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A phrase first brought to public attention by T.S. Eliot in his 1919 essay on Hamlet. It refers to a literary description (or a sequence in a play) that depicts a emotion, and hopefully evokes that emotion in the reader (or viewer).

Eliot said that if we are to believe in the emotion characters are showing in a work of art, that emotion must relate to, and be in scale with, the situation put forth in that work of art. If the emotions shown are too melodramatic or too phlegmatic for the setting, it looks unconvincing.

My favorite example is Who's on first?, which while not the most literary of examples, is an excellent case of getting the audience to feel empathy with the character. (I only empathize with Costello. Maybe someone out there feels for Abbot.) Every time they start the cycle again, you know exactly what Costello is going through, and his reactions are perfect. On the other hand, I suspect that T.S. Eliot would not think that this was a well-done objective correlative, as it is (just slightly) exaggerated for the sake of comedy. To each his own.

This term was coined by Washington Allston, an American painter and poet. As noded above, T.S. Eliot popularized the term in his essay "Hamlet and His Problems" (1919); George Santayana (with whom Eliot studied at Harvard) is regarded as the idea's philosophical source. Eliot defined the objective correlative as a way of expressing emotion by finding "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion." The objective correlative makes a poem intellectually and emotionally intelligible to the reader by presenting concrete circumstances that evoke an abstract emotion. For an example of the technique in action, consider the opening stanza of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, where images of a city convey the narrator's enervated, anaesthetized state of mind.

Eliot introduced the term to criticize what he saw as a flaw in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In contrast to Shakespeare's more successful characters—Lady Macbeth, for example, whose emotions are communicated "by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions"— Eliot felt Hamlet's emotions were excessive in the play's context; his madness "envelops and exceeds" its apparent cause.

The Objective Correlative and Modernism

The formulation of an outer correlative for inner feelings ties with Eliot's conception of the poet as an impersonal, disassociated agent, a theory he expressed by scientific analogy: "the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide":

When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.
The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.
(Quotes from Tradition and Individual Talent.)
The objective correlative in this light is allied with Modernism's reaction against the perceived inadequacy of traditional literary modes confronted by the realities of post-war society. The objective correlative also indicates the Modernist shift in emphasis from Romantic intensity of emotion to intensity of artistic process. Eliot sought to heal what he saw as a "dissociation of sensibility" between thought and feeling that had reached a peak in Romantic poetry. He saw the metaphysical poets as a model of poetry that united emotion and thought in experience1. Eliot's privileging of local, precise experience over grandiose abstractions has parallels in the methods of other modernist writers: Joyce's epiphanies; Woolf's moments of being; Pound's "make it new"; W. C. Williams' "no ideas but in things."


Eliot claimed authorship of the term as late as 1947: "...one of the two or three phrases of my coinage—like 'objective correlative'—which have had a success in the world astonishing to their author" (Milton II, from On Poetry and Poets). In a letter to Nimai Chatterji published in 1955 in the New Statesman, Eliot wrote that he had discovered Washington Allston coined the term. The letter ends with a note of characteristic uncertainty: he confesses that he is "[not] quite sure what I meant 35 years ago[.]"

Allston introduced the term in his lectures on art and poetry, composed in the early 1830s. He claimed that, as a plant needs inorganic elements to develop:

"[s]o, too, is the external world to the mind, which needs also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the existing idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end—the pleasurable emotion."
For Allston, the outward object was "the occasion, or the condition, and not per se, the cause," which existed in a Coleridgean "One Intuitive Universal or Living Power."

In Nature (1836) Ralph Waldo Emerson developed Allston's concept, without specifically using the term objective correlative. Drawing from Swedish theologist Emanuel Swedenborg's Doctrine of Correspondences, he claimed the mind could give order to external nature: "Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind [...] The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation." Emerson prefigured Eliot's theory of the objective correlative's inevitability when he described "natural facts" as "symbols of particular spiritual facts" transformed through poetic process: "That which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge."

