It was not only representative of the mind of Europe but also of the traditions of European thought and culture. But unfortunately, according to Eliot, the traditions of unified sensibility were suddenly disrupted in the seventeenth century as a result of a split in the creative personality of the artist, for which he formulated his famous theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility.’
Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ may be said to be an attempt to find some kind of historical explanation to the dissolution of the tradition of unified sensibility which found its perfection in the writings of Dante and Shakespeare. The unified sensibility was a sensibility which was the product of a true synthesis of the individual with the traditional, of feeling with thought and of the temporal with the eternal.
For Eliot, as with Coleridge, poetry is a union of opposites but whereas Coleridge explains that this reconcilation of opposites is brought about by the synthetic power of the secondary imagination, Eliot replaces the words ‘secondary imagination’ by the words ‘unified sensibility’ to express the operation of the poet’s mind. Eliot assigns primacy to the poetic sensibility which for him is the basis for writing poetry.
By ‘sensibility’ Eliot does not merely mean feeling or the capacity to receive sense impression. He means much more than that. By ‘sensibility’ he means a synthetic faculty, a faculty which can amalgamate and unite thought and feeling, which can fuse into a single whole the varied and disparate, often opposite and contradictory experiences, the sensuous and the intellectual.
The great Elizabethans and early Jacobeans had developed a unified sensibility. That is why they were widely read, and their thinking and learning modified their mode of feeling. Such a fusion of thought and feeling is to be found in the poetry of Donne as well as in much of modern poetry, but it is lacking in the poetry of Tennyson. The fact is that after Donne and Herbert a change came over the mind of England. The poets lost the capacity of unifying thought and feeling. The ‘unification of sensibility’ was lost, and a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in. After that the poet can either think or they can feel; there are either intellectual poets who can only think, or there are poets who can only feel. The poets of the 18th century were intellectuals, they thought but did not feel; the romantics of the 19th century felt but did not think. Tennyson and Browning can merely reflect or ruminate but cannot express their experience poetically.
Eliot writes : “Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but tl y 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 desparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter fails 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.” (The Metaphysical Poets).
The Metaphysical poets like the Elizabethans have a unified sensibility. They were the successors of the Elizabethan dramatists. Like them, the Metaphysicals, too, could be simple, artificial, difficult or fantastic. Then came Milton and Dryden and their influence was most unhealthy, because as a result of their influence there set in a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ from which English poetry has recovered only in the modern age. Both Milton and Dryden were great poets and they rendered important service to the cause of poetry. Under their influence, the English language became more pure and refined. But at the same time, the feeling became more crude. It is for this reason that the feeling expressed in Gray’s Country Churchyard is cruder and less satisfying than the feeling expressed in Marvell’s Coy Mistress.
There was another effect of the influence of Milton and Dryden, an effect which was indirect and which manifested itself at a later date. Early in the 18th century there was a reaction against the intellectual and ratiocinative (given to reason and argumentation, poetry of the pseudo-classics). The pendulum swang to the other extreme, and the Poets thought and felt by fits and starts. They lacked a balance and they reflected. By ‘reflection’ Eliot means that they ‘ruminated’, they ‘mused’, they ‘mediated poetically’, they enjoyed the luxury of dwelling upon some feeling, but could not express that feeling poetically. In some passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life and Keats’ second Hyperion, we find a struggle toward a unification of sensibility. But Shelley and Keats died young and their successors, Tennyson and Browning, could only reflect. They meditated upon their experiences poetically, but failed to turn them into poetry. The Metaphysical poets certainly had their faults. But they had one great virtue. They tried, and often succeeded in expressing their states of mind and feeling in appropriate words and imagery. They had ‘unified sensibility’ and they could find verbal equivalents for it. They were, therefore, more mature and better than later poets.
A Critique of Theory of the Dissociation of Sensibility
Although the theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ cannot claim to be an original concept, its importance is beyond question, and its influence has been abiding for it was Eliot who for the first time found a convincing expression and idiom to the widespread belief of a split in the personality not only of the artist but also in modern men and women.
Their doctrine, like all his other critical concepts, has its own limitations and also its proper field of application. Although the theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ is generally applicable to metaphysical poetry, it is not true of all the poems of the metaphysical poets. Mr. Leishman, for example, in The Monarch of Wit says that the concept of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ cannot be applied to all the poems of John Donne. Eliot himself, as Leishman goes on to explain, discovered ‘a fissure of thought and sensibility’ in John Donne which means that “in the terminology of 1921, Donne’s sensibility was dissociated. Similarly it has been pointed out by a large number of critics that although the doctrine of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ can be justified with reference to some of the poems of the metaphysical poets, it has been unduly extended to the Elizabethan dramatists.
The second criticism that is commonly levelled against Eliot’s appraisal of the metaphysicals is that although the metaphysical poets received high praise from Eliot, in actual practice his creative and critical work has very little of metaphysical quality. In his poems such as The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Four Quartets, the metaphysical quality of his earlier verse seems to have almost disappeared. Mr. Duncan in The Revival of Metaphysical Poets even doubts the metaphysical quality of his earlier verse.
But in spite of all these criticisms, Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ is undoubtedly one of his most significant contributions to critical analysis is and judgment, for it exerted a tremendous influence over the creative and critical talents of his contemporaries so that the poets became conscious of the traditions of the unified sensibility. To
Sum up, in the words of frank Kermode, the poets henceforth began, ‘to charge their thinking with passion, to restore to poetry a truth independent of the presumptuous intellect.’