. The Carnelian Ring: A Still-Life Footfalls echo in the memoryDown the passage which we did not takeTowards the door we never openedInto 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 hedgesGrown 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 restBottles of wine, a bowl of fresh-picked fruit,Napkins, knives, cut-crystal antique glasses,Should be surrounded by wrought-iron chairsWith cushions where my best and closest friendsSit in the lazy shade of afternoon,Comfortable, unrushed, totally at ease, Drinking and speaking quietly of thingsKnown only to ourselves—our common past, Dead companions, old catastrophesThat time with sutures, tourniquets, and salvesHas rendered now mere comic episodes. Those are the circumstances, but add this:We are all dressed immaculately. We wearOur best clothes and accessories. And IHave on my finger a carnelian ringSet with heavy rose gold, and the stone’sIntaglio’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 fountainProvides the backdrop for our conversation. No crass, intruding stranger can come hereTo violate this perfect magic circleOr question what we know, or how we think.My friends are precious to me; as each speaksI listen attentively while my right handTurns the carnelian ring upon the other,And think: This garden is our mystic ring—Rose gold and carnelian with a markUndeciphered by my friends, and yet Protecting them with talismanic force. . . 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. . . 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.