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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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Symbolismi 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, 70) 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.


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