In the first section of this three-section article, Ong cites the well-known fact that Mill had a nervous breakdown at age 20, presumably due to the strain of being raised by a father who forced Mill to learn a narrow version of associationist theory, in which emotions are analyzed strictly in terms of their application to the encouragement or prevention of a healthy society. To recover from this nervous breakdown, Mill turned to the reading of poetry, an act of rebellion against his father' philosophies which could not appreciate such an activity; in the process, Mill began to develop his own theory on the role of the poet.
Ironically, Ong points out in the second section of the article, "Poetic Feeling and Associationism," as Mill developed this theory on the role of the poet, he did not break entirely from associationist theory but actually relied on the theories taught to him by his father. He used, in particular, the notion of "constitutional difference" expressed by Thomas Brown in Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1820), in which Brown asserts that poets are different from other human beings because they rely more heavily on analogies than other people do. By following Brown's lead and identifying the poet as constitutionally different, Mill was able to both incorporate poetry into his associationist-influenced world and also exile the poet from this world, an act that Ong perceives as "tragic," for Mill ended up doing exactly what he did not want to do: retain his father's philosophy in his own writings.
Here, readers will also be reminded of how Ong assesses the work of Franz Kafka in "Kafka's Castle in the West" and "Finitude and Frustration: Considerations on Brod's Kafka," for Ong seems to make similar conclusions about both Mill and Kafka: both had the impetus to confront something which was overwhelming (in the case of Mill, the unspeakability of poetry's meaning and, in the case of Kafka, the non-rational acceptance of God), but neither was quite able to face the overwhelming experience fully.
In the last section of the article, Ong focuses on Mill's famous statement, "Eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard," and elaborates on Mill's attempt to confront the nature of poetry. Mill explains the nature of poetry by setting it apart from ordinary "linguistic operations" and compares the difference between poetry and ordinary linguistic operations to the difference between solitude and social conversation or between Raphael's painting "Virgin and Child" and Rubens' "historical" painting. In other words, linguistic operations, social conversation, and Rubens' painting can all be explained and understood for the most part, but poetry, solitude, and Raphael's "Virgin and Child" all escape explanation--they are all overheard rather than simply heard. And because the poet is overheard, outside any explanation by associationist thought, how the poet is understood relies more on the listener than the poet.
Ong concludes, finally, that while Mill became the exiled poet himself
when he resisted his father's plans for him, he did not ultimately move
away from his father and the associationist stance completely. He
did, however, make "exceptions" to the associationist point-of-view by
accepting poetry into his own world.