[PDF Notes] What do you understand by the term “dissociation of sensibility”?

Dissociation of sensibility was a phrase introduced into literary criticism by T.S. Eliot in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). Eliot’s claim was that the metaphysical poet’s of the earlier seventeenth century, like the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.” They exhibited “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought”, and felt “their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose.

A thought to Donnie was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” But “in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” This dissociation was greatly aggravated by the influence of Milton and Dryden; and most later poets in English either thought or felt, but did not think and feel as an act of unified sensibility.

As for Dr. Johnson’s criticism that these poets “yoked by violence together” the “most heterogeneous ideas”, Eliot remarked that “a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.”

Eliot’s vaguely defined distinction has had a great vogue, and the supposed division between the unified mind and sensibility and the dissociated mind and sensibility was greatly expanded, and was referred to a variety of causes, but especially to the development in the seventeenth century of the scientific view of the world as a material universe stripped of human values and feeling.

Especially since 1950, however, Eliot’s doctrine of a sudden but persisting dissociation of sensibility has come in for strong criticism, as an unreal view of intellectual and poetic history which was contrived both to support Eliot’s disapproval of the course that English history had taken after the Civil War of 1642, and to justify Eliot’s particular poetic preferences.

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