T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 4)

According to Eliot, it is through this search for understanding and clarity on the part of the poet that the reader is able to attain greater understanding and clarity for himself. In his 1919 essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Eliot coined the term “objective correlative” to describe this ability. There, he writes,

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.

By “objective correlative,” then, Eliot refers to a set of imagery or allusions used by the poet to express his emotions which are “immediately” evocative of the same emotion within the reader. As such, the objective correlative establishes a bridge between consciousnesses which allows the poet and the reader to, in some sense, share in a common experience.

Eliot’s notion of an objective correlative bears a great deal of resemblance to the earlier attempts of Richard Wagner and other nineteenth century theorists of art to create a cohesive theory of music and poetry. In his Opera and Drama, Wagner similarly describes the desire to impart feeling. There, he claims

the most perfect Unity of artistic Form as that in which a widest conjuncture of the phenomena of Human Life—as Content—can impart itself to the Feeling in so completely intelligible an Expression, that in all its ‘moments’ this Content shall completely stir, and alike completely satisfy, the Feeling.

The poet, then, is able to unify the disparate phenomena of life and to share his cohesive vision of reality through the objective correlative, uniting his own experience with that of the reader. Thereby, the chasm of misunderstanding and inarticulation between self and other is overcome, however momentarily.

In the Dry Salvages (1941), the third of the Four Quartets, Eliot introduces another term to describe these moments of crossing the chasm between self and other. There, Eliot writes,

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Here the impossible union

Of spheres of existence is actual.

(CPP, 136)

The crossing of the chasm is again, as in East Coker, only partial and tentative. It is, after all, a “hint half guessed” and a “gift half understood.” It is never fully articulated and so never fully understood. Yet it is an “Incarnation,” a moment in which there is “communion,” to use again the term used by Eliot in East Coker. There is the possibility, at least, of a “union / Of spheres of existence” in which both poet and reader temporarily emerge from the prison of subjectivity and are able to share in a commonality of experience and perhaps even a mutuality of consciousness, to cross the chasm for a moment.

In a 1929 essay on Dante, Eliot asserted that “it is a test . . . that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” As poetry speaks first through the feelings, it is a mark of the excellence of a given poetic piece that it is not necessary to understand it on an intellectual and factual basis for it to work upon one’s consciousness. Describing his own initial experience of the Divine Comedy, Eliot explains that “the impression was new, and of, I believe, the objective ‘poetic emotion.’” While he later pursued a greater understanding of Dante’s historical and cultural setting and the various allusions to them which run throughout Dante’s poetry, none of this was necessary to the initial effect of the poetry. Instead, there was an “objective correlative,” an aspect of the poetry by which the poet was able to move the reader and speak directly to and through the feelings of the reader.

It is the ability of poetry to raise experience from the level of the particular to the level of the universal that is central to its ability to momentarily united the otherwise divided “spheres of existence” in which each individual lives. “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions,” Eliot writes in his 1919 essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, “but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” It is the “bad poet,” he writes, who seeks for “novelty” in the discovery of subject matter, as the only viable and worthwhile subjects are those aspects of one’s being which are universal aspects of human nature.

The universality of the feelings and experiences expressed through poetry and the possibility of the “union / Of spheres of existence” does not, however, imply a loss of individuality. On the contrary, that loss of individuality, says Eliot, is the danger run by the poet who attempts to separate himself from others and strike out in some altogether novel direction. “Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature,” Eliot writes in his 1927 essay on “Thomas Middleton.” Commenting on Eliot’s thought on the place of the individual in a given tradition of art and thought, Northrop Frye notes that “humility” is, according to Eliot, “a prerequisite of originality. The self-expression that springs from pride is more egocentric, but less individual, for the only self that can get expressed in this way is one just like everyone else.” The irony of the individualist is that he loses his individuality in his attempt at originality. Speaking of readers in his 1935 essay on “Religion and Literature,” Eliot notes that

There may be too many publishers; there are certainly too many books published; and the journals ever incite the reader to ‘keep up’ with what is being published. Individualistic democracy has come to high tide: and it is more difficult today to be an individual than it ever was before.

