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Eliot’s ‘Objective Correlative’

Tradition or Individual Talent?

Contributions to the History of a ‘Topos’


Flemming Olsen


Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2012

Paperback. ix + 72 p. ISBN: 978-1845195540. £16.95


Reviewed by Steve Ellis

University of Birmingham



In spite of its imposing subtitle Contributions to the History of a ‘Topos’, this very short book (fifty-nine pages of text) can only aim at being an undergraduate primer, and is far from satisfactory in this respect. The first part is a series of snippets from authors ranging from Aristotle to Remy De Gourmont that are held to anticipate Eliot’s formulation of the ‘objective correlative’, with very brief commentary on each, though in several cases (as with Gautier and Baudelaire [12-16]) it is hardly made clear what their relevance actually is. One of the basic points is that Eliot’s objective correlative, grounded in his own words in the world of ‘objects’, ‘events’ and ‘external facts’, is for Olsen ‘rooted’ in a Positivist tradition in which ‘objectivity became a key concept’ [55, 25) and in those writers seen as anticipating this tradition. At the same time Eliot shared the ‘Imagist conviction’ that ‘contested’ aspects of Positivism [37]. There is no linked discussion in this book that analyses this ambivalence, but rather a tendency to self-contradiction and vagueness that characterises the book in several areas. Another instance is in the initial assumption that the objective correlative is synonymous with the concept of le mot juste, even though Eliot, in finding it lacking in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is plainly talking more widely of a defective narrative/dramatic scenario (‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events’). By the end of his book, Olsen has come round to this—‘the point about it is not verbalization’ [55]—but there is no attempt to reconcile this with his earlier emphasis.

The book, though very short, is thus subject to a strange structural self-forgetting, as well as a set of questionable pronouncements on Eliot’s work that partly arise from Olsen’s stress on Eliot as an Imagist. Thus his association of Eliot with an Egoist-centred group of writers whose work was ‘non-stanzaic’ and ‘unrhymed’ [28-29] ignores the fact that precisely at the moment Eliot was formulating the objective correlative (in his ‘Hamlet and his Problems’ essay of 1919) he was writing the series of rhymed and stanzaic quatrain poems gathered in the Poems of 1920. Again with the Imagists in mind we are told of ‘Eliot’s conception of the stability of word meanings’ [8] as well as his ‘craving for mathematical exactitude’ in meaning [40], an ‘ideal demand’ which is jeopardised by conflicting readerly interpretations of his poems [56]; or, as the book’s blurb puts it, ‘whose fault is it if the reader’s response does not square with the poet’s intention?’ But there are several instances of Eliot’s welcoming different readers’ interpretations as in some ways better than his own, and he accepted the inevitability, and even opportunity, of language instability and change. We are again back on the territory of le mot juste, but again puzzled by it as a distraction from the (tenuous) matter in hand.

Arguably the worst aspect of this book, however, is its being littered with mistakes of fact and citation. Out of countless instances the essay ‘What is a Classic?’ (minus its question-mark) is dated to 1914, and we are told that ‘in the same essay [Eliot] acknowledges Tennyson and Browning as poets who think’ ([54]—it is of course in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ essay that they do this); Lancelot Andrewes ‘died in 1526’ [34); For Lancelot Andrewes is variously dated to 1927 and 1928 [32, 64]; and Eliot’s formulation in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ about ‘the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him …’, etc, is unaccountably related to a supposed discussion of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ [33]. Even Olsen’s key text, the ‘Hamlet’ essay, is at the outset dated to 1920, to be then collected in The Sacred Wood ‘which appeared in 1928’ [2]—this information is corrected later, p. 30, in another example of the book’s inconsistency, though further confusions also creep in at this point. Add to this the many misquotations, missing page references, quoting the same essay from different sources and a constant mis-use of ‘Ibid’ that sends the reader to books by Eliot for essays by Bradley (and vice versa), or to the wrong collection of essays by Eliot, and the sense that this is not so much a finished book as a series of preliminary and unsorted jottings is confirmed. I doubt whether a student seeking assistance with Eliot’s objective correlative will be much enlightened by this skittish survey; moreover, a student seeking to master an accurate citation system will, to use a phrase of Eliot’s, be ‘thoroughly gravelled’ by it.             


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