Kenneth Cornell (essay date 1951)

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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 entire section contains 39824 words.)

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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 Temps.1 Meanwhile Moréas had begun a campaign to celebrate the book and had enlisted the aid of Maurice Barrès and Henri de Régnier in arranging a banquet. In addition, since Deschamps had asked him to edit a special number of La Plume, he appears to have retarded his copy until January 1, 1891,2 the exact moment when the copies of Le Pèlerin passionné were put on sale. The issue appeared with the name of Moréas in huge letters on the cover and contained, besides a drawing of Moréas by Gauguin, reprints of articles on Le Pèlerin passionné, by France and Barrès3 and selections from Moréas' published work. An essay by Achille Delaroche, called the “Annales du symbolisme,” did contain names of other writers, but again Moréas is mentioned several times.4

In the first week of February the banquet, at which Mallarmé presided, was held. The Parnassians had been invited and had sent their regrets; Catulle Mendès arrived at a late hour. Toasts were drunk to Moréas, Mallarmé, Verlaine (who was absent), and to the memories of Laforgue and Baudelaire. Henri de Régnier proposed a toast to Leconte de Lisle and to the fraternity of poets; Bernard Lazare suggested the name of Anatole France and Raoul Gineste that of Félicien Rops. Charles Morice read a sonnet entitled “A Jean Moréas.” According to Ernest Raynaud, this event marked the triumph of symbolism rather than of one author, yet many of the two hundred people present could not have failed seeing to what degree Moréas was striving to institute himself as leader of the young poetic generation. His preface to the Pèlerin passionné had not been without some pretensions:

Dirai-je, maintenant, de mes innovations rhythmiques, que le los et la complicité des plus affinés jeunes hommes de ce temps les sigillent à la disgrâce de ceux-là qui de prudence s'aggravent! Et n'ai-je, déjà, fait preuve de quelque supériorité en la poétique réglementaire? et qui me saurait tenir en suspicion!

Moréas had loyal friends in Ernest Raynaud of the Mercure de France and Léon Deschamps of La Plume. Immediate opposition, in February, was expressed in La Revue indépendante, where René Ghil with violent scorn and George Bonnamour in a gentler tone of reproof cast doubt on the importance of Moréas and his work.5 Huret's literary questionnaire later in the year gradually revealed a number of other poets who had little faith in the talents of Moréas, but these judgments were made after schism had split the symbolist ranks with the founding of the “Ecole romane.” At the moment of the banquet, although the intention of linking the current period with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was clearly stated in the preface of Le Pèlerin passionné, no one seems to have guessed that Moréas was on the point of forsaking the name he had coined. The title of the issue of La Plume was “Le Symbolisme de Jean Moréas,” and Gauguin's picture bore the motto “Je suis symboliste.”

Although Moréas was succeeding in drawing much homage to himself, the time of his triumph was also that of reverence accorded to those writers whom the symbolists recognized as their spiritual ancestors. The year is the date of Vanier's new edition of Les Amours jaunes of Corbière6 and of Rodolphe Darzens' edition of Rimbaud's work under the title Le Reliquaire.7 The Genonceaux edition of Lautréamont (1890) inspired Remy de Gourmont's article “La Littérature ‘Maldoror’” in the Mercure de France.8 Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's name was beginning to be known abroad by such articles as that of Jan Ten Brink in the Dutch magazine Nederland and the brief essay by Arthur Symons in the Illustrated London News of January 24, 1891. Henry Bordeaux published his essay Villiers de l'Isle-Adam at Ghent in November, 1891. The Entretiens politiques et littéraires, now in the second year of existence, devoted many pages to unpublished fragments of Laforgue's prose. Although these fragments had been left by their author in a chaotic state, the critical comments on Baudelaire,9 Corbière, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Bourget are stimulating and suggest astonishing insight and ability.

The prestige of Mallarmé, evident at the banquet for Moréas, continued undiminished. During February and March, in the Revue indépendante, was printed the long study by Vittorio Pica.10 Though some of the critical analyses of the poems were odd, the essay, with its numerous quotations and its enthusiastic admiration, was one of the first attempts to follow Mallarmé's poetic evolution. The publication of Pages in Brussels at last brought together some of Mallarmé's prose writings; repercussions of the volume reached the French periodicals. In the Mercure de France appeared an essay by Pierre Quillard11 and in the Entretiens politiques et littéraires one by Vielé-Griffin.12La Plume printed Mallarmé's “La Pipe,” and some pages which had appeared fifteen years before in the République des lettres were reprinted in the Mercure de France.

