You are on page 1of 6


Dina Ripsman Eylon

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Paris was the hub
of the avant-garde and modernist movements. Symbolism, a leading fine art and literary
movement, started as a reaction to the Naturalism and Realism movements of the period.
The Symbolists emancipated their writing style and subject matter from a scientific
description that eliminated all fantasy, all emotions, and inconsistencies. Symbolism
shook the foundations of Naturalism by rejecting, though not entirely, the use of the law
of cause and effect in literature. Pythagorean and Kantian concepts were introduced to
explain the movement’s disdain with a constricting approach to fiction, and to advance
the writing on the mystical realm of human existence. Even though many Symbolists
showed an affinity to Catholicism and Christian mysticism, Liberalism thrived in the new
movement. 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 on
themes 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, Baudelaire
was inspired by the work of the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whom he
called his “twin soul.” In 1854 and 1855 he published several translations of Poe’s
writings: Histoires extraordinaires (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (1857),
Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym, Eureka, and Histoires grotesques et sérieuses (1865).
He did not live to witness the rising controversy on the artistic merit of the symbolist
movement and its subsequent immense influence on world literature.
On September 18, 1886, infuriated by critics who associated the décadent writers
with the Symolists, Jean Moréas (1856-1910) published the manifesto of Symbolisme in
Le Figaro. Moréas claimed that Naturalism had disintegrated and cleared the way to a
new form of creative expression: “In this art, scene from nature, human activities, and all

other real world phenomena will not be described for their own stake; here, they are
perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial
Ideals.” (Ibid.) Though Moréas published the manifesto of the emerging movement,
Mallarmé, who lectured extensively on the philosophy of the movement, is considered its
leading theoretician. The symbolist poetics was further elucidated in the writings of Paul
Verlaine (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 to
many 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 in
English. Moore, who studied art in Paris, renders his accounts of Verlaine, Rimbaud,
Mallarmé and Jules Laforgue in Impressions and Opinions (1891). In 1893, Edmund
Gosse (1849-1928) published three essays on Mallarmé, whom he afterward dismissed as
“hardly a poet.” [Wellek, 340.] Evidently, the onset of Symbolism in English literature
was clouded with skepticism and to some degree unfavorable criticism. Even so, thanks
to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge (1871-1909), and James
Joyce (1882-1941), French Symbolism had an immeasurable impact on modernist
English 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 an
essay entitled “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900). Yeats admits that in his previous
article “Symbolism in Painting,” he failed to describe “the continuous indefinable
symbolism which is the substance of all style.” (“The Symbolism of Poetry,” II.) Yeats
defines the symbolist poem as a short lyric, perpetuating an emotion that is then
transformed into “some great epic,” empowered by symbols, and compared to a “ring
within ring in the stem of an old tree.” (Ibid.) According to Yeats, poetry is a powerful

emotional energy, and poets receive their “creative impulse from the lowest of the Nine
Hierarchies [referring to the Nine Choirs of Angels, also found in Dante’s Paradiso],”
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 gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart. [“The
Wind 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 the
United States in the early 1890s, mostly in the writings of American journalists, who
were impressed by the avant-garde culture in Paris. Critics regard Poe’s essay “The
Philosophy of Composition” (1846) as the starting-point of the French symbolist
movement, but Poe’s influence on American poetry is at best controversial. The French
literary historian, René Taupin, whose book The Influence of French Symbolism on
Modern American Poetry (1985) is a classic in the field, observes that the American
Imagist movement, by surpassing the model of French Symbolism, is to a large extent the
extension of the latter. However, it was not until Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), Ezra
Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane (1899-1932) had embraced Symbolism that it actually
gained 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, you
must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love
anything at all,” and “poetry must be irrational.” (“Wallace Stevens,” Contributing editor:
Linda W. Wagner-Martin [web source]) In Stevens’ view, the absence of past religious
conventions, as expressed in the symbolist art and music, is the essence of the modern

person. In “The Tomb in Palestine” (1915), he conveys the loss of religion and the lack of
faith in the modern age:
“Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,
Even though he never visited Europe, he was convinced that European culture had lost its
grip on American art and literature (“The heaven of Europe is empty…”, Opus
Posthumous, 53.) Stevens’ epic poems resemble the French epics, but instead of focusing
on decadence and evil, they demonstrate his firm conviction that “all poetry must be
native to its region.” (Helen Vendler, “Wallace Stevens,” in Voices & Visions: The Poet
in America, 133.) His poetry became increasingly rooted in the American countryside,
specifically the state of Connecticut, where he lived for almost half of his lifetime:
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Others: A Magazine
of the New Verse, December 1917.)
Ezra Loomis Pound, an American expatriate since 1908, used his formal education in
Romantic literature to found the Imagists, a group that included emerging poets like H.D.
(Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and Amy Lowell
(1874-1925). The Imagists, following in the footsteps of the Symbolists, embarked on the
task of remaking poetry. As outlined by Amy Lowell, they called for the use of common
speech, creating new rhythms and modes, free choice of subject matter, the use of exact
and clear images, producing lucid and definable poetry, and finally, believing that
“concentration is of the very essence of poetry.” (“On Imagism,” in Amy Lowell,
Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, 1917.) Pound’s early poems were influenced by
several of his contemporaries: Robert Browning (1812-1889), W.B. Yeats, Ford Madox
Ford (1873-1939), T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), and his protégé T. S. Elliot. Pound’s short
lyric, “In a Station of the Metro” (1916) mirrors the language of Imagism and attests to

