Friday, May 19, 2006

Hamlet and His Problems: Objective Co-relative by T.S. Eliot

Hamlet and His Problems: Objective Co-relative
by T.S.Eliot

T.S. Eliot is a towering figure in the field of 20th century literature and criticism, and his influence has been profound and all-pervasive. George Watson says, “Eliot made English criticism look different, though not in a simple sense.” His criticism has been revolutionary; he has turned the critical tradition of the whole English speaking world upside down.

Eliot’s essay on Hamlet is the finest example of what may be called his destructive or iconoclastic criticism. He writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective co-relative.” He defines ‘objective co-relative’ as ‘a set of objects, situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

The phrase ‘objective co-relative’ was first used by Eliot in his essay on Hamlet and His Problems. The phrase has gained such wide popularity that Wimsatt and Brooks write, “The phrase objective co-relative has gained a currency probably far beyond anything that the author could have expected or intended.” The phrase objective co-relative has been discussed threadbare by a number of critics, and most divergent views have been expressed. Thus for Cleanth Brooks, the phrase means ‘organic metaphor’, for Elises Vevas it is ‘a vehicle of expression for the poet’s emotion’, and for Austin, it is ‘the poetic content to be conveyed by verbal expressions.”

In his essay Hamlet and His Problems (1919), Eliot points out that critics have generally concentrated their attention on Hamlet, the character, and ignored Hamlet, the play, which raises a number of problems of great significance. There has been a dangerous tendency among critics to forget that their primary business is to study the work of art concerned and base their conclusions on such a study. As a result, the criticism on Hamlet has often been misleading. Even such men of genius as Coleridge and Goethe have substituted ‘their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s.’ In their criticism they have presented an image of Hamlet out of their own fancy, instead of remaining true and faithful to the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play.

According to Eliot the material of the play is certainly intractable. Shakespeare failed to impose order and arrangement on this material, and as a consequence, ‘the play is most certainly an artistic failure’. There is much in the play that is puzzling and which cannot be justified. First, it is the longest play of Shakespeare and there is much in it that is superfluous and inconsistent or dramatically useless, for example Polonius – Laertes and Polonius – Reynaldo scenes. This superfluity is so obvious that it can be noticed even in a hasty-revision and yet it has been allowed to persist. Secondly, its versification is uneven and variable. Immature and defective lines alternate with quite mature ones. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. As a work of art, it is much inferior to the other Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

Eliot believes that part of the problems of the play is based on earlier plays so much cruder material persists even in the final form. Though the material of the play is intractable and many of the weakness of the play are accounted for in this way, the source of its real weakness lies much deeper. The central motif of the play is the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son. The failure of the drama arises from the fact that Shakespeare could handle the effect of a mother’s guilt, with the same success as he could handle the jealousy of Othello, or the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus. As in the sonnets, so in the play, there is some mysterious diffused feeling to which the dramatist has failed to give artistic expression. This mysterious, all-pervasive emotion cannot be localized in any particular scene or speech. It is all over the play but nowhere in particular. There is not particular object, event or action which adequately expresses this feeding. The artistic weakness of the play arises from the failure of the dramatist to objectify this unrealized emotion.

In other words, according to Eliot, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable ‘objective co-relative’ for the emotion of Hamlet. The dramatist should present actions, events, characters, situations as would arouse in the reader or the spectators the particular emotion aimed at by him. The emotion of poetry should be provided with motives, and the responses of the poets should be responses to a defined situation. For example, the action, gestures and words of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep arouse the same sense of anguish in the readers as thy do in Macbeth himself, and hence his words on hearing of his wife’s death seem quite inevitable and natural under the circumstances. This is also the case with the anguish of Othello. This is so because external action and situation are quite adequate for the internal emotion. But this is not so in Hamlet. There is no object, character, situation or incident which adequately expresses the inner anguish of the Prince of Denmark. His suffering is terrible, but the full intensity of this horror at this mother’s guilt is not conveyed by any character or action in the play. He suffers terribly, but his suffering is far in excess to the character and situation as presented in the play. A similar situation in real life would not arouse equally intense emotion in normally constituted people. Shakespeare wanted to convey something inexpressibly horrible but the character of Gertrude as well as the whole plot of the play is inadequate for the purpose. In other words, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable ‘objective co-relative’ for the emotion he wanted to convey. Herein lies the real source of the artistic failure.

However, Eliot’s dictum has been disputed by many critics. Many critics do not agree with Eliot’s view that Hamlet is an artistic failure. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in their essay ‘The Affective Fallacy’ remark that ‘Hamlet’s emotion must be expressible, we submit, and actually expressed too (by some thing) in the play; otherwise, Eliot would know it is there—in excess of the facts.’

