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Symbolism: The Literary Movement

Symbolism: The Literary Movement

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Published by Dina Ripsman Eylon
The History of Symbolism.

First published in Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Edited by Jeffrey H. Gray, James McCorklr and Mary Balkun. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2005.
The History of Symbolism.

First published in Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Edited by Jeffrey H. Gray, James McCorklr and Mary Balkun. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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Published by: Dina Ripsman Eylon on May 01, 2011
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 Dina Ripsman Eylon
During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Paris was the hubof the avant-garde and modernist movements. Symbolism, a leading fine art and literarymovement, started as a reaction to the Naturalism and Realism movements of the period.The Symbolists emancipated their writing style and subject matter from a scientificdescription that eliminated all fantasy, all emotions, and inconsistencies. Symbolismshook the foundations of Naturalism by rejecting, though not entirely, the use of the lawof cause and effect in literature. Pythagorean and Kantian concepts were introduced toexplain the movement’s disdain with a constricting approach to fiction, and to advancethe writing on the mystical realm of human existence. Even though many Symbolistsshowed an affinity to Catholicism and Christian mysticism, Liberalism thrived in the newmovement. Socially, being a Symbolist implied a bohemian lifestyle, laden with loud philosophical and ideological debates in the small cafés of Paris’ Latin Square.The French symbolist school began with the writings of Charles Baudelaire(1821-1867) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). Baudelaire’s poems concentrate onthemes of death, sex and decay. His prose poem “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“Flowers of Evil,”1857) brought him lasting fame, but when first published met with scandals, persecution,and censorship due to accusations of obscenity and blasphemy. Interestingly, Baudelairewas inspired by the work of the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whom hecalled his “twin soul.” In 1854 and 1855 he published several translations of Poe’swritings:
 Histoires extraordinaires
 Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires
 Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym
, and
 Histoires grotesques et sérieuses
(1865).He did not live to witness the rising controversy on the artistic merit of the symbolistmovement and its subsequent immense influence on world literature.On September 18, 1886, infuriated by critics who associated the décadent writerswith the Symolists, Jean Moréas (1856-1910) published the manifesto of 
 Le Figaro.
Moréas claimed that Naturalism had disintegrated and cleared the way to anew form of creative expression: “In this art, scene from nature, human activities, and all
2other real world phenomena will not be described for their own stake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordialIdeals.” (Ibid.) Though Moréas published the manifesto of the emerging movement,Mallarmé, who lectured extensively on the philosophy of the movement, is considered itsleading theoretician. The symbolist poetics was further elucidated in the writings of PaulVerlaine (1844-1896), Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), and Gustave Kahn (1859-1936).At the end of the nineteenth century, Symbolism lost it dominance in France. Yet,the movement’s popularity increased and spread to continental Europe, England, Russia,the United States, and South America. The symbolists’ experimental methods appealed tomany English, Irish and American poets like W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), Ezra Pound(1885-1972), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), and Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Additionally,some critics argue that at this point the English language was a fertile ground for the basic principles of symbolism: free verse, dense syntax, figurative language, and rhythm.Translations of the French symbolist poets emerged in England during the 1890s.The Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933) was the first to write about the Symbolists inEnglish. Moore, who studied art in Paris, renders his accounts of Verlaine, Rimbaud,Mallarmé and Jules Laforgue in
 Impressions and Opinions
(1891). In 1893, EdmundGosse (1849-1928) published three essays on Mallarmé, whom he afterward dismissed as“hardly a poet.” [Wellek, 340.] Evidently, the onset of Symbolism in English literaturewas clouded with skepticism and to some degree unfavorable criticism. Even so, thanksto Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge (1871-1909), and JamesJoyce (1882-1941), French Symbolism had an immeasurable impact on modernistEnglish and American literature.Responding to Arthur Symons’
The Symbolist Movement in Literature
(1899),William Butler Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, published anessay entitled “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900). Yeats admits that in his previousarticle “Symbolism in Painting,” he failed to describe “the continuous indefinablesymbolism which is the substance of all style.” (“The Symbolism of Poetry,” II.) Yeatsdefines the symbolist poem as a short lyric, perpetuating an emotion that is thentransformed into “some great epic,” empowered by symbols, and compared to a “ringwithin ring in the stem of an old tree.” (Ibid.) According to Yeats, poetry is a powerful
3emotional energy, and poets receive their “creative impulse from the lowest of the NineHierarchies [referring to the Nine Choirs of Angels, also found in Dante’s
],”making and unmaking the human experience,“ and even “the world itself.” (Ibid.)Besides, claims Yeats, emotional symbols cannot create a distinct meaning; however when combined with intellectual symbols, they denote an enduring poetical impression.In “Aedh Tells of the Rose in His Heart,“ Yeats wrote:The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,With the earth and the sky and the water, remade, like a casket of goldFor my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart. [“TheWind Among the Reeds,” 1899]Yeats and Ezra Pound, who was twenty years Yeats’ junior, met in London in 1909.Pound became Yeats’ secretary and their relationship could be viewed as the meeting point of English and American Symbolism. Reports on French Symbolism surfaced in theUnited States in the early 1890s, mostly in the writings of American journalists, whowere impressed by the avant-garde culture in Paris. Critics regard Poe’s essay “ThePhilosophy of Composition” (1846) as the starting-point of the French symbolistmovement, but Poe’s influence on American poetry is at best controversial. The Frenchliterary historian, René Taupin, whose book 
The Influence of French Symbolism onModern American Poetry
(1985) is a classic in the field, observes that the AmericanImagist movement, by surpassing the model of French Symbolism, is to a large extent theextension of the latter. However, it was not until Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), EzraPound, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane (1899-1932) had embraced Symbolism that it actuallygained admittance into American literature.Like the decadent French Symbolists, Wallace Stevens composed philosophical poetry and frequently made his poetics known: “poetry is not personal,” “in poetry, youmust love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to loveanything at all,” and “poetry must be irrational.” (“Wallace Stevens,” Contributing editor:Linda W. Wagner-Martin [web source]) In Stevens’ view, the absence of past religiousconventions, as expressed in the symbolist art and music, is the essence of the modern

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