Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Objective Correlative as Technique of Suggestion

M. Laxmana Murthy


The doctrine of objective correlative is regarded as the essence of Eliot’s poetics. In his discussion of Hamlet, Eliot remarks that in the drama Shakespeare “tackled a problem which proved too much for him.” He was up against intractable material for which he could not provide an objective correlative. Hamlet, Eliot concludes, is therefore an artistic failure. For Elliot objective correlative is the only way the poet can deal with his material. The poet has to find “an objective correlative in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that emotion, such that when the external facts, which terminate in sensory experience, are given the emotion is immediately evoked.” Objective correlative is linked with Eliot’s earlier description of the poet as the catalyst. He writes:

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly-formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.

While here Eliot’s stress is on impersonal transmutation of the passion, in formulating objective correlative his emphasis is on the technique. Read together they define poetry as impersonal verbal structure which is the objective equivalent for emotions. What matters is the manipulation of language. The chief concern of the writer is with words and their arrangement. To identify the word and give it exact place is not merely an aesthetic preoccupation, but a philosophical act in a world of disorder. Eliot’s Four-Quartets grapples with the theme of language in the Final moment of each quartet. In Burnt Norton the nature of the words is meditated upon.

...words after speech, reach
Into the silence.
… … … …
…words strain,
crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision ...

In East Coker the continuous experimentation with words is described as “a raid on the inarticulate” and an effort to control “undisciplined squads of emotion.” In Little Gidding he meditates on the need of “the common word” and “the formal word” making “the complete consort”. Eliot’s poetics is thus a sensitive exploration of the tension born of the efforts “to get the better of words /For the thing one no longer has to stay, or the way in which/one is no longer disposed to say it.” One strategy of confronting the structural problem is through objective correlative.

Few critical formulations in the history of poetics have elicited opinions more sharply divided. Critics like Cleanth Brooks, Eliseo Vivas and R. P. Blackmur have interpreted it in various ways. The phrase has become popular, and yet the critical debate is on with undiminished vigour. Armin Frank comments that it is “perhaps too well-known to be known well enough.”


A few years ago Krishna Rayan analysed objective correlative from the Rasa point of view. In a letter written to N. Chatterji of Calcutta Eliot made it clear that he was not aware of Indian theories of poetics while formulating objective correlative. Although Eliot did not study Indian poetics in particular, he was a student of Indian Philosophy under Professor James Haughton Woods of Harvard. Professor Woods was a celebrated authority on Yoga system. He translated and edited Patanjllla Yoga Sutras for “Harvard Oriental Series” as The Yoga System of Patanjali with Vyasa BhashyaandVachaspati Misra’s Tattvavaisaradi. Vachaspati in the course of his erudite commentary on the Bhashyawrote a long discussion on Sphotadoctrine of Indian grammarians. Evidently Professor Woods was drawn to the subtleties of the Indian linguistic theories. He was keen on acquainting his students with the Indian views on language and its function. Eliot, in all probability, had the opportunity to learn what Indians thought about the behaviour of words. Blackmur makes a reference to this possibility. He writes:

It has always seemed to me that Eliot must have heard read the same words I heard in Professor Wood’s Course in Indian Philosophy, for notes were very old when I heard them used; “The reality in words, gentlement, is both superior to an anterior to any use to which you can put them.” These words were accompanied by a strenuous forward rubbing of the hands on the desk, as if somehow the reality of words was being rubbed both into the grain of the wood and the grain of our minds. Elliot’s filament of platinum may well have an ancestor in words spoken in Emerson Hall.

Professor Woods refers to the need to “feel at home in that type of emotional thinking which culminates in a supersensuous object of aesthetic contemplation.” He was aware of the power of suggestion, a concept very much discussed in Indian poetics. This concern with language probably provided Eliot a hint to pursue.

In his “raid on the inarticulate” Eliot experiments with dislocation of words into meaning. For him the verbal structure has to objectify and clarify the felt reality. In this context several questions crop up in a minute analysis of the formula of objective correlative.

