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The Carnelian Ring: A Still-Life

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

—T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

I think of a walled garden, graced with trees:
Magnolia, fig, and cherry, while grapevines
(Just pruned enough to be under control)
Intertwine with trellises for shade;
And scent of lilac, honeysuckle hedges
Grown tall enough to grant us privacy,
With tended beds of roses in full bloom.

It must have a clear space for repose:
A table, marble-topped, on which there rest
Bottles of wine, a bowl of fresh-picked fruit,
Napkins, knives, cut-crystal antique glasses,
Should be surrounded by wrought-iron chairs
With cushions where my best and closest friends
Sit in the lazy shade of afternoon,
Comfortable, unrushed, totally at ease,
Drinking and speaking quietly of things
Known only to ourselves—our common past,
Dead companions, old catastrophes
That time with sutures, tourniquets, and salves
Has rendered now mere comic episodes.

Those are the circumstances, but add this:
We are all dressed immaculately. We wear
Our best clothes and accessories. And I
Have on my finger a carnelian ring
Set with heavy rose gold, and the stone’s
Intaglio’d with a mystic, riddling sign,
Its occult meaning known only to me.

The garden is remote, and walled, and cool—
The trickle of a decorative fountain
Provides the backdrop for our conversation.
No crass, intruding stranger can come here
To violate this perfect magic circle
Or question what we know, or how we think.
My friends are precious to me; as each speaks
I listen attentively while my right hand
Turns the carnelian ring upon the other,
And think: This garden is our mystic ring—
Rose gold and carnelian with a mark
Undeciphered by my friends, and yet
Protecting them with talismanic force.

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A Note on the Objective Correlative

The phrase “objective correlative” entered the common parlance of literary criticism as a result of its frequent use by T.S. Eliot, but he did not invent it. It is generally understood to mean any external object, situation, concatenation of events, or visualization in a literary work that can be taken as an effective representative of a powerful emotion, an intense state of mind, or a complex idea. The objective correlative “correlates” to the emotion or idea, and makes it immediately apprehensible to the reader.

A simple example might be the image of a house burning down at a crucial point in a novel, if it is the house of the main character, and the fire comes at the end of a series of terrible misfortunes that ruin his life. The house in flames is the objective correlative of all the pain and anguish and bad luck that bring the main character to the utter destruction of his hopes. The reader sees the burning house as a perfect embodiment of the main character’s general catastrophe.

In the visual arts, an excellent example of the objective correlative is the still-life painting, as done by many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists. Such a picture is usually of a bowl of fruit, a vase of mixed flowers, and an assortment of small objects like a book, a glass of wine, a few utensils, and perhaps a piece of jewelry. A traditional still-life is often described (and dismissed) as merely decorative and “pretty.” But it is more than that. The still-life creates a mood, and makes a profound philosophical statement. It presents the viewer with the quiet harmony of nature subdued to human action (the flowers are cut and arranged, and the fruit is picked and placed in a lovely bowl); and the small objects are instances of human artifice. All of this is put together by the painter, and it deliberately evokes in the viewer the emotion of the untroubled tranquility of the natural world when there is supreme human sovereignty over it. The still-life painting is an objective correlative of this idea and emotion. Even the glass of wine works for this purpose—it is the grapes of nature crushed and fermented and poured into an artifact crafted by human skill.

One might say that “objective correlative” is just another way to say “symbol,” but that would be missing something important about it. That important thing depends on the world of difference between the words apprehensible and comprehensible. Something is comprehensible when you can understand it thoroughly, grasping its structure, its purpose, and perhaps many of its details. But when something is apprehensible, you can approach it, gaze at it, and wonder at it without fully understanding its deepest meaning. Moses could apprehend God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, but he could not comprehend God, Whose supernatural majesty cannot be plumbed by the human mind. Dante, in an ecstatic flash, could apprehend Beatrice Portinari on the Ponte Vecchio, but not even a lifetime could bring him to comprehend fully what she meant to him.

