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c. 1850

The symbolist movement in literature originated during the 1850s in France and lasted until about 1900. Symbolism exerted a profound influence on twentieth-century literature, bridging the transition from Realism to Modernism. Symbolism also exerted a strong influence on the arts, including theater, painting, and music. The symbolists sought to convey very personal, irrational, and dream-like states of consciousness, relying heavily on metaphorical language to approximate, or symbolize, an eternal essence of being that, they believed, was abstracted from the scope of the five senses. These literary ideals developed as a reaction against the dominance of positivism, which emphasized rational thought, objectivity, and scientific method. Symbolism also represented a reaction against Realism and Naturalism in literature, which sought to accurately represent the external world of nature and human society through descriptions of objective reality. Stylistically, the symbolists emphasized the inherent musicality of language, developed the use of vers libre (free verse), and modernized the existing form of the prose poem. The symbolists were greatly influenced by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose Les fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil) embodied many of their literary ideals. In addition to Baudelaire, the central figures of French Symbolism are the poets Stéphane Mallarmé,PaulVerlaine,and Arthur Rimbaud. French Symbolism affected international literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular, inspiring the Russian symbolist movement, which developed in the 1880s. The literature of Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the United States, and Turkey was also influenced by Symbolism. Though poetry dominated the symbolist movement, great works of fiction and drama were also written by adherents of Symbolism.


Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

The poetry of Charles Baudelaire was the chief inspiration for the development of Symbolism. His masterpiece, Les fleurs du mal(Flowers of Evil), and his important collection of prose poetry Petits poèmes en prose (1868; Little Prose Poems), embody the central ideals of the symbol-ist movement. Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris, France. As a young man he established himself as a popular critic of art and literature. When he first encountered the short fiction of American writer Edgar Allen Poe in 1847, Baudelaire immediately felt that Poe's literary sensibilities resonated strongly with his own. Thenceforth, he devoted much of his life to translating the works of Poe into French. Through these translations, Poe became an important influence on the later French symbolist poets. In 1848, Baudelaire participated in two major political events in France, the Revolution of 1848 and the June Days rebellion. In 1855, eighteen of his poems were published in a literary journal as a collection titled Flowers of Evil. Flowers of Evil was eventually expanded to include over one hundred poems and published as a single volume. In the 1860s, Baudelaire began to compose the prose poems that were posthumously collected in the volume Little Prose Poems (later republished as Le spleen de Paris,or Paris Spleen). Baudelaire died of complications resulting from syphilis on August 31, 1867, in Paris, in financial ruin and with many of his poems still unpublished. However, the young generation of writers who developed the symbolist movement regarded him as their literary father, and Baudelaire soon came to be widely viewed as one of the greatest French poets of the nineteenth century.

Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921)

Aleksandr (Aleksandrovich) Blok is considered the greatest poet of the Russian symbolist movement. Blok's symbolist masterpiece is the epic poem, Dvenadtsat(1918; The Twelve). His literary ideals developed from a synthesis of the influences of Russian poets Aleksandr Pushkin and Vladimir Solovyov. Blok was born on November 16, 1880, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and died on August 7, 1921, in Petrograd (the post-revolutionary name given to St. Petersburg).

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907)

Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours (1884; Against the Grain) is considered the greatest novel to emerge from the symbolist movement. Huysmans was born Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, February 5, 1848, in Paris, France. Huysmans took up a lifelong career as a civil servant for the French government. He became associated with the naturalist school of fiction headed by the great French novelist Emile Zola. The publication of Against the Grain, however, signaled his break with Naturalism, as the novel embodies the ideals of the symbolist poets. His novel Là-bas (1891; Down There) is based on a real-life person who was executed in 1440 for murdering children. Huysmans died of cancer May 12, 1907, in Paris.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949)

Maurice Maeterlinck was the foremost playwright of the symbolist movement and the greatest Belgian playwright of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maeterlinck was born on August 29, 1862, in Ghent, Belgium. He studied law and was admitted to the barin1886. Maeterlinck worked as a lawyer until 1889, when he decided to devote himself to writing. In 1897, Maeterlinck went to Paris, where he met many of the leading symbolist writers of the day. He sent his first play, La Princesse Maleine (1890; The Princess Maleine), to Mallarmé, who sent it on to an important French dramatist and critic of the day. The Princess Maleine was an immediate success, and many plays followed, including L'Intruse (1890; The Intruder) and Les aveugles (1890; The Blind). Maeterlinck's masterpiece and the greatest work of symbolist theater, Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelleas and Melisande), was produced at the Théatre de l'Oeuvre in 1892. His book La vie des abeilles(The Life of the Bee), published in 1901, compares his observations of the behavior of bees to human society. His play L'Oiseau bleu(1909; The Blue Bird) was an international success and has been adapted several times as a children's book and a major motion picture. The phrase "the bluebird of happiness" derives from this enormously popular and enduring story. Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. He died of a heart attack on May 6, 1949, in Nice, France.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)

Stéphane Mallarmé was one of the founders of the symbolist movement and a major influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. Mallarmé was profoundly influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire, from which he developed the literary ideals of Symbolism. Mallarmé was born on March 18, 1842, in Paris, France. His mother died when he was only five years old. By the time he was twenty-one, his sister and father had also died. These early experiences with death may have contributed to the deep sense of loss expressed in his later work. Mallarmé made his living as a teacher, editor, and translator while working on his poetry. His L'Après-midi d'un faune (1876; The Afternoon of a Faun) is a major work of symbolist poetry. Mallarmé also held a weekly, Tuesday-evening literary, artistic, and musical salon in his apartment in Paris. He thus was an important intellectual influence on the symbolist movement in that he devoted himself to developing and communicating the theoretical basis for Symbolism. In his poetry, Mallarmé was interested in exploring the relationship between everyday reality and an ideal world of perfection and beauty that transcends reality, what he described as the ideal flower that is absent from all bouquets. Mallarmé died September 9, 1898, in the French village of Valvins. His major works of poetry are collected in the volumes Vers et prose (1893) and Poésies (1899). His essays on literature are collected in the volume Divagations (1897; Wanderings).

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Arthur Rimbaud was one of the founding poets of the symbolist movement and a major influence on modern poetry. Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville, France. As a teenager he ran away from home to go to Paris on three separate occasions. During one of these ventures, he participated in the 1871 rebellion of the Paris Commune. However, disillusioned by the violent suppression of the Paris Commune, Rimbaud chose to devote his life to poetry rather than political action. Rimbaud, like Mallarmé and Verlaine, was influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire. In 1871, Rimbaud sent some of his poems to Verlaine, who was so impressed that he paid for Rimbaud to come to Paris and stay several months in his home. In Paris, Rimbaud met many important literary figures but alienated most of them with his vulgar behavior. However, Rimbaud and Verlaine (who was married at the time) developed an openly acknowledged homosexual relationship. The two men engaged in a tumultuous, passionate, intermittent love affair for several years. Rimbaud traveled with Verlaine to London and Brussels in the early 1870s, during which time Rimbaud composed the prose poetry later collected in Les illuminations (Illuminations). In 1873, the volatile nature of their relationship reached a peak when Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. Soon after this incident, Rimbaud returned to his family home in France, where he completed his volume of prose poetry, Une saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell). In 1875, Rimbaud saw Verlaine for the last time. He left Verlaine with the manuscript of the volume Illuminations, which Verlaine saw to publication in 1886. Rimbaud spent most of the remainder of his life traveling the world, largely cut off from the literary world of Paris. His period of poetry writing lasted from about age sixteen to twenty-one. In February 1891, Rimbaud returned to France for cancer treatments. He died on November 10, at the age of thirty-seven.

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Marina Tsvetaeva was born October 8, 1892, in Moscow. Tsvetaeva attended the Sorbonne in Paris where she studied literary history. There she was exposed to Symbolism, which had a big impression on the young poet. Her first volume of poetry, Evening Album, was published in 1910. In 1912, she married Serfei Efron, a soldier by trade; they had two daughters together. Tsvetaeva loved her husband but, throughout her life, also had a number of affairs with both men and women. Civil war broke out in the Soviet Union in 1917, and Efron was often gone fighting. Tsvetaeva was obliged to remain in Moscow for five years during which time there was a famine and her youngest daughter consequently died of starvation. The family was reunited in 1922 in Berlin and moved to Prague, where they had a son. In 1925, they moved to Paris where Tsvetaeva found herself an outcast among the Russian expatriate community for not being sufficiently anti-Soviet. She consoled herself with correspondence with friends, among which one of her dearest was the poet Boris Pasternak. In the late 1920s, homesick, Efron became a Soviet spy and soon had to return to Russia to escape the French police. Marred by this pro-Soviet association, Tsvetaeva found herself further ostracized and followed him a year later, in 1939. Life in Stalin's Soviet Union was no better for Tsvetaeva, who had trouble finding work and was considered suspect by the government. On August 31, 1941, Tsvetaeva hanged herself at her home in Yelabuga, in the western Soviet Union.

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

Paul Verlaine was one of the principal founders of the symbolist movement. Verlaine was born on March 30, 1844, in Metz, France. In 1862, he began his association with many of the literary figures of the day, including Mallarmé, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Anatole France. He married in 1870, but his marriage was disrupted by the arrival of Rimbaud in 1871, with whom Verlaine carried on a passionate and tumultuous love affair over a period of years. In 1872, Verlaine abandoned his wife to travel with Rimbaud to London and Brussels and to work on his poetry. In 1873, in Brussels, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a quarrel and was sentenced to two years in prison. His masterpiece, the poetry volume Romances sans parole (Songs without Words), was published in 1874, while Verlaine was still in prison. His volume Sagesse (1880; Wisdom), published in 1880, has come to be regarded as one of his major works. In the early 1880s, Verlaine was recognized as a leading symbolist poet, particularly with his poem "Art poétique." His volume Les poètes maudits (1884; The Accursed Poets), includes short biographical essays on six poets, including Mallarmé and Rimbaud. In 1886, Verlaine oversaw the publication of Rimbaud's Illuminations. When Verlaine died of pulmonary congestion on January 8, 1896, in Paris, he was widely recognized as a major French poet of the nineteenth century and one of the founders of the symbolist movement.


Against the Grain

The novel Against the Grain, by Huysmans, was published in 1884 and is considered the greatest work of symbolist fiction. The story concerns a wealthy, privileged, and hypersensitive man who leaves Paris to isolate himself from human society. He does so by shutting himself in a luxurious country home where he sees no one. Even his servants are made to stay out of his sight. Huys-mans is less concerned with plot than with the state of mind of his protagonist. Like the symbolist poets, Huysmans wished to explore the inner spiritual and psychological state of the individual through his writing. He employs prose that borders on the poetic, using language in experimental ways that embody symbolist ideals. With Against the Grain, Huysmans made a daring break from the Realism and Naturalism of his literary mentor, the famous French novelist Emile Zola. Huysmans's admiration of the symbolist poets is expressed within the story when the protagonist reads the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Verlaine.

The Twelve

The verse ballad The Twelve, by Blok, was published in 1918 and is a masterpiece of Russian symbolist poetry. It concerns twelve brutal Red Guards on a rampage during the St. Petersburg uprising of 1917 and 1918. Stylistically, The Twelve is celebrated for Blok's use of language that is both vernacular and musical, expressing harsh vulgarities as well as delicate moods.


  • Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande was adapted as an opera by Claude Debussy, with a libretto by Maeterlinck, in 1902.
  • In 2007, Kultur Video released a film biography of Russian symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok, titled Great Russian Writers: Alexander Blok.It tells Blok's story in its historical context.


Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations is considered a masterwork of symbolist prose poetry. It consists of forty-two prose poems first composed in 1873. The collection was not published until 1886, at a time when Rimbaud was traveling the world. Paul Verlaine, to whom Rimbaud had given the manuscript, was unable to contact Rimbaud and published the volume without Rimbaud's knowledge. Rimbaud himself may never have seen this publication. In Illuminations, Rimbaud developed the prose poem in accordance with the symbolist aesthetic. His unique use of language, punctuation, and informal structure is extremely experimental, leaving many readers baffled about the poems' meanings and many critics at odds over how to interpret the work. Rimbaud's themes include the importance of childhood perceptions, the journey as metaphor, the spirit of rebellion, and the mysteries of nature. He frequently ends his poems with a single, powerful line that is both striking and enigmatic.

The Afternoon of a Faun

The Afternoon of a Faun, published by Mallarmé in 1876, is one of the greatest works of symbolist verse. It explores the relationship between the real world and an idealized spiritual world of perfection and beauty. It also deals with sensuality, passion, and physical sensation and how they attain significance through meditation and introspection.

Flowers of Evil

Flowers of Evil, by Baudelaire, was the primary literary inspiration for the symbolist poets, and remains one of the most celebrated works of nineteenth-century French verse. The poems embody the central ideals of Symbolism. Critic William Franke divides Baudelaire's Symbolism into four complex, elements: symbol, language, reality, and meaning. Although Baudelaire himself was a precursor to the symbolist movement, Flowers of Evil is considered a major work of symbolist poetry. The first edition of 100 poems was published in 1857. A second edition in 1861 was expanded to include 126 poems. This 1861 edition is divided into six sections: "Spleen et Ideal" ("Spleen and the Ideal"), "Tableaux Parisians" ("Parisian Tableaus"), "Le Vin" ("Wine"), "Fleurs du mal" ("Flowers of Evil"), "Révolte" ("Revolt"), and "La Mort" ("Death"). In Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire maintains traditional formal elements of verse in poems that are highly innovative in theme and imagery. The poems address themes of original sin, beauty, love, death, and the tension between sensuality and spirituality. The subjects of the poems include the spiritual and sensual love of women, the powers of Satan, and the spiritual struggles inherent to the human condition. The section "Parisian Tableaus" was added to the 1861 edition and contains poems about the city of Paris, noted as the first modern urban poetry. Flowers of Evil includes Baudelaire's most famous poem, "Le Cygne" ("The Swan"), in which the memory of a swan, escaped from the zoo and stranded near the Louvre in Paris symbolizes the human plight of alienation and loss that are commonly addressed in modern literature. Other major poems in this volume include "La Chevelure" ("The Head of Hair") and "Correspondences."

Pelleas and Melisande

Pelleas and Melisande, by Maeterlinck, is considered the greatest work of symbolist drama. This five-act play was first produced in 1893. It uses a fairytale setting and revolves around the Princess Melisande, whose passionate love for her husband's brother leads to doom and destruction. While the plot and characterization are relatively simple, the play expresses a powerful mood of longing in language notable for its musical qualities.

Songs without Words

Verlaine's Songs without Words, published in 1874, is a collection of poems that captures the musicality of the French language. The volume includes twenty-one poems and is divided into four sections: "Ariettes oubliées" ("Forgotten Ariettas"), "Pay-sages belges" ("Belgian Landscapes"), "Birds in the Night" (titled in English in the original version), and "Arquarelles" ("Watercolors"). The tone of the poems is highly personal, expressing feelings of passion, guilt, regret, and nostalgia. These poems were written during Verlaine's travels with Rimbaud to Belgium and England and express his mixed feelings about the wife he abandoned as well as his feelings for Rimbaud. The first edition of Songs without Words was published while Verlaine was imprisoned after having shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a lover's quarrel. Verlaine originally dedicated the volume to Rimbaud, but the dedication was removed from the published edition because of the scandalous nature of Verlaine's relationship to Rimbaud.


The Inner Life of the Individual

The symbolist writers were concerned with expressing various elements of the internal life of the individual. They focused on subjective mental impressions, internal moods, delicate emotional states, and spiritual sentiments in reaction against the nineteenth-century focus on objective, external, concrete realities as perceived through rational scientific methods. Their use of imagery often exemplifies states of mind, the imagination, the human psyche, and dreams. Huysmans's symbolist novel Against the Grain, for example, concerns a man who isolates himself in a country house, avoiding contact with other people; the focus of the novel is thus on the detailed subjective perceptions of the hypersensitive protagonist within an isolated environment. Many symbolist poems, particularly those of Rimbaud, evoke the inner world of the child, capturing childhood impressions, perceptions, and flights of imagination.

The Journey

Many symbolist writers describe various journeys, voyages, or quests as metaphors for internal explorations into the inner consciousness of the individual. Baudelaire's poem "Le Voyage" ("The Voyage") describes a journey as a symbol of the quest for meaning and satisfaction in life. Rimbaud, who wrote many of his major poems while traveling with Verlaine, often focuses on symbolic journeys in his poetry, frequently describing travel as a metaphor for a quest into the imagination. For example, "Le Bateau ivre" ("The Drunken Boat"), one of Rimbaud's most famous poems, narrates a voyage by boat as a metaphor for an internal voyage into the mind of the individual. Verlaine also wrote a number of poems based on his travels with Rimbaud.

Sensual and Spiritual Love

The major symbolist poets were men, and many of their poems explore the tension in their lives between the sensual love of women and the spiritual idealization of women. These themes are addressed in the first section of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, wherein three cycles of love poetry are associated with three different women with whom Baudelaire was involved during his life. Baudelaire's poem "The Head of Hair" focuses on the sensuality of a woman's hair. The symbolist poets also strove for the realization of spiritual ideals through their love poetry. They considered beauty


  • The symbolist movement in literature was an important influence on modern painting. The major symbolist painters were Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Puvis de Chavannes. Find art books with reproductions of symbolist paintings by these or other artists. Choose one symbolist painter and provide a brief biography of him or her, focusing on the period during which he produced the majority of his symbolist works. Discuss one painting by the artist, describing the painting in your own words. In what ways does this painting express the ideals of the symbolist movement?
  • Read Mallarmé's The Afternoon of a Faun then find and listen to a recording of Debussy's musical adaptation Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Compare and contrast the poem to the prelude. In what ways are the ideals of the symbolist movement expressed through Debussy's musical composition? How are the ideals of Symbolism expressed differently in the different mediums of poetry and music?
  • Maeterlinck was the foremost author of symbolist drama. Read his play Pelleas and Melisande. With a group of students, perform one scene from the play then discuss as a group the scene you have performed. Describe the symbolist elements and themes of the scene. In what ways does your performance of the scene enhance your understanding of the play?
  • Although the symbolist writers did not invent the prose poetry form, a number of them did develop the prose poem as a modern form of expression. For this assignment, choose one of the following options: a) Choose three prose poems from either Baudelaire's Paris Spleen or Rimbaud's Illuminations, and write an essay describing the major theme or themes, the poet's use of language, and the symbolist elements of the poem; or, b) Look through published volumes of prose poetry to get a sense of the form, then write five to ten of your own original prose poems.

to be an abstract spiritual ideal that can only be hinted at through the presence of physical beauty. Mallarmédescribed this concept as the ideal flower that does not exist in any real bouquet. Not all symbolist poetry was inspired by heterosexual relationships. The love poetry of both Verlaine and Rimbaud was often inspired by their own homosexual relationship.

Religion and Spirituality

Symbolist literature is often preoccupied with spiritual exploration and religious questions. Symbolist writers developed religious themes in a variety of ways. Much of Baudelaire's poetry explores the Catholic concept of sin and the figure of Satan. The section of Flowers of Evil entitled "Revolt" focuses on Baudelaire's struggles with the allure of Satanism. Rimbaud, on the other hand, offers harsh criticism of traditional religious beliefs throughout his writing, while striving to express spiritual ideals. Verlaine, who experienced a religious awakening while in prison, wrote poetry expressing the Catholic faith in his volume Wisdom. Blok is noted for his verse ballad The Twelve, in which the exploits of a band of revolutionary rebels are described as a Christian parable.

Urban Life

Modern urban life is an important element and central theme of symbolist poetry that inaugurated the transition to modern literature in the twentieth century. Baudelaire, in his "Parisian Tableaus," a section of Flowers of Evil, wrote some of the first poetry to depict nineteenth-century urban landscapes and urban squalor. His famous poem "The Swan" expresses feelings of alienation evoked by life in the modern city.


Free Verse

Free verse or Vers libre was developed by the symbolist poets as a form of verse liberated from the traditional formal requirements of French poetry, such as meter and rhyme. The symbolists felt the formal qualities of a poem should emerge from its content, rather than being imposed upon it by conventional rules. Free verse poetry thus tends to be structured according to the rhythms of everyday speech. French symbolist poets Jules Laforgue (1860-1887) and Gustave Kahn (1859-1936) were the first to develop free verse, which they began to use in the 1880s. Due to the influence of symbolist poetry, free verse came to characterize modern poetry in the twentieth century. Early English-language poets who used free verse include T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Musicality of Language

Symbolist writers were particularly interested in bringing out the musical qualities of language. They developed works of lyrical beauty in which language was orchestrated with image to create a symphony of mood and suggestion. Verlaine and Mallarmé are particularly revered for the musical qualities of their poetry. Blok brought musicality to Russian verse in his ballad The Twelve. In drama, the plays of Maeterlinck are notable for the musical qualities of the dialogue.


The symbolists focused on evoking a strong sense of mood through the use of language. Moods such as longing, regret, a sense of loss, and reverie are often expressed in symbolist literature. The poets strove to evoke specific moods through the expression of subtle internal states of mind. In symbolist fiction and drama, plot is less important than the overall mood or atmosphere that is created.

The Fairy Tale

A number of symbolist writers drew from traditional folktales and fairytales in their works of poetry, fiction, and drama. Maeterlinck, for example, in his plays The Princess Maleine and Pelleas and Melisande, drew from a variety of popular folktales to create dramas set in traditional fairytale settings and featuring characters from folk literature. Rimbaud drew extensively on the fairytale in experimental narrative poems that transform this traditional genre.


International Influence

The symbolist movement, though begun in France, had a profound influence on international literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Inspired by the reading of French symbolist poetry in translation, the poets of the Russian symbolist movement emerged during the 1890s. Russian Symbolism is one of the early literary movements that characterized the "Silver Age" in Russia, a period of great intellectual and literary achievement. The development of Russian symbolist literature was inspired by the writings of the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Solovyov (1853 - 1900), in conjunction with French symbolist literature. The Russian symbolist movement is dated from the 1893 publication of the essay "On the Reasons for the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature," written by Dmitry Merezhkovsky.

Russian symbolist literature developed in two waves. The first wave included the poet Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), who translated French symbolist poetry into Russian and was regarded as the leader of Russian Symbolism; the poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945); and the poet and novelist Fyodor Sologub. The second wave of Russian Symbolism is associated with three major literary figures: Aleksandr Blok, Vyache-slav Ivanov, and Andrey Bely. Blok, considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, is celebrated for his symbolist verse ballad The Twelve, a religious parable that takes place during the Russian Revolution. Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949) is known as a symbolist poet and a major theoretical influence on Russian Symbolism. Andrey Bely (1880-1934) is best known for his symbolist novel Petersburg.