More equivocal is the situation of Verlaine. With two new volumes of poetry in 1891, and a Choix de poésies published by Fasquelle in an edition of fifteen hundred copies, he would seem to be an eminently successful poet. But his new production of verse was remarkably inferior and gave little impression of originality. The poems of Bonheur were written in the same mood of penitence as Amour, while Chansons pour elle seemed only a poor continuation of Parallèlement. Critics were aware of this and all that Edouard Dubus could find to say concerning Chansons pour elle was the rueful sentence, “Des vers de mirliton par un poète de génie.”13 Only La Plume, which had prided itself since the publication of Dédicaces on being Verlaine's special protector, used dithyrambic words of praise for Verlaine's new volumes. Thus Léon Deschamps, on receiving a copy of Bonheur, wrote his impression:

J'ai pleuré sur ce livre du cher Pauvre qui pardonne à tout et à tous: j'ai frémi de joie céleste en chantant pour moi seul ces divins rhythmes d'un poète étrange qui n'est pas le monstre d'orgueil symbolisé par Odilon Redon dans sa puissante Damnation de l'artiste.14

Verlaine was the object of one of the efforts to relieve the poverty of admired artists, laudable humanitarian efforts which the distress of Laforgue and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam had helped to awaken. Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art gave a benefit performance on May 21 for Verlaine and the painter Paul Gauguin. The results were negative for the material enrichment of the two. Verlaine's playlet “Les Uns et les autres” was badly presented and Charles Morice's “Chérubin” was a dismal failure; but worst of all the settings for Catulle Mendès' Soleil de minuit consumed all the profits. The only happy accomplishment of the venture was the representation of Maeterlinck's “L'Intruse” which was given a cordial reception by the audience. Another charitable effort of the year which also ended in failure was that of attempting to publish the poetry of Germain Nouveau, confined in an insane asylum but for whose recovery some hope was held.

In contrast with this reverence for the past is the emergence of a new generation of poets in 1891. Their arrival is signaled by the foundation of a magazine which proposed to have only twelve issues and to be limited to one hundred copies. Its name was La Conque and it has retained some celebrity because of two of its organizers, Pierre Louÿs and Paul Valéry. Their poetry appeared in almost every issue. This periodical of 1891 represents a spirit which is quite different from most of the pretentious and arrogant magazines of 1886 and for good reason, since it did not have the same prejudices to overcome. It was willing to pay homage to talent rather than schools of poetry, and this it effectively demonstrated by initial poems in each issue. These special offerings were signed by Leconte de Lisle, Dierx, Heredia, Mallarmé, Swinburne,15 Judith Gautier, Maeterlinck, Moréas, Morice, Verlaine, Vielé-Griffin, and Henri de Régnier. While such a list is to some degree the reflection of momentary renown, it is on the whole a very able evaluation of the best writing of the period.

Along with Valéry and Louÿs, frequent contributors to La Conque were Léon Blum, soon to become a literary critic of La Revue blanche, Eugène Hollande, whose later poetry marked a return to classicism, and Camille Mauclair, one of the devoted admirers, as were in fact most of the contributors of the review, of Stéphane Mallarmé. Mauclair was one of those who in 1891 began a campaign against Moréas, and Louÿs collected that year his poems into a first volume, Astarté. Valéry and Mauclair had both won honorable mention in a sonnet contest conducted by La Plume in the last months of 1890,16 and this was their inconspicuous entry into the world of Parisian letters where they were to become so famous. With them is to be associated their young friend André Gide, who had studied at the Ecole alsacienne with Louÿs and who published the Cahiers d'André Walter in 1891. This volume did not bear the name of its author, but it was hailed as the production of a delicate and idealistic spirit and as a point of view opposite from that of naturalism. Critical notes by reviewers as diverse as Paul Redonnel, Camille Mauclair, and Remy de Gourmont were enthusiastic in their praise.17 Another first volume by an anonymous writer did not awaken the same sort of unified response. This was the play Tête d'or which would one day be recognized as an important event in the symbolist theater, but of which the Revue indépendante professed not to understand the versification. La Plume thought that the unknown author, in order to be different, had caused his book to be printed in an idiotic fashion without margins and page numbers, but admitted that the volume was admired by Stuart Merrill. A paragraph by Pierre Quillard in the Mercure de France was one of the rare tributes given to Claudel's first dramatic effort.18

