Modern Sensibilities


As is always the case, the passage of time marks changes in thought and philosophy. Usually, one cannot say whether they are progressive or regressive, for the better or the worse, they just have to make an opinion for themselves. In the case of T. S. Eliot, one change that he felt had occurred, for the worse, between the days of the Renaissance and the world of modernism was that of a change in sensibilities in writers. In his essay titled The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot laments a separation of “thinking” and “feeling” within poetry that did not use to exist; previously, poets were able to wholly absorb and express experiences without having to separate the two.

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they 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 disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls 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, in line with its grand conceits and extravagant ideas, encapsulates the entirety of the subjects it dwells on, heart and mind.

The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

So, has this dissociation taken place? Especially in the postmodern landscape of literature today, there seems to be a difference between classical and Renaissance forms versus the contemporary. I personally would agree with Eliot; a radical shift has occurred, not only in poetry, but all forms of literature. A lot of postmodern art deals with its own artifice, the fact that it is not in fact something organic and natural and self sustaining. As such, its almost impossible for these kinds of works to insert this wholly encapsulated experience that the metaphysical poets strove for, because that is not even their goal. Look at the poetry of e. e. cummings or Adonis or any number of contemporary poets. There is a fragmentary sense to them that defies the very philosophy of preceding poetry and art. They are aware of their medium and seek to play within it, not necessarily transcend it, and perhaps that is the biggest difference in the conscience of the metaphysical and the modern, and where our current “dissociation of sensibility” comes from.

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