Sunday, March 17, 2013

T.S. Eliot and the Dissociation of Sensibility

This is the fifth in a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about
T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
            As I wrote in a comment on my last blog post, I came to a crossroads with my study of T.S. Eliot when I began reading the work of his friend and contemporary John Middleton Murry.  Much to my surprise, I felt more sympathetic toward Murry’s beliefs than toward Eliot’s.   And, since the two literary heavyweights were diametrically opposed at the end of the 1920s, I felt compelled to side with one or the other.  A friend recently reminded me that making such a choice is unnecessary.  Though I might feel more sympathy toward Murry at a particular point in time, that does not obligate me to reject Eliot.  I’m reminded of something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties.  So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.  This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.

            I do not mean to suggest that the differences between Eliot’s beliefs and Murry’s beliefs are not real and vital.   Certainly, the two friends found themselves at a genuine impasse.  After his baptism in 1927, Eliot seemed willing to let go of the friendship, perhaps because he resented the ease with which Murry had (so to speak) found God and started a new life.  Eliot’s path was not as easy, nor did he want it to be.  His temperament would not allow him to build his faith on the type of mystical experience that served as Murry’s foundation.  Consciously or not, Eliot clung to the essence of his grandfather’s teachings.  William Greenleaf Eliot wrote, “It is at once arrogant and dangerous to claim direct and extra-ordinary guidance.  It is virtually to claim inspiration, and that which begins in humility ends in pride” (W.G. Eliot: Early 9). 
Eliot privately regarded Murry as sinfully proud, even heretical -- as he explained in a February 1927 letter to Richard Aldington (V. Eliot: Letters III 424).   Over a decade later, in The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot offered his own definition of heresy, describing it as “an insistence upon one half of the truth [or] an attempt to simplify the truth, by reducing it to the limits of our ordinary understanding, instead of enlarging our reason to the apprehension of truth” (T.S. Eliot: Idea 41).  His earlier dialogue with Murry suggests that he formulated this definition around the time of his conversion.  In February 1927, the month that he made arrangements for his baptism into the Anglican Church, Eliot consciously set out to define himself in direct opposition to Murry’s life and ideas, as an orthodox believer.
            Eliot and Murry’s public relationship (that of sparring critics) concluded with an intense debate over Murry’s 1926 book Jesus: Man of Genius.  Eliot contested his friend’s depiction of Jesus as a “man of genius” and a human “hero,” rather than the second person of the Trinity (“God the Son”).    Murry defended his beliefs in a private letter:

“Son of God” is a description of a religious experience and condition, not a theological statement.  So, when you ask me for a theology, my reply is that I haven’t got one, and the reason why I don’t even try to get one is that men of religious experience (of whom Jesus is to me the highest example) didn’t have, or want one.  They knew, what I too know, having learned it from them, that theologies are unnecessary to misleading.  […] To be son of God is simply an experience of a blessed & quasi-filial relation between ourselves and "the power not ourselves which makes for righteousness" - "to be God" is an experience of identification with that power.  These two conditions are the same condition really. (V. Eliot: Letters III 452). 

Eliot was unmoved.  He conceded that theologies “are misleading,” but added, “to have no theology is to be still worse mislead” (V. Eliot: Letters III 459).   A few months later, Murry published an attempted synthesis of his ideas and Eliot’s.  Eliot responded by calling on several Catholic theologians to publicly rebut Murry’s ideas.   In Eliot’s mind, this was no longer a dialogue between two individuals.  For him, the matter was concluded and the authority of the Church was final.  It would seem that he quietly resolved to stop addressing Murry on Murry’s terms.
Murry was thoroughly disheartened, recognizing an impassable gulf between himself and his old friend.  In a September 1927 letter to Eliot, he wrote:

I understand what you say, but I can’t understand why you say it.  And all my hopeful feeling when I first undertook that frightful essay has evaporated.  It seems that there really is some sort of abyss between us - not humanly thank goodness - but in respect of our ideas & convictions.  If I didn’t know you, I should suspect you of trying to score debating points - that gives you a notion of the separation I feel at the moment (V. Eliot: Letters III 676)

Eliot suggested that the only possible way forward was to shift their public debate, ongoing since the Fall of 1923, to a discussion of differences between their “attitudes toward psychology” (V. Eliot: Letters III 725).  This was Eliot’s only apparent concession to Murry: he acknowledged that belief is in large part a product of temperament, education and environment.  On that point, Eliot’s beliefs had not changed since 1923, when he wrote in “The Function of Criticism” about a man’s basis for choosing between loyalty to Inner Voice and loyalty to Outside Authority. “If you find that you have to imagine it as outside,” he said decisively, “then it is outside” (“Function” 15).