Even if Gide and Claudel preferred to remain anonymous in 1891, their books immediately received some comment. Another author, Francis Jammes, began publishing pamphlets of poetry that same year; but printed at Orthez and not placed on sale, these were not known in Paris until several years later. Even in December, 1893, the Mercure de France wonders whether the name of Jammes is not a pseudonym. On the contrary, Paul Fort, four years younger than Jammes, and indeed in 1891 only nineteen years old, was creating a great deal of stir with the experiments of his theater. In January his troupe gave Shelley's The Cenci in Félix Rabbe's translation, in March a curious program which included the recitation of Mallarmé's “Le Guignon,” Rachilde's three-act play Madame la Mort, Quillard's La Fille aux mains coupées, and a realistic play by Frédéric de Chirac entitled Prostituée! The intrusion of this last play in the repertoire of a theater which was combating naturalism and of which poetry and music were important elements may seem strange. The audience hissed the realistic play, and the Théâtre d'Art was accused of having represented the drama to produce just this reaction. The Verlaine-Gauguin benefit performance in May was, as we have seen, not entirely successful except for revealing Maeterlinck's dramatic production. If Paul Fort had been able to make a contract with the representative of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's widow, Axël would have been given in July. Toward the end of the year another complex program was presented, with Maeterlinck's Les Aveugles, Laforgue's Le Concile féerique, Gourmont's Théodat, some adaptations of old epic legends by Adolphe Retté, Camille Mauclair, and Stuart Merrill, and of the “Song of Songs” by Paul Roinard. This last number on the program was an attempt to make a synthesis of sensations through musical accompaniment and even diffusion of perfumes from an inadequate atomizer.

A very close bond between literature and art was established during 1891. Even in 1885-86 Téodor de Wyzewa had related the music of Wagner to painting and literature,19 and during the succeeding years Félix Fénéon had written many art criticisms to show that the independent school of painters was attempting to accomplish in pictorial form the same idealism and suggestion as the symbolist poets. But in 1891 the bonds between symbolism and painting are drawn much tighter and even the titles of articles in La Plume, “Théorie du symbolisme des teintes” or “Les Impressionnistes symbolistes à l'Exposition de St. Germain,” or an article on Paul Gauguin in the Mercure de France which is entitled “Le Symbolisme en peinture,” reveal the current of ideas on painting. But the links between painters and poets were on all manner of levels: Eugène Carrière had completed his portrait of Verlaine, Gauguin was completing his etching of Mallarmé in the early months of 1891;20 there were dinners presided over by Jean Dolent, at which many artists and writers met. At the banquet given in March in honor of Gauguin, who was about to leave for Tahiti, the guests included Mallarmé, Morice, Vallette, Rachilde, Moréas, Dubus, and Retté. The recent deaths of Van Gogh and of Seurat caused much comment in critical columns of periodicals. A special number of La Plume was devoted to “Les Peintres novateurs” and contained many short articles on artists, among whom were Seurat, Signac, Luce, Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Séon.21 In the Revue indépendante Arthur Symons wrote on Odilon Redon and Jules Antoine on Georges Seurat, while in the Mercure de France were essays on Gauguin, Dolent, Carrière, Renoir, and Henri de Groux.

Ties were meanwhile strengthened between Belgium and France by such events as Henri de Régnier's becoming an editor of La Wallonie and the transfer of La Revue blanche to Paris in October, 1891. In his book reviews for the Liége publication Régnier was particularly useful in unifying the Belgian and French literary movements. During 1891 he wrote on Quillard's La Gloire du verbe, Paul Adam's En décor, Vielé-Griffin's Diptyque, Mallarmé's Pages, and the Cahiers d'André Walter. La Revue blanche, in its three issues of the year, not only printed poetry by Merrill, Régnier, Vielé-Griffin, and Kahn, as well as literary notices by Lucien Muhlfeld on new books of poetry, but also an article on “Gentlemen de lettres”: Merrill, Régnier, and Vielé-Griffin. The June 15 issue of La Plume was entirely devoted to “Les Jeune-Belgique,” giving an anthology of poetry and short prose selections with indications of the authors' published work and their collaboration with Belgian periodicals.