While other national cultures did not necessarily develop their own unique symbolist movements, the modernist literature of many nations did develop out of symbolist influence. English literature in particular was influenced by Symbolism, including the works of poet T. S. Eliot and poet and playwright W. B. Yeats, as well as novelists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The imagist movement in American and English poetry, developed by Ezra Pound and others, was also inspired by Symbolism. German writers, particularly poet Rainer Maria Rilke and novelist Thomas Mann, were affected by Symbolism, which also exerted influence on Japanese and Turkish literature.


Aestheticism was a literary and artistic movement of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement believed that art should not be mixed with social, political, or moral teaching. The statement "art for art's sake" expresses a central tenet of aestheticism. The movement had its roots in France, but it gained widespread importance in England in the last half of the nineteenth century, where it helped change the Victorian practice of including moral lessons in literature. Oscar Wilde is one of the best-known aesthetes of the late nineteenth century.

Decadent Literature

The decadents were followers of a nineteenth-century literary movement that had its beginnings in French aestheticism. Decadent literature displays a fascination with perverse and morbid states; a search for novelty and sensation-the "new thrill"; a preoccupation with mysticism; and a belief in the senselessness of human existence. The movement is closely associated with the doctrine summed up in the words, "Art for art's sake." The term "decadence" is sometimes used to denote a decline in the quality of art or literature following a period of greatness. Major French decadents are Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. English decadents include Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Frank Harris.


Symbolist theater developed in France in conjunction with the works of symbolist playwrights. In 1890, Paul Fort founded the Theatre d'Art in Paris, which produced works of symbolist drama. In 1892, upon the death of Fort, Aurelien Lugne-Poe founded the Theatre de l'Oeuvre from the Theatre d'Art. Symbolist theater was particularly influenced by the literary ideals of Mallarmé.The theatrical productions were a reaction against realist drama in staging, costumes, and performance style. The influence of symbolist painting affected the use of backdrops and stage sets to embody the symbolist ideals of recreating specific moods and internal states of mind, rather than reproducing realistic settings or scenarios. Maeterlinck is the most celebrated symbolist playwright. Other major symbolist playwrights include the French writers Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-1889) and Paul Claudel (1868-1955).


Symbolist painting was as important to the development of modern art as symbolist poetry was to the development of modern literature. Symbolist painting was inspired by symbolist poetry and was a reaction against Realism and Impressionism. Symbolist painters focused on depicting the world of dream, myth, fantasy, and the imagination, and on creating visual expressions of internal moods and subjective states of mind. The most important symbolist painters were Odilon Redon (1840-1916), who was a close friend of Mallarmé; Gustave Moreau (1826-1898); and Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898).


Symbolism exerted a significant influence on musical composition of the twentieth century. Most notably, French composers Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) applied symbolist ideals to their music. Like Baudelaire and other symbolist poets, Debussy was strongly influenced by the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy's famous composition Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) is based on Mallarmé's The Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy also adapted Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande as an operatic composition with a libretto by Maeterlinck himself, first performed in 1902. Ravel adapted the poetry of Mallarméto music in his 1913 vocal composition Trois poèmes de Stephane Mallarmé (Three Poems by Stephane Mallarmé).


Although the subject matter of symbolist poetry was focused on the individual and was generally apolitical, several of the symbolist poets themselves were involved in major political events that took place in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. These events included the Revolution of 1848, the Second


  • 1850-1900: France experiences several internal rebellions and major changes of government. The Second Republic, a constitutional democracy ruled by a president, lasts from the Revolution of 1848 until 1852. The Second Empire, under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III, remains relatively stable from 1852 until 1870. The Third Republic, a constitutional democracy with a president, remains relatively stable from 1871 until the German occupation of France in 1940.

    Today: The current French government, known as the Fifth Republic, is a constitutional democracy ruled by a president. The Fifth Republic was formulated in 1959 and has remained relatively stable into the early 2000s.

  • 1850-1900: France engages in warfare as well as alliances with several European nations. In the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, France, in alliance with England and Turkey, is at war with Russia. In the Franco-German War of 1870 to 1871, France is invaded and defeated by Germany. In 1894 France enters a pact with Russia known as the dual alliance. According to the dual alliance, the two nations would aid one another in case of aggression by the triple alliance (1882) of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

    Today: France—along with Germany, England, Austria, and Italy, among others—is a member of the European Union, an organization of some 27 independent European nations united by various social, political, economic, and legal interests to maintain peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with one another.

  • 1850-1900: After the Revolution of 1848, universal manhood suffrage is established in France, giving all adult males the right to vote in political elections and referenda.

    Today: Since 1945, women in France, as well as men, have been granted the right to vote.

  • 1850-1900: One of the few European nations that did not experience a revolution in 1848, Russia remains a vast empire ruled by an autocratic czar until the revolution of 1917. A major social reform is enacted in 1861, when the serfs in Russia, essentially peasant slaves, are emancipated and granted the right to own land.

    Today: After some seventy years of communist rule (since 1917), the U.S.S.R. was dismantled in 1991 and divided into some twelve independent nation-states, of which Russia is the largest and most powerful. The nations of the former Soviet Union remain strongly associated with one another through the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991.

Empire, the Franco-German War, and the Paris Commune.

The Revolution of 1848 in France was an uprising of citizens that resulted in the overthrow of the existing constitutional monarchy under King Luis-Philippe. The revolution consisted of three days of rioting during the month of February, in which the army engaged in a violent clash with a crowd of demonstrators. As a result of this public unrest, the king chose to abdicate the throne and named his nine-year-old grandson as his successor. Thus began the period of French government known as the Second Republic, which included a new constitution providing for a variety of social reforms. Four months after the formation of the Second Republic, civil unrest again erupted in Paris in a four-day-long civil war known as the June Days. The June Days were sparked when workers, supported by students and artisans, protested against government budget cuts that denied welfare to thousands of unemployed people. This rebellion ended after the army shot and killed about 1,500 demonstrators and arrested 12,000 of them. The symbolist poet Baudelaire, at that time still unpublished, is known to have participated in both the February and the June uprisings of 1848.

In the first presidential election of the Second Republic, voters chose Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. According to the constitution of the Second Republic, no president could serve more than one four-year term. Thus, after serving several years as president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who wished to maintain his position as leader of France, staged a coup of his own government in 1851. After some seventy politicians were arrested, Napoleon presented a new constitution and formulated a new government. The citizens of France immediately responded to Napoleon's actions by staging mass protests throughout Paris and the outlying provinces. In the course of several days of demonstrations, the police and military killed hundreds of protestors and arrested some 27,000 people. Although he was not harmed or arrested, Baudelaire is known to have participated in these demonstrations. After these events, Baudelaire gave up on political activism and focused his attentions on writing. In 1852, Louis-Napoleon had himself named Emperor Napoleon III of France, beginning an era of French government known as the Second Empire.

The advent of the Franco-German War (also known as the Franco-Prussian War), brought an end to the Second Empire of France. In 1870, France declared war on Germany, after which time German troops invaded France. When war broke out, Huysmans, not yet a published author, was called to military duty. However, he almost immediately contracted dysentery and spent most of the war in various military hospitals without seeing battle. Huysmans was eventually granted sick leave from the military, and returned home to Paris. Arriving home, he found himself in a Paris besieged by Prussian forces. Huysmans diligently kept notes on his experiences of the siege that he intended to use for a later novel (a project which he continued to work on after the war but never completed).

In the Battle of Sedan, French military forces, headed by the Emperor Napoleon, were surrounded and defeated by the Germans in 1870. The French surrendered and Napoleon, along with thousands of French troops, was taken as a prisoner of war. On the home front in Paris, citizens disillusioned by the capture of Napoleon took to the streets to demand a new government. Thus, in 1870 a new government in France, known as the Third Republic, was formed without violent conflict. Early in 1871, France signed an armistice with Prussia. The Third Republic lasted until the German occupation of France during World War II.

Although the Third Republic endured until World War II, it was not without opposition. In 1871, a rebellion in France known as the Paris Commune lasted some two-and-a-half months. The Paris Commune began when a coalition of political activists in Paris, opposing a variety of Third Republic initiatives, organized an insurrection against the newly formed government. Soon, a municipal government, known as the Commune of Paris, was formed by the revolutionaries, who were known as the communards. Similar communes were formed in outlying cities, but were quickly put down by the French government. Huysmans, who held a low-level government post during and after the Franco-German war, fled with the French government to Versailles for the duration of the Paris Commune. Rimbaud, still a teenager and not yet published, ran away from home to participate in the Paris Commune. After three weeks, Rimbaud returned home, narrowly missing the bloody conflict that was to follow, when government troops violently crushed the rebellion during what became known as the "Bloody Week." The communards responded by executing hostages, among whom was the archbishop of Paris, and setting fire to major municipal buildings. Some 20,000 rebels and 750 government troops were killed during the "Bloody Week," and some 45,000 insurrectionists were arrested or deported. The defeat of the Paris Commune effectively squelched political resistance in France for years afterward. Rimbaud, disillusioned by this defeat, turned his focus from political activism to the pursuit of writing. Huysmans returned to Paris with other government officials after the insurrection was put down.


Critical response to the development of Symbolism was itself an important contribution to the symbolist movement, as many of the literary critics and leading theorists of Symbolism were themselves symbolist writers. These critics contributed to the shaping, definition, and dissemination of the movement. A discussion of critical responses to Symbolism is thus also a historical narrative of the development of the movement.

If Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud are the fathers of Symbolism, Baudelaire may be considered the grandfather. Baudelaire's first major publication was met with public controversy as well as critical acclaim. His poetry volume Flowers of Evil, the seminal text of the symbolist movement, was first published amidst great controversy. Of the one hundred poems in the first edition, thirteen were singled out by a government agency as violations of laws of decency and religious morality. These thirteen poems were judged in a court of law, as a result of which six were found illegal and extracted from the published volume. Baudelaire and his editors were also required to pay a fine. (The ban on publication of these six poems in France was not lifted until 1949.) Despite this public controversy, major critics as well as some of the most important French writers of the day, including Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo, offered high praise for Flowers of Evil, recognizing the value of Baudelaire's innovative poetry. Baudelaire himself, however, was greatly discouraged by the censorship and public notoriety of his work.

The founders of Symbolism—Mallarmé,Verlaine, and Rimbaud—developed their literary ideals against the dominance of Realism in nineteenth-century literature. The realist aesthetic in poetry was concentrated in the development of a group of writers known as the "Parnassians." The Parnassians strove to create accurate, precise, objective descriptions of external objects and events, and to resist the emotional outpouring associated with romantic poetry. Mallarmé and Verlaine were among the Parnassian poets until they broke away from these ideals to write poetry focusing on the subjective, irrational, internal states of mind of the individual that characterizes the symbolist ideal.

Before the term Symbolism was applied to this new development in French poetry, these 1880s poets were termed the "decadents," a term first applied by critics to poets Verlaine and Jules Laforgue as an insult. The poets took up the epithet with pride, however, founding the literary review Le Decadent (The Decadent) in 1886. The term Symbolism was coined in 1886 in an article by Jean Moreas that laid out the theoretical and aesthetic ideals of this literary movement. Moreas suggested that symbolist was a more apt label for these poets than decadent.

The symbolist novel developed in reaction against the realist fiction of the naturalists. The realists strove to accurately represent objective depictions of external reality in their fiction, based on close, detailed observations of the world. Emile Zola, the famous French novelist, was a leader of the naturalist movement in literature, an extension of Realism. Early in his writing career, Huysmans was associated with Zola's circle of naturalist writers. However, Huysmans became the foremost symbolist novelist when he broke away from Zola's circle and wrote Against the Grain, a novel that focuses almost exclusively on the internal states of mind of a hypersensitive protagonist isolated from human society. Because it so sharply broke with his own literary ideals, Zola's critical response to Huysmans's novel was predictably negative. Interestingly, although the symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé preceded and inspired Huysmans's novel, it was Huysmans's discussion of these poets in Against the Grain that introduced many readers to symbolist poetry. Thus, the popularity of Against the Grain helped expand the readership of symbolist poetry.

Although not all of their major works were published within their lifetimes, many of the major poets of the symbolist movement were, by the time of their deaths, recognized as some of the greatest and most influential writers of the nineteenth century. Writers and literary critics throughout the twentieth century agree that the symbolist movement exerted a profound and widespread influence on modern literature. Symbolism is regarded as the bridge between nineteenth-century Realism and twentieth-century Modernism in literature. Twentieth-century literary movements such as Imagism, Surrealism, and dadaism were directly influenced by Symbolism. In the early twenty first century, Symbolism continues to be widely regarded as one of the most important influences on international literature of the previous two centuries.


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture and works as a freelance writer. In this essay, Brent discusses the development of the modern prose poem in symbolist literature.


One of the many lasting influences of the symbolist movement on international literature can be seen in the development of the modern prose poem during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Prose poetry is written in the form of prose, yet maintains the lyrical language use, suggestive imagery, and thematic sensibilities of poetry. The formal properties of the prose poem are intended to liberate verse from traditional requirements of metrical form and line breaks. The prose poem also liberates prose from traditional requirements of story line and narrative closure. Prose poems are usually short, generally anywhere from one paragraph to several pages in length. One of the enduring literary issues raised by prose poetry is the question of how to define it as a literary form distinct from both poetry and prose. The very notion of prose poetry thus raises questions about the boundary between prose and poetry.

Although the symbolists did not invent prose poetry, they freed it from its traditional tone and themes and developed the form as a modern mode of expression. Baudelaire is credited as the inventor of the modern prose poem, producing the important volume Little Poems in Prose (1869; later published as Paris Spleen). Other important volumes of symbolist prose poetry include Rimbaud's Illuminations (1886) and A Season in Hell (1873). Mallarmé, one of the founders of Symbolism, also wrote a number of important prose poems.


French poets were first introduced to the prose poem, a relatively obscure genre of literature, in the mid-nineteenth century, through the French writer Louis Bertrand (1807-1841; also known as Aloysius Bertrand). Bertrand first began to publish his prose poetry in a newspaper in 1828. However, his collected volume of prose poetry Gaspard de la Nuit (Gaspard of the Night) was not published until 1842, a year after his death. With this publication, Bertrand was the first significant French writer to utilize the form of the prose poem.

The prose poems of Gaspard of the Night are based on Bertrand's fascination with the medieval history of the city of Dijon, France, and express a romanticized vision of the city's gothic past. Bertrand's prose poetry shows the influence of the romantic movement in literature, with which he was peripherally associated. His prose poetry, however, was entirely innovative in developing a French prose form that retains the lyrical qualities of poetry.

Baudelaire can be credited with bringing the prose poetry of Bertrand to the attention of the French literary world in 1869, when he mentioned the volume with high praise in his introduction to Little Poems in Prose. As Baudelaire explains in this introduction, he was first inspired to try his own hand at composing prose poetry through his reading of Bertrand's Gaspard of the Night. Baudelaire confesses his debt to Bertrand as his inspiration in attempting to expand the possibilities of the prose poem by applying it to expressions of life in the modern city. Baudelaire states that, while reading Gaspard of the Night:

for at least the twentieth time . . . the idea came to me to try something similar, and to apply to the description of modern life, or rather one modern and more abstract life, the procedure [Bertrand] had applied to the depiction of ancient life, so strangely picturesque.


  • Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931), by Edmund Wilson, provides an important critical discussion of the symbolist movement and its influence on such twentieth-century writers as William Butler Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
  • Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé (2000), edited by E. H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, provides a bilingual edition of French symbolist poetry with an English translation on facing pages.
  • French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology (1980), edited by John Porter Houston and Mona Tobin Houston, provides English translations of major works of French symbolist poetry.
  • The Crisis of French Symbolism (1990), by Laurence M. Porter, offers criticism and interpretation of the works of the major symbolist poets Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud.
  • Four French Symbolists: A Sourcebook on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Maurice Denis (1996), by Russell T. Clement, offers a helpful guide to further sources on the major French symbolist painters.
  • Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde (1993), by Frantisek Deak, provides discussion of the development of symbolist theater in France.
  • Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (1995), edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, provides an introduction to prose poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from a variety of writers.
  • Debussy in Performance (1999), edited by James R. Briscoe, includes essays on Debussy and Symbolism as well as discussion of his musical adaptations of Mallarmé's The Afternoon of a Faun and Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande.
  • Debussy and His World (2001), edited by Jane F. Fulcher, includes an essay on Debussy's participation in the Tuesday salons held by Mallarmé.
  • Paris and the Nineteenth Century (1992), by Christopher Prendergast, provides historical analysis of nineteenth-century culture and politics in Paris, France.
  • Realism, Naturalism, and Symbolism: Modes of Thought and Expression in Europe, 1848 - 1914 (1968), edited by Roland N. Stromberg, offers discussion of major artistic and literary movements in Europe during the period in which the symbolist movement developed.

Baudelaire further describes his "dream" of writing in a form that combined elements of poetry and prose:

Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul's lyrical movements, the undulations of reverie, the jolts of consciousness?

Baudelaire first coined the term "prose poem" in reference to a group of his own poems published in 1861. He also describes his innovative style of prose poetry as "fables of modern life." Edward K. Kaplan, in an introduction to his 1989 volume of translations of Little Poems in Prose, observesthat one of the modern elements of Baudelaire's fables is the fact that, unlike traditional fables that end with a clear moral prescription, they "undermine


any reassuring interpretations." Kaplan further describes this modern element of moral ambiguity in Baudelaire's prose poetry:

Dismantling all forms of complacency and idealism, the Baudelarian "prose poem" amalgamates, in a dialogically open-ended literary unit, ambiguity and judgment, kindness and cruelty, anger and generosity, reveries and analysis. There are no definitive lessons-only responses.

Baudelaire's fifty prose poems were published posthumously in the 1869 volume Little Poems in Prose. Although Baudelaire did not invent the prose poem, the works in this volume represent his revolutionizing impact on the genre. Baudelaire modernized prose poetry and profoundly influenced the symbolist poets, many of whose greatest works are prose poems.

The prose poems of Little Poems in Prose treat the subject of modern urban life in Paris, a topic Baudelaire thought to be especially suited to the form of the prose poem. Baudelaire focused on the ugliness of urban existence, but regarded his subject with hopefulness and compassion. While the poems of Flowers of Evil, traditional in form, express the beauty of Paris, the prose poems of Little Poems in Prose focus on the urban squalor and human suffering of the modern city.

Following in Baudelaire's footsteps, Rimbaud published two major volumes of prose poetry. As in Baudelaire's Little Poems in Prose, Rimbaud in his volume Illuminations explored the cityscapes of Paris through the form of the prose poem. Unlike Baudelaire's Paris, Rimbaud's visions of the urban landscape are imbued with a sense of mystery beneath the squalid surface of modern city life. A Season in Hell, Rimbaud's second volume of prose poetry, represents an intensely personal delving into the poet's spiritual and artistic inner-anguish.


During the early twentieth century many writers, influenced by the French symbolists, tried their hands at prose poetry. Following the lead of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, the later French symbolist writers Paul Valéry, Paul Fort, and Paul Claudel composed notable prose poems. Important writers outside of France, such as Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Sherwood Anderson, are also recognized for their outstanding prose poetry.

However, the prose poem throughout most of the twentieth century remained a relatively unpopular form among most readers and critics, as well as most writers. Thus, while the free verse poem, invented by the symbolists, became the dominant form of poetry throughout the twentieth century, the modern prose poem, also developed by the symbolists, was, until recently, relegated to a relatively obscure place in twentieth-century literature. The very form of the prose poem was not taken seriously by the majority of literary critics and many writers. As C. W. Truesdale observes in a preface to The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (1996), the prose poem "has never received its critical due despite the excitement the form has generated among poets themselves." Truesdale describes a general "critical neglect—even hostility" to the prose poem among literary critics throughout most of the twentieth century. Truesdale goes on to assert that the dominance of free verse "has forced the prose poem... to the sidelines, has marginalized it as a genre."

Beginning in the 1960s, however, prose poetry gained a renewed interest among writers, and small literary magazines began to publish prose poetry with increasing frequency. Influential American writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly contributed to this renewed interest in the prose poem in the 1960s and 1970s. The volume The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (1976), edited by Michael Benedikt, helped to introduce English language readers to a broad range of prose poetry.

The 1980s and 1990s saw increased interest in the prose poem among English-language writers and editors of small literary journals. During these final decades of the twentieth century, a number of anthologies of prose poetry, as well as volumes of literary criticism focused on the prose poem, saw publication. In the 1990s, journals devoted entirely to prose poetry, such as The Prose Poem: An International Journal, sprang up to accommodate this growing interest.

In the late twentieth century, a variety of terms came to designate prose poetry. Because of the brevity of the prose poem, its boundaries have also come to overlap with the emergence of a new form of very short fiction. Thus, the following terms have been applied to the prose poem form: "sudden fiction," "flash fiction," the "modern parable," the "modern fable," the "short short story," and "micro-fiction," among others.

In a 1996 essay entitled "The Poetry of Village Idiots," Charles Simic defines the prose poem as "an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose." However, the very definition of prose poetry remains a central topic of debate, and nearly all English-language anthologies of prose poetry during this period begin with an overview of the ongoing debate as to the question of whether or not the prose poem exists as a distinct literary form, and, if so, how it might be defined and distinguished from both poetry and prose. Nonetheless, nearly all critics and writers acknowledge the debt of modern prose poetry to the innovations of the French symbolist poets in elevating the prose poem to the status of a high art particularly suited to expressions of modern life.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Symbolism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

William Franke

In the following essay, Franke examines Baudelaire's manipulation of symbol, language, and meaning, which brought about the beginning of the French Symbolist literary movement.

The process of symbolization begins when one thing is used to stand for something else. A stone thrown into a pit for the purpose of counting whatever sort of objects may be considered a primitive symbol. A link is thereby forged between items that have nothing to do with each other in the nature of things, simply by virtue of the one's being made to take the place of the other. Some such model as this generally informs the notion of the symbol current in linguistics and semiotics and in a broad spectrum of empirical disciplines where phenomena of


signification are studied scientifically. The aspect of the symbol that is stressed in these fields is its arbitrariness or conventionality and the fact that it is not the object it symbolizes, but just some substitute for it in the object's absence.

