French Symbolist Poetry Essay - Critical Essays

French Symbolist Poetry


French Symbolist Poetry

The following entry presents contemporary critical discussion of French Symbolist Poetry.

French Symbolism was a complex and influential literary movement that flourished during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Although the term Symbolism was first applied by Jean Moréas in 1885, the stylistic, thematic, and philosophic tenets of this poetic movement were established earlier in the works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. In overview, the works of the Symbolists were characterized by a concern with moods and transient sensations rather than lucid statements and descriptions, a desire to apprehend the existence of a transcendental realm of being where one could commune with the innate but inscrutable essences of life, a hermetic subjectivity, and an interest in the morbid or esoteric. Like the Decadents, their contemporaries in late nineteenth-century French literature, the Symbolist poets rejected conventional religious, social, and moral values, embracing instead a world-negating escapism, the lure of exoticism, and an aggressive individualism. They also reacted strongly against the traditional techniques, rigid forms, and descriptive propensities of their poetic forebears, the Parnassians, and repudiated the then dominant fictional mode of the Naturalists, writers who sought to represent human life in terms of physical and biological forces and rendered their works in uncomplicated, journalistic prose. Instead, the Symbolist poets were primarily concerned with the expression of inward experience, and their approach often resulted in works that were intentionally obscure and highly personal.

Although it can be said to have originated decades earlier, the Symbolist movement emerged formally in the mid-1880s as a reaction to adverse criticism that had been directed at poets associated with the Decadent movement. Responding to critical attacks aimed at the “decadent” style of writers who had drawn their inspiration primarily from the works of Baudelaire, Moréas published an essay in the journal Le XIXe siècle in 1885 defending the search for a new language, one that progressed beyond the previous conventions of French versification to convey a poetic reality independent of rhetoric and surface descriptions. In this essay, Moréas coined the term “symbolism” in its modern sense, believing it a more accurate and less derogatory word than “Decadence” to describe his work and that of his contemporaries. In a continuation of the debate over the validity of the movement, Moréas published “Manifeste littéraire de l'école Symboliste” a year later in Le Figaro, in which he proclaimed Symbolism the dominant school of French poetry. The same year, Moréas joined with Gustave Kahn and Paul Adam to found Le Symboliste, a short-lived periodical devoted to the cause of Symbolist literature. Perhaps the best-known journal of the movement was the Mercure de France, which was co-founded by Remy de Gourmont, one of the most prominent critics to support the Symbolists. Defining the principles of Symbolist art, Gourmont asserted that Symbolism meant “individualism in literature, liberty in art,” and the “abandonment of existing forms.”

