Objective Correlative in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The theory of the 'Objective Correlative' is one of the most important critical concepts of T. S. Eliot. He formulated his doctrine of the 'Objective Correlative' in his essay on Hamlet and His Problems. Eliot called Hamlet 'an artistic failure'. The reason for this is that the central theme or the dominant emotion of the play, which is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother, is for Eliot 'an intractable' material. And in this play, Shakespeare fails to find the proper objective correlative for Hamlet's feelings.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Elaborating his theory of the 'objective correlative' Eliot 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.’

The theory of the 'objective correlative' has three important forms: (a) A full-fledged dramatic medium like the tragedies of Shakespeare; (b) The creation on dramatis personae, like Prufrock and Gerontion, for the expression of points of view or experiences which are at the back of the poet's mind; (c) To express emotions through definite objects to make them vivid, precise and complex.

Eliot's concept of the 'objective correlative' is a continuation and application of his impersonal theory of poetry, which is based on the idea that it is neither the intensity of the emotion nor the greatness of its components that determines the poetic quality of a poem, but what matters is the intensity of the fusion, and one of the ways in which the poet achieves this intensity is through the embodiment of an emotion in a concrete object.

The application of the term 'objective correlative' can be shown through The Love Song of J Alfred d Prufrock. In this poem Eliot presents the despair and passivity of a middle-aged man, J. Alfred Prufrock.  It is concerned with the spiritual sickness of Prufrock. This spiritual sickness of Prufrock is presented not directly, but through images and pictures. Each image, each picture fantasy, reiterates with sharper precision this theme of Prufrock’s sterility. Because of his timidity and lack of self-confidence he would like to escape from his neurotic conflicts even by means of anesthesia. The evening, which is apparently lifeless reflects the mental state of the protagonist. He is like a patient etherized upon a table. This image suggests the mental vacuity of the speaker. Prufrock's indecision, hesitation, self-pity and self disgust which are presented through a series of images are full of suggestion to the imagination of the reader. The winding streets, which lead to the salon where he has to make the proposal of marriage, image forth the tedious mental processes which finally lead to the point of action or resolution. But he evades a question because of his self-consciousness:

There will be time, there will be time, To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

Prufrock enters into a room where 'the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.' Michelangelo, the Italian sculptor, was known for his strength and virility. The reference to Michelangelo brings out is own physical decay and impotency. Moreover, the lines hint that the women are sophisticated with a veneer of culture in their behavior.

Prufrock is self-conscious of his growing age and bald head. He is greatly conscious as to what people will say of him: "They will say: But how his arms and legs are thin." His life has been literally occupied with nothing but coffee-drinking; each day passing like a smoked cigarette. This tedium of his life is expressed through the following lines:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons...  To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways....

He remembers the sharp, pitiless gaze of the eyes that fix him as if they have already measured him to the top of his bent. His pathetic predicament is brought out by the image of a poor worm fixed to the wall by a sharp pin-point and wriggling there helplessly:

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin.

The reference to the lonely men, in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows, is a hint at his own loneliness and boredom which have compelled him to seek relief in love and marriage. But he cannot pursue the point and disgusted with his scrupulous mind, he prefers the life of a creature in the bed of the sea. This image of the crab shows that Prufrock is like a mindless and primitive creature. Like a crab he goes sideways about things, and gets nowhere even then. He might just as well be at the bottom of the sea. He glances at the scene outside and finds a reflection of his own tired self on the closing day, like a child, lulled to sleep beside him.

Prufrock lacked moral courage and he is no prophet like John the Baptist. He was a coward. He often imagined that he was in the grip of Death, but Death only mocked at his cowardice and let him survive. He was neither Hamlet, though his procrastination and passivity would make us take him for Hamlet. He was, in fact, just like an attendant lord, Polonius. He visits the sea-beach in order to beguile the tedium of his civilized social life. The primordial image of the sea with 'mermaids singing each to each' symbolically expresses the suppressed self of Prufrock and his longing for amorous fulfillment. But the phrase 'and we drown' brings him back from the world of romantic dream to the darkling plain of reality, to the world of scathing introspection and sterile debate.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Objective Correlative in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." BachelorandMaster, 4 Sep. 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/objective-correlative-in-the-love-song.html.