            During these final months of public debate with Murry, Eliot argued for the importance of institutional religion and the revitalization of a particular religious tradition -- not just to satisfy his religious needs, but to answer his literary concerns.  Eliot and Murry’s initial debate between Romanticism and Classicism was partially built on Eliot’s concept of the “dissociation of sensibility,” the foundation of all his important literary criticism in the 1920s.   Eliot coined the term in his 1921 essay
“The Metaphysical Poets,” defining it as “something which 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” (Eliot: “Metaphysical” 117).  Eliot scholars Jewel Spears Brooker and William Charron do an admirable job of elucidating the concept:

The opposites at issue here are intellect and feeling (or thought and sensibility).  In looking back over the history of English poetry, Eliot found that the poetry of the eighteenth century put inordinate emphasis on the role of intellect and that of the nineteenth [Romanticism] inordinate emphasis on feeling.  He found a model for his own work by going back to the seventeenth century, claiming in “The Metaphysical Poets” that such poets as Donne and Cowley had been able to achieve a unified sensibility, a state in which thought and feeling existed in a relationship of reciprocation and mutual definition.  (Brooker 58)

Eliot developed the concept in subsequent essays, linking what he regarded as the most admirable tendencies of the Classical “metaphysical poets” with the tendencies of the late 19th and early 20th century poets he most admired.   In doing so, Eliot set up an instructive juxtaposition of Dante (his ideal metaphysical poet) and the French Symbolist poets who inspired Eliot’s earliest work (Baudelaire, Laforgue, Corbiere, et al).  With this juxtaposition, Eliot provided his ideal context for the interpretation of his earlier poetry and a plan of action for his later poetry.  Baudelaire, as the most influential French Symbolist, had been a major influence; Dante would become his new guide. 
            In his 1920 essay “Dante,” Eliot had praised the medieval poet for his perfect fusion of intellect and feeling, thought and sensibility.  He wrote:

The poet does not aim to excite - that is not even a test of his success - but to set something down; the state of the reader is merely that reader’s particular mode of perceiving what the poet has caught in words.  Dante, more than any other poet, has succeeded in dealing with his philosophy, not as a theory (in the modern and not the Greek sense of that word) or as his own comment or reflection, but in terms of something perceived.  (T.S. Eliot: “Dante” 100).

Around the same time, he praised Baudelaire in a short article for The Tyro, suggesting a hidden “morality” at the heart of his work.  Many years later, Eliot would elaborate on this idea by presenting the French poet as a “fragmentary Dante” (T.S. Eliot: “Baudelaire” 372) and “essentially a Christian, born out of his due time” (T. S. Eliot: “Baudelaire in Our Time” 103).  In 1930, he wrote:

Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption.  It is proof of his honesty that he went as far as he could honestly go and no further… the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation - of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to the living.  It is this, I believe, that Baudelaire is trying to express; it is this which separates him from the modernist Protestantism of [Romantic poets] Byron and Shelley  (T.S. Eliot: “Baudelaire” 378-379).

Eliot plainly admitted that his literary criticism reveals much about his own poetry.  For that reason, though we run the danger of oversimplification, I think it is fair to suggest that by the mid-1920s he was making a concerted effort to progress his own work from the fragmentary damnation of The Waste Land to the unified sensibility and salvation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 
It is not difficult, with the advantage of hindsight, to view The Waste Land as “essentially Christian.”  The Waste Land Facsimile shows that Ezra Pound, in his role as creative editor, excised the more redemptive notes from Eliot’s work, producing a final draft that emphasizes hell over purgatory…. at least up until the final line.  The poem’s overtly Eastern ending (“shantih shantih shantih”) is interpreted by Eliot, in his endnotes, within a Christian context.  “The Peace which passeth understanding,” he writes, “is our equivalent to this word.”  His phrase, of course, is borrowed from the Apostle Paul, and also -- knowingly? -- from one of his grandfather’s most popular books.  In his Lectures to Young Men, William Greenleaf Eliot asks his reader to imagine the end of life, looking back on all that has been accomplished and not accomplished:

