In his entry for The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) on the “objective correlative,” Louis Menand notes that since 1980, the term has appeared in several hundred scholarly articles.[1] There’s also no shortage of forebears of Eliot’s concept, including Washington Allston, Arthur Fairchild, Pater, Coleridge, and Schiller. Robert Stallman’s The Critic’s Notebook (1950) is efficient in staging that conversation; in fact, The Critic’s Notebook in many respects is a textual performance that parallels the objective correlative. Stallman explains in his foreword the structure of his book: “Three hundred quotations are organized into eight chapters dealing systematically with central concepts and problems of modern criticism.”[2] What The Critic’s Notebook does is locate the notion of literary criticism within an array of textual particulars, borrowed from Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, F. R. Leavis, Paul Valéry, and the like.

Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to the idea of the objective correlative, and its opening quotation is from George Santayana, which is interesting because many scholars, to this day, when factoring Eliot’s concept, leave Santayana out of the conversation (Menand’s entry is a case in point). Because the format of The Critic’s Notebook is purely a sequence of quotations, Stallman does not provide his own commentary; however, B. R. McElderry, in his brief article “Santayana and Eliot’s ‘Objective Correlative’” (1957), does. The crux of McElderry’s argument lies in a passage from Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), the very same quoted by Stallman. McElderry corrects Stallman’s error in dating Santayana’s work as having been published in 1918, thereby recovering the provenance of the idea and suggesting that Eliot might have actually learned the objective correlative during his years as a student at Harvard studying under Santayana.

In the passage in question, Santayana asserts that the poet “follows the fancy of every child, who puffs himself out in his day-dreams into an endless variety of heroes and lovers. The thrilling adventures which he craves demand an appropriate theatre; the glorious emotions with which he bubbles over must at all hazards find or feign their correlative objects.”[3]

Then of course we have the definitive passage from Eliot’s “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919): “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 measure of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”[4]

I accept that Eliot’s objective correlative draws upon Pater, Allston, and others, but what intrigues me about the Santayana connection is how Eliot uses the phrases “chain of events” and “terminate in sensory experience” to explain the specific term objective correlative. Scholars and writers alike have come to understand the objective correlative as a concept to which varied combination is inherent; this is the precise point that Eliseo Vivas, in his article “The Objective Correlative of T. S. Eliot” (1944), notes is the failure of the objective correlative principle: “the poem and its parts function as wholes whose form and content cannot be separated from each other.”[5]

While the “objective” portion of the objective correlative has been adequately discussed by critics (“objective” as in objectivity, or as in objectal?), the “correlative” warrants further analysis. Complex combination is invariably concomitant to the term; the Poundian “phalanx of particulars” always seems to be in play when talking about the correlative. But I have never encountered a use of the word correlative elsewhere to signify anything beyond a one-to-one relationship, between one thing and another, or an individuated set. (The OED agrees.) Now maybe Eliot is referring to the “chain of events” as such an individuated set, but modifying the idea by asserting that “external facts … must terminate in sensory experience” connotes a process that, in the form of verse (or drama in the case of Hamlet), precludes true synchronicity, which is especially odd since Eliot uses the word correlative as a singular noun. Chains of events or external facts have to be ordered in verse or prose: words in lines, left to right, top to bottom, read in time. Implicit to a “chain of events” is sequence; and if “external facts” are to immediately evoke a single emotion, they would have to present themselves in turn. But correlative, as an adjective, means corresponding, contingent, related; it does not mean consecutive or sequential. One would not say the numbers one, two, three, and four are correlative.

However, in Spanish, one would say el número uno, el dos, el tres y el cuatro son correlativos. The cognate correlativo means ‘correlative’ but also can denote ‘consecutive.’ And here is where Santayana comes in. In the chapter McElderry and Stallman cite, “The Elements of Poetry,” Santayana elaborates upon his assertion that emotions must “find or feign their correlative objects”: “The differentiation of the passions, as far as consciousness is concerned, depends on the variety of the objects of experience, — that is, on the differentiation of the senses and of the environment which stimulates them.”[6] Santayana explains his philosophy that while we have an immeasurable will, our lived experience is finite and inadequate to fully express this will, try as we must. The drive to produce literature is guided through the selection of materials to exert this will, and thus “the function of poetry, like that of science, can only be fulfilled by the conception of harmonies that become clearer as they grow richer.”[7] The poet approaches the limit of infinite will with a religious conviction that “everything visible is a sacrament.”[8]

Implicit in Santayana’s sense of poetry and the correlative, I would argue, is the cognate correlativo and its synonym ‘consecutive.’ He discourses not solely on connectivity, in how there must be a correspondence between emotion and thing, but also on sequence, aggregation, accumulation, and how the process of combining will and matter is essentially what he understood as literature. In light of his famous disdain for the New England “genteel tradition,” Santayana, a lifelong Spanish citizen, an immigrant, and a native speaker of Spanish (who at nine years old was put in Kindergarten to learn English), once wrote that he wished to “say plausibly in English as many un-English things as possible,”[9] and it appears that his understanding of the term correlative is such an instance. If it is true that Santayana educated Eliot on the principle when they were at Harvard, then Eliot’s idea might be infused with Spanish connotation, that of correlativo. It would begin to explain why Eliot often imagines the objective correlative as pertaining to large scales and various experiences when in fact a correlative, in English, never extends beyond what’s next.


[1]. Louis Menand, “Objective Correlative,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 963.

[2]. Robert Wooster Stallman, The Critic’s Notebook (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1950), viii.

[3]. George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 277.

[4]. T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” in Selected Essays 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1932), 124.

[5]. Eliseo Vivas, “The Objective Correlative of T. S. Eliot,” The American Bookman 1, no. 1 (Winter 1944): 12.

[6] Santayana, Interpretations, 278.

[7] Ibid., 283.

[8] Ibid., 286.

[9] George Santayana, “A Brief History of My Opinions,” in Contemporary American Philosophy, ed. George P. Adams and William Pepperell Montague (London: Allen & Unwin, 1930), 242.