The same holds true, Eliot believed, for the poet as well. In a constant attempt to stay with or get ahead of the current trends, the poet often also loses what it is that makes his voice unique in the first place.

In contrast to this loss of individuality through obsession with novelty, it is through the “union / Of spheres of existence” that true individuality is realized by both poet and reader. In his lectures on the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot explains that

What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time, a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning — or without forgetting, merely changing.

That the “spheres of existence” of the poet and of the reader are momentarily crossed and perhaps even unified does not imply, then, that either necessarily swallows up the other. There is no destruction and therefore no loss. Instead, there is the opposite; there is new creation. According to James Olney,

We are the poem as we read it, as the words, the images, and the rhythms pervade and become our being; the poem stands for us, and not for us a moment since or a moment hence but now as the images lie in the mind’s and penetrate the mind’s ear, as the subtle rhythms go below the conscious mind to recreate for us the same new-born self that they express. As that self is the poet’s and not the poet’s, so it is ours and not ours; perhaps it is most properly to be called the self of the poem—requiring both poet and reader, as they require it, to come into united being.

The “union / Of Spheres of existence” through the poem, then, produces a third entity which unites poetry and reader. It does not submerge the selfhood of either, but instead unites them in a new sphere of commonality. The isolation of subjectivity is overcome and undone without the undoing of the self.

An absolute identification of the feelings and experiences of the poet and reader, then, is not necessary to an establishment of this sphere of commonality. It is enough that the reader accurately understands and is able to sympathize with the poet’s experience. In the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot continues,

When the doctrine, theory, belief, or ‘view of life’ presented in a poem is one which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader’s enjoyment, whether it be one that he accept or deny, approve or deprecate.

Even in those instances in which the thoughts and experiences of the poet differ substantively from those of the reader, then, a certain commonality can be established by good poets and sensitive readers. Just as the reader need not submerge or erase his experience to replace it with that of the poet, the reader also does not need to adopt the viewpoint of the poet to accept it as one plausible outlook on the world. It is enough for the reader to grow in his appreciation for and understanding of the poet’s outlook.

Simultaneously, Eliot’s theory of poetry avoids the opposite extreme of reducing all understanding to subjective interpretation. Eliot’s thought, then, runs contrary to the poststructuralist attempt to remove the authority of the author entirely and so to claim for the text an independent status in which no interpretation can be considered to be of greater value or truth than another. As Paul Thom, writing specifically of the performing arts, notes of these attempts, “What they are advocating is not interpretation at all, because it falls foul of a requirement on all interpretation . . . , namely, that the interpreter must judge the datum to be a correct characterization of the object of interpretation.” Though Eliot spoke of “the independence of the poem when it has been written and dismissed by the poet,” as in his introduction to a collection of essays by the French poet Paul Valéry, he was not advocating an utter abandonment of the belief in a definite meaning for a text, a meaning attached in some way to the author’s intent. Eliot, after all, was not shy about calling the opinions of one commentator on the Waste Land “nonsense” in his 1931 essay “Thoughts After Lambeth.” Just as the experiences and ideas of the poet can neither erase nor replace those of the reader, the same is true of the experiences and ideas of the reader. The reader’s experiences and ideas cannot be read back into the text in such a manner as to efface the element of the poet’s personality and being which has been imprinted into it. A poem, after all, arises out of and therefore continues to reflect the poet’s experience.

Eliot’s reference to the “union / Of spheres of existence” as an “incarnation” in the Dry Salvages is once again the key to understanding his theory of poetry. Eliot, of course, borrows the term and its implications from the Christian belief that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. As the formula of the Council of Chalcedon, the church council of 451 which decided the terminology to be applied by orthodox Christians in describing the event, puts it, “the distinction of [the divine and human] natures” of Christ was “in no way annulled by the union” of his divinity and humanity in the incarnation. Eliot’s application of the orthodox Christian belief in the incarnation to his conception of poetry, then, yields a similar notion. As the poet’s experience becomes, in a sense, incarnate within the mind of the reader it does not swallow up or destroy the reader’s experience nor does the reader’s experience swallow or destroy that of the poet. Instead, the two enter into an engagement on equal terms, each suffusing without annihilating the other.


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