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Objective Correlative

Athenaeum, The Sacred Wood, Hamlet, excess, particular

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: New from Tartary to Frank O'connor

a term introduced in the essay ‘Hamlet’ by T. S. Eliot, which appeared in the Athenaeum in 1919 and was subsequently collected in The Sacred Wood (1920). Eliot maintained that Hamlet is ‘an artistic failure’ because it is ‘full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art’; the play is ‘dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’. These deficiencies are explained as the result of Shakespeare's inability to find ‘an “objective correlative” … a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion’. In defining the need for internal states to be manifest in external equivalents, the expression achieved axiomatic status in the criticism of poetry; as a critical generalization, it encompasses both Stéphane Mallarmé's description of Symbolisme as the art of ‘evoking an object so as to reveal a mood’ and Ezra Pound's account of the image as ‘an intellectual and emotional complex’ in the poetics of Imagism. The term may be considered a product of Eliot's creative preoccupations in the period immediately after the First World War, which centred on the need to achieve imaginative integration in poetry which dealt with problematic intensities of emotion; to this extent, the objective correlative is related to his concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Both expressions are suggested by Eliot's reference to ‘a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world’ in the lecture ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, given to an audience of 14,000 at the University of Minnesota in 1956.

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