(i)               Eliot recommends objective correlative for the verbal structure of emotion. Is this effort to objectify emotions confined in practice to the poet alone? Is the poet objectifying his emotion to himself?
(ii)             The formula reads, “the emotion is immediately evoked.” Evoked in whom?
(iii)            How is the emotion evoked–directly or indirectly? Was Eliot aware of suggestion in poetry?
(iv)           Could objective correlative be linked with Rasa fruitfully?

The first of these questions may sound somewhat naïve since the evocative aspect mentioned in the formula involves the reader. Otherwise the aesthetic process itself is incomplete. But Armin Frank argues that the evocation of the emotion in reader remains, “an implied possibility, but is not a necessity.” He believes that Eliot has not indicated that objective correlative needs a reader to “take out” the emotion which the poet has “put into” the literary work. He rejects the transaction of emotions as the primary business of the objective correlative; and interprets it as a device to delineate the process in the poet anterior to creation. Armin Frank comments:

The poet has an emotion – a state of inarticulate, possibly conflicting attitudes, or, perhaps, impulses and he does not understand it. In order to reach an understanding of this emotional state he strives to find an adequate equivalent for it in a world of objects. Eliot assumes that, once it is found, it will immediately evoke that particular emotion, i.e., make that from which the “man” suffers transparent for the “intellect”, make it intelligible in terms of the world which the poet has found–and founded–in the poem. To objectify an emotion……means to make it accessible to contemplation, understanding knowledge.

Frank has obviously made objective correlative a practical device for the poet as man. The poet needs it because of “his urge to search for an understanding of his emotions or feelings.” This interpretation, Frank feels, would explain the theory of impersonality which he calls “split personality theory” as it assumes a split between “the man who suffers” and “the mind which creates.” In the light of the foregoing discussion, objective correlative begins and ends with the poet for his subjective need. Frank quotes in his support the following brief note from Eliot’s doctoral dissertation on Bradley, Eliot writes:

We know that those highly organised beings who are able to objectify their passions, and as passive spectators to contemplate their joys and torments, are also those who suffer and enjoy the most keenly.*

On the basis of this observation, Frank concludes that the need of understanding one’s own feelings is the primary motive poetic production.

The second question regarding the evocation of emotion becomes imminent with Eliseo Vivas. He argues that the poet cannot be aware of his emotion beforehand as he can only “discover it through the act of composition.” He further contends that “while the emotion expressed is also of interest, it is not and should not be, of chief or exclusive interest to the reader.” The verbal structure should not be regarded as a conduit pipe which facilitates straight the flow of poet’s emotion to the reader at the other end. Vivas holds that the reader may not feel the same emotion as the poet did. Creation for him is discovery through structure. Vivas and Frank have put objective correlative at the service of the poet. It has hardly anything valid to do with the reader. It should, nevertheless, be noted that while Frank does not refer to the aesthetic aspect of the theory, Vivas is concerned with its aesthetic implications only.

The third question is related to the power of suggestion inherent in the verbal structure. The real point is whether an emotion could ever be communicated at all. Eliot appears to be very much aware of the problem of communication. He seems to come closer to Vivas with his remark that “when the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before. That, I believe, is what we mean by ‘creation’.” He however feels that emotion can only be suggestive and not communicated. He believes that definite and achieved structure radiates its meaning, Commenting on Marvel and Morris, Eliot observes:

The effect of Morris’s charming poem depends upon the mistiness of the feeling and the vagueness of its object; the effect of Marvell’s poem upon its bright, hard precision … The verses of Morris, which are nothing if not an attempt to suggest, really suggest nothing; and we are inclined to infer that the suggestiveness is the aura around a bright clear centre, that you cannot have the aura alone.

Eliot is keen on a bright clear centre which should suggest more than it conveys. Elsewhere he remarks that it is uncritical to believe that there can be only one meaning of the poem. There is a radiance shed by the poems themselves. Thus the language employed with definiteness and structural precision should be able to suggest a good deal. This leads Krishna Rayan to remark that,

Eliot seems to have taken over from the Romantic tradition its technique of suggestion and adapted it to the classical values, evolving thus a new mode of suggestiveness that blends precision and control with range of reference and indirection.


