by A. J. Smith
Genius carries its perils, and the genius of Samuel Johnson has proved all but fatal to the true understanding of the poets he called metaphysical. Nothing could be more brilliant, in the circumstances, than that illustrious description of the yoking of heterogeneous things by violence together. Nothing, doubtless by reason of that very brilliance, has set more honest critics in the mire. For the truth is that the circumstances in which Johnson made his judgment were totally unpropitious. He was handling the intimate product of a tradition--almost of a culture--long dispensed with and more than a century out of mind, of preconceptions as different from his own as the qualitative Aristotelian physics differed from the quantitative Newtonian physics which ousted it. And he was unaware that anything had changed but a fashion of writing. He could not avoid the prime critical error of treating the offspring of an alien climate as though it were native to his own soil.
The idea of metaphysical poetry thus begotten had been fertile, as we all know--to our cost, dare one say? In Johnson's analysis lies more than the germ of the Donne-cabbalism of our time, not least that large part of it which derives from Mr. Eliot. Here take their root our familiar notions of radical imagery, baroque tension and doubt, unified sensibility, emotional apprehension of thought, and the like, their lineage apparent in their repetition of the Johnsonian error of violent confusion of periods. We hear of the identity of
the essential metaphysical process of imagery, and of the process of modern imagery--the secret and invisible welding of the most contradictory elements, combined with the confusion of the senses, or rather fusion of the senses, which is the hallmark of modern suggestive writing.1