T. S. Eliot’s writing on George Herbert and “The Metaphysical Poets” brought Herbert squarely into the contemporary literary canon. In “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot sets forth the canon that he expects the next generation of poets to read; he also suggests that a certain skill is required for successful inclusion in this canon: a sensibility that unites thinking and feeling. Eliot aims to restore some 17th-century poets (John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn) to a place of prominence.
Eliot argues that all of these poets must be grouped together not because of their similarity in styles, but because of a similarity in, as it were, capability, specifically, the capability to yoke together disparate ideas. He writes, “a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.” In particular, he writes that these poets are “intellectual,” “intelligent” poets, poets who feel their thoughts rather than reflect upon them. Eliot seems to be referring in particular to Donne and Herbert's dense metaphors and allegories, often used to convey spiritual experience.
According to Eliot, after this, a “disassociation of sensibility” sets in; this disassociation allows Eliot to dismiss Milton, Dryden, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, and thus, all the centuries of English literature that lie between the 20th century and the English Renaissance. Eliot suggests that modern poets, in effect, have nowhere to turn in the English tradition but to the 17th century for their training. Therefore, Herbert’s ability to link together ideas like sacred love and profane love, as well as forms like lyric poetry and dialogue, became a model for a new generation of poets.