Eliot’s consideration of suggestion as a mode of communication has brought him closer to Indian poeticians. Of, the three verbal functions Abhida(denotation), Lahhana(connotation) and Vyanjana(suggestion) they took up the last for deep exploration. Anandavardhana, a great poetician of the 9th century, devoted his Dhvanyalokato the analysis of Vyanjanaor Dhvani(suggestion). While trying to answer the question as to how the emotions could be expressed, the Dhvanitheorists felt that the emotions being inexpressible can only be suggested. The emotions being the most important materials of the poetry they were considered a factor of the unexpressed (Dhvani), the essence of poetry. The poet, according to this school, can deal with the causes of emotions [Vibhavas: Determinants, Anubhavas: Consequents and Sancharibhavas: Transitory mental states] in such a way that the expressed and generalised elements evoke in the reader a particular condition of mind which facilitates the enjoyment of the emotion. This state of mind is called Rasa. Although suggestion alone is the causative factor, the ancient poeticians took care to assert that in suggestion the primary sense need not be discarded. The primary sense or Abhidhacorresponds to “the bright centre” of Eliot. These obvious similarities have prompted Krishna Rayan to interpret the objective correlative in the light of Rasa of Indian poetics.


Krishna Rayan in his perceptive analysis refers that “a consciously used symbol isa contradiction in terms, in that it necessarily develops the finiteness of reference that is fatal to a symbol.” This dilemma defines the predicament of the symbolist or post-symbolist poet. Eliot has got out of it by his recognition that “willed suggestion necessarily resolves itself into controlled and channeled release of multiple meaning.” Rayan makes a brilliant study of the method of controlled suggestion by examining select passages from Shelley. Eliot and Kalidasa. He finds that “the difference between Kalidasa and Eliot is less fundamental than the difference between Shelley and Eliot.” The similarity between Eliot and the ancient Indian poet is due to the competent use ofobjective correlatives. He amplifies it further

using “a set of objects” to ‘evoke’ a ‘particular emotion’ … is a principle that is perhaps valid for all art – there is other way of presenting emotion in art. What makes Eliot’s formulation distinctive is its insistence that the objects should be sensuously concrete and the emotion–meaning particular. In much Romantic poetry neither the suggestive object nor the suggested meaning has definition. What Eliot was involved in was thus an experiment in taming the wild energies ofsuggestion and teaching it to be servant to the classical values of precise saying and finite meaning. This is what one might call “classical suggestion”; ...Indian poetics had shown ... that evocation (Dhavani) of an emotion (Rasa) by means ofa set of objects ( Vibhavas) is the formula for the truest poetry...

Krishna Rayan chooses to call Rasa principle “the Sanskrit ofthe objective correlative.” Referring to the constituent details of the Sanskrit theory in regard to Sringara(love), he observes,

Many of these are conventional and stylized, even stereo-typed, but exactly because they are the objects that tradition has attached to the sexual emotion, they operate as precise and potent suggestors of it. Indeed an objective correlative is, by definition, traditional – it is ‘a specified, figuratively fortified, and permanent object’ that literary tradition has evolved for the corresponding emotion.

Krishna Rayan believes that in this permanent structure oftradition objective correlative would function successfully. He writes furthwer:

Kalidasa had the advantage of being born into a closed cultural system with a large fund ofshared responses to objects, so that within it the sensuous equivalents of emotional were more or less the same for everybody, he was also blest with membership of a poetic tradition which had probably worked out a large number of emotion-object equivalences than most traditions do and had erected them into conventions. It was otherwise with Eliot.


Though Rayan’s analysis is as original as it is subtle, it encounters certain difficulties.

