French Symbolist Poetry Introduction - Essay


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.