the prevalence of Chinese and Japanese elements in his early poetry:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. (When first published, the poem had no spaces
between the words.)
Perhaps the most remarkable of the American Symbolists is another expatriate T. S.
(Thomas Stearns) Eliot, 1948 Nobel Laureate in Literature. While reading Arthur
Symons’ book, he was introduced to Jules Laforgue’s work. Henceforth, Eliot changed
his poetic style, but still retained Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic elements. During his
long career, Eliot appropriated materials from several past and contemporary writers:
Henry James (1843-1916), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), F. H. Bradley (Francis
Herbert, 1846-1924), Jules Laforgue, Charles Boudelaire, Rémy de Gourmont, T. E.
Hulme, James Joyce and Ezra Pound, his friend and mentor. On the fact that he and other
poets borrowed freely from each other, he noted: “One of the surest test is the way in
which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what
they take; and good poets make it into something better, or at least, something different.”
(Essays on Elizabethan Drama, “Philip Massinger,” 1934.) Indeed, his early poems
“Preludes” and the “Rhapsody” resemble the poetry of Laforgue and Boudelaire:
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots. [T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations
(London: The Egoist, 1917): 24-26.]
Eliot’s main contribution to American poetry is his well-known poem “The Waste Land,”
(1922, edited by Ezra Pound and dedicated to him) depicting the redeeming journey of
the human soul. At this juncture, Eliot departs from many conventions of traditional
poetic style and subject matter, creating a new poetic form replete with literary and
historical allusions. The barrenness of the land in the poem symbolizes the
meaninglessness and lack of spirituality in the European culture. Human existence,
according to the poem and the philosophy of French Symbolism, is sterile, decadent,
isolated and devoid of faith. However, deliverance is imminent in the form of rain that
will feed the waste land and its inhabitants. In “The Waste Land” religion is clearly
absent; yet five years after its publication, Eliot joined the Church of England, an event

that profoundly altered his perspective on life and writing.
The role Pound and Eliot played in spreading the symbolist message is illuminated by the
words of Frank Kermode, the editor of Eliot’s Selected Poems (1975): “we think of the
Pound group as a historical necessity, and of Pound and Eliot in particular as the founders
of modernist poetry in English.” (Voices & Visions, 284.)
The popularity of free verse and the prose poem in American poetry is largely due
to the influence of French Symbolism. In Sacred Wood (1920), T. S. Eliot intuitively
observes: “Free verse is no longer an experiment, no longer even a new movement.
Nearly every modern poet uses it either exclusively or in addition to its counterpart,
regular verse.” (Ibid., 14-15.) On many levels, the French symbolists showed modern
American poets how to break away from tradition, express intense and discontented
emotions and use irony in verse. Their influence went far beyond the poetic realm,
pervading prose, drama, music and visual art as well. The appeal of French Symbolism
and its poetic innovations transcended national boundaries and contributed to what
modern critics call the universal language of poetry.

Further Reading. Selected Primary Sources: Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems

and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1969); ---, Selected Essays, 3d ed. (1951; rpt.
London: Faber, 1980); Ezra Pound's Poetry and Prose: Contributions to Periodicals,
prefaced and arranged by Lea Baechler, A. Walton Litz, and James Longenbach (New
York and London: Garland, 1991); Stevens, Wallace, Selected Poems (London: Faber
and Faber, 1953); ---, Collected Poems (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1954): ---, The
Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (A. A. Knopf, 1951). Selected
Secondary Sources: Feidelson, Charles, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature
(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1953; Phoenix Books, 1966); The
Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages, Edited by Anna Balakian
(Budapest : Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984); Taupin, René, The Influence of French Symbolism
on Modern American Poetry, Translated by William Pratt and Anne Rich Pratt, Revised,
Edited, and with an introduction and conclusion by William Pratt (New York: AMS
Press, 1985); Voices & Visions: The Poet in America, Edited by Helen Vendler (New
York: Random House, 1987); Wellek, René, “Symbol and Symbolism in Literature,” in
The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, edited by Philip
P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner's & Sons, 1973-74).
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.