Eliot first published the essay Hamlet and His Problems in Athenaeum on September 26, 1919, and subsequently the piece was collected in The Sacred Wood in 1920.
In the essay, Eliot was ostensibly reviewing two recent books on William Shakespeare’s play, one by an American scholar, Elmer Edgar Stoll, the other by an English scholar, J. M. Robertson. He singled both of them out for praise because, in their treatment of Hamlet, he felt that they had shifted their critical attention away from the more typical focus on Hamlet’s character and instead toward the play itself. Maintaining that same shift in focus in his own commentary, Eliot, in the course of his review, deliberates on what he sees to be Hamlet’s failure as drama, and in the course of that part of his discussion he coins the term objective correlative, one of the two critical phrases for which he became perhaps as much renowned as he did for his poetry (the other would be dissociation of sensibility).
The coinage came about as Eliot was attempting to define the precise nature of what is lacking from Hamlet that makes it, in his view, less successful as poetic drama than it could have been. Essentially, the play, Eliot suggests, is filled with “stuff” that Shakespeare as both playwright and poet was unable to “drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.” This, according to Eliot, is a failing not necessarily in the material itself but in Shakespeare’s handling of it.
Readers of Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919), for example, a piece virtually contemporaneous with his essay on Hamlet, will already know how important for Eliot were matters of craft and technique, those dispassionate structures and linguistic strategies whereby the poet transforms experience, be it real or invented and imaginary, into the work of art. As Eliot would have it, this transformative process overrides any other considerations. Indeed, for him, craft and technique should be the foremost constituents of the poetic process if poetry is ultimately to be accepted as an impersonal act of communicating the complexities of reality.
Having defined Hamlet’s “problems” as a failure on Shakespeare’s part to manage his poetic material as effectively as he could have, Eliot then offers what, in his view, ought to have been the solution to these problems, had Shakespeare only employed it. It is in that context that Eliot introduces the phrase “objective correlative” into his argument. For an emotion to be “immediately evoked” in a work of literature, Eliot contends, there must be “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” that constitute “that particular emotion,” such that when that formulation is presented, it will result for the reader or viewer in a sensory experience evoking the desired emotion. “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet.”
The core idea that Eliot is expressing in “Hamlet and His Problems” seems indisputable once grasped. Essentially, all that he is saying is that a work of art affects the perceiver in many ways and on many levels—emotionally, sensuously, morally, ethically, socially, aesthetically, viscerally. The list goes on. The point is that the work of art succeeds best that combines the right elements into an “objective correlative” to elicit the broadest range of responses that the artist is aiming to provoke in the perceiver. According to the implications of Eliot’s theory, it can be argued that Shakespeare could have gotten more clarity out of the various components of a drama that has always impressed even its most ardent admirers with its murkiness had he, Shakespeare, succeeded in finding and then casting just the right objective correlative to exemplify the emotional and moral complexities of Hamlet’s dilemma. For example, Hamlet’s preexisting hatred of Claudius is justified by the Ghost’s revelation that Claudius is a murderer and putative adulterer, but so does the fact that Hamlet despises Claudius to begin with cloud the single-minded motivation required of Hamlet to seek the vengeance to which the Ghost exhorts him.
There is much that is subjective in Eliot’s evaluation, of course, and Eliot himself wisely avoids suggesting any concrete ways in which Shakespeare might have improved the play. The point is that Eliot takes the opportunity to pontificate on finding a serious flaw in one of the world’s greatest tragic plays, and he not only gets away with it but enhances his own reputation and credentials as a critical intellect in the process. The real issue is not whether Eliot is correct in his assessment of Hamlet or whether the objective correlative, albeit an original coinage, is a wholly original formulation on Eliot’s part. Rather, the focus should be on how influential the term has become as a critical commonplace, bespeaking the authority that Eliot acquired early on in his career as a critic.
There appear, as with virtually all Eliot’s ideas, to be subtleties that are either not sufficiently explicated or too facilely glossed over in his explanation of the aesthetic phenomenon that Eliot speaks of when he defines the objective correlative; but it is easy to get the general idea, since ultimately the point is well taken if regarded solely as a creative rule of thumb. In terms of the poetic arts, Eliot is arguing that an emotion cannot merely be named but must be demonstrated, represented, evoked, by something that is itself not the emotion but that in the proper context and at the right moment will nevertheless bring to mind in the reader the specific emotion that the poet desires to elicit. To achieve this, of course, the poet must be quite conscious of the effect or effects that he or she is hoping to achieve, so, in essays such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot will argue for the impersonality both of artistic process and of the artist, by which he would mean that poetry is not self-expression but the precise expression of emotions unique to the work itself.
The yellow fog in Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” may provide as good an example as any of the objective correlative in operation as an impersonal process of the creative mind aiming to achieve not self-expression but a specific effect. The mental image of such a fog undoubtedly colors the reader’s response not only to the scene that the poem is setting but to the tone and mood that it thus evokes, creating an atmosphere of the lurid and the sickly that both works against and complements the characterization both of Prufrock and of his life and social milieu that is emerging through the poetry. Furthermore, the yellow fog is rendered finally in the aspect of a feral animal, reminding the reader, perhaps, of details from the opening stanza, where the evening sky is personified in a surprising and disturbing way as an etherized patient and where the tawdry and lurid are suggested by references to sleazy hotels and lowclass dining establishments.
This accumulation of details that are unsettling in their potential for revealing a seamy sordidness just underlying and certainly thereby enveloping Prufrock’s otherwise stately but stale world, both in its physical realities and in its psychological impact on him, is embodied in the yellow fog, which strikes just the right note to summarize the emotions that the poetry appears to be attempting to provoke in the reader—disgust, curiosity, sympathy, caution. That yellow fog, then, in keeping with Eliot’s own definition, can be said to function as an objective correlative, triggering the sought-for emotional response in the reader by presenting rather than stating all of these tonal colorations. The fog is, as Eliot would say, an external detail adequate to the emotions, inevitably leading to them; in other words, it is an objective correlative for those emotions.