Dissociation of sensibility by T.S. Eliot

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Dissociation of sensibility
Dissociation of sensibility by T.S. Eliot 2

Dissociation of sensibility

The concept of “dissociation of sensibility,” introduced by T.S. Eliot in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), refers to a perceived shift in poetry during the seventeenth century. Eliot argues that earlier poets, such as John Donne and the metaphysical poets, possessed a unique sensibility that allowed them to integrate thought, emotion, and sensory experience seamlessly. They had a direct and immediate apprehension of thought, feeling it as intensely as they sensed the fragrance of a rose.

However, Eliot claims that a dissociation of sensibility occurred in the seventeenth century, marked by a separation or disconnection between intellect, emotion, and sensory perception. This dissociation was further exacerbated by the influence of poets like John Milton and John Dryden. According to Eliot, subsequent English poets no longer had the ability to unite thought and feeling within a single, unified sensibility.

The consequences of this dissociation, according to Eliot, were profound. Poetry became fragmented, with a division between the intellectual and emotional realms. The unity of experience found in the works of the metaphysical poets was lost, and subsequent poets tended to prioritize either thought or feeling, rather than integrating them harmoniously.

Eliot’s concept of dissociation of sensibility has been the subject of much debate and interpretation. Some critics argue that the dissociation was a natural evolution in poetic expression, while others see it as a loss and a decline in the depth and richness of poetic sensibility. Regardless of the differing interpretations, the term has had a lasting impact on literary criticism and continues to be discussed in relation to the development of English poetry.

T.S. Eliot’s concept of the “dissociation of sensibility” gained significant popularity, particularly among American New Critics. According to Eliot, this dissociation was a characteristic that weakened poetry between the time of Milton and the later works of W.B. Yeats. It was believed to be the result of the scientific conception of reality that emerged in the seventeenth century, which portrayed the world as a material universe devoid of human values and emotions.

Eliot’s argument found support in works like Basil Willey’s “The Seventeenth Century Background” (1934), which attributed the dissociation of sensibility to the changing intellectual and cultural landscape of the time. The idea was that the increasing dominance of the scientific worldview led to a separation of intellect from emotion in poetry.

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However, Eliot’s concept of dissociation of sensibility faced criticism, particularly after 1950. Critics argued that it was an invalid historical claim, constructed by Eliot to support his conservative political and social views. They believed that Eliot used this concept to criticize the direction of English intellectual, political, and religious history after the Civil War of 1642. Additionally, it was suggested that Eliot’s preference for certain poetic styles and traditions influenced his formulation of the concept.

The criticism of Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility centers around the notion that it is an oversimplified and reductionist explanation of the complexities of literary and cultural history. Critics contend that it overlooks the diversity of poetic expression during the period in question and neglects the social, political, and intellectual factors that influenced literary production. Consequently, Eliot’s concept has been subject to ongoing debate and revision within the field of literary criticism.

Other Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociation_of_sensibility#:~:text=Dissociation%20of%20sensibility%20is%20a,course%20of%20the%20seventeenth%20century.

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