Eliot refutes the remarks of Johnson on the poet whom he classified as metaphysical

Question: How does Eliot refute Johnson’s remark on the poet whom he classified as metaphysicals? Eliot refutes the remark of Johnson on the poet whom he classified as metaphysical.


Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is a celebrated poet critic and philosopher of the 20th century who has never been criticized as a critic in his lifetime and after his death even till now. He is a discoverer and defender in English literary criticism as he has defended and classified the so-called metaphysical poets.

Origin of crude criticism against metaphysical poets

The term “metaphysical poets” has been criticized by critics from time to time in the history of English literature. This term was first rebuked by Dryden in 1692 and later by Samuel Johnson. The remark or observation of Dryden and Johnson on Donne is:

“Metaphysics as a pretense Donne boasted his erudition or wisdom.

Even with syllables and rime not poet but mere technician.”

 In the modern period, Professor Grierson’s book “Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler (1921) is a piece of criticism and a provocation of criticism for metaphysical poets. But for the first time, T. S. Eliot comes forward to defend and recognize the so-called metaphysical poets.

Click here: For all the notes of Literary Criticism

Objections of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Before going to present Eliot’s defending arguments, the objections of Johnson against metaphysical poets should be learned. The objections are:

  1. Metaphysical poetry has long done duty as a term of abuse, or as the label of quaint and pleasant taste.
  2. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together, or divers in character or content.
  3. Inventive use of conceit.
  4. The loose structure of poetry.

Protecting logics of T.S. Eliot

It is true that Eliot has pointed out some arguments against Johnson and also refuted him not to censure but only to defend metaphysical poets or nothing else. Eliot’s logics are here.

Extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry

Eliot’s first and foremost defending argument is that it is extremely crux to define metaphysical poetry and decide what poets practice it. The poetry of Donne and Marvell is very close to late Elizabethan poet and translator Chapman in respect of feeling. Romantic and devotional verses of Cristiana Rossetti and mystic verses of Francis Thompson, both belonged to the Victorian period, are really similar to the devotional verse of Vaughan, Herbert, and Crashaw. Thus, Eliot opines that the metaphysical concept in writing poetry is a fundamental one.

Use of figure of speech

Johnson criticizes metaphysical poets for their use of so-called inventive conceit. Eliot opines that it is difficult to find any precise or particular use of simile, metaphor, or other conceit because the use of figure of speech is common to all poets and at the same time important enough as an element of style. Therefore, it is exactly futile to isolate metaphysical poets as a loose group based on only the use of conceit.

The most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together

Eliot confesses that it is a fact that often the ideas are yoked and not united in metaphysical poetry. But he asserts that it is a matter of omnipresence in poetry. He cites the example of a French poet to justify this and also relates that Johnson himself is free from this fault. “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is a poem by Johnson is the best example of heterogeneous ideas yoked violently together. Eliot presents four lines of the poem of Johnson as evidence:

“His fate was destined to barren strand,

A petty fortress, and dubious hand;

He left a name at which the world grew pale,

To point a moral, or adorn a tale,”

Defense of miscellaneous objections

Besides these objections, Eliot has refuted other objections of Johnson as to metaphysical poets. He strongly says that Johnson’s general observation on the metaphysical poets in his essay “The Life of Cowley” is often fit but the language of the prescribed poets is simple, clear, and elegant and their thought and feeling are unified very close to the modern poets.

Johnson objects that metaphysical poets’ attempts were always analytic but Eliot would not agree with Johnson because the dramatist of the late Elizabethan period was extremely analytical. Here Eliot especially mentions Cristopher Marlowe who was a man of superb erudition like metaphysical poets from an analytic perspective. Thus, Eliot shows that metaphysical poets were the successor of Elizabethan dramatists.


Now, it may be said that Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults but Eliot also asserts that we must not reject the criticism of Johnson who is a dangerous person to disagree with.

Ruhul Huda
Ruhul Huda

You can call me Mr. Huda. I am a researcher and doing this work for years. I like to learn everywhere. So, feel free to share your experience with me.

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