Other important components in the literary scene in 1891, perhaps not important for poetry for the year but which furnish the tone or subject matter of some verse, are socialism and occultism. Richepin, Roinard, Camille Soubise, Octave Mirbeau, André Veidaux, and Louise Michel are among the agitators for social reform who knew and associated with many of the symbolist poets. Among the Socialists as among the occultists there were always poetic idealists. Certain forms of humanitarian poetry as well as a kind of false mysticism in the 1890's stem from contacts with the extremists of these groups. A translation of part of the Marx-Engels manifesto was published by the Entretiens politiques et littéraires and Henri de Régnier wrote a “Commentaire sur l'argent,” in which he contrasted the poverty of the artist of genius with the unworthy holders of wealth. In the same magazine articles by Bernard Lazare pictured the proletariat as the dupe of the rich. The poet of 1891 was usually an idealist and a dreamer; yet few followed Zo d'Axa and Malato to the excesses of anarchism. The same tangent but not all-embracing attitude is visible toward the occultists. Although Péladan, Stanislas de Guaita, and Jules Bois are often mentioned by the symbolist poets, the tone is almost universally one of mockery. The Revue indépendante published a long essay extolling the works of Péladan but was careful to head the article as “Tribune libre.”22 The metaphysical poem by Jules Bois, Il ne faut pas mourir, published in 1891, excited no comment from other poets; and we have nothing to show that the symbolists flocked to hear Alber Jhouney23 lecture on “Le Christ esotérique.” On the other hand, the selections from Jean-Paul Richter, published in La Revue indépendante,24 and an article by Jean Thorel entitled “Les Romantiques allemands et les symbolistes français,” which appeared in the Entretiens politiques et littéraires,25 both are in close relationship with the poetic idealism and subjectivity of the age. That Tieck and Novalis, Fichte and the great romanticists of Germany had proclaimed the supremacy of poetry and the revelation of the soul of things had come gradually to the attention of those who were studying the literary trends in France at the end of the century. In the efforts of a preceding age and another country the poets of the 1890's were able to see a movement which paralleled to some degree their own and gave them added security.

But while this extension in understanding of literature was being attempted, the adherents of the Ecole romane began to preach a doctrine of two kinds of literature, that of the North, which was violent and crude, and that of the South, the only region capable of producing sweet and melodious harmonies, the only realm of the truly beautiful and mysterious. The French romanticists had been led astray by allowing themselves to embrace the crudity of the North; now Moréas proposed to rectify that error. The breviary for the Ecole romane was written by Charles Maurras and appeared in La Plume in an issue devoted to the Félibrean movement of southern France. It was entitled “Barbares et romans” and extolled the literary past of Greece and Italy; Maurras even went so far as to say that Shakespeare was Italian. His remarks did not go unchallenged; Adolphe Retté published “Le Midi bouge!”26 written in the caustic tone for which he was later to become known, and Pierre Quillard with delicate irony asks whether the Middle Ages did not after all present some trace of the Germanic warrior and should therefore be outlawed from the doctrine of Moréas.27

Maurras thus became the official spokesman for Moréas and the Ecole romane. He was seconded by Maurice du Plessys with the “Etrennes symbolistes” and the poem “Dédicace à Apollodore,” which had been read at the February banquet, and by Ernest Raynaud, who praised Moréas in an article in the Mercure de France. The opponents to the eulogies given Le Pèlerin passionné, as revealed by the Huret questionnaire, were quite numerous, perhaps sometimes inspired by jealousy but also by the excessive pretensions of a poet who almost appears a megalomaniac. The expression of discontent with the art of Moréas, too harshly expressed by Ghil, is best resumed by Camille Mauclair. In an article28 he reviews the claims for innovation that have been made by Moréas and his adulators, shows that others are in truth more original, and concludes by stating that the author of the Pèlerin passionné does not possess the intellectual depth or the breadth of vision necessary for a great poet. What Mauclair admires in Le Pèlerin passionné is limited to two elements: the music of certain verses and the settings of some of the poems. He confesses to have felt that the poetry gave an original effect as he read it, but after reflection he decided that the impression resulted from Moréas' patchwork imitations of a number of different sources. The vocabulary with its obsolete words, according to Mauclair, came from the fabliaux, the ingenuous tone of the love songs from Charles d'Orléans; the settings were often suggested by Virgil or Theocritus, the sad or mysterious tone by Baudelaire and Poe. The author's conclusions are that if one must have a poetic leader, it would be better to seek a sincere artist such as Verlaine or Mallarmé, and it would be preferable to admire a poetic work in which there was some thought.

The pompous claims of Moréas, the flattery of his admirers merited much of this adverse criticism. His volume of verse is uneven in quality, but if he had not chosen to make a manifesto and constitute a poetic school it is probable that he would have been recognized as an artist who had recovered some of the charm of sixteenth-century lyrics, who used effects of alliteration and repetition, free verse, and assonance with considerable ability, and who was more interested in the form and sound of his poetry than in expressing an idea. He would have been remembered for his “Etrennes de doulce,” for the antique charm of:

Les fenouils m'ont dit: Il t'aime si
Follement qu'il est à ta merci;
Pour son revenir va t'apprêter.
Les fenouils ne savent que flatter:
Dieu ait pitié de mon âme.(29)

If Le Pèlerin passionné continued to be considered as the volume in which the author had announced that he was not an ignoramus of whom the Muses made fun, the overweening vanity of Moréas is to be blamed. His contemporaries more often remember his expressions of “Ronsard et moi” or “Hugo et moi” than the talent he possessed.