For poets, and generally in aesthetic theory, the symbolic has quite a different meaning. The symbol distinguishes itself from other types of signs (or as against the sign altogether) by virtue of its making concretely present the thing it signifies. This function of presencing has consistently been described in the language of "participation," with the implication that the symbol is actually a part of the larger whole it represents—pars pro toto. In Coleridge's famous formulation, the symbol "always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative." Consequently, in aesthetics the idea of the symbol has tended to imply an intrinsic affinity with what is symbolized (to the point of being it, at least in part) and often the fundamental unity of all things—all things being reflected in the symbol as in a microcosm or monad. In addition to the monadology of Leibniz, Hegel's doctrine of the concrete universal and Kant's notion of an a priori intuition which is not "schematic" but rather "analogical" (Kritik der Urteilskraft, sec. 59) supply some of the German idealistic underpinnings for this originally romantic conception of the symbol. Another important source can be found in magic and totemism, as is signaled by the interest of symbolist poets from Baudelaire to Yeats and beyond, for example, to James Merrill, in the occult. In occult tradition and lore, the symbol participates in reality to the extent of being able effectively to transform it, typically through the manipulation of tokens, rather than remaining just an external representation devoid of any real efficacy and power over what it represents (Lévi-Strauss, "L'efficacité").

That the symbol is a part of the whole it represents (and by universal analogy this expands to include the whole universe), that it thereby makes present what it signifies, presenting it, precisely, in part, means also that the symbol may be said to signify not merely by virtue of convention but by its "nature." What it actually is in itself and not just what it may be arbitrarily used to stand for determines what the symbol signifies. To say a "sail" was seen on the horizon in order to mean that a ship was seen (Coleridge's own example) is in some sense a natural mode of expression. There is something not entirely arbitrary about using a sail to represent a ship. A ship is indeed in a certain manner present in a sail; it is present in part. And a sail is, approximately, a ship: that is, it is a piece of a ship.

The goal of giving access to nature beneath the level of social conventions of signification has been fairly constantly in view throughout the history of symbolic expression in poetry: it is epitomized by the myth of Orpheus as the singer-poet whose music tames beasts and even moves the inanimate elements. His mastery over the natural world indicates that his poetry is the very language of nature (Bays). The endeavor to return to a state in which language would signify by virtue of its being and intrinsic nature rather than by conventions socially imposed was a program already of the romantics. Hölderlin's "Nun, nun, müssen die Worte dafür, wie Blumen, entstehen" [Now, now, must words therefore like flowers originate] in "Brot und Wein" can be taken as emblematic of the need for redis-covering language as a natural thing. This is the ideal of a poetic language that would be literally things, in which the breach between sign and referent that characterizes (and curses) postlapsarian language would be repaired. The symbolist tradition from Hölderlin to Rilke activates this Orphic claim for poetry in a particularly intense and self-conscious, even at times self-ironic, way. The notion often holds a powerful attraction still for contemporary poets—as witness the undiminished fascination with Orpheus—however far they may be from considering it possible to realize.

The art of the symbol, accordingly, at least from the romantic period on, was supposed to make beings speak, or to provide by the symbol a channel that would make their natural speech audible. Baudelaire crystallized the idea that language should ideally be the natural speaking of things in some essential verses in "L'Invitation au voyage":

    Tout y parlerait
    À l'âme en secret
    Sa douce langue natale.

These lapidary lines seem to envisage a language unmediated by arbitrary conventions and by meanings imposed by practical functions of communication, deaf to the things' own native voices. Things speaking to the soul in their own native language, attuned to its own inner being, communicate in virtue of what they are. What speaks in the symbol or in the space to which Baudelaire voyages in the poem is everything, tout, since by universal analogy any particular thing speaking its sweet native language—that is, the language of things—speaks for all beings and perhaps for being itself. Of course, Baudelaire is also, in decisive ways, fiercely negative on nature, loathing it as ugly and evil, yet his "flowers of evil" are nevertheless themselves produced by descent to precisely this soil in order to transform it into art. It is all the more necessary, therefore, to begin from these romantic doctrines in order to account for his transmutation, in effect a denaturalization, of the symbol.

In the symbolic universe, all things are interconnected, and all are immanent in each individual thing. This is to say that the world is composed of correspondences: its qualities "answer to one another," as Baudelaire puts it in "Correspondances" ("Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent"), just like the mutually defining elements of a language. Indeed, as the linguistic metaphor of "answering" suggests, the things that make up the world, at least as it is reflected in poetry, are the elements of a language. Baudelaire was fond of describing all nature as a vocabulary for the artist's use ("La nature n'est qu'un dictionnaire"). However, although he evokes the romantic topos of the language of things—as again in "Elévation": "le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes" [the language of flowers and of mute things]—Baudelaire turns out ultimately to be more interested in recreating the whole order of things as a language and therefore as not natural. The implication is less that language should return to a state of nature and more nearly the reverse—that even nature might be subsumed into language. Baudelaire's closed, symmetrical stanzaic forms and the interiorization of the world in the supposedly authentic dimension of "cour" contribute to construing reality as a language where everything is differentially defined, so that all elements are ordered by internal relations into a self-enclosed system. In "L'Invitation au voyage," "things" such as "les soleils mouillés" and "ces ciels brouillés" are not just kindred natural phenomena. They actually create each other in relation to one another—for example, by the reciprocity of their rhyming and the differential play of assonances and consonants—in the splendor in which they poetically exist, each as distilled out of the other and as fused together into one whole. The experience of reading a Baudelaire poem is (or at least can be) one of being carried away to a sphere where all things and sensations are transubstantiated by appearing within the structural wholes of the poem. The world is presented as essentially translated into a poetic idiom and as articulated in a harmony of purely formal, mutually defining values. Things sublated thus into a system of correspondences or relative differences have been turned essentially into language.

Romantics, and long before them writers of the Middle Ages, had conceived nature as language—that is, as a system of signs, or, metaphorically, a book. However, the creed that the experience of everything as one is a possibility engendered specifically by poetic language became operational first for the symbolists, and they recognized Baudelaire as having opened up this possibility. The sensuously symbolic power of his verse made it a superior, all-encompassing kind of "seeing" to which a veritable universe accrued. Hence Baudelaire could be hailed as voyant and a "vrai dieu" by Rimbaud. Baudelaire's essential achievement and legacy to symbolism is to have convincingly created the experience of how everything (at least as sensed and felt by an individual) can be known in and as language. Feelings and perceptions themselves become an alphabet to be used according to the grammar of poetic art. Even when it is strongly evocative of a specific historical epoch and milieu, Baudelaire's poetry refers to these external phenomena only as essentially transfigured by their representation in and as poetic language: "Tout devient allégorie" [All becomes allegory]— "Le Cygne." Baudelaire tended to use allégorie interchangeably with the term symbole (for example, at the end of "Un voyage à Cythère"), since both serve equally well to indicate the linguistic transfiguration of the real. In this perspective, which is the soul of symbolism, language is not just a reality but all reality, and perhaps suprareality as well.

Language tends to become identical with all it represents in Baudelaire's poetry: it is the part which concretely embodies and becomes symbolically identical with the whole. This is not to be confused with a metaphysical thesis that there is nothing but language. It is rather a poetic experience of everything becoming accessible to be known symbolically—that is, as identical, on the model of part and whole, with the concrete, sensuous instance of the poem itself. A symbol is the presence of a unity that is not completely given as such to the senses but is present in language through the partial, or rather participatory, identity of symbol and symbolized. The poem as symbol is, at least in part, what it represents. This results directly from the drive toward identity at work in language as symbol. The symbol annexes to itself everything with which it comes into contact. It makes everything it touches over into itself. By virtue of its intense sensuality and almost hallucinatory inebriation, Baudelaire's language becomes the palpable presentation or incarnation of a whole (symbolic) universe.

The symbol proposes to participate in a large reality, but for the symbolist this means, by a logic of supplementarity, that it ends up producing virtually, in the element of language, the reality it was supposed to symbolize. Its synthetic energy becomes the creative force that constitutes the world it symbolizes. For the symbol is invested with a force for becoming symbolically the whole that it is not literally, either by throwing things together into unity (symballein) or as the part of a token (symbolon) that represents, in the absence of the missing half, the whole of which it was originally part. The drive to identity at work in language as symbol is concentrated and heightened by the harmonious language of lyric based on symmetries and correspondences—that is, on various forms of repetition of the same; for example, rhythm and rhyme. All such devices of the lyric imagination serve in the production of varieties of identity.

Identity that is forged by the very symbolic nature of language, brought out and enhanced by the form as well as the intent and meaning of Baudelaire's verse, surfaces as a totally obsessive trope in a poem like "L'Invitation au voyage." The incipit—"Mon enfant, ma sour" [My child, my sister]—creates identity immediately by its grammar of apposition. This already suggests some collapse of natural boundaries of difference, a promiscuous mix of distinct kinds of kinship. All intimate relations seem to be embraced together in one, an incestuous intimacy disregarding essential differences between progeny and sibling and, implicitly, lover. The country to which the voyage is directed is itself at least partially or approximately identical with the beloved ("pays qui te ressemble"). The skyscapes and weather are for the poet-speaker but the reflection of the beloved's eyes and their stormy emotions. Even love and death collapse together in identity by conjunction: "Aimer à loisir, / Aimer et mourir" [To love at leisure, / To love and die], as loving here becomes at the same time a suspension of activity and a dying. This world of complete identity is expressed finally in the last stanza of the poem in that the ships traveling from the furthest limits of the earth nevertheless move wholly within the sphere of the beloved's desire: "C'est pour assouvir / Ton moindre désir / Qu'ils viennent du bout du monde" [It is to satisfy / Your least desire / That they come from the end of the world]. The external world here is totally at the service of, and has no determination or identity independently of, the innerness of desire. By thematizing the principle of identity in this way, the poem gives a lyric image of how language in fact operates in symbolist poetry-namely, by identifying itself concretely with what it represents and erasing the difference between representation and reality, the inner world and the outer.

The intrinsic relation of language and world in symbolism is grounded not only in the Neo-platonic trope of participation, but also, particularly for romantic theorists of the symbol like Coleridge, Goethe, and Hamann, in the language of revelation, Offenbarung, which intimates a prophetic precedent for symbolist poetics. In the biblical tradition of Logos, the Word of God creates all things and, consequently, all creatures are symbols bespeaking their Creator. Hence this paradigm, too, induces to construing language and world as communicating with, and indeed as intrinsic to one another, at the most originary level. Baudelaire explicitly alludes to the Creator Word's becoming flesh ("Et verbum caro factum est") in his preface to Les Fleurs du Mal.

Whether Neoplatonically or biblically backgrounded, whether conceived in terms of participation or of creation as revelation, symbolist poetics are predicated on a peculiarly privileged relation of language and world. Indeed the absorption of all reality into language as poiesis may be taken to be the key premise of the entire symbolist vision. The consequences of this fundamental premise, however, turn out to be diverse and even contradictory. On the one hand, reality puts up no more resistance: all is simply fused into unity in an exquisite and unrestricted universal harmony forged in and by language. On the other hand, the collapse of all extralinguistic reality into language leaves language empty of real substance and consequently disoriented. Without being anchored to anything real beyond itself, language has trouble maintaining even its own unity and integrity.

The essential tension between these opposite sorts of consequences of its pan-linguisticism can, in fact, be detected in every aspect and dimension of symbolist art. Ineluctably, together with the presence of the object in and to the symbol, its immanence to language, comes also an emptying of all objective content. The symbol contains everything immediately within itself, but only at the price of becoming a pure ideality devoid of relation to anything beyond the purely linguistic sphere. Every supposedly external object of language collapses into just a linguistic artifact. This makes it possible ultimately to dissolve the presumed external sources of language, including subjectivity and all its attendant postulates, into material forces and drives conceived of as working and manifest immanently in language. And it is this direction in which symbolist poetry subsequent to Baudelaire and down to our own times decisively moves.

Baudelaire used his art of the symbol in order to discover the mysterious and profound unity ("une ténébreuse et profonde unité") of all things based on revelation by the word or on correspondences in a Neoplatonic order of being. But that this is peculiarly the poet's prerogative, a secret reserved for disclosure by the master of words, suggests that it is a unity that exists essentially in the order of language. As the purely linguistic status of the vision proclaimed in symbolist poetry becomes more overt, the synthesis Baudelaire's poetry celebrates shows itself to be not just a synthesis of what is supposed to be higher reality but equally, and paradoxically, an exclusion from and avoidance of the real. Hence the "double aspect" of symbolism individuated by Paul de Man in his homologous essay "The Double Aspect of Symbolism." It is because the poet in the solitude of his individual consciousness finds himself alienated from the world that he attempts, in vain according to de Man, to recover lost unity by means of his symbolic language.

Given this double aspect of symbolism, together with the aspiration toward an ideal life of unity goes a discomfiting and even shocking avowal of the ultimate truth of dissolution and death. It is only too clear that the ecstatic experiences so exuberantly enjoyed are dependent upon and even transpire within, wholly within, language. Language is the element in which the symbol lives and dies. It is a synthetic, unifying medium, but it is also in itself purely formal, empty of substance, a kind of dead artifact destined to be identified with the dead letter of writing. Consequently, its use to synthesize unity is inevitably artificial. The pure religion of art, practiced self-consciously as a calculated linguistic craft or alchemy, is constrained to exploit the very sorts of mechanical and material means that the symbolist artist otherwise affects to despise. Thus, to the extent that it is an act of faith, symbolism is almost inevitably in bad faith, for it is acutely aware of its own artifices and, in effect, of the contradiction of striving to synthesize unmediated experience of the whole harmonious unity of things.

This precarious posture of symbolist poetry is held intact by Baudelaire, buoyed up on the exuberance of his discovery of an almost all-powerful verbal magic. As the historical distance from this burst of creative inspiration lengthens, it becomes more difficult for the sheer passion of poetry to either make good or render irrelevant the self-deceptions that go into the making of the symbol. It is language that permits the total, unified knowledge sought by symbolists, yet language is also at the same time a false, or at least a fictive, element of such knowledge. What is "merely" linguistic is also in a sense nothing. The nothingness and death with which symbolist voices are so seductively obsessed has its remote motivations in this predicament. Irrepressibly, this sense of an encroaching emptying out and annihilation of reality by language asserts itself as a dominant mood throughout French symbolist poetry starting from Baudelaire's own poetry precipitated into the abyss (le gouffre) opened up by its own infinite expanse unlimited by any reality it cannot absorb. Indeed death comes to be figured as the very perfection sought, and the goal of knowledge by poetry's symbolic gnosis is represented as being reached precisely in death.

As Walter Benjamin perceived, Baudelaire's poetry presents a challenge to conceive language in its purity. In introducing his translation of Tableaux parisiens, he describes his attempt to translate the pure essence of language itself. Translation allows pure language "to shine upon the original more fully. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another" (Benjamin 1969, 227). However, while insisting on the absoluteness of language, taking inspiration from Baudelaire's poetry, the last work of lyric poetry with European-wide significance ("Die 'Fleurs du mal' sind das letzte lyrische Werk gewesen, das eine europäische Wirkung getan hat"), Benjamin also encompasses the other, inseparable aspect of symbolism in analyzing Baudelaire's lyric art as a way of coping with shock, the most distinctive modern experience, as registered first in Baudelaire's poetry. Originally shocking experience can be confronted and digested by being assimilated into a total structure of meaning—that is, essentially as language, but a language scarred with the traces of trauma. Baudelaire's lyric production represents a highly conscious reworking in and as lyric language of lived stimuli that have left the psychic mechanism traumatized, and Benjamin deciphers beneath the smooth surface of the mellifluous verses the ruptures and impasses of Baudelaire's quintessential experience as inaugural of the modern. The apparent wholeness of language into which experience was lifted by symbolic lyric in fact shows through to another aspect of language, especially of prophetic or messianic language, as consisting essentially in raptures and abrasions. Still on the basis of its sublation of reality into language, symbolism's language thus reveals quite a different, unsuspected face marked by materiality and fragmentation. Baudelaire's language read profoundly translates the breakdown that the modern age was witnessing, whereby the aura of things that connects them with their context and past by involuntary memory disintegrates ("Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire").

Benjamin's reflections confirm the two aspects of symbolism and adduce a sort of historical, material account of their derivation. But it is also possible to interpret how the drive toward unity and presence inherent in the symbol converts into disunity and rupture with the real by its own internal logic, by the very fulfillment of its own impulse to total unity and the consequent cutting asunder of the tension between reality and symbol, language and world. The grand symbolic vision of the identity of All leads not only to a total structure or monism of the universe: it entails equally a shattering into autonomous fragments, since each individual element is wholly self-contained, indeed is in itself all-containing. The totally relational identity characteristic of language and therefore also of a linguistic universe turns into an equally total self-sufficiency of every particle, since each is endowed with an absolute identity already in itself, unconditioned by any external relations—all relations having become internal to it. In symbolism, everything has become language, but as a result language no longer mediates anything extra-linguistic. Without any real content, language becomes purely image or, as is suggested by other forms of symbolist art, purely musical incantation: it is unbounded, but is lacking in any rule or concept such as only an external limit could provide, and this leads eventually to language's being threatened even in its own internal cohesion.

The breakup of language and of everything in language was to be overtly pursued by Baudelaire's poetic successors, and it has been discovered retrospectively as subtext in Baudelaire himself by recent critics, especially in Benjamin's wake. It can be understood as resulting ineluctably from the logic and dynamic of the symbol itself, with its absolute exigencies of identity, presence and immediacy, achieved no longer just by means of, but actually in and as, language. For once language has totally penetrated nature, leaving no remainder, nature is turned wholly into artifice. Nature can no longer supply the paradigm of organic unity after which language models itself in romanticism. Rather, everything becomes subject to the nature of language as an artificial synthesis with no substance in itself and therefore in a constant state of dissolution. When the universal identity forged by the symbol turns into an identity of all with language itself, the symbolic order of things is poised to collapse in upon itself, to implode in an uncontrolled proliferation of pure form. Baudelaire's transmission of the romantic doctrine of the symbol radicalizes and in effect reverses it, resulting in its no longer effecting union with all that is, but rather causing an alienation from nature and the real. Although he at times embraces the idea of a harmoniously ordered universe of natural correspondences, he lays the groundwork for its undoing in and by the symbol, which becomes the dynamite that explodes the universe eventually into Mallarmé's constellations of unmasterable chance. Precisely these disintegrative implications of the unrestricted identification of all with language have manifested themselves persistently in the course and direction of symbolist poetry in its development ever since Baudelaire. (For sometimes contrasting views on this descent, see Charles Altieri.)

Baudelaire was a believer in the identificatory power of the symbol, and he remained the undisputed master of this creative faculty for the symbolist poets that followed him. Yet he did not believe in the all-embracing, benevolent Nature in which symbols were supposed to be embedded, and into which they beckoned invitingly, binding all things, including whoever could interpret them, together into one whole. For Baudelaire, this romantic dream had become a nightmare and, consequently, the symbol, in significant ways, sinister. Indeed, he was haunted by the symbol and its solicitations to communion with a Nature that he loathed. In "Obsession," Baudelaire recoils from nature, from its great forests which frighten him, as do cathedrals with their windy organs ("Grands bois, vous m'effrayez comme des cathédrales; / Vous hurlez comme l'orgue"). He would like the night to be without stars, for their light speaks to him, and it is a known language, whereas he is in search rather of the empty, the black and naked, what is divested of signs and therefore devoid of significance:

    Comme tu me plairais, ônuit! sans ces étoiles
    Dont la lumière parle un langage connu!
    Car je cherche le vide, et le noir, et le nu!

This constitutes an anguished palinode that effectively retracts the soul's enchantment with the sweet native language of things in "L'Invitation au voyage." Here Baudelaire is horrified of nature and its language, indeed of nature as language, and not because it is strange but because it is all too familiar. The "regards familiers" of "Correspondances" reappear in order to become terrifying. The forest is experienced as a cathedral whose significance is frightfully over-determined, rather than as the mysteriously alluring temple of "Correspondances." Nature now is already fully codified: the cries of the woods that reply to one another out of their depths ("Répondent les échos de vos De profundis") are already articulated as a church liturgy. They are natural rites in a manner reminiscent of "Correspondances," but now precisely their symbolic force makes them a negative, indeed a nightmare experience.

Baudelaire is repelled not so directly by nature as by the significance of nature, which is a form of human culture, indeed a language. The ocean's waves, with their heaving and tumult, are execrable because they are already found by the mind within itself ("Je te hais, Océan! tes bonds et tes tumultes, / Mon esprit les retrouve en lui"), just as the defeated man's bitter laugh full of sobs and insults is found in the enormous laugh of the sea. Even night fails to be other, and darkness—"les ténèbres"—consists in canvasses ("des toiles") painted on, or to be painted on, by human signs. Nature offers no escape from the human, and the human has become just as abhorrent as the natural. The symbolic-linguistic mechanism that reduces everything to language is at the bottom of this viciously circular mirroring, since everything that can be reached through language is reduced to identity. All that is known is known through the identity of signs circulating in the linguistic system: it is all too familiar and too wretched, in effect a prison house of language from which there is no exit.

Of course, what Baudelaire loathes at bottom is himself, because that is what he sees at the bottom of Nature. He begins the desperate struggle to escape himself by crying out after the name of "the other" that is still the watchword of so much of French, left-bank culture today. What he is trying to escape is the viciously narcissistic self-reflexivity of the symbolist quest that is palpable in a poem like "La Chevelure," in which the poet imagines plunging his amorous head into the black ocean in which "the other" is enclosed:

    Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d'ivresse
    Dans ce noir océan où l'autre est enfermé ...

The "other" is sought in desperation in order to escape the self, but it is indeed already an other that is "enclosed" (enfermé). It risks being confounded with the blackness of the self's own spleen. In the universe of total identity there is really no escaping the self. The seeker necessarily voyages endlessly in quest of le nouveau and l'inconnu. The absolute identity of everything is the truth of the symbol that Baudelaire found himself imprisoned by and from which he chafes to escape. All this he bequeathed to his poetic posterity.

Baudelaire adopts the symbol as a basic strategy but denaturalizes and also denatures it in the process. The universal identification of each with all that is characteristic of symbolic vision and the basis for the correspondences of things takes a peculiar turn when the identification of all things in the symbol is taken to be an identity of all with language. This is, in effect, what the symbolists explicitly do, rendering manifest the revolution in poetic language brought about in nuce by Baudelaire. It means that the identities of the symbolist vision, rather than being natural, indeed the deep structure or essence of nature, turn out to be purely artificial, indeed nothing but language. There is still an all-pervading logic of identity, but it takes on a very different significance, in important ways just the opposite of the significance it had in romanticism. The natural order of things is no longer reassuring and restorative, healing human breaches and diseases. The order of things is only linguistic and therefore only a reflection of the human world of cultural artifacts and in fact already infected with the sickness of the self.

