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Summary Article: Literary Symbolism
from World History Encyclopedia

Symbolism originated as a literary movement in France and Belgium in the 1880s, arising from a desire for something beyond the real and the material. At its root lay a dissatisfaction with the ideas of progress espoused in the name of science, which the symbolists believed left little room for the presence of higher ideals. It was for this reason that they rejected naturalism, which sought to describe its subjects in realistic detail and often drew upon scientific theories of evolution and heredity to do so. Instead, symbolism had as its goal to suggest and evoke but never describe. It eschewed mimetic descriptions in favor of evocations of sensations, spirituality, and interior thoughts and feelings.

Charles Baudelaire was the father of symbolist poetry and a highly respected critic of the French art and literary world during the nineteenth century. (Library of Congress)

Although Jean Moréas (1856–1910) codified the term "symbolism" to refer to the new poetry, this did not signal the beginning of the movement as much as it described what had already been taking place. The poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) was widely acknowledged as a precursor to symbolism, for the themes of Le spleen de Paris (1869) and the ideal that structured his book of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (1857), also interested the new generation of writers. Three of the most prominent symbolists—Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), Paul Verlaine (1844– 1896), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891)—had all published collections of poetry by the time Moréas wrote his manifesto. In fact, the manifesto was largely a response to growing criticism of the new movement, derisively referred to as "decadent." This impelled Moréas to propose the term "symbolism" in its place, although some, including Verlaine, continued to prefer the term "decadent."

The criticism directed at symbolism posed logistical problems as well. Denied access to established periodicals, the new vanguard sought other means of defending themselves against their critics and disseminating their ideas and works. To that end, many of them founded their own journals, and this period consequently witnessed an enormous outgrowth of journalistic activity. Many of these publications were ephemeral, lasting only one or two years, although some, such as La Revue blanche or Le Mercure de France, experienced greater longevity.

If symbolists rejected naturalism's objective descriptions, they also rejected the rigid rhyme schemes of their poetic predecessors, the Parnassians. The most pointed attack was against the alexandrine, a twelve-syllabic line of verse usually divided by pauses into equal halves or thirds, that formed the basis of much traditional French poetry. Seeking to infuse new life into a medium that they believed had become staid and conventional, the symbolists turned to lines of verse with odd numbers of syllables and irregularly spaced pauses. This also had the effect of enhancing the musicality of the poem, a central concern for many and deriving in part from their fascination with the German composer Richard Wagner.

This interest in Wagner also led symbolists to explore the idea of synesthesia, the interrelation of the different senses and, in their minds, often associated with a spiritual experience. Baudelaire had suggested as much in "Correspondences" (ca. 1852–1856) when he wrote that the sounds, smells, and colors responded to one another, a notion echoed by Rimbaud's "Vowels" (1871), which paired each vowel with a different color. Additionally, synesthetic theater was much in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. One such production covered the floor in flowers and sprayed incense in the air while an organ played music by Erik Satie and trumpets sounded the prelude to the Wagner opera Parsifal.

Symbolism's rejection of the conventional, along with its emphasis on nuance and imprecision, led to formal innovations such as the development of vers libre (free verse) practiced by Gustave Kahn (1859–1936), among others. It was now the unity of form and idea that determined the individual verse as opposed to a given number of syllables or rhyme scheme. Mallarmé's poem "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard" (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) was also significant in this regard. In varying the size and placement of the text, composing with the white of the page as much as the words themselves, Mallarmé created a work that was simultaneously visual and aural and that would prove enormously influential for both poetry and art in the years to come.

  • Balakian, Anna Elizabeth. The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal. New York: Random House, 1967.
  • Genova, Pamela A. Symbolist Journals: A Culture of Correspondence. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.
  • Houston, John Porter, and Mona, Tobin Houston, trans. French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
  • Moréas, Jean. "Symbolisme—un manifeste": Supplement littéraire du Figaro, September 18, 1886. Partially reprinted in Art in Theory, 1850–1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles, Harrison and Paul, Wood with Jason, Gaiger and translated by Akane, Kawakami, 1014-1016. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998.
Isabel Suchanek
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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