Although Moréas was a successful publicity maker, it is doubtful whether he, any more than René Ghil, did poetry a great service by his histrionics. The writers who spoke with such scorn of Le Pèlerin passionné during the Huret inquiry probably felt called upon to reprove conceit. The results of that inquiry inspired George Bonnamour and Gaston Moreilhon to write an article, “Le Fiasco symboliste,”30 which omitted many names but treated scornfully almost all contemporary names except that of René Ghil. They followed this condemnation of symbolism with a long essay31 on the advocate of scientific and evolutive verse. This article terminated with praise for Ghil in no way less measured than was that of Maurras for the founder of the Ecole romane.

If all the critical literature and all published volumes of poetry had centered about these two strong personalities during 1891, the future of poetry would have appeared black indeed. But about this time it happened that almost all the symbolist group produced new volumes of verse and several interesting newcomers appeared on the poetic horizon. The Mercure de France had occasion to speak of some fifty collections of verse during the year; the bibliographical notices were often written by Edouard Dubus, Remy de Gourmont, and Pierre Quillard. With such critics it is not strange that the faults attributed to the Parnassian school are underlined. Thus Le Poème de la chair by Abel Pelletier is accused of being too traditional and not musical enough, and Ce qui renaît toujours by Jean Carrère of being at times too eloquent and declamatory. La Joie de Maguelonne by A.-F. Herold is praised because the author seems no longer under the influence of Leconte de Lisle. A healthy sign in these articles of the Mercure is that no volume, if one except Raynaud's essay on Le Pèlerin passionné, is given blind, excessive praise or subjected to unjust or biased attack. Remy de Gourmont expresses doubt as to whether the free verse of Dujardin's La Comédie des amours reveals much talent, and Pierre Quillard, always very conservative in matters of poetic form, regrets the free meters of Vielé-Griffin's Diptyque. Although Ernest Raynaud, in an essay on Dumur's Lassitudes, is much too obviously extolling the Ecole romane, it is with some reason that he sees in Dumur a tardy blossoming of the romantic spirit.

The poets born in the 1850's and sixties who are given the greatest praise and in general are accorded most space in the critical articles of the Mercure de France are: Moréas, Mikhaël, Raynaud, Quillard, Rodenbach, Tailhade, Vielé-Griffin, Merrill, Herold, Mockel, and Kahn.32 Henri de Régnier received briefer treatment in 1891 because his publication was a re-edition of Episodes and Sites with some new sonnets. The qualities which the critics see in these poets are those of personal expression, musical preoccupation in verse, a sense of mystery and suggestion, fluidity and evanescence—in general the qualities which had been associated with symbolist verse.33 Nor in the reviews of poetry are the ancestors of the movement forgotten; Fernand Clerget's Les Tourmentes evokes the memory of Baudelaire for Charles Merki, and Léon Deschamps mentions Verlaine in discussing the same volume.

Recognition of the evolution which had taken place during the years of symbolism seems evident from these reviews; yet the great variety in poetic expression, ranging from the simple and direct statement of the emotions to the most ornate and complicated evocations of the mind, kept most critics from trying to formulate definitions. Among those who made such an attempt was Vielé-Griffin in an article entitled “Qu'est-ce que c'est?”34, which does not find an answer but which suggests the importance of synthesis in sensation and of intuitive qualities in current verse. Vielé-Griffin was inspired to further examining of the question35 by Brunetière's article of April 1 in the Revue des deux modes, and he professes to be in agreement with Brunetière on many points. He admits that the name symbolism is badly chosen and that there is danger of becoming amorphous through using free verse. But one sentence from Brunetière's article shocks him: “Comment serait-on à la fois symboliste et baudelairien?” In reply he quotes part of the sonnet “Correspondances” and then Brunetière's own words which seem to give part of the same message:

L'inconnaissable nous étreint: in eo vivimus, movemur et sumus; si nous réussissons, parfois, à en saisir quelque chose, il est également certain que ce n'est pas en observant la nature; mais nous y ajoutons, de notre fond à nous, les principes d'interprétation qu'elle ne contient pas. Et comment le pourrions-nous s'il n'y avait, certainement aussi, quelque convenance, ou quelque correspondance, entre la nature et l'homme, des harmonies cachées, comme on disait jadis, un rapport secret du sensible et de l'intelligible?36