Poems can work by providing readers with comprehension, but poems work at their deepest level by opening the doors to apprehension—that is, when they allow the reader to approach a powerful reality and appreciate its force, without necessarily coming to a complete understanding of it. The objective correlative is the magical charm that shows the reader something significant, while not telling him something outright about that significance. It is the difference between dictation and suggestion.

An objective correlative is not the same thing as a poetic conceit. The conceit is just an extended metaphor or simile that is deliberately far-fetched and puzzling, and designed for two purposes: to dazzle the reader with its complexity, and to demonstrate the poet’s ingenuity. The objective correlative aims at incarnating an intensely felt emotion or idea by putting it into a concrete image that will in a flash allow that emotion or idea to register in the reader’s mind.

In the above poem (a kind of still-life), I have attempted to give a specific objective correlative to the emotions felt by the speaker. I do this with the image of the carnelian ring worn by him as he describes the garden where he sits at a table with his old friends. He alone knows the meaning of the symbol cut in intaglio on the carnelian’s surface, and he turns the ring on his finger as he listens to the conversation. He is deeply content and satisfied, and the garden in which the poem’s scene is set is very much an Eden of perfection and bliss. The other persons in the poem may not even be aware of the ring on the speaker’s finger. And yet for him it is the objective correlative of everything that he describes to the reader: the beauty of the place, the peaceful repose enjoyed there, the intimate history he shares with the others, the exclusion of strangers and outsiders. All of this is epitomized by the carnelian ring on his finger. With its circled shape it represents the “ring” or “circle” of friends, and it bears a secret design, the meaning of which the speaker keeps to himself.

The main point of any objective correlative is deep suggestion, or the summoning up of an image that will be the external equal of some psychological condition that is too intricate or intense for simple explanation. When soldiers in the past, during the heat and terror of battle, looked up and saw their nation’s flag, a surge of patriotism seized them. The battle-flag, in the midst of combat’s carnage, was the objective correlative of all the intense emotions felt at that moment. Things of this nature cannot be explained fully; they can only be experienced.

So also in a poem. If you can generate a situation or a psychological state by description alone, that’s fine, but your poem’s power will be multiplied if you can create an objective correlative from something that will do more than merely describe. However, your first step towards doing this will have to be the recognition that you shouldn’t write poems solely to tell people things, or to explicate your views, or to narrate a story. That’s only for beginners. To create an objective correlative in a poem is to work at a much deeper level of fictive mimesis.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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11 Responses

  1. Sharmon Gazaway

    So compelling. Not a device often spoken of in writing craft. A perfect fit for what my current work needs. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, the beautiful and mesmerizing poem and subsequent essay on the “Objective Correlative” is a literary treat and an inspiration. My train of thought is entering the realms of Mr. Rochester in the burning house of ‘Jane Eyre’ and the nameless heroine’s shock at the flaming mansion in “Rebecca”. I have fallen in love with the conceit, and I’m now tempted by the exquisite mystique of objective correlative. I like your explanation of apprehension compared to comprehension – it explains so much, in life as well as poetry. I have studied symbolism in art and like the idea of moving beyond the obvious. I have always been taken by pathetic fallacy, but this pushes me far beyond the storm clouds overhead. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    Dr. S.

    Such a descriptive poem! As elegant and detailed as the still life described in the essay and as illustrated by the accompanying illustration. Your brief essay puts the spotlight on the image of the ring as being, for both the poet and the poem’s character, the door to deeper meaning–the objective correlative. As always I value and appreciate the chance to learn something new.

    The use of the ring reminds me of the use of momento mori in paintings, common in late Medieval art but also reappearing in such places as Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” and Cezanne’s “Still Life with Skull.” Such objects, in both art and poetry, act like switches on a railroad track that suddenly and unexpectedly send our thoughts off in new and perhaps previously unexplored directions.

