As far as we know the term “objective correlative” was first coined by the American painter and poet Washington Allston and only later introduced by T.S.Eliot into his essay “Hamlet and His Problems”. Eliot regarded “Hamlet ” as a sort of “artistic failure”, because Shakespeare, according to him, had not succeeded in making the audience feel properly Hamlet’s overwhelming emotions. The bard had not gone beyond describing the Prince of Denmark’s emotional state through the play’s dialogue, rather than stirring minds and souls to feel as he did, and this could have happened only through a skilful use of images, actions and characters:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In short, poetry must not express emotions but rather find objects, situations and facts capable of evoking them in a definite and ordinary reality. Hence, the objective correlative correlates the state of mind of the poet to a series of tangible and well-defined objects, thus giving a strong semantic significance to the poet’s feelings. Pain, restlessness, bitterness are no longer expressed through the description virtual or abstract elements, but rather concrete and real, like a landscape, a house, a wall, a lemon tree, but also the sea, a stormy boat, a marina and so on, in this way to poets succeeds in conferring those images a universal meaning.
In the Waste Land, for example, the fragility, the sense of loss and depression of the post-war generation is reproduced powerfully by the following set of words “a heap of broken images“. The war had destroyed from the foundations the world as it was and only the ruins and the bits and pieces of that past had remained. Those fragments are piled up untidily and there is no way to reconstruct the former unity. It is gone, what remains is only “stony rubbish“, that is: useless. The men who inhabit this Waste Land are stunned and devoid of any certainty and perspective, they have been “dried” of their values and once stripped of every superstructure, they have turned themselves into basic elements like “tubers” and prefer to rest safely protected by the “forgetful” winter snow rather than to put their heads out of the ground and act. Men are like “dull roots“, but roots must clutch at something in order to survive, something that might give them the impression of meaning to the days yet to come, but in a sterile lands what seems to nourish and comfort you for the present may become poisonous and turn into a tragedy in a close future. We all know that those “dried tubers” found relief drinking at the fountain which gave life to those populisms which grew in those fatal twenty years between the two wars.
All this in just few simple words, which thus combined give the formula to any reader to feel the state of mind of those who lived one the most tragic periods of our history.