted the appreciative features of metaphysical poets according to his own perception.

In the essay, The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot praises the metaphysical poets on the basis of their subject matter and their poetry. The metaphysical poets investigate the world by rational discussion based on its phenomena rather than by intuition or mysticism. T. S. Eliot by his essay, The Metaphysical Poets, draws people’s interest towards metaphysical poets.

Why were they called metaphysical? One of the reason is that Donne and Cowley use a device considered metaphysical and that is the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of speech to a level a mind can think, i.e. Cowley compares the world to a chessboard whereas Donne compares two lovers to a pair of compasses.

The other reason of why were they called metaphysical is that, there is “a development by rapid association of thought”, which means that one thought leads to another, one idea generalizes the second; is a rapid movement in the thinking process.

Eliot links metaphysical poets to Elizabethan playwrights. He reinforces that metaphysical poets are descendants of Elizabethan dramatists and have unified sensibility. By unified sensibility, one can find connection between anything. They found the world as a unified whole. In their poetry, thought and feeling affected each other as both are unified whole.

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Eliot employs Johnson’s phrase, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together” but he turns upside down. Johnson used the phrase depicting flaw in metaphysical poetry while Eliot saw this as a necessary element of poetry. According to Eliot, Donne and others were able to combine thought and emotion and sensation in one untroubled unity. They were not self-conscious, according to the doctrine of Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poetry should be impersonal and unconscious of one’s own self. Their language exactly matched their experience and their feeling.

Eliot in this essay puts on top Donne and other metaphysical poets of 17th century and lowers down the poets of 18th and 19th centuries. According to Eliot, 18th century is a sentimental age (feelings are crude), 19th century poets could not combine thought and feeling. They were self-conscious, instead of feeling a thought, they thought about their thoughts as Arnold depicted, “the dialogue of the mind with itself had begun.”

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Eliot’s famous phrase, “dissociation of sensibility”, in this essay was to explain the change that came over English poetry after Donne and Andrew Marvell. Dissociation of sensibility is the division of thoughts and feelings, which according to Eliot is done by Dryden and other poets of the age. They are responsible for the dissociation. There is a loss of union of thought and feeling whereas in metaphysical poetry, according to pointing out of “Eliot and the Traditions of Criticism”, there is no separation of thought and feeling. Chapman’s work is a recreation of thought into feeling while a thought to Donne was an experience, which modified his sensibility. Metaphysical poets were trying to objectify their emotions according to Eliot’s principle of objective correlative.

The fact cannot be denied that Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, had a strong influence in reviving an interest in 17th century poets.


Eliot, T. S. (1972). “The Metaphysical Poets (1921)”. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 281 – 291.

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  1. nik
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Just read the essay and was left rather confused, this helped though. Thank you.

  2. saima asghar
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:09 am

    soooooooooooooooo goooooooooooooood

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