Baudelaire pursues to its furthest limits the logic of identity inhering in the symbol. He identifies everything with everything else. But the result he obtains is not oneness with the mystery of nature and the universe (even though he leaves some traces of a suffering longing for an encounter with the Other or the Unknown), but rather an expansion of language so as to actually encompass everything, beyond simply serving as the instrument of establishing the symbolic identity of all being. It remains only for this linguistic mechanism to expose itself as such, and to collapse for lack of external support, in order to produce the brilliant artificial paradises and chance constellations of subsequent symbolism. Thus is set the program that symbolist poets, eminently Rimbaud and Mallarmé, were to follow. It is the linguistic turning and totalizing of the symbol achieved substantially by Baudelaire that constitutes the premise for the shattering even of language itself, no longer held intact by anything beyond it, that was to be pursued to its furthest extremes by later symbolist poets.

The identification of everything with language has remained an absolutely central preoccupation of French poetry and poetics in the twentieth century. It is at issue, for example, in the way Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses hovers between treating words as natural things and then again ruthlessly unmasking this fiction and fighting against language in the name of "la chose même," which escapes it. Yet, given the double aspect of the symbolism inaugurated by Baudelaire's poetry, whereby the breaking down of language, which collapses from within, belongs together with the absorption by language of the world of things and its becoming itself a thing (acquiring thereby also the thing's vulnerability to amorcelation, dismemberment, and dissolution), even this sort of resistance to the idealizations inherent in language suggests in indirect ways how subsequent poets continue to remain Baudelaire's heirs. For although Baudelaire stands as the great poet of mysterious and profound unity in the symbol, in which domain "Tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté/ Luxe, calme et volupté" [All is but order and beauty / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness], it is nevertheless possible to see how this complete freedom from discord and all external constraint contains the seeds of its own destruction—of the shattering of language as total system into infinite disunity and limitless dis-semination. This is the decisive creative innovation that makes Baudelaire's poetry so seminal for symbolist poetry in its widest ramifications.

Source: William Franke, "The Linguistic Turning of the Symbol: Baudelaire and His French Symbolist Heirs," in Baudelaire and the Poetics of Modernity,editedby Patricia A. Ward, Vanderbilt University Press, 2001, pp. 15-28.

René Wellek

In the following essay, Wellek explores the idea of Symbolism as a literary period encompassing much post-Realism Western literature, and focuses on developing an accurate system of definition for it.

The term and concept of symbolism (and symbol) is so vast a topic that it cannot even be sketched within the limits of this paper. The word goes back to ancient Greece and, there, had a complex history which has not, I suspect, been traced adequately in the only history of the term, Max Schlesinger's Geschichte des Symbols, published in 1912.

What I want to discuss is something much more specific: not even symbol and symbolism in literature but the term and concept of symbolism as a period in literary history. It can, I suggest, be conveniently used as a general term for the literature in all Western countries following the decline of nineteenth-century realism and naturalism and preceding the rise of the


new avant-garde movements: futurism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism, or whatever else. How has it come about? Can such a use be justified?

We must distinguish among different problems: the history of the word need not be identical with the history of the concept as we might today formulate it. We must ask, on the one hand, what the contemporaries meant by it, who called himself a "symbolist," or who wanted to be included in a movement called "symbolism," and on the other hand, what modern scholarship might decide about who is to be included and what characteristics of the period seem decisive. In speaking of "symbolism" as a period-term located in history we must also think of its situation in space. Literary terms most frequently radiate from one center but do so unevenly; they seem to stop at the frontiers of some countries or cross them and languish there or, surprisingly, flourish more vigorously on a new soil. A geography of literary terms is needed which might attempt to account for the spread and distribution of terms by examining rival terms or accidents of biography or simply the total situation of a literature.

There seems to be a widespread agreement that the literary history of the centuries since the end of the Middle Ages can be divided into five successive periods: Renaissance, baroque, classicism, romanticism, and realism. Among these terms baroque is a comparative newcomer which has not been accepted everywhere, though there seems a clear need of a name for the style that reacted against the Renaissance but preceded classicism. There is, however, far less agreement as to what term should be applied to the literature that followed the end of the dominance of realism in the 1880s and 90s. The term "modernism" and its variants, such as the German "Die Moderne," have been used but have the obvious disadvantage that they can be applied to any contemporary art. Particularly in English, the term "modern" has preserved its early meaning of a contrast to classical antiquity or is used for everything that occurred since the Middle Ages. The Cambridge Modern History is an obvious example. The attempts to discriminate between the "modern" period now belonging to the past and the "contemporaneous" seem forced, at least terminologically. "Modo," after all, means "now." "Modernism" used so broadly as to include all avant-garde art obscures the break between the symbolist period and all post-symbolist movements such as futurism, surrealism, existentialism, etc. In the East it is used as a catchall for everything disapproved as decadent, formalistic, and alienated: it has become a pejorative term set against the glories of socialist realism.

The older terms were appealed to at the turn of the century by many theorists and slogan writers, who either believed that these terms are applicable to all literature or consciously thought of themselves as reviving the style of an older period. Some spoke of a new "classicism," particularly in France, assuming that all good art must be classical. Croce shares this view. Those who felt a kinship with the romantic age, mainly in Germany, spoke of "Neuromantik," appealing to Friedrich Schlegel's dictum that all poetry is romantic. Realism also asserted its claim, mainly in Marxist contexts, in which all art is considered "realistic" or at least "a reflection of reality." I need only allude to Georg Lukács' recent Aesthetik, in which this thesis is repeated with obsessive urgency. I have counted the phrase "Widerspiegelung der Wirklichkeit" in the first volume; it appears 1,032 times. I was too lazy or bored to count it in Volume Two. All these monisms endanger meaningful schemes of literary periodization. Nor can one be satisfied with a dichotomy such as Fritz Strich's "Klassik und Romantik," which leads away from period concepts into a universal typology, a simple division of the world into sheep and goats. For many years I have argued the advantage of a multiple scheme of periods, since it allows a variety of criteria. The one criterion "realism" would divide all art into realistic and nonrealistic art and thus would allow only one approving adjective: "real" or some variant such as "true" or "lifelike." A multiple scheme comes much closer to the actual variety of the process of history. Period must be conceived neither as some essence which has to be intuited as a Platonic idea nor as a mere arbitrary linguistic label. It should be understood as a "regulative idea," as a system of norms, conventions, and values which can be traced in its rise, spread, and decline, in competition with preceding and following norms, conventions, and values.

"Symbolism" seems the obvious term for the dominant style which followed nineteenth-century realism. It was propounded in Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931) and is assumed as a matter of course in Maurice Bowra's Heritage of Symbolism (1943). We must beware, of course, of confusing this historical form with age-old symbolism or with the view that all art is symbolic, as language is a system of symbols. Symbolism in the sense of a use of symbols in literature is clearly omnipresent in literature of many styles, periods, and civilizations. Symbols are all-pervasive in medieval literature and even the classics of realism—Tolstoy and Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens—use symbols, often prominently. I myself am guilty of arguing for the crucial role of symbol in any definition of romanticism, and I have written at length on the long German debate from Goethe to Friedrich Theodor Vischer about the meaning of the term "symbol" and its contrast to the term "allegory."

For our purposes I want to focus on the fortunes of the concept as a term, first for a school, then as a movement, and finally as a period. The term "symbolisme" as the designation for a group of poets was first proposed by Jean Moréas, the French poet of Greek extraction. In 1885 he was disturbed by a journalistic attack on the decadents in which he was named together with Mallarmé. He protested: "the so-called decadents seek the pure Concept and the eternal Symbol in their art, before anything else." With some contempt for the mania of critics for labels, he suggested the term "Symbolistes" to replace the inappropriate "décadents." In 1886 Moréas started a review Le Symboliste, which perished after four issues. On September 18, 1886, he published a manifesto of "Symbolisme" in the Figaro. Moréas, however, soon deserted his own brainchild and founded another school he called the "école romane." On September 14, 1891, in another number of the Figaro Moréas blandly announced that "symbolisme" was dead. Thus "symbolisme" was an ephemeral name for a very small clique of French poets. The only name still remembered besides Moréas' is Gustave Kahn. It is easy to collect pronouncements by the main contemporary poets repudiating the term for themselves. Verlaine, in particular, was vehemently resentful of this "Allemandisme" and even wrote a little poem beginning "À bas le symbolisme mythe/et termite."

In a way which would need detailed tracing, the term, however, caught on in the later 80s and early 90s as a blanket name for recent developments in French poetry and its anticipations. Before Moréas' manifesto, Anatole Baju, in Décadent, April 10, 1886, spoke of Mallarméas "the master who was the first to formulate the symbolic doctrine." Two critics, Charles Morice, with La Littérature de tout à l'heure (1889) and Téodore de Wyzéwa, born in Poland, first in the essay "Le Symbolisme de M. Mallarmé" (1887), seemed to have been the main agents, though Morice spoke rather of "synthèse" than of symbol, and Wyzéwa thought that "symbol" was only a pretext and explained Mallarmé's poetry purely by its analogy to music. As early as 1894 Saint Antoine (pseudonym for Henri Mazel) prophesied that "undoubtedly, symbolism will be the label under which our period will be classed in the history of French literature."

It is still a matter of debate in French literary history when this movement came to an end. It was revived several times expressly—e.g. in 1905 around a review, Vers et prose. Its main critic, Robert de Souza, in a series of articles, "Où Nous en sommes" (also published separately, 1906), ridiculed the many attempts to bury symbolism as premature and proudly claimed that Gustave Kahn, Verhaeren, Vielé-Griffin, Maeterlinck, and Régnier were then as active as ever. Valéry professed so complete an allegiance to the ideals of Mallarméthat it is difficult not to think of him as a continuator of symbolism, though in 1938, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the symbolist manifesto, Valéry doubted the existence of symbolism and denied that there is a symbolist aesthetic. Marcel Proust, in the post-humously published last volume of his great series Le Temps retrouvé (1926), formulated an explicitly symbolist aesthetics. But his own attitude to symbolist contemporaries was often ambiguous or negative. In 1896 Proust had written an essay condemning obscurity in poetry. Proust admired Maeterlinck but disliked Péguy and Claudel. He even wrote a pastiche of Régnier, a mock-solemn description of a head cold. When Le Temps retrouvé (1926) was published and when a few years later (1933) Valery Lar-baud proclaimed Proust a symbolist, symbolism had, at least in French poetry, definitely been replaced by surrealism.

André Barre's book on symbolism (1911) and particularly Guy Michaud's Message poétique du symbolisme (1947), as well as many other books of French literary scholarship, have, with the hindsight of literary historians, traced the different phases of a vast French symbolist movement: the first phase, with Baudelaire (who died in 1867) as the precursor; the second, when Verlaine and Mallarméwere at the height of their powers, before the 1886 group; the third, when the name became established; and then, in the twentieth century, what Michaud calls "Néosymbolisme," represented by "La Jeune Parque" of Valéry and L'Annonce faite à Marie of Claudel, both dating from 1915. It seems a coherent and convincing conception which needs to be extended to prose writers and dramatists: to Huysmans after A Rebours (1884), to the early Gide, to Proust in part, and among dramatists, at least to Maeterlinck, who, with his plays L'Intruse and Les Aveugles (1890) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), assured a limited penetration of symbolism on the stage.

Knowledge of the French movement and admiration for it soon spread to the other European countries. We must, however, distinguish between reporting on French events and even admiration shown by translations, and a genuine transfer and assimilation of the French movement in another literature. This process varies considerably from country to country; and the variation needs to be explained by the different traditions which the French importation confronted.

In English, George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and his Impressions and Opinions (1891) gave sketchy and often poorly informed accounts of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Laforgue. Mallarmé's poetry is dismissed as "aberrations of a refined mind," and symbolism is oddly defined as "saying the opposite of what you mean." The three essays on Mallarmé by Edmund Gosse, all dating from 1893, are hardly more perceptive. After the poet's death Gosse turned sharply against him. "Now that he is no longer here the truth must be said about Mallarmé. He was hardly a poet." Even Arthur Symons, whose book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) made the decisive breakthrough for England and Ireland, was very lukewarm at first. While praising Verlaine (in Academy,1891) he referred to the "brain-sick little school of Symbolistes" and "the noisy little school of Décadents," and even in later articles on Mallarmé he complained of "jargon and meaningless riddles." But then he turned around and produced the entirely favorable Symbolist Movement.Itshould not, however, be overrated as literary criticism or history. It is a rather lame impressionistic account of Nerval, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Maeterlinck, with emphasis on Verlaine. There is no chapter on Baudelaire. But most importantly, the book was dedicated to W. B. Yeats, proclaiming him "the chief representative of that movement in our country." Symons had made his first trip to Paris in 1889; he had visited Mallarmé, met Huys-mans and Maeterlinck, and a year later met Verlaine, who in 1893 became his guest on his ill-fated visit to London. Symons knew Yeats vaguely since 1891, but they became close friends in 1895 only after Yeats had completed his study of Blake and had elaborated his own system of symbols from other sources: occultism, Blake, and Irish folklore. The edition of Blake Yeats had prepared with Edwin Ellis in 1893 was introduced by an essay on "The Necessity of Symbolism." In 1894 Yeats visited Paris in the company of Symons and there saw a performance of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axël. The essay "The Symbolism of Poetry" (1900) is then Yeats' first full statement of his symbolist creed. Symons' dedication to Yeats shows an awareness of symbolism as an international movement. "In Germany," he says, exaggerating greatly, "it seems to be permeating the whole of literature, its spirit is that which is deepest in Ibsen, it has absorbed the one new force in Italy, Gabriele D'Annunzio. I am told of a group of symbolists in Russian literature, there is another in Dutch literature, in Portugal it has a little school of its own under Eugenio de Castro. I even saw some faint stirrings that way in Spain."

Symons should have added the United States. Or could he in 1899? There were intelligent and sympathetic reports of the French movement very early. T. S. Perry wrote on "The Latest Literary Fashion in France" in The Cosmopolitan (1892), T. Child on "Literary Paris—The New Poetry" in Harper's (1896), and Aline Gorren on "The French Symbolists" in Scribner's (1893). The almost forgotten Vance Thompson, who, fresh from Paris, edited the oddly named review M'lle New York, wrote several perceptive essays, mainly on Mallarmé in 1895 (reprinted inFrench Portraits, 1900) which convey some accurate information on his theories and even attempt an explication of his poetry with some success. But only James Huneker became the main importer of recent French literature into the United States. In 1896 he defended the French symbolists against the slurs in Max Nordau's silly Entartung and began to write a long series of articles on Maeterlinck, Laforgue, and many others, not bothering to conceal his dependence on his French master, Remy de Gourmont, to whom he dedicated his book of essays Visionaries (1905). But the actual impact of French symbolist poetry on American writing was greatly delayed. René Taupin, in hisL'Influence du symoblisme français sur la poésie américaine (1929), traced some echoes in forgotten American versifiers of the turn of the century, but only two Americans living then in England, Ezra Pound around 1908 and T. S. Eliot around 1914, reflect the French influence in significant poetry.

More recently and in retrospect one hears of a symbolist period in American literature: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are its main poets; Henry James, Faulkner, and O'Neill, in very different ways and in different stages of their career, show marked affinities with its techniques and outlook. Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931) was apparently the very first book which definitely conceived of symbolism as an international movement and singled out Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Valéry, Proust, and Thomas Mann as examples of a movement which, he believed, had come to an end at the time of his writing. Here we find the conception formulated which, very generally, is the thesis of this paper and the assumption of many historians since Wilson's sketch. Wilson's sources were the writings of Huneker, whom he admired greatly, and the instruction in French literature he received in Princeton from Christian Gauss. But the insight into the unity and continuity of the international movement and the selection of the great names was his own. We might only deplore the inclusion of Gertrude Stein. But I find it difficult to believe that Wilson's book could have had any influence outside the English-speaking world.

In the United States Wilson's reasonable and moderate plea for an international movement was soon displaced by attempts to make the whole of the American literary tradition symbolist. F. O. Matthiessen's The American Renaissance (1941) is based on a distinction between symbol and allegory very much in the terms of the distinction introduced by Goethe. Allegory appears as inferior to symbol: Hawthorne inferior to Melville. But in Charles Feidelson's Symbolism and American Literature (1956) the distinction between modern symbolism and the use of symbols by romantic authors is completely obliterated. Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Whitman appear as pure symbolists avant la lettre,and their ancestry is traced back to the Puritans, who paradoxically appear as incomplete, frustrated symbolists. It can be rightly objected that the old Puritans were sharply inimical to images and symbols and that there is a gulf between the religious conception of signs of God's Providence and the aesthetic use of symbols in the novels of Hawthorne and Melville and even in the Platonizing aesthetics of Emerson.

The symbolist conception of American literature is still prevalent today. It owes its dominance to the attempt to exalt the great American writers to myth-makers and providers of a substitute religion. James Baird, in Ishmael (1956), puts it unabashedly. Melville is "the supreme example of the artistic creator engaged in the act of making new symbols to replace the 'lost' symbols of Protestant Christianity." A very active trend in American criticism expanded symbolist interpretation to all types and periods of literature, imposing it on writings which have no such meaning or have to be twisted to assume it. Harry Levin rightly complained in an address, " Symbolism and Fiction" (1956), that "every hero may seem to have a thousand faces; every heroine may be a white goddess incognita; every fishing trip turns out to be another quest for the Holy Grail." The impact of ideas from the Cambridge anthropologists and from Carl Jung is obvious. In the study of medieval texts a renewed interest in the fourfold levels of meaning in Dante's letter to Can Grande has persuaded a whole group of American scholars, mainly under the influence of D. W. Robertson, to interpret or misinterpret Chaucer, the Pearl poet, and Langland in these terms. They should bear in mind that Thomas Aquinas recognized only a literal sense in a work invented by human industry and that he reserved the other three senses for Scripture. The symbolist interpretation reaches heights of ingenuity in the writing of Northrop Frye, who began with a book on Blake and, in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), conceived of the whole of literature as a self-enclosed system of symbols and myths, "existing in its own universe, no longer a commentary on life or reality, but containing life and reality in a system of verbal relationships." In this grandiose conception all distinctions between periods and styles are abolished: "the literary universe is a universe in which everything is potentially identical with everything else." Hence the old distinctions between myth, symbol, and allegory disappear. One of Frye's followers, Angus Fletcher, in his book on Allegory (1964), exalts allegory as the central procedure of art, while Frye still holds fast to symbolism, recognizing that "the critics are often prejudiced against allegory without knowing the real reason, which is that continuous allegory prescribes the direction of his commentary, and so restricts his freedom."

The story of the spread of symbolism is very different in other countries. The effect in Italy was ostensibly rather small. Soffici's pamphlet on Rimbaud in 1911 is usually considered the beginning of the French symbolist influence, but there was an early propagandist for Mallarmé,Vittorio Pica, who was heavily dependent on French sources, particularly Teódor de Wyzéwa. His articles, in the Gazetta letteraria (1885-86), on the French poets do not use the term; but in 1896 he replaced "decadent" and "Byzantine" by "symbolist." D'Annunzio, who knew and used some French symbolists, would be classed as "decadent" today, and the poets around Ungaretti and Montale as "hermetic." In a recent book by Mario Luzi, L'Idea simbolista (1959), Pascoli, Dino Campana, and Arturo Onofri are called symbolist poets, but Luzi uses the term so widely that he begins his anthology of symbolism with Hölderlin and Novalis, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and can include Poe, Browning, Patmore, Swinburne, Hopkins, and Francis Thompson among its precursors. Still, his list of symbolist poets, French, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and Greek, is, on the whole, reasonable. Onofri was certainly strongly influenced by Mallarmé and later by Rudolf Steiner; Pascoli, however, seems to me no symbolist in his poetry, though he gave extremely symbolist interpretations of Dante. It might be wiser to think of "ermetismo" as the Italian name for symbolism: Montale and possibly Dino Campana are genuine symbolists.

While symbolism, at least as a definite school or movement, was absent in Italy, it is central in the history of Spanish poetry. The Nicaraguan poet Rubeń Darío initiated it after his short stay in Paris in 1892. He wrote poems under the symbolist influence and addressed, for instance, a fervent hymn to Verlaine. The influence of French symbolist poetry changed completely the oratorical or popular style of Spanish lyrical poetry. The closeness of Guillén to Mallarmé and Valéry seems too obvious to deny, and the Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig (1873-1909) is clearly in the symbolist tradition, often of the obscurest manner. Still, the Spanish critics favor the term "Modernismo," which is used sometimes so inclusively that it covers all modern Spanish poetry and even the so-called "generation of 1898," the prose writers Azorín, Baroja, and Unamuno, whose associations with symbolism were quite tenuous. "Symbolism" can apply only to one trend in modern Spanish literature, as the romantic popular tradition was stronger there than elsewhere. García Lorca's poetry can serve as the best known example of the peculiar Spanish synthesis of the folksy and the symbolical, the gypsy song and the myth. Still, the continuity from Darío to Jimeńez, Antonio Machado, Alberti, and then to Guillén seems to me evident. Jorge Guillén in his Harvard lectures, Language and Poetry (1961), finds "no label convincing." "A period look," he argues, does not signify a "group style." In Spain there were, he thinks, fewer "isms" than elsewhere and the break with the past was far less abrupt. He reflects that "any name seeking to give unity to a historical period is the invention of posterity." But while eschewing the term "symbolism," he characterizes himself and his contemporaries well enough by expounding their common creed: their belief in the marriage of Idea and music-in short, their belief in the ideal of Mallarmé. Following a vague suggestion made by Remy de Gourmont, the rediscovery of Góngora by Ortega y Gasset, Gerardo Diego, Dámaso Alonso, and Alfonso Reyes around 1927 fits into the picture: they couple Góngora and Mallarmé as the two poets who in the history of all poetry have gone furthest in the search for absolute poetry, for the quintessence of the poetic.