It is true that Brunetière, although granting that the symbolists had done good service in suggesting how narrow and superficial was the art of the naturalists, did not intend to become the champion of symbolism. His article is above all a somewhat attenuated denunciation of the innovations in diction and prosody among the symbolist poets. But recognition of certain of their accomplishments, the very appearance in the Revue des deux mondes of a serious discussion of symbolism, constituted a triumph. A second recognition of the current trend in poetry came from Anatole France, who in six articles in Le Temps37 discussed “Les Jeunes Poètes.” At the outset he announces that since no one knows what symbolism is, he does not intend to find a definition but rather present what the young poets have accomplished. Then, in a series of short essays he takes up forty-two poets and gives examples of their work. Except for three or four names,38 all those he treats are concerned in the history of symbolism. The contributors to the Mercure de France, La Plume, and the Entretiens politiques et littéraires, several of the Belgian poets such as Giraud, Verhaeren, Mockel, and Maeterlinck, the poets of the Ecole romane, the occultists such as Stanislas de Guaita, Jhouney, and Emile Michelet, and even the old contributors to Lutèce, Vignier and Krysinska, are represented. France gives rather more space to Moréas and Maurras than to the others, but his series is a fairly complete picture of current poetry.39

But France in his brief notices of separate poets effects no synthesis of currents in lyricism. He does not note for instance a phenomenon which is apparent in the period, a tendency toward a kind of standardized symbolist setting for verse. The poet's dream and a legendary background have become fused by 1891. A contributor to this process was Jean Moréas, who in Les Syrtes (1884) and Les Cantilènes (1886) had utilized legendary material and had indeed written some poems which resemble the English ballad. Vielé-Griffin with his mythical drama Ancæus (1888), Pierre Quillard with his mystery play La Fille aux mains coupées (1886, 1891), Morhardt with the dramatic poem Hénor (1890), and Henri de Régnier with Poèmes anciens et romanesques (1890) also helped to establish a conventional pattern. The problem was to find an appropriate background for highly subjective and personal verse. Gustave Kahn in his Palais nomades and Adolphe Retté in Cloches en la nuit had attempted to do this through abstruse and unreal settings, but most poets desired a more coherent arrangement than the fugitive symbols of the mind. They did not choose Parnassian plasticity, but as the representation of their dream created a strange realm of forests, lilies, and swans in which roamed princesses and knights. The return to the legendary setting of the Middle Ages might seem a repetition of romanticism, yet in almost all cases the purpose of the poet appears an entirely different one. It is usually not the evocation of the past but an indirect statement of personal mood that was being sought. Idealism at first had found its symbols in religious terms, then had come to the timeless and spaceless setting of a remote era. Only exceptionally was the Hellenic background used, although in the course of the 1890's poets who at first had revolted against the usages of the Parnassians came to recognize the beauty and validity of the antique heritage.

For the moment, however, Greece and Rome remained out of the picture. Merrill, in Les Fastes, used Wagnerian and vaguely medieval settings; Kahn those of the remote land of dreams. Vielé-Griffin, in Diptyque, created a forest setting which is abstract, and if Ernest Raynaud, in Les Cornes du faune, was often inspired by the park of Versailles, his backgrounds remain curiously unreal and only incidental to his theme, the joys and sorrows of amorous possession. Some poets, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps willfully, reacted against the vapory and unsubstantial landscapes of their creation. In a word, and in the most literal sense, they begemmed their poetry. The princesses of Henri de Régnier, Merrill, and Kahn are laden with bracelets and rings; the images in the verse contain the names of precious stones. In this, contemporary art may have had its part; Gustave Moreau was admired by the symbolists and Merrill was well acquainted with the painting of Burne-Jones and the pre-Raphaelites. A paradox in style is created by this poetic manner; the evanescent and ethereal meet the flashing of jewels in the same poem.

