Dissociation of sensibility

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Dissociation of sensibility

Dissociation of sensibility: A phrase used by poet and critic T. S. Eliot in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) to refer to a divergence of thought and feeling that he claimed emerged in seventeenth-century English literature (particularly poetry) after the era of the metaphysical poets. Eliot maintained that earlier writers, especially Elizabethan dramatists and the Jacobean poet John Donne, possessed a “direct sensuous apprehension of thought,” a “unification of sensibility” that enabled them to fuse heterogeneous ideas into a whole. As Eliot explained:

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.

Eliot traced the dissociation of sensibility in part to John Milton and John Dryden, whom he claimed “performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others.” According to Eliot, few subsequent poets attained the unified poetic sensibility characteristic of the metaphysical poets and their predecessors. They thought or felt but were unable to fuse intellect and emotion, and for many “while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning, Eliot wrote, “are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” By contrast, Eliot viewed modernist poets as heirs returning to the unified tradition.

Following Eliot, the New Critics borrowed the term dissociation of sensibility and used it widely, but since the 1950s this notion has come under attack. Those who still agree with Eliot’s theory point not to Milton and Dryden but, rather, to the advent of scientific rationalism as the cause of the dissociation of sensibility. Less sympathetic critics claim that Eliot manufactured the doctrine to justify his own literary tastes and sociopolitical views (namely, his dissatisfaction with the course of English history since the mid-seventeenth century).