James Marsh, a philosophy professor and probably the first US-native student of Immanuel Kant, contributed to the formulation of the term in his 1830s "Remarks on Psychology." Marsh claimed the soul was capable of being affected by the objects of sense and "of exhibiting its own corresponding properties":

the effect of which we are conscious results from the specific relation of two correlatives, an objective and a subjective, the coincidence of which is necessary to the result, as known in our consciousness.
For Marsh the relation between subjective and objective was one of action and reaction, rather than of Eliot's cause and effect. Many of Marsh's students became teachers and professors across America, which suggests the term and concept were well-known within Romantic and Transcendental discourse after the 1830s.

Another early source for the term is John Henry Newman's sermon 'Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition' (1839), where Christ is seen as the objective correlative of the believer's faith:

The divinely enlightened mind sees in Christ the very Object whom it desires to love and worship—the Object correlative of its own affections; and it trusts Him, or believes from loving him."

Further antecedents for Eliot's formulation can be found in Walter Pater's criticism and Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy—in particular Book XVII, where Nietzsche, like Eliot, criticizes Hamlet.

George Santayana's theory, from which Eliot's formulation is considered directly derivative, was that the poetic impulse must be dramatized in "an appropriate theatre." To express emotion properly, Santayana felt poets must "imagine occasions in which these feelings may manifest all their inward vitality [...] the glorious emotions with which he bubbles over must at all hazards find or feign their correlative objects."


The objective correlative is perhaps overly dogmatic and inflexible, given that poetry's power often rests with the poet's ability not only to combine but to transform, to invest objects with new and unexpected emotional resonance. The formulation appears to neglect the spontaneous and unconscious aspects of the creative process. The insistence on a deterministic, 'correct' interpretation seems particularly dated from today's perspective. If we look for examples of the objective correlative in Eliot's own poetry, we find at work a much more nuanced and complex set of processes than the objective correlative alone allows for—Eliot was deeply influence by Frazer and the mythic method of Joyce2.

Citing posthumous biographical revelations about Eliot's private life, Cynthia Ozick claimed the objective correlative is "decipherable as no more than a device to shield the poet from the raw shame of confession" (T.S Eliot at 101)—an interpretation that unfairly conflates the writer's life with his work. There is an undercurrent of authoritarianism in the objective correlative's strict regulation of individual experience3, a hint of the fascist and anti-Semitic tendencies that plagued Modernism.

Criticism should be tempered by Eliot's own attitude to the objective correlative; he dismissed it in his essay "The Frontiers of Criticism" as one of the "few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world." Eliot wrote of his criticism that with retrospect "its merits can be appreciated in relation to the poetry I have written myself." His criticism was "a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my own poetry." In his 1955 letter to Chatterji he observes the expression "has perhaps had more currency than it really deserved" and tries to clarify his intention:

While the objective correlative must satisfy the reader or theatrical onlooker that it is the equivalent of the author's feelings, and thus as far as necessary communicates and renders intelligible these feelings, it does not necessarily exhaust all the emotional overtones, which are conveyed, as far as they can be, by the incantation of the verse.

Whatever its shortcomings, the objective correlative has served as a valuable tool for encouraging poetry that engages the reader intellectually and emotionally. Its emphasis on rigorous process combats poetry's tendency towards vagueness and self-indulgence. Eliot's application of formal rules to abstract domains opened new possibilities for literary criticism.

The objective correlative's attempt to apply concrete formulae to abstract domains has parallels in other artistic genres— for instance, the Baroque Doctrine of Affections and Wassily Kandinsky's experiments with line and color composition.

1 Eliot opens The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with a famous metaphysical conceit: "the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table"
2 See Eliot's review of Joyce's Ulysses, "Ulysses, Order and Myth" (online at <http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~marinos/Eliot_MythicalMethod.html>)
3 Compare Eliot's January 1926 Criterion editorial, where he notes the modern tendency towards "a more severe and serene control of the emotions by Reason."

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1999.
Chatterji, Nimai. Letters. New Statesman. 5 March 1955. P. 361.
Cowley, V. J. E. "A Source for T. S. Eliot's 'Objective Correlative,'" in The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 103. (Aug., 1975), pp. 320-321.
Duffy, John J. "T. S. Eliot's Objective Correlative: A New England Commonplace," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1. (Mar., 1969), pp. 108-115.
Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. London : Faber. 1957.
Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswirth (eds). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan (eds). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Wilson, Douglas L. "Santayana's Metanoia: The Second Sonnet Sequence," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Mar., 1966), pp. 3-25.

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