… if in the last review of life we are able to honestly say, “Religion and morality have not suffered at our hands, but by a daily good example, and by the faithful use of whatever means and influence we possessed, we have done whatever we could for God and for Christ’s sake,’ - then will the closing days of life be to us as the beginning of heaven; and when the world begins to recede from our eyes, our hearts will be filled with the peace which passeth all understanding (W.G. Eliot: Lectures 29)

Eliot, in the middle way of his life's journey, was already trying to imagine his life in that final context, and to act in a way that would bring him peace.  His efforts set the stage for his future poetry, as suggested analogously in his 1925 Clark Lectures:  “A new and wider and loftier world, such as that into which Dante will introduce you, must be built upon a solid foundation of the old tangible world; it will not descend like Jacob’s ladder” (T.S. Eliot: Varieties 95).   With baptism, the poet began building something timeless on the ruins of the temporal waste land.  He practically declared his purpose in the January 1927 of The Enemy, responding to I.A. Richards’ characterization of The Waste Land as a poem about “a sense of desolation” reflecting belief:

A “sense of desolation,” etc. (if it is there) is not a separation from belief; it is nothing so pleasant.  In fact, doubt, uncertainty, futility, etc., would seem to me to prove anything except this agreeable partition; for doubt and uncertainty are merely a variety of belief… I cannot see that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief, and to which I cannot see any reason for refusing the name of belief, unless we are to reshuffle names altogether (Bergonzi 111).

No doubt thinking of his own immanent baptism (which he would arrange the following month), Eliot added that such belief “will not inevitably be orthodox Christian belief, although that possibility can be entertained.”  His reasoning was as follows:

Christianity will probably continue to modify itself, as in the past, into something which can be believed in (I do not mean conscious modifications like modernism, etc. which have always the opposite effect.)  The majority of people live below the level of belief or doubt.  It takes application, and a kind of genius, to believe anything, and to believe anything (I do not mean merely to believe in some ‘religion’) will probably become more and more difficult as time goes on (Spurr 26-27).

When Eliot speaks of belief like this, he is speaking of the type of belief that Murry attributed to Jesus.  In his 1926 book Jesus: Man of Genius, Murry writes:

Jesus said that men had only to believe the wonderful news for it to be true; they had only to believe that they were sons of God to be sons of God; they had only to believe that God was their Father, to find him their Father.  That was all: only to believe.  But for Jesus to believe was to know (Murry 39).

            According to his own near-confession, Eliot needed to imagine an Outside Authority.  (I’m reminded of Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”)  Without that, he believed he would be damned.  He also needed to imagine the “dissociation of sensibility” in order to address his needs as a poet.  If such a schism did not exist in Western poetry, it nevertheless would have been necessary for Eliot to invent it.
Scholar Jeffrey Perl argues that the latter was only in Eliot’s imagination.  “There is no ‘dissociation of sensibility,’” he insists, reasoning that Dante had no more of a continuous, coherent tradition behind him than Baudelaire did.  Although Eliot argued (in his 1927 essays "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" and "Seneca and Elizabethan Translation") that Dante's work was informed by the coherent system of thought of Thomas Aquinas, Pearl argues that Christianity provided Dante with only a perception of historical continuity and cultural unity, carefully crafted by the Catholic Church.  The reality, Perl writes, is that this perception of continuity and unity “depended on an attitude to history (ahistorical) and an approach to text (intertextual) that the humanist and Protestant devotees of purity and authenticity could not abide.”  In his estimation, therefore, disintegration was inevitable.  The Waste Land was inevitable.  But it is not the end.  Perl stipulates that modern enmity offers the same guarantee of wholeness: “What we call ‘disagreement’ (an anthropologist from Elsewhere would write volumes on this word) is the means of binding together a culture grown so complex that its contradictions will no longer be reconciled” (Perl 6-7).   Spiritual chaos is merely a matter of limited perception. 
            I’d like to imagine that this is where the five-year public debate between T.S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry ends, with both men embracing Truths that are larger than themselves and their limited ability to rationalize the great mysteries of the universe.  If those Truths appear to contradict each other, the contradictions are due to limitations of the human mind -- stemming from psychologies shaped by temperament, education and environment -- rather than suggesting limitations of God or Nature.  The gulf between their perspectives is real enough, but it is more than just a gulf.  It is also a point of overlap, which Eliot later would call the still point of the turning world.


