In 1944, while editor and director of the distinguished U.K. publishing company Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot gave a stunning thumbs down to George Orwell’s Animal Farm manuscript. According to literary biographer Jeffrey Meyers, in his Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (an MSC favorite!), Eliot’s rejection was based on “[h]is perverse misreading of the book.” Millions of copies later and it’s obvious this was not one of Eliot’s finest moments. One could make the case that his famous 1920 essay entitled “Hamlet and His Problems” does not represent some of Eliot’s best judgment, either. Let’s attribute this to youth—he was 32 when he wrote the piece. Well, perhaps not youth. “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure,” he boldly proclaims regarding what many consider to be the greatest play ever written. He then proceeds to flog Hamlet for lacking “objective correlative,” which he rather insufficiently describes as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that [a character’s] particular emotion.” Apparently, Eliot believes that Hamlet’s troubled emotions do not jive with the scenes and situations around him or, in other words, do not have an external equivalent—“Hamlet . . . is dominated by an emotion . . . in excess of the facts as they appear”—as opposed to the successful use of objective correlative in a Poe short story, we can presume, where a character’s nervous melancholia finds correlation and balance with a crumbling structure or a lack of sunlight (see “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example); or in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism is justified by her guilt-ridden conscious. Although thought-provoking in its audacity, Eliot’s criticism is frustrating in its unevenness, obfuscation, and occasional pettiness. David L. Stevenson, in his 1954 article “An Objective Correlative for T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism) does a far better job explaining Eliot’s logic than Eliot himself, while deftly and reverentially taking to task one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed poets and literary critics.
By the way, here at MSC, we love T.S. Eliot.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, June 2008
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