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Symbolism In Poetry

The literary movement known as Symbolism began in France in the mid-19th Century and lasted until, roughly, the dawn of the 20th Century. It is generally regarded as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism/Surrealism.

The Origins Of Symbolism

In Paris, in 1857, Charles Baudelaire, a poet heavily influenced by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, published a collection of work titled Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). Because six of the poems were deemed to be obscene and unfit to be published in France, the book was censored by the authorities. The poet and his publisher were fined and prosecuted for "an affront to human decency" and the first printing sold out immediately.

Baudelaire and several poets close to him were accused of “dandyism” by the press and labeled "decadent" due to their insistence on portraying subjects such as lesbianism, Satanism, death and drug addiction. Objecting to these charges, the poets began calling themselves "Symbolists".

Despite the prominence of Baudelaire, it is difficult to fix a date for the origins of Symbolism. Gerard de Nerval, a poet included in most Symbolist anthologies, committed suicide in 1855 – two years before the publication of Les Fleurs. And the movement itself was not defined as such until 1886 when Jean Moreas published the Symbolist Manifesto in Le Figaro. By the time Arthur Symons produced The Symbolist Movement in Literature in England in 1899, introducing many of these poets to an English-speaking audience for the first time, the influence of the school was already widespread in Europe. In fact, it had already declined and other literary movements lay claim to many of the tenets and practices of the poets and writers who marched under the Symbolist banner.

Many Symbolist poets – including Paul Valery and Stephan Mallarme – expressed their admiration for Parnassianism, the Romantic literary movement that preceded Symbolism, and for what Theophile Gautier called "art for arts sake". They published their early works in the Parnassian anthologies and, while rejecting the clarity and objectivity of that school, they kept its love of musicality and its ironic nature.

It is important to note, however, that one poet – Arthur Rimbaud -- publicly mocked the Parnassians and wrote scatalogical parodies of their verse.

Putting Symbolism In Context

Symbolism grew out of an opposition to Naturalism and Realism in the arts of the mid-19th Century. This was the age of Darwin - the industrial revolution was still gaining force and the Positivist philosophy of Comte held sway in intellectual circles. Comte reasoned that the only true knowledge is based on immediate sensory experience. That is, what you see is what you get and only if you can hold it or touch it is it real while the metaphysical and the spiritual is idle speculation.

Empiricism threatened to drown all the great mysteries of the world and the rise of worldwide capitalism made man a cog in the machinery of a materialistic society. Like their ancestors in the Romantic movement, Mallarme, Paul Verlaine, and other poets, felt that mankind was being robbed of his inner self. There should be more to the human animal than mere physical perception and sensory experience, they thought.

Finally, even contemporary art movements, such as the paintings of the Impressionists, came to be seen as rooted in the finite world the artists observed.

The Symbolist Methodology

Borrowing from its Romantic roots, Symbolism favored feeling over reason, but was more intellectual in its conception. The poets themselves seem to have drawn upon a variety of forms and structures for their works – everything from the formal lyrical poems of Verlaine to the hallucinatory cadences of Rimbaud and the vers libre found in Mallarme. A free association of ideas and themes and a fondness for the darker side of human nature was something they all shared.

Symbolist writing, whether poetry or prose, is notoriously difficult. The poems seek to evoke a mood rather than tell or describe anything. They are deliberately filled with hidden meaning and imagery. Ambiguity is favored over direct presentation – abstraction, mysticism, the stuff of dreams. "Suggestion, that is the dream", wrote Mallarme. And it was he who penned what is perhaps one of the most difficult and obscure poems to be found in world literature: "The Afternoon of a Faun (L’Apres-midi d’un Faune)".

Intuition and synesthesia were frequently drawn upon – the mingling of ideas in the senses: scent or sound and color, with perception itself. Rimbaud drew upon the colors of the letters of the alphabet for one memorable poem. All of this was meant to be grandly illogical. Symbols found in the physical and "real" world were incorporated into the emotional and dream world of personal experience. The loss of narrative and place in these poems gives rise to a heightened experience – elusive and almost supernatural - for anyone who chooses to follow where Symbolist poetry, aka "Symbolism", leads.

The Lasting Influence Of Symbolism

Symbolism, even in its infancy, had a great effect in Europe. It was seen as a liberating influence in many countries – Belgium, Germany, and Russia, for instance – and taken up immediately and carried into other arts, including painting and music.

In Britain, it was a different story. English poetry in the 1890s – long before Symons published his critiques – drew on the Symbolist movement for some of its effects. Minor poets all – Symons himself, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, and Oscar Wilde – they each translated the French poetry and tried to bring it over into their own language. Whether or not they succeeded is another argument. Perhaps it was too Continental – the tenets of Symbolism seem never to have really penetrated the English psyche.

America too, for a long time, remained isolated from the Symbolism movement. Then in the first decades of the 20th Century , T.S. Eliot discovered his own voice in the ironic detachment of two early Symbolist poets, Tristan Corbiere (1845-1875) and Jules Lafourge (1860-1887). Under their influence he wrote "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland". The rhythms of these poets – particularly Lafourge – are found in much of Eliot’s other work as well.

Ezra Pound was familiar with Symbolist experiments in free verse when he formulated his criteria for Imagism. And two other Americans who borrowed heavily from the movement were Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. One reads Crane’s poem "The Broken Tower" (1932) with the knowledge that somewhere behind it lies a great French-Symbolist poem.

But surprisingly enough, it is "The Road Not Taken" by the traditionalist Robert Frost that is sometimes pointed to as the greatest success of this kind of poem in the English language. Its deliberately ambiguous nature, its message of something missed, something lost -- a thing not quite found-- seems to capture the essence of Symbolism in poetry.

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