The metrical question divides the poetic production of 1891 into two groups. But originality in form, most openly expressed by free verse, is not always accompanied by the most revolutionary expression. This is to be seen in Diptyque of Vielé-Griffin, a little pamphlet of two poems printed by the presses of the Entretiens politiques et littéraires in 1891. Vielé-Griffin had written more concerning free verse than any poet at this time,40 for Gustave Kahn, who prided himself on having invented the form and published the first volume illustrating the technique, did not formulate his essay on free verse until the publication of his Premiers poèmes in 1897. The execution of Vielé-Griffin's theory is somewhat disappointing. “Le Porcher,” the first of the poems of Diptyque, is the meditation of a voluntary exile from society, the fugitive memories of his past life, and the statement of the author's belief that in nature is to be found the environment for happiness. The evocations of the swineherd, the wandering themes of his soliloquy bear some relationship with those of Mallarmé's faun, but Vielé-Griffin's shadings are far less subtle and his poetry sometimes becomes didactic. The other poem of Diptyque is a dialogue between the poet and the personified form of Art. The theme is again not very original and at times the counsels of Musset's muse seem re-echoed:

“Te voici, comme au soir de ta première extase,
Triste du vin de ma beauté;
Je t'ai donné tout l'or de l'héritage,
Tout l'or jaloux de la parole,
Et te voici pleurant vers moi ta pauvreté;”(41)

Even the versification of Diptyque is not startling when one considers the great numbers of lines of twelve, ten, and eight syllables. Much more audacious is Kahn's second volume of verse, Chansons d'amant. As in the Palais nomades, the author uses many long lines, identical rhymes, and above all a strange, complicated syntax from which obscurity is not absent. Yet these are love poems, of which the diction does not hide the sensuous note:

Que tes lèvres demeurent la saveur habituelle
à mes lèvres sevrées par l'orgueil,
à mes lèvres scellées par l'oubli,
et qu'à celui dont les rêves clos ne s'ouvrent plus à la vie habituelle
il n'est plus qu'un seul fruit,
le dernier à qui ses enfances encore firent accueil.(42)

Quite often the voluptuous quality of the verse is reinforced by imagery which evokes the Levant. Kahn had, to be sure, spent the years of his military service in northern Africa and the memories of the Arabian civilization he saw there may have left their trace in his poetry. But he was also the poet who had been a student in the Ecole des Langues Orientales, and it would appear that his readings had contributed to lines such as these:

Les esclaves qui lavent les turbans aux sources inconnues des fleuves
Les mausolées des ancêtres où stagnèrent les douleurs de veuves
Mes gazelles et les parures adamantines des ailes
Qui frôlèrent mes repos près d'elles,
Au margelles des puits profonds qui s'ignorent en ses yeux inconnus,
je les oublierai, perdu dans un rêve de bras nus.(43)

By Kahn's preface to his collected poems of 1897 we know that he thought of each poetic line as representing a single impulsion of thought. His long lines gained few adherents among poets, but in 1891 he was recognized as one of the important exponents of free verse. Vielé-Griffin found much to praise in this versification which was so unlike his own, in the unity of the stanzas and in the intuitive and symbolic composition of Chansons d'amant.44 Although Kahn could scarcely have been more conceited than Moréas, he was apparently much more brutal in denouncing the efforts of others and this personal characteristic won him many enemies. Certainly his replies to Huret's questions in 1891 were not models of tact, and the accounts of those who knew him are invariably the portrait of a violent and uncompromising personality.

Much less audacious than Kahn, but still a devotee of free verse, was Albert Mockel of La Wallonie. Though his activities were centered about the Belgian literary scene, as the magazine of which he was editor came to have closer and closer contacts with Paris he began to be known in France. Like Edouard Dujardin, he appears to have come to the conception of free verse through the ideas of synthesis of music and poetry, and his point of departure, like that of Dujardin, was the musical drama of Wagner. Even in 1888 Mockel had begun to preach of “le rythme intérieur” and the restricted use of the alexandrine as a mere stabilizer for multiple eddies of melody.45 His Chantefable un peu naïve of 1891, published anonymously, was his first attempt to place in a book the poetic expression of his ideas. The title “Chantefable” indicates how through prose and poetry he sought to effect a maximum of musical power. The subject matter of his volume is the description of his own emotional life, the joys, affections, and sufferings of a young man, his hesitations and timidities. Among the verses are “symphonic prose poems,” the whole work being written with a voluntary artlessness and some archaic constructions. Like Vielé-Griffin and Moréas, he uses traditional refrains from old folk tunes, and he accomplishes musical effects by building poems on only two rhymes: by replacing rhyme with assonance and by alliteration.