Long before the 1886 publication of the Symbolist manifesto by Moréas and the subsequent critical codifications of the movement, however, the aesthetics and ideology of Symbolism were embodied in the poetic works of its principal proponents: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Baudelaire's verse collection Les Fleurs du mal (1857; The Flowers of Evil) represents a catalogue of qualities that would appear in the writings of the later Symbolist writers: individualism to the point of misanthropy, perverse eroticism, fascination with the exotic, extreme cynicism, occult reverence for the power of language, and nostalgia for a spiritual homeland that exists beyond the visible world. In particular, Baudelaire's poem “Correspondences,” first published in Les Fleurs du mal, articulates two important principles of Symbolist poetry: first, that esoteric parallels exist between material and spiritual worlds; second, that human sense perceptions, such as those of sight or hearing, may correspond to one another in a phenomenon known as synesthesia. The contribution of Verlaine to the development of Symbolism derives from the intense lyricism of his verse, which inspired an emphasis in late nineteenth-century poetry on the musical possibilities of language, and also prompted a poetic concern with mood rather than meaning. In the poetry of Rimbaud, the visionary nature of Symbolism is conspicuously revealed as the poet assumes the role of seer and advocates the derangement of his senses and abandonment of reason for the illuminations of mysticism. In such works as Le Bateau ivre (1871; The Drunken Boat) and Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations), which were composed before the author had reached the age of twenty, Rimbaud offers a hallucinatory mode of perception and an intensely original style of poetic expression. Similarly noted for his stylistic innovations in service of a transcendent vision was Mallarmé, who became the central figure in the Symbolist movement both for his role as a mentor to younger poets and for his poetry, which many critics regard as the epitome of Symbolist art. With such poems as “Hérodiade” (1869) and “L'Après-midi d'un faun” (1876; “The Afternoon of a Faun”) Mallarmé not only provided supreme examples of Symbolist themes and techniques but also engaged in literary experimentation to a degree that anticipated the new direction of modernist literature.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Symbolists had virtually disappeared from the French literary scene. The deaths of the movement's leading figures, including Mallarmé in 1898, prompted a steep decline. Although the moment of the Symbolist poets was a short-lived one in French literary history, its effect on the subsequent course of world literature has been lasting and profound; Symbolist poetic influence predominated for decades throughout the world, particularly in Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe, and Japan. Furthermore, a number of the leading French writers of the modernist period, most prominently Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel, continued to follow many of the principles of Symbolism in their work. Succeeded by various avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, Symbolism is often recognized as the source of the modern artistic temper as characterized by formal experimentation and alienation from society. Finalizing scholarly assessments of Symbolist poetics, however, has remained as elusive as some of most deeply enigmatic works composed by Baudelaire or Mallarmé.

Representative Works

Charles Baudelaire
Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil] (poetry) 1857
Petits poèms en prose: Le Spleen de Paris [Little Prose Poems: Paris Spleen] (poetry) 1869

Stéphane Mallarmé
“Hérodiade” (unfinished poem) 1864
“L'Après-midi d'un faun” [“The Afternoon of a Faun”] (poetry) 1876
Vers et prose (poetry and prose) 1893
Divigations [Ramblings] (essays) 1897

Jean Moréas
“Manifeste littéraire de l'école Symboliste” (manifesto) 1886

Arthur Rimbaud
Le Bateau ivre [The Drunken Boat] (poetry) 1871
Une Saison en enfer [A Season in Hell] (poetry) 1873
Les Illuminations [Illuminations] (poetry) 1886

Paul Verlaine
Romances san paroles [Songs Without Words] (poetry) 1874
Jadis et naguère [Long Ago and a Short While Ago] (poetry) 1884
Les Poètes maudits [Accursed Poets] (criticism) 1884

Criticism: Overviews

Albert Thibaudet (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Thibaudet, Albert. “Symbolism.” In French Literature from 1795 to Our Era, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, pp. 428-33. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967.

[In the following essay, translated in 1967, Thibaudet summarizes the main poetic concepts and ideals associated with French Symbolism and surveys the movement's principal and allied proponents.]


Victor Hugo was born in the year of Le Génie du christianisme, and this man was so closely bound to the continuity of the century that it seems that the poetic revolution waited for the year of his death to announce itself. “I am going to...

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Laurent LeSage (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: LeSage, Laurent. Introduction to The Rhumb Line of Symbolism: French Poets from Sainte-Beuve to Valéry, pp. 1-10. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

[In the following introduction to his book-length study of Symbolism, LeSage encapsulates the Symbolist movement in France as it developed in the late nineteenth century, noting the poetic contributions of its major figures: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud.]

The Symbolist movement can be viewed today as a development and, in some respects, a fulfillment of the ideals set up by the earlier Romantic generations everywhere in Europe.1 It seems indeed a part...

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Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Peschel, Enid Rhodes. Introduction to Four French Symbolist Poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, translated by Enid Rhodes Peschel, pp. 1-65. Athens, Oh.: Ohio University Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Peschel explores attempts by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé to create a new, Symbolist language of poetic utterance.]

Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term “Art,” I should call it “the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.”

Poe, “The Veil of the Soul”

In its strictest...

(The entire section is 4139 words.)

