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3. How Do We Recognize Metaphysical Poetry?
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77 c h a p t e r 3 How Do We Recognize Metaphysical Poetry? Andrew Cutrofello Metaphysical poetry, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. Or so T. S. Eliot might have written, had he written in the style of Adorno.1 Eliot believed that metaphysical poetry, which seemed obsolete to Dryden and Johnson, lived on because the moment to bring it back within the “main current” of English literature was missed when Keats and Shelley died young.2 In his 1921 review of Herbert Grierson’s anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century , Eliot characterized metaphysical poetry as poetry that expressed the experiential force of thought. Donne was able to write metaphysical poetry because he experienced his thoughts as objects. After Donne, a “dissociation of sensibility” severed the link between thought and experience.3 In the eighteenth century, it was impossible to appreciate Donne, let alone to write like him. The sentimental poets “thought and felt by fits,” while in Keats and Shelley “there are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility.” Instead of continuing that struggle, “Tennyson and Browning [merely] ruminated,” that is, expressed their unexperienced thoughts in unmetaphysical verse.4 Metaphysical poetry lived on because the spirit of Donne still walked abroad. 78 Andrew Cutrofello However, this critical assessment turned out to be only half of Eliot’s story. In his 1926 Clark lectures he argued that in comparison with the metaphysical poetry of Dante and his circle, Donne’s metaphysical poetry was metaphysical in a less comprehensive sense. For although Donne gave poetic expression to his experience of his own thoughts, his thoughts were not themselves metaphysical—not, at any rate, systematically metaphysical —as were the thoughts whose experience Dante expressed in the Vita Nuova and Commedia. While denying that metaphysical poetry could be reduced to philosophical poetry, that is, to poetry that directly expresses philosophical ideas, Eliot nevertheless privileges a variety of metaphysical poetry with respect to which Donne’s variety represents a deviation, if not a falling away. Hence the dissociation of sensibility after Donne turns out to be only a secondary aspect of Eliot’s larger account of the process by which metaphysical poetry came to seem obsolete at the end of the seventeenth century. Within this larger critical framework, the efforts of Shelley and Keats to revive the metaphysical tendency in poetry would have to be considered not only with respect to the “struggle toward unification of sensibility” that Eliot perceived in The Triumph of Life and the second Hyperion, but, more fundamentally, with respect to the character of the thought they brought to bear on this struggle.5 Instead of simply rehabilitating the School of Donne, Eliot aspired to make sense of the relationship between metaphysics and metaphysical poetry without reducing either to the other. To carry out this critical task it would be necessary to investigate the varieties of metaphysics as well as the varieties of metaphysical poetry. But Eliot only broached this task, while the New Critics largely neglected it. Hence metaphysical poetry, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. From another point of view, metaphysical poetry is a seventeenthcentury genre that was retrospectively dubbed metaphysical by an eighteenth-century critic. As such, it has led a merely posthumous existence . Perhaps by reexamining its christening and subsequent critical reception we can begin to clarify the sense in which it lives on, awaiting a realization still to come. In the introduction to Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Grierson distinguished metaphysical poetry in “the full sense of the term” from the metaphysical poetry of “Donne and his followers to Cowley”: “Metaphysical poetry, in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which, like that of the Divina Commedia, the De Natura Rerum, perhaps Goethe’s Faust, has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the rôle assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of How Do We Recognize Metaphysical Poetry? 79 existence.”6 Grierson excludes Milton from this list since “Milton was no philosopher. . . . He proved nothing. The definitely stated argument of [Paradise Lost] is an obvious begging of the question.” On the other hand, Grierson acknowledges that Milton is metaphysical in a “large way” that “Donne and his followers to Cowley are not.”7 Grierson is less precise about the sense in which the term “metaphysical” applies to Donne...