The major poets involved in the movement were Moréas, Kahn (who wrote free verse), Henri Régnier, Jules Laforgue, Emile Verharen, and René Ghil (who wrote purely Symbolist poetry). In 1891, however, Moréas abandoned Symbolism, returned to the poetic style of the Renaissance, and founded the École Romane. When Moréas left the movement, Remy de Gourmont, one of the editors of the Le Mercure de France, became the most enthusiastic advocate of Symbolism. Gourmont not only was a critic but also wrote in all literary genres and even created book designs and typography based on Symbolist theories. However, most of these poets were practitioners rather than creators of symbolist poetical theory. Symbolism as poetry and theory was developed in the works of Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Tristan Corbière, five of the poets praised in Verlaine’s Poètes maudits (1884; The Cursed Poets, 2003).
The poetry of the Symbolists did not present concrete realistic images and did not actually set forth ideas; instead it sought to convey nuances of feeling, states of mind, and the invisible world. It also suggested a connection between the world that is visible to the human eye and the invisible world that the Symbolists believed to be the real world. The qualities most appreciated in Symbolism were the poetry’s musicality, nuances, vagueness, and lightness. Meaning gave way to lyricism, and Symbolist poetry became poetry in its purest sense as it evolved into rhythm and sound.
Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), especially the poem “Correspondances” (“Correspondences”), by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), is the work to which Symbolism traces its origins. Baudelaire envisioned an invisible world beyond the one that appeared to the human eye. For him, everything he perceived was a portal to the invisible world, to the beyond. His senses, imagination, and intelligence—all superior in a poet—enabled him to unlock this invisible world and lead his readers and listeners into this world. The poem had to be heard, because for Baudelaire, the sound, the combination of syllables, alliterations, rhymes, and rhythms were as important, or more important, than the sense of the words of the poem.
In “Correspondences,” Baudelaire reveals that, for the most part, humans move through life without ever becoming aware of the real invisible world. Preoccupied by daily concerns and ambitions, people move within the temple of living pillars, which is nature, without ever hearing the words uttered. People are totally unaware of the symbols that observe all human activity with a friendly gaze. The last three stanzas of the poem present examples of the phenomenon of synesthesia, the correspondence of human sense perceptions. Baudelaire believed that the sensations received through the different senses interact, that a visual perception could trigger an olfactory or tactile perception or recall a memory of such a sense perception. In the second stanza, he describes echoes that are merged into each other far away in the world beyond the visible world and present themselves in the visible world as perfumes, colors, and sounds reaching humans through the olfactory, visual, and auditory senses. In the third stanza, he uses images in which the sense impressions of the perfumes transform and result in unexpected stimulation of the senses. The first image is tactile as the perfumes are compared to children’s flesh. The second is auditory, for these perfumes are as sweet as oboes; the third is visual, as the perfumes possess the greenness of prairies. The final verse of the stanza invokes other perfumes that are corrupted, rich, and triumphant; the image once again unites the sensatory reactions in a vague confusion. In the final stanza, Baudelaire reiterates the power or capacity of these elements to transport the soul as well as the senses into the invisible world of the spirit.
This invisible world that comforts the soul and transcends the misery of the materialistic world appears in many of Baudelaire’s poems. In “Elévation” (“Elevation”), he advises his spirit to leave the unhealthy reality of the visible world and to fly off to the other realm, where it can purify itself and drink the clear liquid fire. He celebrates the individual who can reach behind or beyond the boredom and misery of existence to the realm where serenity and light are found. Baudelaire speaks of the joy of those who can understand the language of flowers and mute things. The poem builds on the same theme as that of “Correspondences” and adds the theme of the voyage of the spirit. In the poem “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), Baudelaire again treats this theme. The poem begins with a description of travel that is familiar; it is a sea voyage. At first, the travelers are homesick, but soon the effect of the sea on their senses washes away all thoughts of the life they have left. In the next stanza, Baudelaire shifts from this description of everyday travel to the experiences of travelers who, like balloons, take flight for unknown sensations and pleasures beyond earthly human knowledge. Their voyage transports them away from the everyday material reality and into the ethereal other existence.
In his poems about cats, Baudelaire celebrates...