Criticism: Symbolist Aesthetics

Ralph Freedman (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Freedman, Ralph. “Symbol as Terminus: Some Notes on Symbolist Narrative.” Comparative Literature Studies 4, nos. 1-2 (1967): 135-43.

[In the following essay, Freedman studies the methods of narrative structure and deformation employed in the Symbolist prose poem.]

An analysis of the achievement of the French Symbolist Movement exacts both a strong measure of awe and a sharp critique. The grounds for awe are evident: for many reasons, not the least among them the towering figure of Mallarmé, symbolism was able to render the clearest answer to the modern confrontation of self and world, to give the most precise shape to the self-conscious concern with the...

(The entire section is 4706 words.)

Virginia A. La Charité (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: La Charité, Virginia A. “Mallarmé and the Elasticity of the Text.” Sou'wester 6, no. 1 (winter 1978): 1-12.

[In the following essay, La Charité elucidates the ambiguous, intertextual, and elastic structure of Mallarmé's poetry.]

In the poetic universe of Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet has the power to create with words, to go beyond the object by making an absolute out of language. On nearly every page of his prose commentaries on the essence of poetry, Mallarmé expresses commitment to “le Texte … parlant de lui-même” (“the Text speaking by itself,” OC, p. 663).1 And, indeed, in his poetry, the object becomes a word which...

(The entire section is 3909 words.)

John Porter Houston (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Houston, John Porter. “The Poetry of Consciousness.” In French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement: A Study of Poetic Structures, pp. 1-95. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Houston traces the development of nineteenth-century French poetic aesthetics through its transition from Romanticism to Symbolism.]


From the early nineteenth century on, there are aspects of French aesthetic thought which stand out from contemporary English and German theory and anticipate the characteristic ideas on art of a later period. In fact, the first deeply...

(The entire section is 7565 words.)

Clive Scott (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Scott, Clive. “The Poetry of Symbolism and Decadence.” In Symbolism, Decadence, and the Fin de Siècle: French And European Perspectives, edited by Patrick McGuinness, pp. 57-71. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Scott contrasts approaches to theme, versification, and aesthetics in Symbolist and Decadent poetry.]

The purpose of this [essay] is to trace, with a broad brush, the pursuit by Symbolist and Decadent poets—or Symbolist and Decadent aspects of the same poet—of a verse-art adequate to their metaphysical and existential perceptions, and to ask what these developments in verse-art can tell us about...

(The entire section is 7048 words.)

William Franke (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: 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, pp. 15-28. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Franke considers the Symbolist poetics of Baudelaire, exploring the French poet's theories of correspondence between language, symbol, reality, and meaning.]

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...

(The entire section is 6279 words.)

Criticism: The Symbolist Lyric

James L. Kugel (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Kugel, James L. “The Prince and His Star.” In The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, pp. 32-42. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Kugel explicates Gérard de Nerval's “El Desdichado” (1853), viewing it as an archetypal Symbolist poem.]

The stylistic problem faced by the Symbolist poet was how to make a poem strange. Of course, it is unlikely that he posed the question to himself in such a conscious way: he simply wrote poems, and each poem was itself an answer. A good answer, a satisfying answer, was followed by another attempt along the same lines; a bad answer was rejected and its direction...

(The entire section is 3700 words.)

Henri Peyre (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Peyre, Henri. “Verlaine: Symbolism and Popular Poetry.” Sou'wester 6, no. 1 (winter 1978): 13-26.

[In the following essay, Peyre stresses the popular origins and appeal of Verlaine's poetry.]

The extraordinary prestige which, after almost a hundred years, French Symbolism continues enjoying in half a dozen countries is a puzzling phenomenon for the observer of the literary scene. For, despite a few superficial appearances and occasional (often misleading) allusions in Symbolist manifestoes to Hegel, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Poe or Emerson, no movement was so exclusively French as that which underlay the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Mallarmé...

(The entire section is 4015 words.)

Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Peschel, Enid Rhodes. “‘To Plunge Into the Bottom of the Abyss’: Rimbaud's Search for the Unknown in The Drunken Boat and Memory.Sou'wester 6, no. 1 (winter 1978): 73-85.

[In the following essay, Peschel probes the conflicting impulses, the sense of despair, and the sense of thwarted desire to discern the “unknown” that is central to Rimbaud's verse.]

Although Rimbaud's poetry was written for the most part between 1869 and 1874, it was published in the 1880s, during the heyday of French symbolism. At that time, Rimbaud's remarkable and revolutionary poetic achievements were not immediately appreciated or understood. “Aside from...

(The entire section is 3784 words.)

Criticism: History And Influence

Kenneth Cornell (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Cornell, Kenneth. “Triumph and Schism, 1891.” In The Symbolist Movement, pp. 101-18. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951.

[In the following essay, Cornell details the literary events of 1891, a pinnacle year for French Symbolist verse.]

The first months of 1891, a year extremely rich in the annals of symbolism, are largely concerned with the circumstances surrounding the publication of Le Pèlerin passionné. Moréas had, it would seem, carefully prepared for much publicity at the appearance of his volume. In late December, 1890, just as the book was coming off Vanier's presses, Anatole France wrote a long article on Moréas for Le...

(The entire section is 8619 words.)

René Wellek (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Wellek, René. “The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History.” In Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, pp. 92-121. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Wellek seeks to define Symbolism as a movement and describes its influence on European literature.]

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...

(The entire section is 9467 words.)

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Fowlie, Wallace. “The Background of Symbolism: From Romanticism to Art for Art's Sake,” and “The Legacy of Symbolism.” In Poem & Symbol: A Brief History of French Symbolism, pp. 1-14, 109-19. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Fowlie examines the relationship between Parnassian l'art pour l'art, literary Decadence, and Symbolist poetry, then summarizes the enduring influence of French Symbolist verse.]


Romanticism has always been looked upon as a literary revolution. It was the first in...

(The entire section is 9818 words.)

Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Porter, Laurence M. “The Crisis of French Symbolism.” In The Crisis of French Symbolism, pp. 1-26. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Porter outlines the progress of nineteenth-century French poetry from Neoclassicism to Romanticism and Symbolism.]

The history of the nineteenth-century French lyric needs to be redefined. The very discredit into which diachronic approaches have fallen during the eras of Structuralism and Poststructuralism allows the assumptions that have informed these approaches to survive unchallenged in the collective preconscious of literary critics. We may consider literary history no longer worthy...

(The entire section is 5030 words.)

Richard Shryock (essay date September 2000)

SOURCE: Shryock, Richard. “Anarchism at the Dawn of the Symbolist Movement.” French Forum 25, no. 3 (September 2000): 291-307.

[In the following essay, Shryock investigates links between the Symbolist poets and late nineteenth-century revolutionary politics.]

“Le Symbolisme … fut un mouvement libertaire en littérature” wrote Stuart Merrill in 1901.1 For Merrill, whose own ties to French anarchism date from at least 1887, “libertaire” was a synonym of “anarchist.” The Symbolists' involvement with anarchism has been recognized and studied by several critics.2 However, one problem faced by writers of the Symbolist movement was...

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Further Reading


Aguirre, Ángel Manuel. “Juan Ramón Jiménez and the French Symbolist Poets: Influences and Similarities.” Revista Hispánica Moderna: Columbia University Hispanic Studies 36, no. 4 (1970-71): 212-23.

Considers the stylistic and theoretical influence of works by Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Verlaine on the writings of Andalusian poet Juan Ramón Jiménez.

Aguirre, J. M. “Francis Vielé-Griffin, ‘La Partenza’: A Symbolist Poem.” Studi Francesi 24, no. 1 (January-April 1980): 102-13.

Provisionally identifies the main features of Symbolist verse, then applies these concepts to an interpretation of...

(The entire section is 966 words.)