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Porphyro's Rose: Keats and T.S. Eliot's "The Metaphysical Poets"

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 27, Number 1/2, Fall 2003
pp. 57-62 | 10.1353/jml.2004.0051

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Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 57-62

Keats and T.S. Eliot's "The Metaphysical Poets"

Christopher Baker

Armstrong Atlantic State University

Although T.S. Eliot's juvenilia display the influence of Victorian aestheticism, his studies at Harvard, especially the influence of Irving Babbitt's lectures there, helped foster his repudiation of the Romantic forbears of turn-of-the-century poetics. In 1919, he had stated acerbically that "the generation after 1830 preferred to form itself upon a decadence, though a decadence of genius: Wordsworth; and upon an immaturity, though an immaturity of genius: Keats and Shelley; and the development of English literature was retarded." George Bornstein notes that "Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth became a sort of anti-Trinity for Eliot," but by the end of the 1930s Eliot had reached a "general truce with Romanticism." A generation later, he implied that his struggle to find his own poetic voice had provided him an ability to view with greater clarity authors whom he had earlier disdained. As he remarked in 1955, the final stage of "development of taste and critical judgement in literature ... is that at which we begin to enquire into the reasons for our failure to enjoy what has been found delightful by men [; in doing so] one is seeking for light, not only about that author, but about oneself." Eliot's equivocal relationship to Romanticism reflects the broader evolution of the Modernist-Symbolist movement from early nineteenth-century roots, especially in its valuing of the polyvalent symbol and the organic nature of poetic form, a keystone of Coleridge's critical legacy. In Eliot's case, he inherited from Romanticism "a negative theology perfectly suited to a genealogical recuperation of literary history as rebellion and restoration. Eliot's denials defend him against the negative capabilities of his ancestors and plant his own negative authority in the place of former laureates."

No predecessor could have modeled the virtues of negative capability for Eliot better than Keats, and there is ample evidence that he appropriated Keats's poetry and critical pronouncements to a greater degree than his early rejection of the Romantics suggests. Keats's influence appears in "Eliot's pre-1910 juvenilia, such as 'Before Morning' and 'On a Portrait,' where Keats, Rossetti and Swinburne preside over visions of 'fresh flowers, withered flowers, flowers of dawn,' and the apparition of 'a pensive lamia in some wood-retreat, / An immaterial fancy of one's own.' " In The Waste Land, published twelve years afterwards, the line " '[o]ut of the window perilously spread' seems to owe something to Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale,' " and in the fourth of the "Five Finger Exercises" of 1933, Eliot alludes to the "Ode on Melancholy." His reference to the stillness of the Chinese jar in "Burnt Norton" (1936) section of The Four Quartets also suggests "Keats's Grecian urn—the static perfection acting as an unmoved mover upon the beholder." Eliot's practice of alluding to the work of others was pervasive enough to lead him to refer rather mordantly in a 1933 lecture to "the forty or fifty original lines that I have written." He ultimately came to share several fundamental tenets with Keats. Each believed that the English language as a poetic medium itself needed renewal; each looked for a way to embody meaning within the facticity of a physical image (for Keats this was the "material sublime," for Eliot the objective correlative); each praised the drama as offering a way of objectifying the poet's experience; and each sought a poetic perception founded on an undissociated sensibility—the meaning of Keats's noted remark: "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of thoughts."

These Keatsian links in Eliot's work suggest the likelihood of an additional echo of Keats in Eliot's essay on "The Metaphysical Poets." Appearing first as a review of Herbert Grierson's 1921 anthology, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler, the essay contains his famous definition of that unified sensibility which he felt defined the Metaphysical poets prior to the Cartesian "dissociation of sensibility" which settled over English poetry after the Restoration. Eliot praised the wit of the Metaphysicals...



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