In Germany the spread of symbolism was far less complete than Symons assumed in 1899. Stefan George had come to Paris in 1889, had visited Mallarmé and met many poets, but after his return to Germany he avoided, I assume deliberately, the term "symbolism" for himself and his circle. He translated a selection from Baudelaire (1891) and smaller samples from Mallarmé,Verlaine, and Régnier (in Zeitgenössische Dichter, 1905), but his own poetry does not, I think, show very close parallels to the French masters. Oddly enough, the poems of Vielé-Griffin seem to have left the most clearly discernible traces on George's own writings. As early as 1892 one of George's adherents, Carl August Klein, protested in George's periodical, Blätter für die Kunst, against the view of George's dependence on the French. Wagner, Nietzsche, Böcklin, and Klinger, he says, show that there is an indigenous opposition to naturalism in Germany as everywhere in the West. George himself spoke later of the French poets as his "former allies," and in Gundolf's authoritative book on George the French influence is minimized, if not completely denied. Among the theorists of the George circle Friedrich Gundolf had the strongest symbolist leanings: Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911) and Goethe(1916) are based on the distinction of symbol-allegory, with symbol always the higher term. Still, the term symbolism did not catch on in Germany as a name for any specific group, though Hofmannsthal—e.g. in "Das Gespäch über Gedichte" of 1903—proclaimed the symbol the one element necessary in poetry. Later, the influence of Rimbaud—apparently largely in German translation—Iron Georg Trakl has been demonstrated with certainty. But if we examine German books on twentieth-century literature, symbolism seems rarely used. I found a section so called in Willi Duwe's Die Dichtung des 20. Jahrhunderts (1936) which includes Hofmannsthal, Dauthendey, Calé, Rilke, and George, while E. H. Lüth's Literatur als Geschichte (Deutsche Dichtung von 1885 bis 1947), published in 1947, treats the same poets under the label "Neuromantik und Impressionismus." Later, however, we find a section, "Parasymbolismus," which deals with Musil and Broch. Hugo Friedrich, in his Struktur der modernen Lyrik (1956), avoids the terms and argues that the quick succession of modernist styles-dadaism, surrealism, futurism, expressionism, unanimism hermetism, and so on—creates an optical illusion which hides the fact of a direct continuity through Mallarmé,Valéry, Guillén, Ungaretti, and Eliot. The little anthology in the back of the book adds St. John Perse, Jiménez, García Lorca, Alberti, and Montale to these names. Friedrich's list seems to me the list of the main symbolist poets, even though Friedrich objects to the name. Clearly, German literary scholarship has not been converted to the term, though Wolfgang Kayser's article "Der europaïsche Symbolismus" (1953) had pleaded for a wide concept in which he included, in addition to the French poets, D'Annunzio, Yeats, Valéry, Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner.

In Russia we find the strongest symbolist group of poets who called themselves that. The close links with Paris at that time may help to explain this, or possibly also the strong consciousness of a tradition of symbolism in the Russian Church and in some of the Orthodox thinkers of the immediate past. Vladimir Solovëv was regarded as a precursor. In 1892 Zinaida Vengerova wrote a sympathetic account of the French symbolists for Vestnik Evropy, while in the following year Max Nordau's Entartung caused a sensation by its satirical account of recent French poetry which had repercussions on Tolstoy's What is Art?, as late as 1898. Bryusov emerged as the leading symbolist poet: he translated Maeterlinck's L'Intruse and wrote a poem "Iz Rimbaud" as early as 1892. In 1894 he published two little volumes under the title Russkie simvolisty. That year Bryusov wrote poems with titles such as "In the Spirit of the French Symbolists" and "In the Manner of Stéphane Mallarmé" (though these were not published till 1935) and brought out a translation of Verlaine's Romances sans paroles. Bryusov had later contacts with René Ghil, Mallarmé's pupil, and derived from him the idea of "instrumentation" in poetry which was to play such a great role in the theories of the Russian Formalists. In the meantime Dimitri Merezhkovsky had, in 1893, published a manifesto: On the Causes of the Decline and the New Trends of Contemporary Russian Literature, which recommended symbolism, though Merezhkovsky appealed to the Germans: to Goethe and the romantics rather than to the French. Merezhkovsky's pamphlet foreshadows the split in the Russian symbolist movement. The younger men, Blok and Vyache-slav Ivanov as well as Bely, distanced themselves from Bryusov and Balmont. Blok, in an early diary (1901-02), condemned Bryusov as decadent and opposed to his Parisian symbolism his own, Russian, rooted in the poetry of Tyutchev, Fet, Polonsky, and Solovëv. Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910 shared Blok's view. The French influence seemed to him "adolescently unreasonable and, in fact, not very fertile," while his own symbolism appealed to Russian nationalism and to the general mystical tradition. Later Bely was to add occultism and Rudolf Steiner and his "anthroposophy." The group of poets who called themselves "Acmeists" (Gulmilëv, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam) was a direct outgrowth of symbolism. The mere fact that they appealed to the early symbolist Innokenty Annensky shows the continuity with symbolism in spite of their distaste for the occult and their emphasis on what they thought of as classical clarity. Symbolism dominates Russian poetry between about 1892 and 1914, when Futurism emerged as a slogan and the Russian Formalists attacked the whole concept of poetry as imagery.

If we glance at the other Slavic countries we are struck by the diversity of their reactions. Poland was informed early on about the French movement, and Polish poetry was influenced by the French symbolist movement, but the term "Młasoda Polska" was preferred. In Wilhelm Feld-mann's Współczesna literatura polska (1905) contemporary poetry is discussed as "decadentism," but Wyspiański (a symbolist if ever there was one) appears under the chapter heading: "On the Heights of Romanticism." All the histories of Polish literature I have seen speak of "Modernism," "Decadentism," "Idealism," "Neo-romanticism," and occasionally call a poet such as Miriam (Zenon Przesmycki) a symbolist, but they never seem to use the term as a general name for a period in Polish literature.

In Czech literature the situation was more like that in Russia: Br̆ezina, Sova, and Hlavéc̆ek were called symbolists, and the idea of a school or at least a group of Czech symbolist poets is firmly established. The term "Moderna" (possibly because of the periodical Moderní Revue, founded in 1894) is definitely associated with decadentism, fin de siècle, a group represented by Arnos̆t Procházka. A hymnical, optimistic, even chiliastic poet such as Br̆ezina cannot and could not be classed with them. The great critic F. X. S̆alda wrote of the "school of symbolists" as early as 1891, calling Verlaine, Villiers, and Mallarmé its masters but denied that there is a school of symbolists with dogmas, codices, and manifestoes. His very first important article, "Synthetism in the New Art" (1892), expounded the aesthetics of Morice and Hennequin for the benefit of the Czechs, then still mainly dependent on German models.

The unevenness of the penetration of both the influence of the French movement and very strikingly of the acceptance of the term raises the question whether we can account for these differences in causal terms. It sounds heretical or obscurantist in this age of scientific explanation to ascribe much to chance, to casual contacts, and to personal predilections. Why was the term so immensely successful in France, in the United States, and in Russia, less so in England and Spain, and hardly at all in Italy and Germany? In Germany there was even the tradition of the continuous debate about symbol since Goethe and Schelling; before the French movement Friedrich Theodor Vischer discussed the symbol elaborately and still the term did not catch on. One can think of all kinds of explanations: a deliberate decision by the poets to distance themselves from the French developments; or the success of the terms "Die Moderne" and "Neuromantik." Still, the very number of such explanations suggests that the variables are so great that we cannot account for these divergencies in any systematic manner.

If we, at long last, turn to the central question of what the exact content of the term is, we must obviously distinguish among the four concentric circles defining its scope. At its narrowest, "symbolism" refers to the French group which called itself "symbolist" in 1886. Its theory was rather rudimentary. These poets mainly wanted poetry to be non-rhetorical-i.e. they asked for a break with the tradition of Hugo and the Parnassiens. They wanted words not merely to state but to suggest; they wanted to use metaphors, allegories, and symbols not only as decorations but as organizing principles of their poems; they wanted their verse to be "musical," in practice to stop using the oratorical cadences of the French alexandrines, and in some cases to break completely with rhyme. Free verse—whose invention is usually ascribed to Gustave Kahn—was possibly the most enduring achievement which has survived all vicissitudes of style. Kahn himself in 1894 summed up the doctrine simply as "antinaturalism, antiprosaism in poetry, a search for freedom in the efforts in art, in reaction against the regimentation of the Parnasse and the naturalists." This sounds very meager today: freedom from restrictions has been, after all, the slogan of a great many movements in art.

It is better to think of "symbolism" in a wider sense: as the broad movement in France from Nerval and Baudelaire to Claudel and Valéry. We can restate the theories propounded and will be confronted by an enormous variety. We can characterize it more concretely and say, for example, that in symbolist poetry the image becomes "thing." The relation of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor is reversed. The utterance is divorced, we may add, from the situation: time and place, history and society, are played down. The inner world, the durée, in the Bergsonian sense, is represented or often merely hinted at as "it," the thing or the person hidden. One could say that the grammatical predicate has become the subject. Clearly such poetry can easily be justified by an occult view of the world. But this is not necessary: it might imply a feeling for analogy, for a web of correspondences, a rhetoric of metamorphoses in which everything reflects everything else. Hence the great role of synesthesia, which, though rooted in physiological facts and found all over the history of poetry, became at that time merely a stylistic device, a mannerism easily imitated and transmitted. This characterization could be elaborated considerably if we bear in mind that style and world view go together and only together can define the character of a period or even of a single poet.

Let me try to show, at least, how diverse and even incompatible were the theories of two such related poets as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Baudelaire's aesthetic is mainly "romantic," not in the sense of emotionalism, nature worship, and exaltation of the ego, central in French romanticism, but rather in the English and German tradition of a glorification of creative imagination, a rhetoric of metamorphoses and universal analogy. Though there are subsidiary strands in Baudelaire's aesthetics, at his finest he grasps the role of imagination, "constructive imagination," as he calls it in a term ultimately derived from Coleridge. It gives a metaphysical meaning, "a positive relation with the infinite." Art is another cosmos which transforms and hence humanizes nature. By his creation the artist abolishes the gulf between subject and object, man and nature. Art is "to create a suggestive magic containing at one and the same time the object and the subject, the external world and the artist himself."

Mallarmé says almost the opposite in spite of some superficial resemblances and the common attachment to Poe and Wagner. Mallarmé was the first poet radically discontent with the ordinary language of communication; he attempted to construe an entirely separate language of poetry far more consistently than older cultivators of "poetic diction" such as the practitioners of trobar clus,or Góngora, or Mallarmé's contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His aim of transforming language was, no doubt, in part negative: to exclude society, nature, and the person of the poet himself. But it was also positive: language was again to become "real," language was to be magic, words were to become things. But this is not, I think, sufficient reason to call Mallarméa mystic. Even the depersonalization he requires is not mystical. Impersonality is rather objectivity, Truth. Art reaches for the Idea, which is ultimately inexpressible, because so abstract and general as to be devoid of any concrete traits. The term "flower" seems to him poetic because it suggests the "one, absent from all bouquets." Art thus can only hint and suggest, not transform as it should in Baudelaire. The "symbol" is only one device to achieve this effect. The so-called "negative" aesthetics of Mallarméis thus nothing obscure. It had its psychological basis in a feeling of sterility, impotence, and final silence. He was a perfectionist who proposed something impossible of fulfillment: the book to end all books. "Everything on earth exists to be contained in a book." Like many poets before him, Mallarméwants to express the mystery of the universe but feels that this mystery is not only insoluble and immensely dark but also hollow, empty, silent, Nothingness itself. There seemsnoneedtoappealtoBuddhism,Hegel, Schopenhauer, or Wagner to account for this. The atmosphere of nineteenth-century pessimism and the general Neoplatonic tradition in aesthetics suffice. Art searches for the Absolute but despairs of ever reaching it. The essence of the world is Nothingness, and the poet can only speak of this Nothingness. Art alone survives in the universe. Man's main vocation is to be an artist, a poet, who can save something from the general wreckage of time.Theworkor,inMallarmé's terms, the Book is suspended over the Void, the silent godless Nothingness. Poetry is resolutely cut off from concrete reality, from the expression of the personality of the poet, from any rhetoric or emotion, and becomes only a Sign, signifying Nothing. In Baudelaire, on the other hand, poetry transforms nature, extracts flowers from evil, creates a new myth, reconciles man and nature.

But if we examine the actual verse of the symbolists of this period, we cannot be content with formulas either of creative imagination, of suggestion, or of pure or absolute poetry.

On the third wider circle of abstraction we can apply the term to the whole period on an international scale. Every such term is arbitrary, but symbolism can be defended as rooted in the concepts of the period, as distinct in meaning, and as clearly setting off the period from that preceding it: realism or naturalism. The difference from romanticism may be less certainly implied. Obviously there is a continuity with romanticism, and particularly German romanticism, also in France, as has been recently argued again by Werner Vordtriede in his Novalis und die französischen Symbolisten (1963). The direct contact of the French with the German romantics came late and should not be overrated. Jean Thorel, in "Les Romantiques allemandes et les symbolistes français," seems to have been the first to point out the relation. Maeterlinck's article on Novalis (1894) and his little anthology (1896) came late in the movement. But Wagner of course mediated between the symbolists and German mythology, though Mallarmé's attitude, admiring toward the music, was tinged with irony for Wagner's subject matter. Early in the century Heine, a romantique défroqué as he called himself, played the role of an intermediary which, to my mind, has been exaggerated in Kurt Weinberg's study, Henri Heine: Héraut du symbolisme français (1954). E. T. A. Hoff-mann, we should not forget, was widely translated into French and could supply occult motifs, a transcendental view of music, and the theory and practice of synesthesia.

Possibly even more important were the indirect contacts through English writers: through Carlyle's chapter on symbolism in Sartor Resartus and his essay on Novalis; through Coleridge, from whom, through another intermediary, Mrs. Crowe, Baudelaire drew his definition of creative imagination; and through Emerson, who was translated by Edgar Quinet.

Also, French thinkers of the early nineteenth century knew the theory of symbolism at least, from the wide application to all the religions of the world made by Creuzer, whose Symbolik was translated into French in 1825. Pierre Leroux used the idea of "symbolic poetry" prominently in the early thirties. There was Edgar Allan Poe, who drew on Coleridge and A. W. Schlegel and seemed so closely to anticipate Baudelaire's views that Baudelaire quoted him as if he were Poe himself, sometimes dropping all quotations marks.

The enormous influence of Poe on the French demonstrates, however, most clearly the difference between romanticism and symbolism. Poe is far from being a representative of the romantic world-view or of the romantic aesthetic, in which the imagination is conceived as transforming nature. Poe has been aptly described as an "angel in a machine": he combines a faith in technique and even technology, a distrust of inspiration, a rationalistic eighteenth-century mind with a vague occult belief in "supernal" beauty. The distrust of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it; while Rilke, a symbolist in many of his procedures and views, appears as highly romantic in his reliance on moments of inspiration. This is why Hugo Friedrich excludes him from his book on the modern lyric and even disparages him in a harsh passage. This is why the attempt to make Mallarmé a spiritual descendant of Novalis, as Vordtriede tried, must fail. Mallarmé, one might grant, aims at transcendence, but it is an empty transcendence, while Novalis rapturously adores the unity of the mysterious universe. In short, the romantics were Rousseauists; the symbolists, beginning with Baudelaire, believe in the fall of man or, if they do not use the religious phraseology, know that man is limited and is not, as Novalis believed, the Messiah of nature. The end of the romantic period is clearly marked by the victory of positivism and scientism, which soon led to disillusionment and pessimism. Most symbolists were non-Christians and even atheists, even if they tried to find a new religion in occultism or flirted with Oriental religions. They were pessimists who need not have read Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, as Laforgue did, to succumb to the mood of decadence, fin de siècle, Götterdämmerung, or the death of God prophesied by Nietzsche.

Symbolism is also clearly set off from the new avant-garde movements after 1914: futurism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, and so on. There the faith in language has crumbled completely, while in Mallarmé and Valéry language preserves its cognitive and even magic power: Valéry's collection of poems is rightly called Charmes. Orpheus is the mythological hero of the poet, charming the animals, trees, and even stones. With more recent art the view of analogy disappears: Kafka has nothing of it. Postsymbolist art is abstract and allegorical rather than symbolic. The image, in surrealism, has no beyond: it wells, at most, from the subconscious of the individual.

Finally, there is the highest abstraction, the wide largest circle: the use of "symbolism" in all literature, of all ages. But then the term, broken loose from its historical moorings, lacks concrete content and remains merely the name for a phenomenon almost universal in all art.

These reflections must lead to what only can be a recommendation, to use the third sense of our term, to call the period of European literature roughly between 1885 and 1914 "symbolism," to see it as an international movement which radiated originally from France but produced great writers and great poetry also elsewhere. In Ireland and England: Yeats and Eliot; in the United States: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; in Germany: George, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal; in Russia: Blok, Ivanov, and Bely; in Spain and South America: Darío, Machado, and Guillén. If we, as we should, extend the meaning of symbolism to prose, we can see it clearly in the late Henry James, in Joyce, in the later Thomas Mann, in Proust, in the early Gide and Faulkner, in D. H. Lawrence; and if we add the drama, we recognize it in the later stages of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hauptmann, and in O'Neill. There is symbolist criticism of distinction: an aesthetics in Mallarmé and Valéry, a looser creed in Remy de Gourmont, in Eliot, and in Yeats, and a flourishing school of symbol-ist interpretation, particularly in the United States. Much of the French "new criticism" is frankly symbolist. Roland Barthes' new pamphlet, Critique et vérité (1966), pleads for a complete liberty of symbolist interpretation.

Still, we must not forget our initial reminder. A period concept can never exhaust its meaning. It is not a class concept of which the individual works are cases. It is a regulative idea: it struggles with preceding and following ideals of art. In the time under consideration the strength of the survivals was particularly great: Haupt-mann's Die Weber was performed in the same year (1892) as Blätter für die Kunst began to appear; Blok's Poems on the Beautiful Lady were written in the same year (1901) as Gorky's Lower Depths. Within the same author and even within the same work of art the struggle was waged at times. Edmond Jaloux called Joyce "at the same time a realist and a symbolist." The same is true of Proust and Mann. Ulysses combines symbolism and naturalism, as no other book of the time, into a synthesis of grand proportion and strong tension. In Trieste Joyce lectured on two English writers and on two English writers alone: they were characteristically Defoe and Blake.

As agreement on the main periods of European literature grows, so agreement to add the period term "symbolism" to the five periods now accepted should increase. But even were a different term to be victorious (though none I can think of seems to me even remotely preferable), we should always recognize that such a term has fulfilled its function as a tool of historiography if it has made us think not only about individual works and authors but about schools, trends, and movements and their international expansion. Symbolism is at least a literary term which will help us to counteract the dependence of much literary history on periodization derived from political and social history (such as the term " Imperialism" used in Marxist literary histories, which is perfectly meaningless applied to poetry at that time). Symbolism is a term (and I am quoting the words I applied to baroque in 1945) "which prepares for synthesis, draws our minds away from the mere accumulation of observations and facts, and paves the way for a future history of literature as a fine art."

Source: René Wellek, "The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History," in Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 90-121.


Baudelaire, Charles, The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits poèmes en prose, translated by Edward K. Kaplan, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 129-30.

Feinstein, Elaine, "Poem of the End," in American Scholar, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring 2004, p. 154.

Franke, William, "The Linguistic Turning of the Symbol: Baudelaire and His French Symbolist Heirs," in Baudelaire and the Poetics of Modernity, edited by Patricia A. Ward, Vanderbilt University Press, 2001, p. 15.

Kaplan, Edward K., ed., Preface, in The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits poèmes en prose, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. x-xi.

Kudrova, Irma, Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, Overlook, 2004.

Schweitzer, Victoria, Tsvetaeva, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993.

Simic, Charles, "The Poetry of Village Idiots," in Verse, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996, pp. 7-8, quoted in The Best of "The Prose Poem: An International Journal," edited by Peter Johnson, White Pine Press, 2000, p. 13.

Truesdale, C. W., Preface, in The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, edited by Robert Alexander, Mark Vinz, and C. W. Truesdale, New Rivers Press, 1996, p. xix.


Carter, A. E., Paul Verlaine, Twayne, 1971.

Carter provides an authoritative biography of Paul Verlaine, one of the founders of the French symbolist movement in poetry.

Eisenman, Stephen, The Temptations of Saint Redon: Biography, Ideology, and Style in the Noirs of Odilon Redon, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Eisenman provides discussion of thematic and stylistic elements of the symbolist works of Odilon Redon, a major French symbolist artist.

Fowlie, Wallace, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, Duke University Press, 1993.

Fowlie offers a comparison of the nineteenth-century French symbolist poet Rimbaud and the 1960s American rock star Jim Morrison. Fowlie asserts that both Rimbaud and Morrison expressed a similar sense of rebellion in their art and that both figures stand as modern antiheroes.

Kolakowski, Leszek, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, Doubleday, 1968.

Kolakowski provides a historical overview of the development of positivist thinking. The symbolist movement arose in part as a reaction against the positivist ideals of rational, objective reasoning and scientific method that dominated nineteenth-century thought.

Kudrova, Irma, Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Mary Anne Szporluk, Overlook Duckworth, 2004.

Kudrova tells the terrible account of Tsvetaeva's life after her return to the Soviet Union using new information, including KGB documents. Tsvetaeva was a talented poet overcome by the circumstances of Stalinist Russia. She chose to end her life in August 1941.

Lacambre, Geneviève, Gustave Moreau: Magic and Symbols, Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Lacambre provides discussion of the life and work of Gustave Moreau, a major French symbolist painter.

Millan, Gordon, A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stephen Mallarmé, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Millan provides a biography of the French symbolist poet Mallarmé.

Peyre, Henri, Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Peyre offers critical discussion of the poetry of Baudelaire, a major French poet often noted as the grandfather of Symbolism.

Robb, Graham, Rimbaud, Norton, 2000.

Robb provides a biography of Rimbaud, a major French symbolist poet.


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The symbolist movement began in France in the 1880s as a literary phenomenon. The term symbolism, however, quickly came to encompass a range of arts, from painting and sculpture to theater and music. While the movement is often said to have spanned the years 18851895, the ideas and aesthetic interests of symbolism are often traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and many early twentieth-century artists and writers continued to be influenced by its ideas. Symbolism was first and foremost a movement in French literature centered in Paris, and many of its central participants were French (Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud). Yet many artists and writers from elsewhere were also central to French symbolism: Maurice Maeterlinck, Émile Verhaeren, and Albrecht Rodenbach were Belgian, Jean Moréas was Greek, Téodor de Wyzewa was Polish, and Stuart Merrill was American. In addition, there were symbolist movements in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Belgium. Many scholars also see mid-nineteenth-century British aestheticism as a form of symbolism.