Bergonzi, Bernard.  T.S. Eliot (Masters of World Literature).  New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Brooker, Jewel Spears and William Charron.  “T.S. Eliot’s Theory of Opposites: Kant and the Subversion of Epistemology.”  T.S. Eliot and Our Turning World.  Ed. Jewel Spears Brooker.  London: Macmillan, 2000.

Eliot, T.S. “Baudelaire.”  Selected Essays.  New York: Harcourt, 1964.

---.  “Baudelaire in Our Time.”  For Lancelot Andrews: Essays on Style and Order.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1929.

---.  “Dante.”   The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays.  Mineola: Dover, 1998.

---.  For Lancelot Andrews: Essays on Style and Order.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1929.

---. “The Function of Criticism.”  Selected Essays.  New York: Harcourt, 1964.

---.  The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry: The Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1926, and The Turnbull Lectures at The Johns Hopkins University, 1933.  Ed. Ronald Schuchard.  San Diego: Harvest, 1993.

Eliot, Valerie, ed.  The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923 - 1925.  London: Faber, 2009.

Eliot, Valerie, & John Haffenden, ed. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926 - 1927.  London: Faber, 2012.

Eliot, William Greenleaf.  Early Religious Education Considered as a Divinely Appointed Way to the Regenerate Life.  5th Edtion.  Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1881.

---.  Lectures to Young Men.  11th Edition.  Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1882.

Murry, John Middleton.  Jesus: Man of Genius.   New York: Harper, 1926.

Perl, Jeffrey M.  Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.

Spurr, Barry.  ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.   Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2010.


  1. As with your other essays, Joe, there is a great deal of depth and density to this one. It is very sad that Murry and Eliot got caught in an old trap that has ruined many a friendship...the need to be "right" overshadowed the more important need to be understood. However, I have met many people over the years who feel deep within that the "soul" of the other person may in some way be in jeopardy...thus, the Outside Authority. And, that leads me back to the Inner Voice. Although he was a committed Hindu throughout his life, Gandhi would often speak of the importance of the Inner Voice as the crucial touchstone of the spiritual life. He also had a way of turning an old formula on its head: "Truth is God," he asserted again and again. He would have honored Eliot and Murry for, at least, taking the Truth and God seriously. I remember there were times when Gandhi would be talking about God to people around him, and he could see that some were uncomfortable. So, he said: "Whenever I say God, just substitute the Law of Life in its place." He wanted so much to include he tried to teach them a means of simultaneous translation. Is that the difference? Gandhi desperately wanted conversation...not debate. Forgive the digression...but I'm teaching Gandhi right now, and Inner Voice got me started. One last point before I end: As I read the passage from Eliot about Dante and the need for a solid foundation, I felt great sadness for him and all of us. I completely understood his need...and then I saw in my mind's eye those trenches and the dead of WWI. And, I thought to myself: How hard it would have been to find a solid foundation after that! Thanks, Joe, for offering these essays...they offer me a place where my heart and mind can be of use to one another.

  2. Thank you, Paul! I continue to be very grateful for our conversation, and I hope your students recognize the value of the things you're teaching.

  3. As you have done in "The Making of T S Eliot", you stun me with the depth and breadth of your knowledge, understanding, insight, and scholarly intelligence. For these I am most grateful and hope to meet you again in person someday. You have come a long way from the book launch party in Westminster Abbey, but that night is still and still moving in my heart-mind. Thanks for continuing to share your love of Eliot with us. I hope the T S Eliot Societies in the USA and England appreciate your work as much as I do. Cheers!

    1. Dr. Spurgeon - As it happens, I JUST read your excellent book on the Author of John Inglesant. I have sent an email to you at Marymount. Hope to hear from you soon!