    As did your poem.

    Reply
  4. Yael

    This was an enjoyable and pain-free learning experience, thank you very much, I really appreciate this.

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you, James, for the helpful explanation of a concept that has been difficult for me to grasp.

    Reply
  6. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe —

    I have always known you as a brilliant man quite reasonablly exasperated by loutish behaviour..
    But this !
    The poem you have offered us is gloriously aesthetic, and symbolic beyond compare. How can I say how beautiful it is?
    As you are aware, Carnelian is known as a healing stone; I believe this poem represents a healing of some sort.
    Its setting is. rose gold, which symbolically embraces your friends. I see you are surrounded by such as Leo Yankevich, Alfred Dorn, John Whitworth, and others I’ve .only known through their works. I like to think that every poet you have ever read and approeciated would be there as well
    The graceful bottles and delicate glasses are certainly filled with an unearthly ambrosia. There are no destructive storms, verbal or otherwise. Those who should have been honored are now robed in beautiful fabrics. For this is Heaven and all is well.
    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and stately image.

    Reply
  7. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    What a gloriusly beautifu poem.
    I have always known you as a fighter, apt to become justifiably incensed by idiots. But this is a side of you I have rarely .encountered.
    The scene you describe is one of perfection – everything — the sky, furniture, accoutrements — the graceful bottles, the delicate glasses which are .obviously filled with ambrosia , speaks of perfection, as do your friends. I see you surrounded by Leo Yankevich, Alfred Dorn, John Whitworth, and all those you have read and written about. Those who have .not v.et been honored are attired in rare and beautiful flowing fabrics. Everything seems perfect, and surrounded by an intricate rose gold encrustation. Carnelian provides the healing. The accompanying illustration is equally perfect – rich and luscious.
    .You may have undergone a sea change, because this is a Heaven of the intellect.
    All is perfection. Remarkable.

    Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    Once again, Joseph, you have demonstrated your knack for finding off-the-beaten-path subjects that readily lend themselves to seriously good poetry. If I am invited to visit your salon, I will expect there to be a large tray of antipasto, including some of your signature stuffed mushrooms. Ambrosia I can take or leave, but I assume there will be a good selection of bourbon whiskey and Scotch whisky on hand as well. Perhaps there will be some grappa that is actually drinkable.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, there will be anything that you want. We can all dine al fresco in the garden. But hard spirits like bourbon and scotch and grappa will, in good Italianate fashion, be served after the meal, not before.

      Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    An intensely party-colored poem, composing a still life that isn’t really still, and is made up of a vast array of symbols. The essay is the only attempt I’ve seen that makes a useful distinction between “symbol” and “objective correlative.” Symbols are never entirely comprehensible, because they belong to some complex of cultural symbols such as plant symbolism or water symbolism. But they do have suggestive meaning that comes from outside a particular work of art, which is why they are useful to artists. You, Joseph, are making use of ring symbolism, stone symbolism, and color symbolism with the carnelian ring–not to mention all the garden symbolism in the setting. Yet the ring as objective correlative has a suggestive function (not a meaning) within this particular work of art. Not easy to achieve or explain!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Margaret. I too always think of a “symbol” as public property, available to anyone conversant with the culture in which the symbol exists. But an objective correlative in a literary work is always unique, personal, private, sui generis, and used only once by a writer for some specific and unrepeatable ad hoc purpose.

      Of course it’s easy for a writer to belabor his objective correlative, and make its symbolism too apparent. I came close to this in my poem, when I wrote “This garden is our mystic ring,” which I admit is a bit too explicit. But the opposite error is to be utterly mysterious and shut-mouthed, and leave the reader completely in the dark about what’s going on or what you’re thinking. Modernist writing is much too prone to this latter error.

      This was the reason I imagined the carnelian ring as having an unexplained intaglio device, the meaning of which the speaker does not reveal.

      Reply

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