Each manifestation of symbolism had its own distinct characteristics. For example, most Belgian symbolists were more socially and politically engaged with working-class issues than their French counterparts, while Russian symbolism linked spiritual, social, and national concerns. Many artists and writers who never would have called themselves symbolists are considered under the rubric of symbolism because their work shares at least some of the same interests as that produced by self-proclaimed symbolist artists.

Proponents of symbolist aesthetics rejected the notion that the purpose of the arts is to represent the world as it appears to one's senses. They proposed instead to create works that would use suggestive (and often abstract) forms, images, or sounds to embody transcendent (and sometimes spiritual) ideas and would thus offer their readers, viewers, or listeners an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm. Symbolismbe it in literature, music, or the visual artsis thus characterized by a paradox: It relies on an emphasis on material form (decorative patterns in painting, repeated sounds, or arrangements of words on the page in the literary arts) as the vehicle for transcending the material or empirical world. This foregrounding of form links symbolism to the emergence of modernist abstraction in art and literature.

For a long time, scholars saw the symbolist refusal to depict the empirical world as a reaction against naturalistic artistic and literary movements such as realism and Impressionism. Later scholarship suggested that, rather than seeing symbolism mainly as a rejection of naturalist aesthetics, it should be acknowledged that symbolism was embedded in wider cultural and political anxieties of the late nineteenth century. The dominant philosophies of positivism and Darwinism threatened to substitute empirical facts for the traditional religious explanations of the great mysteries of the world. Human activity was increasingly explained in mechanistic psychophysiological terms and human beings appeared to be less and less in control of their thoughts and behaviors. The development of capitalist economies led to an increasing commodification of daily life and an increasingly materialistic culture. Rather than situating symbolism in the rarified world of the aesthetic, scholars came to see the symbolist alternative to materialismevocative abstraction, suggestion, mysticism, and dreamlike imageryas an attempt to oppose the effects of materialism and capitalism.

Symbolism in French Literature

The symbolist movement was formally launched in 1886, when the poet Jean Moréas (18561910) published a manifesto in the major Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Moréas described symbolism as the

enemy of teaching, of declamation, of false sensitivity, of objective description, Symbolic poetry seeks to clothe the Idea in a perceptible form that nevertheless will not be the ultimate goal in itself, but, which, even as it serves to express the Idea, remains subject to it. The Idea, for its part, must not allow itself to be deprived of the sumptuous robes of external analogies; for the essential character of symbolic art is never to reach the Idea itself. Accordingly, in this art, the depictions of nature, the actions of human beings, all the concrete phenomena would not manifest themselves; these are but appearances perceptible to the senses destined to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial ideas. (p. 60)

Moréas' version of symbolism rejects all attempts to represent the perceptible world directly or instruct the reader straightforwardly. Instead, Moréas advocates allusive language that will allow the idea to be intuited by readers through a series of analogies. Moréas makes clear that for symbolism the important subject matter lies beyond the perceptible world. In addition, in the manifesto, Moréas advocates new kinds of verse no longer bound by traditional rules of poetic composition.

Moréas' manifesto served many purposes. On one hand, it was a declaration of the direction modern poetry should take and thus part of a wider attempt on the part of young writers to find cultural legitimacy while declaring themselves outside the traditional French academy. This general trend toward establishing an independent literary milieu is perhaps most clearly evidenced in the plethora of literary magazines that emerged in the mid-1880s: Le Symboliste, La vogue, Le scapin, La Décadence, and Le Décadent. Some, such as La vogue, sought legitimacy as serious journals by publishing new work by young poets such as Gustave Kahn, Jean Moréas, Réné Ghil, and Édouard Dujardin alongside the work of already established symbolist heroes such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud. These small journals also published articles further formulating and often arguing the points of symbolist theory. Many journals founded in the 1880s and early 1890s were short-lived, some lasting less than a year. Some journals, however, such as La revue indépendante, La plume, and Les entretiens politiques et littéraires had more successful runs, and one, Le mercure de France, still exists, though its aims have been considerably broadened since the original publication.

While in some sense declaring his independence from tradition, Moréas also wanted to distinguish what he called "Symbolism" from the approach of other nontraditional writers and artists he designated as "Decadent." In 1883, Paul Bourget had expounded a "theory of decadence" when discussing Charles Baudelaire (18211867) in his Essai de psychologie contemporaine (Essay on contemporary psychology). Baudelaire's figure of the hypersensitive dandy aesthete became the model for the decadent artist, and Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel À rebours (1884; Against nature) became a veritable handbook: The main character, Des Esseintes, became a fictional cult hero and model for aspiring decadent artists and writers.

There is a great deal of overlap between decadence and symbolism. Both reject the value of empirical descriptions of the natural world and look to the artist's heightened sensitivity and imagination for the source of creativity. The aim of decadence, however, more often seems to be the rejection of bourgeois values and everyday morality in favor of detailed explorations of socially marginal and exotic subject matter: the occult, the femme fatale, sexual debauchery, extreme artifice, and aestheticism.

Conversely, symbolism, while sometimes overlapping in subject matter, is more seriously concerned with the search for a new approach to poetic, literary, or artistic form drawing on the experimentations of an older generation of writers such as Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Moréas' description of symbolism refers most directly to Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences" from his volume Les fleurs du mal (1857, expanded 1861; The flowers of evil)a work that became a touchstone for symbolist artists and writers:

La nature est un temple où de vivants pilliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Nature is a temple whose living pillars
Sometimes emit confusing messages
Man passes through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like extended echoes that blend in the distance
In a shadowy and deep unity,
Vast as the night and as the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds are answered.
(translation author's)

Baudelaire's poem suggests that humans inhabit a world where the mundane can serve as a "forest of symbols" to which the poet is especially attuned. Everyday objects and experiences offer secret correspondences between sounds, scents, and colors in which the poet deciphers a higher meaning. The poem evokes two ideas that will be central to symbolism: first, the role of the artist or poet as a gifted seer capable of identifying connections that point beyond the perceptible world; and second, the importance of formal echoes in sensory data where scents, colors, and sounds "se répondent" (respond to one another) in synesthesiathe connection between different sensory realms.

Baudelaire had been strongly influenced by the work of the U.S. writer Edgar Allan Poe (18091849), whose prose writings he had translated in the 1850s. Mallarmé and others were especially influenced by Baudelaire's 1859 translation of Poe's essay "Philosophy of Composition." Whereas Mallarmé was influenced by Poe's allusive figures and economy of means, others looked to Poe's status as poète maudit (damned poet), whose subject matter delved into mystery, the occult, and madness. In his work, Arthur Rimbaud (18541891) followed this interpretation of Poe, taking on the mantle of damned poet for himself. For Rimbaud poetry was not a controlled process of self-expression in the tradition of romanticism but instead a vehicle for the unraveling and disorganization of self"a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses "that allows the exploration of those elements of human subjectivity associated with madness. As Rimbaud famously put it:" I is an other. I am the spectator at the flowering of my thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I draw a bow across a string: a symphony stirs in the depths, or surges onto the stage" (p. 102). Rimbaud published Un saison en enfer (A season in hell) in 1873 and abandoned writing before the age of twenty. Other volumes of his work, Illuminations (1886) and Poésies complètes (1895), were published at the instigation of others long after they had initially been written.

Whereas Rimbaud's questioning of the boundaries of poetry and of the self ultimately led him to abandon poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé (18421898) repeatedly wrote poems about the impossibility of embodying the Idea in poetic form. This is most famously thematized in the poetic symbol of l'azur, a term evoking both the color blue and the sky and alluding to the impossible ideal that the poet seeks to grasp and express. In an 1891 response to Jules Huret's Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire (Survey of literary development), Mallarmé, attempting to describe his approach to poetry, expanded on Baudelaire's notion of correspondences and turned it into the modus operandi of creation. According to Mallarmé,

to name an object is to suppress three quarters of the pleasure of the poem which is meant to be deciphered little by little: suggestion, that is the dream. This is the perfect use of mystery which constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of the soul or, conversely, to choose an object and glean from it an emotional state by a series of decipherments. (1891 response to Jules Huret, Enqête sur evolution littéraire )

As this passage suggests, the purpose of a poem is not to put forth a clearly decipherable message about the exterior world or the intentions of the writer, but to set in motion a process of reading. The word on the page always points beyond itself or its obvious referents to an unknown that cannot be fixed. Mallarmé's works place the emphasis on language's material unfolding through the poem, and the reader's unending act of decipherment is not a sign of the poem's failure but of its success.

Symbolism and Music

Many symbolists share the notion that all art should aspire to the condition of music, which was thought to be the most emotionally direct aesthetic medium. In "Art poétique" (1884), Paul Verlaine (18441896) famously instructed poets on the importance of "music before all else." This musicality was achieved in much symbolist poetry through rhyming, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical flourishes.

Mallarmé's famous late poem Un coup de dés (1897; A dice-throw) takes the relationship between poetry and music even further than Verlaine. In this poem, Mallarmé radically experimented with type size and placement, leaving many blank areas, which themselves seem to carry meaning. The poem has been compared to a musical score with blanks that prescribe rests and with phrases that evanesce in much the same way as the music of Mallarmé's contemporary, the composer Claude Debussy. Indeed, Mallarmé's conception of his poems as a kind of music is brought out in an anecdote. When Debussy asked permission to set Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun" (1876) to music, Mallarmé responded: "But I thought I had already done that!" (Sieburth, in Hollier, p. 796).

No composer is more closely aligned with symbolism than Claude Debussy (18621918). Debussy is famous for setting many symbolist writings to music, including several poems by Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Most famously, he wrote "Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun," meant to complement and extend Mallarmé's poem. Perhaps more important, Debussy approached musical composition with aims parallel to those of many symbolists. As Debussy wrote in an article of La revue blanche in 1902, music should not be "confined to producing Nature more or less exactly, but rather to producing the mysterious correspondences which link Nature with Imagination" (quoted in Lloyd, p. 266).

Like the symbolists, Debussy experimented radically with the conventions of rhythm, abandoning artificial demarcations within musical time in a move analogous to the symbolists' rejection of the classic meters of poetry. Debussy compared his desire to minimize symbol and ornament in music to Mallarmé's carefully wrought economy of language. Debussy also rejected any notion that music should tell an easily decipherable narrative: "There are those who want music to tell base anecdotes! As if the newspapers didn't perform this task wonderfully well already" (quoted in Lloyd, p. 263). Both Debussy and Mallarmé imagined that their work, because of its rejection of anecdotal references and formulas, required active participation by its audience and asked them to transcend the mundanity of everyday experience. Debussy emphasized not only sound but silence as an element of meaning in his music, and this has been described as analogous to Mallarmé's emphasis on the pauses and blank areas of the page in his late poem "Dice Thrown." Finally, both Debussy and Mallarmé composed works that circle around the theme of desire.

Many poets associated with symbolism were extremely interested in the German composer Richard Wagner (18131883). The French interest in Wagner went back to the 1860s, when Baudelaire had admired and written about him and Auguste de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Judith Gautier, and Catulle Mendès had all visited him. Wagner imagined his music-dramas as Gesamtkunstwerke (total works of art) in which all the arts would be combined in a single work to transcend the possibilities of individual media. While some critics emphasized the naturalist tendencies of Wagner's music, French interpreters of Wagner imagined the orchestrator of the total work of art as a secular priest and the work itself as a means to provide a transcendent experience. Baudelaire described his experience of Wagner's music-drama Lohengrin (1848) as ecstatic, instigating an involuntary dreamlike state. Furthermore, in a transformation of Wagner that would be seized on by the symbolists, Baudelaire relates this experience to the synesthetic ideal he had described in "Correspondences," saying that music by its very nature suggests synaesthetic analogies. In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the performance of Wagner's operas had been banned in France. Many French literary figures, however, visited the festivals at Bayreuth, and by the mid-1880s there was a veritable cult of Wagner in France. From 1885 to 1888 one of Mallarmé's disciples, Édouard Dujardin, published a symbolist journal, La revue wagnérienne, devoted to Wagnerism.

Les Vingt and Belgian Symbolism

In Belgium, the avant-garde group Les Vingt (The twenty) held exhibitions, musical events, and readings from 1884 to 1893. Its founders, Edmond Picard and Octave Maus, aimed to promote avant-garde culture using the Wagnerian theory of the unification of the arts. The exhibition galleries of Les Vingt displayed works by avant-garde artists from Belgium and elsewhere. Performances of the work of contemporary composers (including Debussy) were held in the galleries. The elite of the literary world were invited to speak on literature, and readings of avant-garde poetry were regularly held. Belgium had long been fertile ground for the development of literature and the arts and the influence of France had always been strong. As a French-speaking nation close to France's border, Belgium had hosted many exiled French artists and writers, including Baudelaire, and often works by French writers that could not be published in France were published in Belgium. Journals such as La jeune Belgique, L'élan littéraire, and La Wallonie contributed to the development of Belgian symbolism and also had a great influence in France. Many on the staff of La Wallonie, for example, were important players in the French symbolist movement. The Belgian symbolist writers Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, and Rodenbach participated in the literary events of Les Vingt. They were influential in the literary worlds of both Belgium and France. The journal L'art moderne championed Les Vingt and published many articles explaining its aesthetic platform, which was broadly antiacademic (and thus embraced Impressionism and Neoimpressionism alongside symbolism). Like the organization itself, the journal was devoted to a range of mediapainting, sculpture, engraving, and furniture and costume design were discussed alongside literature and music. Significantly, L'art moderne also promoted a socialist political agenda and rejected the bourgeois public, the press, and the official exhibiting space of the Salon as its enemies.

Russian Symbolism

The symbolist movement in Russia is known as the Russian Silver Age (18921917). Although it was a widespread cosmopolitan movement encompassing often contradictory elements, certain general outlines can be drawn. In the 1890s a young generation of Russian writers was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. The writer Valeri Briusov was instrumental in introducing Western work to the Russian audience through his translations of Baudelaire and Poe as well as his editorship of the important symbolist journal Vesy (The scales), which was modeled on Le mercure de France and published the works of Russian writers alongside European symbolists, including Moréas, Verhaeren, and Rémy de Gourmont. In 1892 three collections of verse were published under the title The Russian Symbolists. Rejecting positivism and materialism as well as the classic approach to literature, these writers followed the example of their Western counterparts. Writers such as Briusov, Konstantin Balmont, Fyodor Sologub, Zinaida Gippius, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition, and musicality in their work. The poet, mystic, and theologian Vladimir Solovyev described "life's reverberating noise" as an "altered echo of transcendent harmonies." Like their French and Belgian counterparts, Russian symbolists rejected the didactic depiction of the empirical world and conceived of a truer reality hidden by phenomenal experience. They believed that intuition was more important than objective knowledge. This borrowing of ideas from further west was accompanied by an aesthetics of art for art's sake.

At the turn of the century Russian symbolism began to develop a much stronger character of its own, emphasizing a particularly Russian spiritual content. In 1901 Gippius and Merezhkovsky opened their Saint Petersburg Salon to contributors to Sergey Diaghilev's journal World of Art and in 1902 Merezhkovsky founded the Religious Philosophical Society. This led to a cross-fertilization of the literary, visual, and philosophical components of the movement in a forum focused on cosmic consciousness and the particular role of Russia as an intermediary between Eastern and Western spirituality, and on various forms of occult theorizing. The writers Vyacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Blok, and Andrey Bely were important participants in this later phase of the symbolist movement. Andrey Bely (18801934) described the new Russian poetry as apocalyptic and poets as prophets of the end of European civilization who foreshadow in their work a new, more highly evolved form of human consciousness. Solovyev described the poet as a possessor of secret knowledge. Aleksandr Blok (18801921) wrote poems drawn from mystic experiences and based on dreams. Bely is perhaps best known for his symbolist novels, the most famous of which is Saint Petersburg (1913). The novel, composed of experimental suggestive prose, combines descriptive narrative with mystical symbolism and can be read on many levels.

British Aestheticism

In Britain a movement known as aestheticism is often seen as part of the wider symbolist movement. From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, the artists and writers associated with British aestheticism experimented with the idea that art is a realm separate from the everyday world and the artist's role is to cultivate and express beauty for its own sake. British aestheticists most often used very refined evocations of women from myth and legend as a means for exploring their own highly cultivated sensibilities. They rejected classic approaches to art and literature and disputed the notion that art should educate its audience about moral values. The retreat into the realm of highly refined art and the refusal to address contemporary issues are often regarded as an oblique attack on bourgeois morality and the growing commodity culture of nineteenth-century Britain.

The writers of the aesthetic movement drew on the work of British romantic poets such as William Blake (17571827). Some were also influenced by Baudelaire and the French symbolists. One of the precursors to the aesthetic movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was formed by a group of young painters and writers in the mid-nineteenth century. This movement rejected the classic aesthetic of the British academy and looked to other sources for its inspiration and subject matter. Many of their early works had Christian subjects. Often they tried to re-create the forms and methods of Gothic art and looked back to stories of knights and ladies. Pre-Raphaelite journals such as The Germ combined literary endeavors with explorations of the visual arts. Initially, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic involved taking a detailed approach and for this reason it is often linked to realism. Nevertheless, many of the poems and paintings of artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are rather vague and suggestive and these are commonly seen as part of the aesthetic movement. Writers associated with the aesthetic movement include John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. Many participants in British aestheticism embraced the notion of synesthesia and looked for correspondences between poetry, painting, and music. Dante Rossetti often based his paintings on his own poems, especially those evoking stories from the writings of Dante Alighieri (12651321), author of the Divine Comedy. Claude Debussy set Dante Rossetti's poem "The Blessed Damozel" (1850) to music in 1887-1888. Rossetti had completed his own painting of this poem in 1881, and the painting, which had the poem inscribed on the frame, is thought to have inspired Debussy's composition. James McNeill Whistler (18341903) was a close friend of Mallarmé and symbolist critics described him as a "painter-poet." Whistler embraced the connection between art and music by giving his works musical titles such as "symphony" or "nocturne," with subtitles designating colors or subject matter.

Symbolist Theater

Symbolist theater relied on the Wagnerian idea of the total work of art, while also emphasizing the importance of using suggestion to reach metaphysical concepts of "the enigma of life" (Villiers de l'Isle Adam). The symbolists aimed to eliminate all traces of naturalistic or imitative acting, and all romance and melodrama. In theory, the actor was to be a depersonalized symbol pointing to a meaning beyond what was visible on the stage. In France, the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre put on plays by symbolist writers and held experimental poetry stagings. In addition to the plays of French writers, they produced adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe, which had recently been translated by Mallarmé, and of Salomé, the play Oscar Wilde had written in French during his exile from Britain. Plays by the Belgian symbolists Maeterlinck and Rodenbach were also produced. Often the plays featured stage sets created by Paul Sérusier and other artists from the symbolist group the Nabis. In "On the Absolute Lack of Utility of Exact Staging," the playwright and theorist Pierre Quillard wrote that "the set should be a pure ornamental fiction which completes the illusion through analogies of colors and lines with the play. Theater will be what it should be: a pretext for dream" (quoted in Deak, p. 145). Significantly, the sets were meant not to echo the visible shapes or forms of the characters, but, in a kind of synesthesia, to analogize the essence of the play itself.

Plays by the Scandinavian writers Henrik Ibsen (18281906) and August Strindberg (18491912) also became important parts of the French symbolist repertoire. In a manifesto accompanying the opening of Aurélian-Marie Lugné-Poe's Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair identified Ibsen with the symbolist struggle to express "libertarian ideas or taste for aestheticism" and "modern beauty." Ibsen's plays Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, The Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and An Enemy ofthe People were all staged in the early 1890s. Part of the reason Ibsen was appropriated as a symbolist had to do with the staging. The Danish actor, director, and novelist Hermann Bang described Lugné-Poe's staging of Rosmersholm as "without any firm contours. The actors wander restlessly over the stage, resembling shadows drifting continuously on the wall. They like to move with their arms spread out, like the apostles in old paintings who look as if they've been surprised during worship" (quoted in Deak, p. 189). Bang's description of actors resembling apostles and shadows on a wall gives us a sense of how the staging of the play used vagueness and suggestiveness to reach higher spiritual meanings. As Frantisek Deak points out in his study of symbolist theater, however, Bang saw these initial attempts by Lugné-Poe as a misappropriation of Ibsen and attempted to persuade Lugné-Poe to emphasize psychological elements in his staging. Many Scandinavian critics, who believed Ibsen's play was realist, objected to the staging. Several of August Strindberg's psychological dramas (including The Father and The Creditors ) were also staged at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, despite the fact that he too had previously been understood to be a naturalist.

Symbolism in the Visual Arts

In the 1880s and 1890s, many European artists experimented with work that had similarities to symbolist literature. When applied to the visual arts, symbolism designates less a recognizable style than a general approach to art that rejects direct representation of the material world in favor of allusion and suggestion. While artists such as Paul Gauguin and the Nabis or Ferdnand Knopff consciously pursued an aesthetic agenda analogous to the project of literary symbolism, others, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau or Auguste Rodin were annexed to the symbolist movement by a younger generation of artists in much the same way that Ibsen and Strindberg had been.

The aim of searching for more authentic ideas than those offered by material reality was in some sense similar to the traditional goal of idealization long pursued by academic art. The technical means by which symbolists pursued the idea was often quite innovative, however. In 1886, the symbolist critic Gustave Kahn offered a description of symbolism that lent itself to translation into visual media. Rather than portraying "the quotidian, the near at hand," as realist and Impressionist artists had done, symbolists "wish to be able to place the development of the symbol in any period whatsoever, and even in outright dreams (the dream being indistinguishable from life)." With this reference to Schopenhauer's theorization of the world as representation, Kahn proposed that symbolist artists or writers look inward for their subject matter: "The essential aim of our art is to objectify the subjective (the externalization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament)." (L'Evénément, 28 September 1886). Kahn negated the naturalist writer Émile Zola's championing of the expression of individual temperaments and called for the externalization of the transcendent Idea.

Symbolism and modernism.

The symbolist artists imagined that their privileged subjective states were best expressed through allusive, nonnaturalistic arrangements of line and color. The Talisman (1888), a painting by Paul Sérusier (18651927), is often said to be the first attempt by French symbolist artists to practice this aesthetic. In a story recounted by Maurice Denis, Sérusier is said to have painted the work following Gauguin's instruction: "How do you see this tree, Gauguin asked in front of a corner of the Bois d'Amour: is it green? Then paint it green, the most beautiful green on your palette; and that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible" (p. 50). In this way, bold and simplified color patterns were extracted from the natural landscape. In 1891 Albert Aurier wrote "Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin," in which he defined the characteristics of symbolist painting and suggested by Gauguin's work embodied them. Like Moréas he emphasized the primacy of "the Idea" and necessity of clothing it in a synthetic form that would work by allusion. He stressed that the work should be subjective, because an object would not be considered as an object, but as a sign of an idea perceived by the subject.