Eliot’s essay, Hamlet, reveals more about Eliot than about Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet because Eliot also ultimately falls into the same trap in which the essay is more of Eliot’s own understanding and feeling than the play itself. Eliot could not find exact equivalence between emotion and art in Shakespeare and preoccupied as he was with defining poetry, he failed to appreciate the achievement of Shakespearean tragedy. The accumulated tension and gathering melancholy of his uneasy symbiosis were to find expression in his essay on Hamlet. Eliot who looked “for significant emotion which has its life in the poem and not in history of the poet” found that in Hamlet there was no objective co-relative. M. H. Abrams observes that Eliot’s formulation has been often criticized for falsifying the way a poet actually composes, since no object or situation is in itself a “formula” for an emotion, but depends upon its emotional significance and effect on the way it is rendered by the poet. In other words, Elliot’s essay on Hamle does not talk about Hamlet as a play by Shakespeare but it comments on the function of criticism.

Despite his statement that ‘Hamlet is an artistic failure’, in 1937 when he was invited to Edinburg, German, to give lectures on Shakespeare at the University, he affirmed that ‘if a critic (says Eliot poignantly) tried to prove that Hamlet is a bad play he would convince hardly any one’ (Shakespeare as a Poet and Dramatist, Edinburgh, 1937). Based on his account in the Edinburgh lectures, it is obvious that Eliot himself acknowledges that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great play, and in fact Hamlet is one of the greatest plays not only in its age but also up to this present day. Eliot’s essay, therefore, is not an example of his arrogance and impertinent pride. Eliot is not derogatory of the play. His essay is more a tribute than a condemnation of the play.

The Metaphysical Poets by T.S. Eliot

The Metaphysical Poets
by T.S.Eliot

Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ was first published as a review of J.G. Grierson’s edition of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the 17th Century. But the essay is much more than a mere review; it is a critical document of much value and significance. It is one of the most significant critical documents of the modern age. It has brought about a revaluation and reassessment of interest in these poets who had been neglected for a considerable time. Eliot has thrown new light on the metaphysical poets, and shown that they are neither quaint nor fantastic, but great and mature poets. They do not represent a digression from the mainstream of English poetry, but rather a continuation of it.

It is in this essay that Eliot has used, for the first time, the phrases ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’ and ‘Unification of Sensibility’, phrases which have acquired world-wide currency and which, ever since, have had a far reaching impact on literary criticism.

Eliot examines one by one with suitable illustrations the characteristics which are generally considered ‘metaphysical’. First, there is the elaboration of a simile to the farthest possible extent, to be met with frequently in the poetry of Donne and Cowley. Secondly, there is the device of the development of an image by rapid association of thought requiring considerable agility on the part of the reader that is a technique of compression. Thirdly, the Metaphysicals produce their effects by sudden contrasts. Thus in the line, “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”, the most powerful effect is produced by sudden contrast of the associations of ‘bright hair’ and ‘bone’. But such telescoping of images and contrasts of associations are not a characteristic of the poetry of Donne one. It also characterizes Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare, Webster, Tourneour and Middleton. This suggests that Done, Cowley and others belong to the Elizabethan tradition and not to any school. The dominant characteristics of Donne’s poetry are also the characteristics of the great Elizabethans.

Eliot then takes up Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of Metaphysical Poetry, in which the great doctor has tried to define this poetry by its faults. Dr. Johnson in his Life of Cowley points that in Metaphysical Poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But Eliot says that to bring together heterogeneous ideas and compelling them into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is universal in poetry. Such unity is present even in the poetry of Johnson himself, The Vanity of Humah Wishes. The force of Dr. Johnson’s remark lies in the fact that in his view the Metaphysical poets could only ‘yoke’ by violence dissimilar ideas. They could not unite them of fuse them into a single whole, however this is not a fact. A number of poets of this school have eminently succeeded in uniting heterogeneous ideas. Eliot quotes from Herbert, Cowley, Bishop King and other poets in supports of his contention. Therefore, he concludes that Metaphysical poetry cannot be differentiated from other poetry by Dr. Johnson’s definition. The fault, which Dr. Johnson points out, is not there, and the unity of heterogeneous ideas is common to all poetry.

Eliot shows that Done and the other poets of the 17th century, “were the direct and normal development of the precedent age”, and that their characteristic virtue was something valuable which subsequently disappeared. Dr. Johnson has rightly pointed out that these poets were ‘analytic’; they were devoted to too much analysis and dissection of particular emotional situations. But Dr. Johnson has failed to see that they could also unite into new wholes the concepts they had analyzed. Eliot shows that their special virtue was the fusion of heterogeneous material into a new unity after dissociation. In other words, metaphysical poetry is distinguished from other poetry by unification of sensibility, and subsequently, ‘dissociation of sensibility’ overtook English poetry, and this was unfortunate.

