Objective Correlative

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.






18 thoughts on “Objective Correlative

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I would write a somewhat lengthy comment, but now, April, the cruelest of months, is not the time to do it. I would have to go into a very small office, my own funhouse of mirrors located between my ears. Figuphorically righting, of coarse.

  2. If I learned the term objective correlative in college it’s long slipped out of my mind. However, I get what it means and I like it. Not sure I’ll find a way to use it in casual conversation, but no matter I am more aware now.

  3. Earlier this year I went to visit Westminster Abbey and I could not help but think of the Wasteland when I “stepped” upon Eliot’s tomb.

    I once came across other very intriguing verses from Eliot, regarding a door he “dared not to open”, could not open or chose not to open (I don’t remember precisely which of the three options).

    Since then I tried looking for the precise reference online, but without success. Perhaps you can point me in the right direction? 🙂

    • . . . as people age, past plans, good intentions, and forgotten dreams gather dust, heaped in the attic of their lives as mementos from when anything seemed possible and every idea shone with the brilliance of hope fueled optimism born of ignorance and inexperience. Dulled by the patina of time, no amount of enthusiasm can restore them to their former brilliance and, in silence, slowly become indistinguishable from their dusty surroundings and eventually end as no more than the dust the people themselves will return to.

      Eh; not sure it meets the definition, but it’s at least more cheerful than the post-war description of hopelessness and despair. The ending is a bit clumsy, but I’m rushed for time.

      • I think it is.

        It reminds us of each person’s suffering and despair (what we call “life”) eventually ending with the blissful peace of death. No more worries, no more concerns . . . no more anything, forever and ever. All mistakes erased, everything as if we’d never existed. Like a train continuing on on its journey not aware — or concerned —that we’ve stepped off at the last stop.

        It was in the late 70s that I formulated my comforting motto (of sorts): “Life is difficult, but at least it’s short.”

  4. You wanna phrase, two words? Relative deprivation! Even the most of the poor in the West live in more comfort than Louis XIV. Could he travel sheltered from the weather at 55 mph (or more( on a road, sail safely and quickly by sea, and even more speedily by air? We have foods available that he did not have (and for a little guy he are a lot! Would like to see him and Henry VIII in a Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.) Be grateful for what we have, don’t throw our brothers with coats of many colors into slavery.

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