T.S. Eliot begins the essay with Dr. Johnson’s use of the phrase ‘metaphysical poetry’ as a term of abuse or as the label of quaint and pleasant taste. The main concern of this essay is to what extent the so called metaphysical formed a school and how far this school or movement is a digression from the main current. He also points out the characteristic fault of the metaphysical poets.
Eliot says that it is extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry and to decide what poets practise it in which of their verses. The poetry of Donne is late Elizabethan. Its feeling is often very close to that of Chapman. The argument put forth by Eliot is that there is no precise use of metaphor, simile or other conceits common to the metaphysical poets. Moreover, there is no common style important enough to isolate these poets as a group. But Donne and Cowley employ a device which is sometimes considered characteristically ‘metaphysical’ : The elaboration of a figure of speech to the furthest stage. Cowley’s comparison of the world to a chess board (To Destiny), and Donne’s comparison of two lovers to a pair of compass. In these poets, instead of a mere explication of content of the comparison, there is a development by a rapid association of thought. Donne’s most successful and characteristic effects are secured by brief words and sudden contrasts.
Dr. Johnson employed the term ‘metaphysical poets’ keeping in mind Donne, Cleveland and Cowley. He remarked that in them ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.’ Eliot says that often the ideas are yoked but not united and if we are to judge styles of poetry by their abuse, enough examples are found in Cleveland to justify Johnson’s condemnation. He quotes Lord Herbert’s Ode and says that nothing in the poem that fits Johnson’s general observation on the metaphysical poets.
According to Eliot, the language of these poets is as a rule simple and pure. Herbert’s verse has simplicity. Unlike the eighteenth century poems, the seventeenth century poems (metaphysical poems) like Marvell’s Coy Mistress and Crashaw’s Saint Teresa are dissimilar in the use of syllables. In the former, there are short syllables to produce an effect of great speed and in the latter, long syllables are used to effect an ecclesiastical solemnity.
In Eliot’s opinion, Johnson has failed to define metaphysical by its faults. One has to consider whether the metaphysical poetry has the virtue of permanent value or not. In fact, it does not have it. Johnson’s observation is that the attempts of these poets were always analytic. Eliot says that in the dramatic verse of the lat Elizabethan and early Jacobean poets, there is a development of sensibility. In Jonson, Chapman and Donne, there is a recreation of thought into feeling. That is, there is ‘unification of sensibility’. Eliot makes a distinction between the victorian poet (reflective poet) and the metaphysical poet (intellectual poet). Poets like Tennyon and Browning think but do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility. The disparate experiences are amalgamated and they form new wholes.
The poets of the 17th century are the successors of the 16th century dramatists. They are simple, artificial, difficult, fantastic as their predecessors were. In the 17th century, a dissociation of sensibility set in and this was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century - Milton and Dryden. These poets performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of effect concealed the absence of others. There was improvement in language. While the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. In one or two passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life, in the second Keats’s Hyperion. There are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility.
Now the question is that what the fate of ‘metaphysical’ would have been if the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. Like other poets, the metaphysical poets have various faults. But they were trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. Eliot concludes the essay by saying that Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herbert, Cowley at his best are in the current of English poetry.