Denis's painting April (1892) demonstrates his own experimentation with this aesthetic. In 1890, Denis wrote in his manifesto "Definition of Neo-Traditionism": "Before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote, a painting is a flat surface, covered with colors arranged in a certain order" (p. 1). Thus Denis, like the symbolist poets, foregrounded the abstract qualities of his medium and like them explicitly defined symbolism as a kind of modernism. The title of his manifesto points to the paradoxical nature of his symbolist project. Denis wished to turn to tradition in order to found a new (neo) kind of art. He argued that artists should look to aesthetic examples such as the Italian primitives and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (18241898). That artist, who was France's greatest painter of murals on national themes, interested the symbolists because his large, boldly patterned compositions in muted colors, such as Poor Fisherman (1881), seemed to suggest rather than define their subjects. His compositions were often described as dreamlike. The critic Téodor de Wyzewa, for example, explained the unanimous praise for the artist as being a result of "a thirst for dream, emotion and poetry."

The artist as prophet.

The notion that the artist was a seer or prophet who, in the words of the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair, "painfully saved our sickened souls from the excremental muck of materialism" (quoted in Matthews, p. 15), was explicitly embraced by many artists in France who wished to be associated with symbolism. Paul Gauguin as well as the artists who formed the avant-garde group the Nabis (Nabis is the Hebrew word for prophets ) Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Édouard Vuillard, and Émile Bernardare good examples of this. Art, they believed, had the potential to offer the kind of salvation that had previously been the terrain of traditional religions. Some, such as Denis, were part of a wider, extremely conservative neo-Catholic movement.

Others were looking for less traditional forms of spiritual meaning beyond everyday existence. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Paul Ranson, and Odilon Redon in France, the Blue Rose group led by Pavel Kuznetsov as well as Mikhail Vrubel' in Russia, and the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka embraced the occult mysticism that was in vogue during the late nineteenth century. Some artists employed principles of "sacred geometry" according to which basic shapes or harmonic ratios shared by plants, animals, or other natural objects were thought to demonstrate a universal continuum of form understandable to all. Such ideas were derived from the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and Édouard Schuré and from the study of earlier illustrated treatises on the occult, which aimed to find unifying principles in disparate religions. These theories of the occult also shared an interest in dualistic principles of male-female, heaven-earth, and a three-part godhead of matter-mind-spirit, which were often represented using geometric diagrams. This emphasis on abstract geometry thus links the spiritualist emphasis of some symbolists to the more widespread modernism of the movement.

One of the main international exhibition forums for mystical symbolist art was the Order of the Rose Cross of the Temple and the Grail, whose Salons were held in Paris from 1892 to 1897. The order had been founded by the self-anointed "Sâr" Joséphin Péladan (18591918; Sâr was the title designating Assyrian royalty), a prolific art critic, the author of Androgyne and Vice suprême, and a high priest of the occult. He described the artist as the "supreme priest" who should represent "dreams instead of reality." The flamboyant Péladan viewed himself and all his public activities as a work of art. He even coined the term kaloprosopia to describe this art of personality in which the externalization of an aesthetic idea in dress, gesture, and demeanor would ultimately lead to the internalization of this aesthetic as a personality trait, and visa versa. Péladan himself dressed in archaic silk robes and affected the pose of a quasi-Byzantine mystic.

Péladan and other symbolist artist-prophets expected to be rejected by the mass audience, thought to be incapable of interpreting the truths embodied in their art. Thus symbolism often brought with it a form of elitism that was sometimes used to support a conservative social agenda. The symbolist rejection of a wider bourgeois audience has also been interpreted as a protest against the degraded mass culture that resulted from industrial capitalism and the related effects of capitalism's materialist values on human subjectivity. However much the symbolists themselves may have understood their elitism as a form of protest, their emphasis on the creative genius unwittingly reinforced the notions of individualism on which the growing art market traded.

Symbolist primitivism: the retreat from Western civilization.

Like Kahn, the symbolist art critic Albert Aurier described the artist as a visionary who, by looking inward, achieved access to the absolute. According to Aurier, this ability to communicate more directly with basic truths was shared by others whose "uncivilized" natures brought them closer to an originary state of being in which the senses were not yet dulled by daily exposure to decadent European culture: children, non-Europeans, peasants, madmen, and hysterical women. Symbolist artists who embraced the primitive wished to return their own consciousnesses to equivalent states of innocence and instinctiveness. In France, the symbolist interest in the primitive was related to the opening of markets between East and West, and to the expansion of colonialism that gave artists exposure to what were viewed as more primitive peoples and their art. Many artists borrowed from non-Western sources. The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and many other late-nineteenthcentury artists looked to the bold patterns and lack of traditional Western perspective of Japanese prints for a seemingly primitive source of artistic ideas.

Paul Gauguin (18481903) retreated to Brittany in the 1880s in what he imagined was an escape to a more primitive region of France, where he hoped to set up an artists' colony. There he painted several images of the natives, including the famous Vision after the Sermon (1888). This painting used bold patterns and generalized shapes to picture the mystical vision of "primitive" peasants. Vincent van Gogh (18531890) moved from Paris to Arles at about the same time and invited Gauguin to join him in a similar attempt to escape the metropolis. Ultimately, seeking a retreat to a primitive paradise, Gauguin fled Paris for Tahiti in the 1890s. He continued to paint boldly patterned works of primitive subjectsespecially native womenuntil his death.

On one hand, many of the symbolists sincerely valued what they believed to be positive characteristics of so-called primitive peoples. On the other, they also believed that though women, children, and savages were closer to the absolute, they lacked the intellectual ability to recognize and identify universal ideas. Neither did such primitives possess the artistic ability to communicate the absolute through art. Only the artist-seer had both access to the absolute and the means to recognize and communicate it. Thus, while symbolism encouraged artists and poets to explore marginalized realmsto "become" momentarily feminine, mad, or primitive in the act of creativityit also denied the possibility that traditionally "primitive" people could themselves be artists. It therefore shored up the elite status of already privileged European male artists. In addition, in the process of celebrating the people they saw as primitive, these artists reinforced the stereotypes that allowed the wider culture to marginalize them, or, in the case of colonialism, they justified imperial expansion as a needed civilizing force.

Artifice against nature.

In Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel, À rebours (Against the grain, or Against nature), the decadent aesthete Des Esseintes withdraws into an elaborate world of his own construction in an effort fully to control his "reality." Within the confines of his abode, the differences between nature and artifice, reality and imagination are effaced and the whims of his highly refined sensibility are indulged to such an extent that nothing natural remains. This transformation of the natural world into a product of the Des Esseintes artifice is well illustrated when the protagonist decorates his home with a live turtle encrusted with gold and jewels. (The turtle, not surprisingly, dies.) Des Esseintes's walls are hung with the works of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. Each artist pictures worlds that work "against nature." Their works overtly claim status as products of the imagination rather than replications of the real.

Gustave Moreau (18261898) belonged to an earlier generation of artists and had little respect for the symbolist movement. He refused to exhibit with them at Sâr Péladan's Salon of the Rose + Croix and described the "enthusiasm for the invisible exclusive need of dreams, mystery mysticism, Symbolism and the undefined" as so much snobbery and posing (quoted in Cooke, 124). By the time Huysmans wrote about Moreau's paintings Salomé (1874) and The Apparition (1876) in his novel, Moreau had been exhibiting scenes from the Old Testament and Ovid's Metamorphoses in the Salon for nearly three decades. Despite this, Moreau did share some aims with the works of artists aligned with symbolism, though his aesthetic approach is quite different from artists such as Gauguin and the Nabis. His works embody the principle that one must move beyond the description of the everyday and against any sense of the replication of nature. Moreau's paintings combine imagery and symbols from a wide range of sources (including Old Masters, Egyptian art, the Byzantine empire, and Asian culture). All these are incorporated into highly detailed paintings whose disparate symbols are held together by a distinctive painterly style. Elaborate and often minute patterns, sometimes painted, sometimes scratched into the paint, form a unifying armature or screen over the canvas. The effect is a disconcerting jewel-like surface and dreamlike treatment of the familiar that now appears to be wholly a product of the artist's artifice.

Like Moreau, the printmaker and painter Odilon Redon (18401916) was chosen by Huysmans as an artist favored by his fictional decadent hero Des Esseintes. Redon's small-scale works on paper differ greatly from Moreau's intricately wrought history paintings. Redon's imagery, however, like Moreau's, draws on a range of sources, from ancient myth to Christian subjects to natural imagery to contemporary literature, and often combines sources in impossible and surprising ways that evoke formal or conceptual correspondences between seemingly disparate objects. This combination, reminiscent of dreams in which one thing metamorphoses into another, was sometimes further enhanced by the captions or evocative titles that accompanied the works. Like symbolist poetry, Redon's prints push the reader into a process of interpretation where echoes between elements suggest meanings but resist any ultimate decipherment or closure. In Redon's work, as in symbolist poetry, the viewer's engagement with the process of interpretation seems to be the most important element.

In many works, Redon specifically thematizes the transformation of nature into imagination by transmuting natural forms into highly evocative dreamlike visions. In There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower, a plate from the lithograph series Les origines (1883; Origins), the orb at flower's center becomes an eye and the lashes give it the look of a carnivorous plant. In other works, flowers, spiders, or planetary orbs have human faces. Redon studied anatomy and natural history. His hybrid creatures cross categories of the natural world to become evocatively unnatural. Their hybridity also speaks to the possibility of a primeval continuum tying together different categories of being.

A similar hybridization of natural categories is seen in the works of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (18631944). In the series of paintings The Frieze of Life, the forms in background landscapes seem to be based on contemporary studies of the physiology of the human body. Furthermore, Munch described the landscape itself through physiological metaphors, sometimes of pulsing or breathing. In Munch, as in Redon, the metaphorical correspondences link disparate realms of being to point to basic structures or primeval truths beyond the immediately visible.

Symbolism, Gender, and Sexuality

Woman is a ubiquitous subject in symbolist art and literature. Sometimes, as in Denis's April or the early work of Piet Mondrian, she is a positive symbol of innocence and possibilitydesexualized and dematerialized. In paintings by D. G. Rossetti or Whistler, woman is a highly aestheticized and unattainable love object. In his early work, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (18781935) used the motifs of women and embryos to express the notion that woman could be the incarnation of a higher, purer, more spontaneous realm. At other times, woman is turned into a sexualized femme fatale, as in Jean Delville's Idol of Perversity or in the works of the Belgian graphic artist Félicien Rops or the German artist Franz von Stuck. Thus, much symbolist visual art reinforces and amplifies a long-standing dichotomy between woman as virgin and woman as whore.

Significantly, each of these stereotypes aligns woman closely with nature. Such images reinforce the idea that woman, imprisoned within her biologyas the innocent vessel of the life-bearing force or as bearer of uncontrollable and instinctive sexual desireis incapable of transcending her bodily functions and desires. Woman is a subcategory of nature and is linked to the primitivism that was such an important subtext of the symbolist project. The Belgian symbolist Ferdnand Khnopff's Art (Caresses of the Sphynx, 1896) combines many of these elements. The Dutch symbolist Jan Toorop, with his flat linear vision, and Munch painted renditions of woman as femme fatale. Moreau's images of Salomé and other female figures also fit this description.

Significantly, these works were produced at a time when feminist movements were experiencing a resurgence across Europe and when women were beginning to work in a number of male professions. This imagery may be seen partly as a cultural reaction to the emergence of a well-defined social type"the New Woman"a bourgeois woman who sought financial independence, education, and a professional life. To counteract this threat to traditional values, the mainstream definitions of femininity in late-nineteenth-century European culture denied woman the possibility of "genius." And individual women who pursued intellectual or professional activities were described as "masculine." Artistic representations of woman's proximity to nature counteracted women's demands for intellectual pursuits by reinforcing the boundaries between intellectually endowed virile masculinity and body-bound femininity. Patricia Matthews argues that the masculinity of the intuitive artist-seer was ultimately protected by the exclusion of women from the category of genius. Like the primitives, women might experience intuition, spirituality, or a loss of the boundaries of self, but because they lacked genius, they would never be able to transform those experiences into an understanding of higher truths; nor could they communicate those truths through art. One rare exception to this general belief was the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose works were praised by several symbolist critics. Nevertheless, many of them still related the power of Claudel's works to her instinctual femininity. Other successful women artists and writers were said to have lost some of their femininity in expressing their genius.

The relationship between symbolism and sexuality was not always degrading to women. For some Russian symbolists, including the woman writer Zinaida Gippius and the male writers Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, sex was a source of liberation with the potential to unite humanity with God. Furthermore, many male symbolists conceived of their own projects in feminized terms. Intuition, spirituality, emotionalism, loss of intellectual controlall these were characteristics commonly aligned with the feminine. Many symbolists (Sâr Péladan is the most obvious example) enacted the role of feminized aesthete in their public lives, constructing personae that rejected bourgeois norms of masculinity. The British aesthete and writer Oscar Wilde (18541900) also assumed the role of the unconventional dandy (though in a less extreme form than Péladan). In the early twentieth century, many lesbians, including Romaine Brooks and Claude Cahun, would take the image of the male dandy as a model for their alternative visions of female sexuality.

Because it challenged normative values and offered alternative cultural forms, symbolism and the aestheticism that often accompanied it opened new avenues for imagining sexuality, which sometimes offered positive ways of conceptualizing the marginal subject position of the homosexual male. Rimbaud is famous for writing in a symbolist vein about his relationship with Verlaine. André Gide, who would openly theorize male homosexuality in dialogue form in Corydon (19111924), began his literary career in the symbolist milieu. Péladan described the androgyne as a symbol of creative possibilityan innocent creature prior to the corruption of sexuality who still embodied the intuitive possibilities of femininity without its negative aspects.

Wilde seems to have found something enabling in the images of the femme fatale (his version of Salomé clearly differs from the overtly misogynist versions produced by many late-nineteenth-century artists). Swinburne attacked normative sexual morality in his poems by incorporating perverse sexuality into his images of beauty. British artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Simeon Solomon, and Edward Burne-Jones, and writers such as Pater and Swinburne, often represented androgynous figures. Richard Dellamora and Thaïs Morgan connect these androgynous figures to the construction of a homosexual subcultural identity in Britain. Morgan suggests that images of the androgyne and of the hermaphrodite were meant to be read both as symbols of the perfect art object (by the mainstream audience) and as specific objects of homosexual desire.

Symbolism and the Unconscious

Symbolism was part of a wider cultural trend in which the order, clarity, and hierarchy that had long been associated with traditional academic art were replaced by modes of representation that focused instead on experimentation with representational form and an emphasis on individual sensibility. In this sense, symbolism is connected to Impressionism in painting and naturalism in literature. In fact, many symbolist artists emerged from this naturalist milieu. Unlike naturalism, however, symbolism emphasizes the sensuous suggestiveness of language and form and the tendency of this suggestiveness to solicit individual interpretations from viewers and readers. Because symbolism suggested rather than instructing or describing, and because its subjects were so often themselves dreamlike, it seemed to open the door to a proliferation of fantasies in its audience. Thus the symbolist project was part of broader challenges to the notion of the autonomous human subjecta male subject for whom thought and representation had the potential to be transparent. When the boundaries of this traditional male subject position were opened up, many consequences, both aesthetic and political, followed.

The symbolist movement was one element in a general reconceptualization of human subjectivity that took place just as the existence of the unconscious mind was being imagined by psychologists and sociologists. One salient example of this theorization of the unconscious and the consequent questioning of the nature of subjectivity is to be found in the popular fascination with hysteria, hypnosis, and "suggestion." The power of suggestion was thought to be especially strong when the subject had a weak or nervous personality (for example, children, primitives, and women). There was much debate over whether "normal" men with strong personalities were also subject to the suggestion of others. In 1891, Alfred Fouillee summed up the consequences of recent psychological discoveries, saying "contemporary psychology has wrested from us the illusion of a bounded, impenetrable, and absolutely autonomous ego (p. 811). The discovery of the unconscious led to the possibility that human beings were not truly in control of their thoughts and actions. Works of art were deemed to have the potential to open their audiences to a suggestibility analogous to the state of hypnosis. Thus, paradoxically, the symbolist rejection of material reality in favor of the world of dream took shape at approximately the same time empirical science was confirming the importance of fantasy in daily life.

Conservative critics such as Ferdinand Brunetière in France or Max Nordau in Germany worried that symbolist work, with its incantatory echoing sounds and forms and its refusal to point readers or viewers to clear edifying messages, might encourage a loss of control not only in the artists who produced it but in the audiences who experienced it. Brunetière believed the aesthetic experience should serve as an edifying point of focus for the reasoning mind. He charged that the "empty forms" and "hollow rattling words" of symbolism would "dissolve the unity of the self in a diversity of successive states give it over to the wandering voluptuousness of dream," which would lead to "the glorification of egoism" rather than the betterment of society (Shaw, p. 192). Nordau's book Degeneration described symbolism as a symptom of a general decline in Western civilization. Yet the very qualities that critics such as Nordau abhorred were the things that made symbolism a turning point in the arts. Symbolism opened new aesthetic possibilities of experimentation and abstraction and created space for alternative subject positions. It created the possibility, that is to say, for many of the wide range of avant-garde movements that followed in the early twentieth century.

See also Arts ; Modernism ; Periodization of the Arts ; Poetry and Poetics ; Theater and Performance .



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Jennifer L. Shaw


views updated Jun 11 2018


origins and context
from decadence to symbolism
symbolism in literature and art
irrational aspects of the mind

Symbolism was an interdisciplinary movement in literature, art, music, and theater at the fin de siècle. The term symbolism is something of a misnomer, for it suggests that concrete images represented specific messages. On the contrary, symbolists often used words, images, or sounds in ways that were intentionally open ended and evocative. To avoid precision and a sense of deliberation in their work, symbolists experimented with innovative form. Poets used free verse as opposed to rhyme; artists either avoided naturalistic imagery, experimenting with line and color to stimulate emotions, or subverted naturalism by using it to create bizarre scenes and creatures that the senses have difficulty grasping. Symbolists were interested in the validity of the audelà (the beyond): that which lies beyond the superficial appearance of things in the natural world. Lines from the poem "Correspondance" (1857) by Charles Baudelaire exemplified the connection between nature and the soul: "Nature is a temple of living pillars / where often words emerge, confused and dim / and man goes through this forest, with / familiar eyes of symbols always watching him."

origins and context

Symbolism was a movement of individuals who cultivated unique approaches and therefore has no unified stylistic tendency such as one might find, for example, in naturalism in literature or impressionism in art. Its beginning and end dates are imprecise. In literature, Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud are variously treated as precursors or "masters"; the same is true in art of Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Arnold Bçcklin, and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. These artists of a slightly older generation were all active in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and in many ways continued the experiments of the Romantics of the first half of that century. Symbolism was built on the foundations of Romanticism, with its cult of the individual and its emphasis on the primacy of the imagination. Symbolism is generally thought of as a reaction against naturalism, a movement that had greater visibility in the third quarter of the nineteenth century than did late Romanticism. Naturalists such as the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage or the writer É mile Zola wished to express the details of contemporary life, especially among the poor. Many of them were influenced by a popular enthusiasm for science in the 1870s and 1880s; thus, these artists and writers were concerned with the relationship of the human figure to the natural world, including its environmental and hereditary circumstances. In an apparent paradox, Zola, along with other naturalists, believed that the way an artist depicted subject matter was influenced by his unique temperament; therefore, imagery contained subjective aspects that were tied to the life of the artist. This understanding of subjectivity drew on scientific inroads into the study of the unconscious in the nineteenth century.

Both in foregrounding subjectivity and in their concern with socially specific themes such as prostitution, disease, and the degrading aspects of the industrial present, symbolists shared many concerns with naturalists, although their treatment of them was less literal. A number of symbolists were consciously inspired by the science of their time; for them it confirmed the essential importance of the vital energies of the invisible. Impressionism, which was related to naturalism and concurrent with symbolism although peaking slightly earlier (c. 1875), was a form of naturalism that also emphasized the individual's response to subject matter: the optical and psychological sensation produced by a given scene upon one's vision and temperament. Impressionism and the neo-impressionist technique of Georges Seurat, with its exploration of physiological responses to line and color advocated by the aesthetician Charles Henri, were considered symbolist by critics of the movement. Further, the static form and quasi-geometric shapes found in neo-impressionist painting can be linked to a Platonic current within symbolism: the notion that the world that lies beyond appearances is one of ideals.

from decadence to symbolism

In the 1880s, naturalism began to be superseded by Decadence; an approach that is considered part of symbolism in the visual arts although treated as a separate manifestation in literature. Decadent work, such as the writing of Joris-Karl Huysmans, was fatalistic and morbid, filled with images of decay and dreadful sexuality, personified by the

femme fatale (fatal woman). Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil) and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe were precursors of these tendencies. The symbolist artists Gustav Klimt in Austria, Franz von Stuck in Germany, and Felicien Rops in Belgium and the graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley in Belgium all depicted the divisive and powerful women. The nascent feminist movement and fear of contracting syphilis from prostitutes were behind the iconic presence of such women in the art of the late nineteenth century. The antithesis of this symbol of division between the sexes was another symbolist trope: the androgyne represented the resolution of male and female into a harmonious entity.