The great Elizabethans and early Jacobians had a developed unified sensibility which is expressed in their poetry. By ‘sensibility’ Eliot does not merely mean feeling or the capacity to receive sense impressions. He means much more than that. By ‘sensibility’ he means a synthetic faculty, a faculty which can amalgamate and unite thought and feeling, which can fuse into a single whole the varied and disparate, often opposite and contradictory, experiences. The Elizabethans had such a sensibility. They were widely read, they thought on what they read, and their thinking and learning modified their mode of feeling. Eliot gives concrete illustration to show that such unification of sensibility, such fusion of thought and feeling, is to be found in the poetry of Done and other Metaphysical poets, but it is lacking in the poetry of Tennyson, Browning and the Romantic Poets.

After Donne and Herbert, a change came over English poetry. The poets lost the capacity of uniting thought and feeling. The ‘unification of sensibility’ was lost, and ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in. After that the poets can either think or they can feel; there are either intellectual poets who can only think, or there are poets who can only feel. The poets of the 18th century were intellectuals, they thought but did not feel; the romantics of the 19th century felt but did not think. Tennyson and Browning can merely reflect or ruminate, i.e. meditate poetically on their experience, but cannot express it poetically. Eliot says, “Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” In other words, the metaphysical poets had a unified sensibility which enabled them to assimilate and fuse into a new wholes most disparate and heterogeneous experiences. They could feel their thoughts as intensely as the odour of a rose, that is to say they could express their thoughts through sensuous imagery. In his poems, Donne expresses his thoughts and ideas by embodying them in sensuous imagery and it is mainly through the imagery that the unification of sensibility finds its appropriate expression.

Eliot then proceeds to examine the close similarity between the age of Donne and the modern age, and the consequent similarity between the sensibility of the Metaphysicals and the modern poets. The Metaphysicals are difficult and the poet in the modern age is also bound to be difficult. Hence the modern poet also uses conceits and methods very much similar to those of the Metaphysicals who also lived in complex and rapidly changing times. Like them the modern poet also transmutes ideas into sensations, and transforms feelings into thought or states of mind. Elliot’s comments apply not only to Baudelaire and Laforgue, but to his own poetry.

In other words, Donne and the other Metaphysicals are in the direct current of English poetry, and the modern poets are their direct descendants. This current flows direct from the Elizabethan age rightly up to the modern age. Only, and unfortunately, this continuity was broken for some time under the influence of Milton and Dryden who are great masters of language, but not of the soul. The poet has different faculties and sensibilities, he must achieve a unification of his sensibilities, and must express this unified sensibility in his poetry. Only such a poetry would be complete; but it would be complex and difficult. The Metaphysicals, as well as the moderns, have this complexity, and also this completeness and maturity.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I.A.Richards' Two Uses of Language


I.A. Richards, born in 1893, is one of the great critics of the modern age, and has influenced a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. He and T.S. Eliot are pioneers in the field of New Criticism, though they differ from each other in certain important respects. He is the first-rate critic, since Coleridge, who has formulated a systematic and complete theory of poetry, and his views are highly original and illuminating. In his “Principles of Literary Criticism” chapter 34, he discusses the most neglected subject, i.e. the theory of language and the two uses of language. To understand much the theory of poetry and what is said about poetry, a clear comprehension of the differences between the uses of language is indispensable. David Daiches says, “Richards conducts this investigation in order to come to some clear conclusions about what imaginative literature is, how it employs language, how its use of language differs from the scientific use of language and what is its special function and value.”
According to I.A. Richards language can be used in two ways, i.e. the scientific use and the emotive one.
It is only in recent years that serious attention is given to the language as a science. In the scientific use of language, we are usually matter of fact. All the activities covered by this use require undistorted references and absence of fiction.
We may use a statement, true or false, in a scientific use of language, but it may also be used to create emotions and attitudes. This is the emotive use of language. We use words scientifically or for emotional attitudes when words are used to evoke attitudes without recourse to references like musical phrases. References are conditions for developing attitudes and hence the attitudes are more important, without carrying for the true or false references. Their sole purpose is to support the attitudes. Aristotle wisely said, “Better a plausible impossibility than an improbable possibility.”
In the scientific use of the language, the difference in reference is fatal (a failure) but in the emotive language it is not so. In the scientific use of language, the references should be correct and the relation of references should be logical. In the emotive use of language, any truth or logical arrangement is not necessary – it may work as an obstacle. The attitudes due to references should have their emotional interconnection and this has often no connection with logical relations of the facts referred to.
Richards goes on to examine different uses of the word ‘truth’. In the scientific use, the references are true and logical there is very little involvement of arts. Richards says that the term ‘true’ should be reserved for this type of uses – the scientific use. But the emotive power of the word is far too great for this. The temptations are there for a speaker who wants to evoke certain attitudes.
So Richards goes on to consider the connotations of the word ‘truth’ in criticism. In literary criticism, the common use is ‘acceptability’ or ‘probability’. For example, Robinson Crusoe is true in the sense of the acceptability of things we are told, in the interest of the narrative whether or not such a person existed in real life is not relevant to the ‘truth’ of the novel. A happy ending to Lear or Don Quixote would be false because it would be unacceptable. In this sense ‘truth’ is equivalent to ‘internal necessity’ or ‘rightness’. That is ‘true’ which accords with the rest of the experience and arouses our ordered responses. Keats uses ‘truth’ in a confused way. He said, ‘What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” Sometimes it is held that all that is unwanted or redundant is false; as Walter Pater says, ’Surplusage! The artist will dread that, as the runner on his muscles’. But then superabundance is common in all great art, and is much better than contrived economy. The essential point is whether this so-called surplusage interferes or not with the rest of the responses.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I.A.Richards' Four Kinds of Meaning


