The Objective Correlative

The philosophies of both Bergson and Bradley inform Eliot's concept of the 'objective correlative'. Though it was not the first use of the term or the idea, Eliot's formulation, in 'Hamlet and his Problems' (later renamed 'Hamlet') (1919), was certainly the most influential. Arguing that Hamlet is not Shakespeare's masterpiece, but in fact an 'artistic failure', Eliot locates that failure in Shakespeare's inability to express 'the essential emotion of the play', which he takes to be Hamlet's feelings about the guilt of his mother:

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.

Hamlet is disgusted by his mother, writes Eliot, but his mother is not 'an adequate equivalent' for his disgust. In contrast, in the 'more successful' Macbeth, the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep is conveyed by an 'accumulation of imagined sensory expressions' (1976: 100). The sensory expressions are an adequate equivalent for her state of mind. In his dissertation, Eliot had discussed Bradley's argument that emotion is never purely subjective, it is always inevitably connected to that which stimulated it (its object), and 'is ultimately just as objective'. Anticipating the terms of the passage quoted above, Eliot comments in his dissertation that 'Hence when the object, or complex of objects, is recalled, the pleasure is recalled in the same way' (1964a: 80). Bergson had made a similar point in Time and Free Will when describing the power of the poetic image: 'In seeing these images pass before our eyes we in our turn experience the feeling which was, so to speak, their emotional equivalent' (1910: 15). Thus, in 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night', we might see the chain of memories set off by the prostitute and the cat as an early example of the objective correlative.

However, by the time Eliot wrote 'Hamlet and his Problems', he had become more remote philosophically from Bradley and Bergson through the influence of the English analytic philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872—1970). Eliot had taken Russell's course on Symbolic Logic at Harvard in 1914, but he became much more influenced by Russell's philosophy after he had moved to England and developed a close friendship with the philosopher (Eliot and his wife Vivien lived with Russell during 1915). Russell's analytic philosophy, with its scientific methodologies and emphasis on empirical fact, contrasted strongly with Bradley's, and Eliot's early literary criticism, written in the years following the completion of his dissertation, shows a marked turn from Bradley's theory of knowledge through interpretation towards Russell's theory of knowledge based on analysis of facts. In his dissertation, Eliot had privileged the subjective — 'all significant truths are private truths', he wrote in his conclusion — yet his literary criticism is notable for its insistence on objectivity (1964a: 165).

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