Yet in The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, Eliot’s 1926 Clark Lectures, it [dissociation] is far more complex, and it refers to an ongoing “disintegration” from Dante to Laforgue. What disintegrates is not limited to the immediacy of thought and emotion, and “sensibility” refers not simply to the common meaning of emotional responsiveness. Rather, it includes but goes beyond sensation itself–“sight, sound, hearing, taste, and touch.” Eliot’s definition of “sensibility” in the Clark Lectures begins with a reference to Sappho’s “Second Ode”: “You will see that Sappho’s great ode, for instance, is a real advance, a development, in human consciousness; it sets down, within its verse, the unity of an experience which had previously only existed unconsciously; in recording the physical concomitants of an emotion it modifies the emotion.”[i]
“Metaphysical periods” he claims, are those “moments of history when human sensibility is momentarily enlarged in certain directions. . . . [ii] This occurs when a type of poetry is written in which an “idea, or what is only ordinarily apprehensible as an intellectual statement, is translated in sensible form; so that the world of sense is actually enlarged.”[iii] And “the characteristic of the type of poetry I am trying to define is that it elevates sense for a moment to regions ordinarily attainable only to abstract thought, or on the other hand clothes the abstract, for a moment, with all the painful delight of flesh.”[iv] Eliot finds this kind of poetry in three historical “moments”: Dante, the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals, and the French Symbolists, chiefly Laforgue and Corbiere. What these poets all share is a fusion of thought and feeling or sense; what they do not share is a system of thought that is an exact equivalent of feeling. For Dante this existed; for Donne there were fragments of a system that he was able to fuse with feeling. For Laforgue there was already a disintegration of intellect that he could only address by “the intellectualizing of the feeling and the emotionalizing of the idea.”[v] In each case it is the fusion or integration of sense and idea or thought and emotion that is “metaphysical.”
[i]. Eliot, Varieties, 51.
[ii]. Eliot, Varieties, 53.
[iii]. Eliot, Varieties, 53-54.
[iv]. Eliot, Varieties, 55.
[v]. Eliot, Varieties, 213.