I.A. Richards, born in 1893, is one of the great critics of the modern age. He has influenced a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot are pioneers in the field of New Criticism, though they differ from each other in certain important respects.
A study of his ‘Practical Criticism’ written in 1929 reveals that I.A. Richard has a great interest in textual and verbal analysis. A poet writes to communicate, and language is the means of that communication. Language is made of words and hence a study of words is all important if we are to understand the meaning of a work of art. According to I.A. Richard, words carry four kinds of meaning or to be more precise, the total meaning of a word depends upon four factors, i.e. sense, feeling, tone and intention.
Sense is what is said, or the ‘items’ referred to by a writer. Feeling refers to emotions, emotional attitudes, will, desire, pleasure, unpleasure and the rest. When we say something we have a feeling about it, “an attitude towards it, some special direction, bias or accentuation of interest towards it, some personal flavour or colouring of feeling”. Words express “these feelings, these nuances of interest”. Tone is the writer’s attitude to his readers or audience. The use of language is determined by the writer’s ‘recognition’ of his relation to his readers. Intention is the writer’s aim, which may be conscious or unconscious. It refers to the effect that he tries to produce. This purpose modifies the expression. It controls the emphasis, shapes the arrangement, or draws attention to something of importance.
Richards had given undergraduate students at Cambridge a number of poems, without revealing the author or the age. The student’s written responses are called ‘protocols’. In the protocols, the failure always happens in one of the functions. Even sometimes all four fail together: a reader garbles the sense, distorts the feeling, mistakes the tone and disregards the intention.
Richards analyzed different types of distribution, such as: scientific treatise, popular science and political speech. In our uses of language as a whole, one of the functions may become predominant. For example: a man writing a scientific treatise puts the sense first, subordinates his feeling, establishes his tone by following academic convention, and clearly states his intention.
The principles of a writer’s language are not simple because the furtherance of his intention will interfere with the other functions. First, precise statement of the sense may have to be sacrificed in the interest of general intelligibility. Secondly, to awaken and encourage the reader’s interest, the author’s more lively exhibition of feelings towards his subject matter is appropriate and desirable. Thirdly, more variety of tone will be called for, and it makes tact urgently required.
In political speech intention is predominant. Feeling is its instrument to express causes, policies, leaders and opponents. Tone establishes the relations with the audience and sense is the representation of facts. In conversation, the shifts of the functions can be seen clearly. It is in conversation that intention may completely subjugate the others, therefore feeling and tone may express themselves through sense.
The psychological analyses may also be put under this head. Some psychologists lay themselves open to a charge of emptiness that they have little to talk about. “Putting it into words” is a process which may damage to the feelings. But feeling and sometimes tone may take charge of and operate through sense in poetry. The statements in poetry are there for the sake of their effects upon feelings not for their own sake. Hence to challenge their truth is to mistake their function. The point is that many of the statements in poetry are there as a means to the manipulation and expression of feelings and attitudes. The danger of mistake arises greater in philosophical poetry than in narrative one. On the one hand there are may people trying to take all its statements seriously and find them silly, and on the other hand there are those who succeed well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty…’, as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings.
The subjugation of statement to emotive purposes has innumerable modes. A poet may distort his statements by making statements or presenting objects for thought, which are logically quite irrelevant to express his feeling or adjust tone or further his other intention. These indirect devices for expressing feeling are not peculiar to poetry. It is much harder to obtain statements about poetry than that of feelings towards it and towards the author.
In verse, shortly speaking, the poet makes statements which function as vehicles for the expression of feelings and attitudes. The principles of a writer’s language are not simple because his further intention will interfere with the other functions. Richards suggests that the perceptive reader should be prepared to apprehend the interplay of the four meanings, which together comprise the total meaning of the poem.