In the first place, Rasa theory is concerned with the experience of the reader (Samajika, Sahradaya or Rasika), More than the poetic process of evocation, the way the evoked Rasa is experienced appears to be important. This exclusive preoccupation with the experience of Samajikahas prompted S. K. De to observe that “the failure to recognise the poetic creation is one of the most serious draws which hindered the growth of Sanskrit poetics into a proper Aesthetic.” Professor Hiriyanna is equally explicit. He remarks:

There are two points of view from which the aim of poetry may be considered–one, of the poet, and the other, of the reader of the poetry. But for us, in explaining the distinctive features of the view taken of it in the Rasa school, it is the latter that is more important.

While Indian poetics is limited by the inadequate attention paid to poetic process, Eliot’s view falls short of completion by its exclusion of reader in the aesthetic context. Wimsatt and Brook remark that Eliot “seems never to subscribe seriously to the notion that the poet’s main job is to hand over to the reader some determinate content, whether an emotion or an idea, or that the poet’s effectiveness is to be measured by the success of his transaction.”

Secondly, Rasa insofar as its theory goes, refers to a whole Kavya. It cannot correspond to objective correlative, if, as Krishna Rayan believes following Mattheissen, Eliot’s formula “meant...not the whole poem seen as a symbol but an individual image or set of images in it.”

Thirdly Krishna Rayan appears to commend “a closed cultural system with a large fund of shared responses of objects, so that within it the sensuous equivalents of emotions were more or less the same for everybody.” He believes that Kalidasa is fortunate in a large fund of emotion–objective equivalences which the poetic tradition has “erected into conventions.” He further remarks that Vibhavasand Anubhavasthough stereotyped, operate as “precise and potent suggestions of an emotion.” In linking this to objective correlative he seeks support in Brooks’ definition of objective correlative as “a specified, figuratively fortified and permanent object.”

It is not fair to assume that the success of Kalidasa was due to an established convention. In fact a large number of Indian poets have made use of the emotion-object equivalences, but they have become merely monotonous. It is obvious that the solid tradition by itself is no advantage at all. Rayan’s view of tradition, I am afraid, is diametrically opposed to that of Eliot’s. What distinguishes Eliot from Indian school is his insistence on dynamic questioning of tradition. Eliot himself says that the poet “can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly upon the preferred period.” Blackmur believes that Eliot views tradition as something “we have to find out for ourselves all that grandmother will not tell us of what it is.” It is revealing to note what Professor Maxwell writes distinguishing Eliot’s classicism from Augustan. He remarks: there is a difference between Augustan and modern classicism, it is on this issue that the distinction must be made. Because Eliot, who is the supreme example of the modern classicist, questions tradition, makes demands of it, and asserts propositions about its nature in a way that the earlier school did not...

Krishna Rayan’s view of Indian tradition makes it nearly Augustan in its rigidity. Further Rayan’s conclusion that Eliot resorted to me the method of allusion by quotation in order to get the advantage of shared responses in the absence of order, is not quite convincing. Eliot’s method is an individual experiment. It is doubtful whether it could be recommended as a valid device for all the practitioners of modern poetry. The horrid prospect of its universal application is that it may contribute a plethora of third rate Wastelands. The advantage of shared responses enjoyed in Indian tradition, has hardly done it any positive good. On the contrary the scrupulous methodicity of Indian poetics has stultified the creative talent totally. Kalidasa is great not because of “the advantage of shared responses in a closed culture”; he is unique because of his achieved verbal structure for a state of mind in the context.

Nevertheless Krishna Rayan’s study has revealed the close kinship of Rasa with Eliot’s objective correlative. Indian poetics could have devoted greater attention to the individuation in expression. Eliot could, in fact, consider in depth the reader’s participation in the total aesthetic context. These two aspects are complementary. It may lead one to hope that “the poetical theories of India and the West are complementary to each other, and a reliable common code of literary standards can be evolved through a rational and coordinated study of the two.”

* Armin Frank quotes the passage as a footnote to his article. Eliot’s comment bears close affinity to the two mystic birds mentioned in Mundaka Upanishad. Of the two birds, it is said, one eats the fruit of different tastes while the other looks on without eating (Eight Upanishads, Vol. II, Advaita Ashram, Calcutta! 1973), p. 143.

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