Among the symbolist artists rooted in Decadence were the French artist Odilon Redon, who created morbid and fantastic works as early as the late 1870s, and the Norwegian Edward Munch. Munch had originally been a naturalist, concerned with themes of illness and death. In 1889 he visited Paris and discovered Decadent and symbolist poetry. His symbolist subject matter became intensely personal as he explored the dark human emotions of jealousy and despair, along with various neuroses. Like many symbolists, he believed his imagery to be informed by recent developments in science and, therefore, although not literal, to have a basis in truth. Like the German scientist Ernst Haeckel who advocated this doctrine, Munch was a monist, believing in a life force that pervaded all matter; death was but part of the transformation of energy that unified all of nature. He was also fascinated by the psychology of sexuality. Munch used these ideas to develop a series of twenty-two paintings between 1892 and 1902, originally titled Love and later called The Frieze of Life. In 1902, as the result of the termination of a traumatic relationship, Munch was shot but survived and experienced a series of breakdowns. What Munch identified as a "nerve crisis" exemplifies a kind of Romantic suffering shared by many of the symbolists. Whereas artists and writers of the Romantic generation were identified as melancholics, supposedly afflicted by a disordered temperament, those of the late nineteenth century were often thought of as neurasthenics, a pseudo-scientific disease of the time believed to be caused by stress to the nervous system, in their case through the hyperactivity of creative thought.

symbolism in literature and art

Symbolism as a literary movement was first defined in 1886 in a manifesto, "Le Symbolisme," published by the symbolist writer Jean Moréas in Le Figaro. "Symbolist poetry," Moréas wrote, "attempts to clothe the Idea in a perceptible form." Among the symbolists who expressed the intangible and otherworldly through their imagery were Francis Vielé-Griffin, Stuart Merrill, Laurent Tailhade, Gustave Kahn, Jules Laforgue, Henri de Régnier, and René Ghil. In that same year, Mallarmé published his definition of symbolist poetry. Symbolism in the visual arts was defined by Albert Aurier in 1892 as "the painting of ideas." One year earlier, Aurier had already identified the painters Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh as symbolists. In the early twenty-first century Van Gogh is more commonly identified as an expressive naturalist, but Gauguin is still recognized as a leading symbolist. Gauguin began painting religious folk scenes in 1888, using what he termed a synthetist style. Synthetism refers both to the notion of combining memory and imagination in the selection of imagery and to formal issues, namely the use of flat planes of expressive non-naturalistic color and simplified form. In that same year, Mallarmé translated James Abbott McNeill Whistler's lecture, "Ten O'Clock," into French. Whistler was part of a movement in English art called aestheticism, which advocated artistic freedom over the reality of nature; it emphasized the importance of color and line as abstract arrangements or patterns that could stir the emotions in the way music could, and it may have influenced Gauguin and the synthetists; Whistler became identified by many in the circle of writers and artists around Mallarmé as a symbolist. Like Whistler, Gauguin and other symbolists found affinities for their explorations in music.

A virtual cult formed around the late Romantic composer Richard Wagner; many symbolist poets contributed to the journal Revue Wagnérienne, founded in 1885. Wagner emphasized sensation, emotion, and thought experienced as a totality. He established the influential concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the ideal of unifying all the arts—music, poetry, painting, and architecture—into one synaesthetic experience. In 1889, Paul Sérusier inscribed Wagner's credo on the walls of an in ninsouth western France, which had just been decorated from ceiling to floor with paintings done in synthetist style by Gauguinand his followers. In the 1890s, a group of French symbolists called the nabis (prophets) appropriated synthetism in their depiction of religious or urban bourgeois subject matter, often with disturbing overtones related to contemporary psychology. They too would use this style in unified decorative schemes, including theatrical set designs. In 1890, the nabi theorist Maurice Denis defined a painting as "a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order" (Denis, p. 540). Gauguin believed that the directness of synthetist style could be linked to similarities in the visual cultures of folk, tribal, and non-Western populations. He spent ten years in Tahiti and the Marquesas cultivating his self-identification as a "primitive" painter. The abstract tendencies inherent within synthetism would open the way to the early-twentieth-century abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, František Kupka, and Kazimir Malevich, all of whom were symbolists in their early years.

irrational aspects of the mind

By the 1890s, the ideational realm of mysticism, religion, and the occult increasingly came to the fore among symbolists, reflecting a virtual religious revival in European culture. As divorced from material reality as such tendencies seem to be, many sought to reconcile scientific truths with the spiritual realm. The practice of hypnosis by psychologists seemed to validate psychic experience. Scientific confirmation of other irrational aspects of the mind, such as dreams or visions, also inspired the symbolists. The most influential occult doctrine, theosophy, made use of ideas that combined Eastern and Western religions with Darwinian evolution.

France led in the development of symbolism, but Belgium was another important early center. Many Belgian artists were represented at the Salons of the Rose + Cross, organized in Paris by Joséphin Péladan between 1892 and 1897. The artists who exhibited there painted in a traditional illusionistic style that emphasized the spiritual. Péladan requested submissions that evoked "the Catholic Ideal and Mysticism… Legend, Myth, Allegory, the Dream, the Paraphrase of great poetry" (Péladan, pp. 33–34). Myth and legend were appreciated by the symbolists for their evocative potential. Péladan's example was followed in Brussels in the Salon d'Art Idéaliste. Belgium was also an important early center for symbolist poetry: both Émile Verhaeren and Albrecht Rodenbach worked here.

Avant-garde exhibiting societies were central to the spread of symbolism. Among them was the influential Brussels art society Les XX (1883–1893), which included many symbolists. In 1897 the Vienna Secession society built its own exhibition building and held twenty-three exhibitions between 1898 and 1905. The most famous of these was the Beethoven exhibition of 1902, which included decorative murals by Gustave Klimt. Other avant-garde secession movements, many of which favored the symbolists, quickly followed in Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Prague, and Krakow. Symbolist drama spread internationally as well and included productions at Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art in France and the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck in Belgium and Henrik Ibsen in Norway.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, symbolism was already on the wane, to be replaced in art by experimental abstraction and a renewed emphasis on expressive figuration just before World War I. This late period was an eclectic one in literature; André Gide is an example of a former symbolist who turned toward sensual, lush, life-affirming themes that were part of the naturist movement. Yet symbolist tendencies were not yet over. The surrealist movement, which emerged after World War I, borrowed many ideas from the symbolists regarding the importance of dreams, the unconscious, and the evocative potential of imprecise or unexpected imagery.

See alsoFin de Siècle; Painting.


Burhan, Filiz Eda. Vision and Visionaries: Nineteenth-Century Psychological Theory, the Occult Sciences and the Formation of a Symbolist Aesthetic in France. Princeton, N.J., 1979.

Denis, Maurice. "Définition des néo-traditionisme." Art et critique, 12 August 1890, 540–542; and 30 August 1890, 556–558.

Dorra, Henri, ed. Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Dowling, Linda C. Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Genova, Pamela Antonia. Symbolist Journals: A Culture of Correspondence. Burlington, Vt., 2002.

Gilman, Richard. Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet. New York, 1979.

Goldwater, Robert. Symbolism. New York, 1979.

Heller, Reinhold. Munch: His Life and Work. Chicago, 1984.

Henderson, Linda D. "Mysticism and Occultism." Art Journal 46 (1987): entire issue.

Hirsch, S., ed. "Symbolist Art and Literature." Art Journal 45 (1985): entire issue.

Lehman, A. G. The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885–1895. Revised ed. Oxford, U.K., 1968.

Mathews, Patricia. Passionate Discontent: Creativity, Gender and French Symbolist Art. Chicago, 1999.

McIntosh, Christopher. Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. London, 1972.

Moréas, Jean. "Le Symbolisme." Le Figaro (18 September 1886).

Péladan, Joséphin. Salon de la Rose + Cross, Rigle et Monitoire. Paris, 1981.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York, 1981.

Scott, David H. Pictorialist Poetics: Poetry and the Visual Arts in 19th Century France. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Shiff, Richard. Cezanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art. Chicago, 1984.

Barbara Larson


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Gender as a structure of binary opposites has been the most potent of all symbols of differentiation. Since the earliest beginnings of civilization, since the most ancient and simplest cultural elaboration, difference has been symbolized in compliance with the tenets of gender difference. Gender therefore may be defined as the symbolic elaboration of biological difference.


Symbols signify what something is and what it is not, for it is the function of a symbol to express a polysemy, to contain and to convey ambiguity. Therefore a symbolist approach to gender is particularly able to grasp the ambiguity of gender relations.

The invention of the symbol is a creative act that rests on the ability to see a thing as what it is not (Castoriadis 1987). Symbolic understanding is therefore generated on the borders of ambiguity, where being and nonbeing merge, where the indeterminate is about to transform itself into the determinate, and where possibilities are latent or emergent.

For example, in Chinese culture the yang-yin symbol represents the dualistic distribution of forces between the active, masculine principle ("yang") and the passive, feminine one ("yin"). This distribution is symbolized by a circle divided by a sigmoid line indicating the dynamic interpenetration of the two principles. The light half of the figure is the "yang" force and the dark one the "yin" force, but each half contains a small circle of the opposite shade symbolizing that each principle contains the germ of the other. This symbol is a cross-section of a helicoid structure that links opposites and generates constant movement—a metamorphosis through contrary positions and situations. The vertical axis at its center constitutes the "mystical center" where there is neither turbulence, nor impulse, nor suffering. The three levels of signification are therefore present in this symbol, just as they are in other Hindu or Hebrew symbols that elaborate sexual difference as separation and inseparability.

As set forth by Juan Eduardo Cirlot (1971), symbolist theory is based on the following principles:

  1. There is nothing that does not matter. Everything expresses something and everything is meaningful.
  2. No form of reality is independent. Everything stands in relation to something else.
  3. The quantitative is transformed into the qualitative at certain essential points which constitute the signification of quantity.
  4. Everything is serial. Seriality includes both the physical world (the spectrum of colors, sounds, shapes, landscapes) and the spiritual world (virtues, vices, sentiments).
  5. There are correlations of situation among different series, and of meaning among series and their constitutive elements.

Take, for example, the symbol of the sword. First there is the object in itself, stripped of every relation; next is the object in its instrumental function; finally is the object in its symbolic function to denote a general meaning, one which is often ambivalent and allusive. The multiplicity of meanings is never chaotic, however, because it moves to a shared rhythm. Thus the sword, iron, fire, the color red, the god Mars, the Rocky Mountains, are interconnected and meet in a symbolic direction of equal siginficance: the desire for psychic determination and for physical destruction. These symbols unite with each other; they call upon each other because of the inner affinity—the shared rhythm that enables connections to be established among the diverse levels of reality.

Rationality and emotionality clearly belong to that continuum of symbolic values that delineates gender: the male, the rational, the public, activity, separation, thought, the mind, hardness, coldness, and the vertical, as opposed to the female, the emotional, the private, receptivity, connection, sentiment, the body, softness, warmth, and the horizontal.

In contemporary society the symbolic fabric is much more fragmentary, complex, and chaotic than it was in traditional societies. Bureaucracy has exalted legal-rational thought. As Barry Turner argues, it has institutionalized an organizational society and a "rational, linear, denotative style of thought which thins out the symbolic density of cultural meaning arrays, which are then further fragmented by the prolific and sometimes incestuous transformations which we daily inflict upon all kinds of symbolic representations" (Turner 1992, p. 63). The difficulty in understanding symbolic representations stems from the nature of the symbol, which is so much the significans as to be indeterminate and constantly to defer its significandum, and which requires an indirect language, one that establishes relations and conserves transformative power.

For example, two symbols of gender relations—the sexual contract and the alchemic wedding—can denote, respectively, the opposition and the transformation that the gender relation may bring about as the male and female reciprocally define each other. The image of the contract and that of the wedding are symbolic representations of the separation and inseparability of the genders. It is the dialectic between these two images that produces the symbolic order of gender that sustains a specific cultural form.


The symbolic order of gender that separates the symbolic universes of the female and the male sanctions a difference whereby what is affirmed by the One is denied by the Other. As the literary theorist Jacques Derrida (1978) observes, the One and the Other draw meaning from this binary opposition, which forms a contrast created ad hoc that maintains a hierarchical interdependence. The interdependence-based symbolic order is a relational order that rests upon difference and the impossibility of its definition. Male and female are undecidable; their meaning is indeterminate and constantly deferred.

The origins of the widely used concept of difference warrant examination. Difference, as defined by Robert Cooper and Gibson Burrell, means a form of self-reference "in which terms contain their own opposites and thus refuse any singular grasp of their meanings" (Cooper and Burrell 1988, p. 95). In order to stress the processual nature of difference, Jacques Derrida (1978) coined the term différance, which in French is pronounced the same as différence and incorporates the two meanings of the verb différer: defer in time and differ in space. Male and female are not only different from each other (static difference) but they also constantly defer each other (processual difference), in the sense that the latter, the momentarily deferred term, is waiting to return because, at a profound level, it is united with the former. The difference separates, but it also unites because it represents the unity of the process of division. Therefore the symbolic order of gender accommodates two ways of conceiving gender difference: as two separate terms—male and female—and as a process of reciprocal deferral in which the presence of one term depends on the absence of the other.

Like the mystical center of the yang-yin symbol, the situated meaning of gender stays at the point of intersection between the voice of static difference and the voice of processual difference. Because of their multi-individual dimension and supra-individual duration, male and female as symbolic systems possess a static aspect, which creates a social perception of immutability, of social structure and institution. But male and female is also a social relation dynamic whereby meaning is processually set out within society and individual and collective phenomena. As Silvia Gherardi (1995) notes, the symbolic order of gender is static difference and processual difference. It is the product of their interdependence: The impossibility of fixing meaning once and for all sanctions the transitoriness of every interpretation and exposes the political nature of every discourse on gender.

Gender symbolism is an approach that does not seek to posit a subjectivity of women or men in oppositional terms. It instead reflects the essential indeterminacy of the symbolic order of gender, governed as it is by the endless process of the difference and deferral of the meaning of male and female. It introduces a concept of subjectivity in which the subject is open-ended and indeterminate except when it is fixed in place by the culturally constituted symbolic order of gender.

Symbolist researchers in gender relations have the following distinctive features:

  • They are qualitative researchers who prefer to see things through the eyes of the subject.
  • They are interested in gender meanings, in the process of their attribution, in how they are sustained, and in the way that some gender representations prevail whereas others disappear.
  • They are participative researchers, who know that they are part of the production of meaning and of the narration of stories, as both the narrating and the narrated subject.
  • They are the products of contextual understanding of actions and symbols, not only because they are inseparable but also because all symbols are value-laden and meaningful only in terms of their relationship to other symbols.
  • They are wanderers among the realms of knowledge seeking to reconstruct the links among the various levels of reality created by a symbol through individual symbolic production, the collective unconscious, and artistic production: the immanent with the transcendent, the mental with the physical, with action, with transformation.


Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Cirlot, Juan Eduardo. 1971. A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage. 2nd edition. New York: Philosophical Library.

Cooper, Robert, and Gibson Burrell. 1988. "Modernism, Postmodernism, and Organizational Analysis: An Introduction." Organization Studies 9(1): 91-112.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference, trans. Allan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gherardi, Silvia. 1995. Gender, Symbolism, and Organizational Cultures. London: Sage.

Turner, Barry A. 1992. "The Symbolic Understanding of Organizations." In Rethinking Organization, ed. Michael Reed and Michael Hughes. London: Sage.

                                          Silvia Gherardi


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The evolution of representational capacities and symbolic expression has contributed essentially to human thought, language, and culture. There are different symbolic processes, and the symbolism particularly described and interpreted in psychoanalysis differs, in many respects, from what is designated by the same term in other disciplines. While psychoanalysis is interested in language and other forms of symbolism, psychoanalytic or unconscious symbols were early recognized as universal and ubiquitous expressions of the dynamic unconscious mind. In ordinary linguistic usage, a flag may represent a country, and a cross may represent a Christian religious reference. In the case of the flag and the cross and other emblems or pictorial metaphors, the relationship between the signifier and its referent is both within conscious awareness and in accord with social and cultural convention. In contrast to psychoanalytic symbols, these symbols are consciously understood by the individuals within a society in which they are used. They are not disguised, and they serve conscious communication.

In contrast, psychoanalytic symbols are usually disguised by and from the individual who uses them and may not serve any conscious or intended internal or external communication. The meanings of psychoanalysis symbols are relatively independent of social, cultural, and historical settings and are neither taught nor learned. Psychoanalytic symbolism is not a product of education and evolves spontaneously in human development. Given the fact that these symbols are universal in individuals as well as cross-cultural, the capacity for such symbols is innate, though their development depends upon human development and experience.

Psychoanalytic symbols emerge as a result of the interaction of the instinctual drives, defenses, and other ego functions with the developmental experience of the infant and child. Although psychoanalytic symbols may take on additional meanings in later phases of development and may become linked to metaphor, they are essentially products of archaic, infantile processes. These symbols emerge in conjunction with the development of the body ego and object relations, so that there are symbols of both body parts and of the parents and siblings. Spontaneous in origin and typically sensorial, the symbols create a concrete bridge between the body and the primary object world. In a "symbolic equation" (Segal, 1978), the person cannot distinguish between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The symbolic equation denies separateness between self and object, whereas symbolic representation bridges prior loss.

Psychoanalytic symbols are typically linked to external, perceptual reality, manifest in the closesness of the symbol perceptually toward what is signified. Thus, sticks, swords, and wands resemble the phallus; tunnels, caves, houses, boxes have a perceptual similarity to the female genitalia. The body image and body surface are the locus of initial, symbolic representation of self and object, which are then extended or projected to other surfaces. Symbols thus arise in the potential to other surfaces. Symbols thus arise in the potential space between the "I" and the "non-I," more closely related to the primary process rather than to verbal language and rational thought.

As Freud (1900a) noted, psychoanalytic symbolism is ubiquitous in myths, legends, art, literature, slang, jokes, obscenities, etc. Psychoanalytic symbols unconsciously represent, in addition to aspects of the self and childhood objects, coitus, pregnancy, birth, rebirth, castration, and death. Symbolism is utilized in symptom-formation, for example, a paralyzed limb representing impotence or castration. The name Oedipus or "swollen foot," unconsciously represents erection and mutilation-castration.

Ernest Jones (1916) summarized that only what is repressed is symbolized and needs symbolic expression as a psychoanalytic or unconscious symbol. The symbol condenses unconscious wish and defense, a compromise formation permitting disguised "symbolic gratification." The most frequent symbols are probably those of the male and female genitals, and these symbols more commonly appear in regressive states such as daydreams and dreams. Psychoanalytic symbols, however, may be found in association with all developmental phases. There are symbols referring to the breast as well as to the mouth, tongue, and teeth; similarly, feces may represent money, gifts, and denigrated aspects of the self or object. Psychoanalytic symbols are often overdetermined as in the bisexual and biparental symbolism of animals, exemplified in the many meanings of rats for the "Rat Man" (Freud, 1909d). The rat was interpreted to mean penis, feces, money (rates), baby, as well as despised greed, rate, etc.

Psychoanalytic symbols may have multiple stratified meanings and, in contemporary analysis, there is appreciation of overdetermination and possible change of function. For example, the "pit and the pendulum" may symbolically represent the vagina and the penis but also castration and the threat of castration. In oral terms, the pit may represent the mouth, and the pendulum the tongue.

That symbols may acquire cultural and religious significance and take on other metaphorical meanings does not alter the original and primary meaning of the symbol (Blum, 1978). A cave may represent a grave without losing its earlier meaning of a womb or female genital, with the earth having acquired the meaning of mother.

Clinically, symbols are not pursued as an end in itself and are not the primary locus of psychoanalytic interpretation. There are no rigid formulas for symbolic decoding or interpretation, and patients may not directly associate to symbolic expressions. Symbols are interpreted in the context of the psychoanalytic process.

Comparable to an ancient language, symbolism may be adaptively appropriated in linguistic communication inside and outside psychoanalysis (Blum, 1995).

Harold P. Blum

See also: Cinema criticism; "Dreams and myths"; Disque vert, Le ; Functional phenomenon; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Obsessional neurosis; Psychoanalysis of Children, The ; Psychoanalyse des nevroses et des psychoses ; Symbol.


Blum, Harold P. (1978). Symbolic process and symbol formation. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 455-471.

. (1995). Symbolism. In B. Moore and B. Fine (Eds.), Psychoanalysis. The Major Concepts. (pp. 149-154). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

Jones, Ernest. (1916). The theory of symbolism. In Papers on Psychoanalysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Segal, Hanna. (1978). On symbolism. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 303-314.


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symbolism European art and literary movement. Symbolism has its origins in France in the 1880s, where it arose as a reaction against the pragmatic realism of Courbet and impressionism. Its exponents wanted to express ideas or abstractions, rather than simply imitate the visible world. The most powerful tendency in the movement stemmed from Gauguin and Émile Bernard (c.1888). Another less dynamic trend introduced formal innovations into traditional painting. Its chief exponents were Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Puvis de Chavannes. Outside France, Burne-Jones and Munch are considered as symbolists. In literature, the movement included a group of poets active in the 19th century, who were followers of Verlaine and Baudelaire, such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud in France, and Poe and Swinburne in the US and Britain.


views updated May 29 2018

symbolism. Artistic movement that flourished in the late C19 as a reaction to French Impressionism and Realism in painting. The poet Jean Moréas (1856–1910) published a manifesto in 1886 in which he stated the essential aim of art was to clothe ideas in sensual forms and to resolve the dichotomy between the real and the spiritual world. In painting this often gave expression to mysticism and occultism and the idea that line and colour could express ideas by suggestion and evolution rather than by depiction or description. Symbolist painting was often full of femme-fatale and death imagery, the erotic, the occult, the diseased, and the decadent. Among Symbolist painters may be mentioned Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Gustave Moreau (1826–1980), and Franz von Stuck (1863–1928). In architecture it was associated with Art Nouveau and Expressionism. Perhaps its greatest architectural exponents were Rudolf Steiner and Henry van de Velde.


Cassou (1984);
Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Jane Turner (1996)


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sym·bol·ism / ˈsimbəˌlizəm/ • n. the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities: in China, symbolism in gardens achieved great subtlety. ∎  symbolic meaning attributed to natural objects or facts: the old-fashioned symbolism of flowers. ∎  (also Symbolism) an artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon.DERIVATIVES: sym·bol·ist n. & adj.

Symbolism (Metapsychical)

views updated May 29 2018

Symbolism (Metapsychical)

A term used by psychical researcher Ernesto Bozzano in relation to:

" cases in which, by subconscious or mediumistic methods, an idea is expressed by means of hallucinatory perceptions, or ideographic representations, or forms of language differing from the ideas to be transmitted, but capable of suggesting them indirectly or conventionally. In other words, there is metapsychical symbolism every time an idea is transmitted by means of representations which are not reproductions."

F. W. H. Myers included one instance of such symbolic communication in his book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903): A botanical student passing inattentively in front of the glass door of a restaurant thought he saw "Verbascum Thapsus" printed on it. The real word was "Bouillon," and that happens to be the trivial name in French for the plant Verbascum Thapsus. The actual optical perception was thus subliminally transformed.

Symbolism often occurs in occultism, particularly in prophetic dreams, which are sometimes represented in visual or etymological puns. Sigmund Freud drew attention to such symbolic imagery in his psychoanalytical theory of dreams. Many psychics find their visions of future events occur in symbolic form. Traditional astrological predictions used to be presented in symbolic pictures called hieroglyphs.


views updated May 18 2018

Symbolism an artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon.