T.S. Eliot’s Poetic Style And His Theory Of The Objective Correlative

The ability of texts to have a lasting value or resonance with the reader lies in their power to create a distinctive voice through which they express their concerns of the human experience. Influenced by the post war paradigm of existentialism in the early twentieth century, Eliot’s oeuvre expresses his overarching pessimism of the modern world to present a lasting value with post modern audiences. His poems The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Prufrock) which portrays the prototypic modern anxious man’s uncertainties, prohibiting him from connecting with his bourgeois social circles, Preludes which demonstrates the rhythm of the modern experience distorted by the grungy, unsavoury realities of existence. Reflective of its musical title in its extended improvisational nature, Rhapsody on a Windy Night (Rhapsody) follows a speaker’s nocturnal observations reflecting a disconnection with modern society. Eliot’s poetic style establishes a distinctive voice in expressing his modernist concerns and anxieties through the employment of his theory of the objective correlative, which provides an idiosyncratic experience of the poems, the thematic and structural fragmentation and the manipulation of time in echoing an unstable civilisation. As a result of this Eliot highlights the futility of mundane existence to thus demonstrate the textual integrity of the poems.

Eliot’s theory of the Objective Correlative (which he defines as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” which the poet hopes to evoke in a reader) is a subjective experience, and thus relies on personal reflection from both a poetic persona and an audience. Strong sensory imagery throughout Eliot’s poetry focuses on individual experience and interpretation, providing an idiosyncratic experience of his poetry and modern society. In Prufrock, Eliot introduces a setting of “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.” Through cold, gustatory imagery a distinctive voice is established, which enunciates a bleak perspective on a vacant and unfulfilling life and expresses Eliot’s concern for the futility of mundane existence, in a way that resonates with both current and future audiences. Similarly, the mundanity and expectation of bourgeois society is portrayed in “after tea and cakes and ices,” stated in a monotonous tricolon. Such a tone establishes a distinctive voice in illustrating the individual’s experience of a modern bourgeois lifestyle, that is rather futile and lacking meaning. Thus, Eliot’s use of the objective correlative to create a relationship with the audience also establishes a distinctive voice that evokes an idiosyncratically veracious depiction of Prufrock’s diurnal struggle and relationship with his tiresome society, which audiences are able to relate to. Additionally, in Rhapsody, Eliot’s depiction of “Sunless dry geraniums/And dust in crevices...Cigarettes in corridors/And cocktail smells in bars” effectively formulates an integral disenchantment with human existence, and a disconnection between individuals and their society. The repression and erasure of natural elements through the ‘dry geraniums’, melds into a vacant and fatalistic depiction of modern society through the objective correlative. A distinctive voice is manifested through the relationship created between Eliot and his audience, through the accumulation of specific but unremarkable images to demonstrate the hollow and purposeless diurnal cycle that resonates with modern audiences. Thus, through the objective correlative, Eliot’s success as a poet may be seen in his distinctive voice created through a stylistic translation of objects and situations into emotions evoked within the reader and establishing a relationship with them, to conjure an accurate creation of representation of his anxieties.

Self-alienation that prohibits interpersonal connections and affects the interpersonal relationship is reflective of a disjointed society, and is often displayed in texts through thematic and structural fragmentation. This demonstration of the effects of modern anxieties, relevant to current and future audiences, infiltrates Eliot’s poetic style and exhibits an accessibility to his own thematic concerns. Prufrock is stylistically effective in echoing the modern individual, as Eliot conveys that fragmentation of the senses, breaks down a full cohesive human experience due to the inhibition and alienation caused by social anxieties. Prufrock’s persona demonstrates his disenchantment with the reality of his lifestyle, likening his diurnal routine to drowning at the instructions of auditory “human voices.” This is separated from the other senses, including the textural imagery of “seaweed” and the fantastical visual image of “sea-girls wreathed with...red and brown.” Though these senses combine to illustrate a cohesive chimerical image, which in itself demonstrates Prufrock’s disconnection to the basis of reality, Eliot’s depiction of the fragmentation of human senses effectively breaks down the intrapersonal relationship, and demonstrates how the distanced persona is inhibited and unable to find purpose in life. Therefore the thematic and structural fragmentation provides a distinctive voice through imagery to convey the broken down and disconnected emotions of the persona to emphasise Eliot’s concern for the future when faced with a lack of connection to reality. Similarly, a disjointed society is reflected by a distinctive voice through imagery depicting the deteriorating breakdown of human communication and fragmented interpersonal relationships in Rhapsody. Stylistically conveyed is the futility of human connection, through the anaphoric personification of “the street-lamp sputtered/The street-lamp muttered.” Ironically, inanimate objects are provided the most life in the poem, which effectively demonstrates the veracity of Eliot’s modern context and expresses his concern for this fractured, isolated society. A distinctive voice is emphasised through the poetic device of the isolated narrator making such nocturnal observations and further manifests the personal alienation, thus strengthening this distinctive voice through the power that the inanimate objects have on questioning the futility of the human existence.

Henri Bergson, a 19-20th Century French philosopher, distinguishes ‘durée réelle,’ or real duration, which occurs in mechanics and physics, from a different human experience of time. Eliot stylistically interprets this human relationship with the surmised constance of time, using time as a lurking aide-memoire of the finite nature of human existence. The measuring of time passing becomes a preoccupation for Prufrock, further inhibiting social engagement and pursuit of a meaningful life, in a transmittal of the true modern experience. The haunting anaphoric expression of “time for you and time for me” references the constant, ongoing nature of time which dictates the capacity of man and need to achieve something in an otherwise meaningless life. Eliot manipulates the man-made construct of time, and demonstrates how it has come to construct the life of man, in his portrayal of veritable modern anxieties to provide a distinctive voice that is achieved through the diction of time. Additionally, time and metre in Preludes also effectively defaces the human connection to ‘durée réelle. “The burnt-out ends of smoky days./And now a gusty shower wraps/The grimy scraps,” sees the distortion of poetic metre, where the comfortable and steady iambic tetrameter is usurped broken by the usurping triplet in the opening stanza. Through this established inconstance of time, Eliot successfully reflects his concern for the instability of his society using a distinctive voice through his poetic style, and distorts a trusted, unwavering concept and uses it as a destructible element. Similarly, Rhapsody employs time structurally, emphasising its consuming nature as interjections throughout the entirety of poem. “Twelve o’clock,” “half-past one,” “half past two,” “half-past three,” and “four o’clock” are all deemed important enough to introduce stanzas. The irregular distance between these time markings indicates a similar dis-constance of passing time and negates a human relationship with Bergson’s ‘durée réelle.’ The amount of time between each accumulating statement eventually decreases, indicating the disconcerting pressure of time pushing the anxieties of the nocturnal observer. 

Thus, Eliot’s expresses his concern of the consuming nature of time by establishing a distinctive voice through the rhythm and structure of the poem, and creates a lasting impact and relationship with a range of audiences. 

09 March 2021
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