With these poets as leading writers of free verse are of course to be counted Henri de Régnier who had published the Poèmes anciens et romanesques in 1890, and Edouard Dujardin whose tragedy Antonia, written in free meters, was presented in 1891 at the Théâtre d'application. For the moment Moréas appears as a champion of free verse, but already about him is forming the group of Maurras, du Plessys, de la Tailhède, and Raynaud, the school which would attempt to confine poetry in most rigid rules. Other poets in 1891 are only occasionally bold in innovation, but there is a visible effort to vary rhythms and to liberate verse from too narrow rules. Both Stuart Merrill and Ferdinand Herold, in their respective volumes Les Fastes and La Joie de Maguelonne, use the most exacting of verse forms: the sonnet, the terza rima, the villanelle. Their quatrains give an appearance of regularity, yet Herold inserted in his volume a few couplets in free verse and used assonance at times instead of rhyme, and Merrill endeavored to give new music to his poetry by mingling at times lines of even and odd syllables:

Des frôlements de folles étoffes
                              Au jeu des bagues d'argent,
Et l'effroi de somnolentes strophes
                              Sur les cordes d'or et d'argent.(46)

The technical matters of versification are treated in almost all critical articles on poetic volumes of 1891, yet one senses that there are more important phenomena which tend to make a fraternity rather than isolated theorists of poets in this period. The most important of these is perhaps the alliance of senses, which had been one of Baudelaire's important gifts to later poetry. Even though Ernest Raynaud's Les Cornes du faune is entirely in sonnet form, the convergence of sensations of sound and color with visual perception belong to symbolism rather than to the Parnassian school. While the debt to “Correspondances” is not always acknowledged by the poets of the nineties, they are often clearly aware of this synthesis of the senses. Saint-Pol-Roux, writing on Quillard's La Gloire du verbe in 1891, expresses this idea in definite terms:

Promptement je répète que les choses doivent être contrôlées et traduites par nos cinq sens. Cette méthode ailleurs étendue, n'est-ce pas la réalisation de la symphonie dans sa plus vaste expansion? Ainsi l'artiste obtient l'œuvre prismatique aux facettes savoureuse-odorante-sonore-visible-tangible; le synthétique bouquet à cinq motifs qu'il parachève et paraphe avec le ruban de son émotion.47

Reality transmuted by the emotions is to the poets of the period a necessary part of their artistry. Edouard Dubus finds that although Ajalbert's Femmes et paysages is filled with exterior descriptions, at times these become landscapes of the mind for the greater glory of symbolism.48 The greatest compliment which can be accorded a poet is to call him personal and individualistic. The authors of critical articles in such magazines as La Plume, the Mercure de France, La Revue blanche, and a little later in l'Ermitage were very often poets themselves. This sometimes meant prejudiced judgments but also very keen perception of what was derivative from other writers and what was original. Such a poet as Michel Abadie, whose Sanglots d'extase appeared in 1891, was recognized as an able creator of images, but his fellow poets were quick to see how closely he modeled his verse on Raynaud, Merrill, and Verlaine. Raynaud's vocabulary in turn, the mingling of the definite and the indefinite, were noted as in the lineage of Verlaine, and Charles Maurras spoke of Raynaud as the only one who had successfully imitated the author of Fêtes galantes. When the impression of debt to one of the recognized ancestors of the symbolists is not too marked, the symbolist critics tend not to be harsh but rather to recognize the validity of such imitative tendency. When it becomes exaggerated, as in the Baudelairian poems of Fernand Clerget's Les Tourmentes, the author is usually reminded that he should be original. At times a volume would appear as a kind of parody of another poet, and this was quickly seized upon for caustic comment. Such a volume was Pierre Devoluy's Flumen, in which the blind admiration for René Ghil produced lines like the following:

Les générations en flottilles compactes
Voguant vers les Toisons des Futurs fastueux
Jettent par-dessus bord l'argile des vieux dieux;(49)

Apart from questions of style, the chief complaints of the symbolists against Devoluy and Ghil were concerned with the didactic nature of their verse. For most of the generation of the nineties poetry was an esthetic experience, not a lesson. Very likely the warm reception accorded Le Pèlerin passionné at the time of its publication was motivated by the personal note of the volume. But later in the year, with the founding of the Ecole romane and the symptomatic appearance of such poems as Maurice du Plessys' “Dédicace à Apollodore,” it became clear that a menace to the intuitive in verse was in progress. Ghil's activity had been isolated, but with the grouping of Raynaud, Raymond de la Tailhède, Maurice du Plessys, and Charles Maurras about Moréas, and the evident intent to make an active campaign that they evinced, a much more powerful poetic force was present.

It is perhaps to be regretted that the Romanist activity began at the very moment when poetry, after excesses, seemed on the point of obtaining some equilibrium in simultaneous portrayal of the external and internal world. Raynaud's articles of 1891 insisted on the necessity of a new school, and Maurice du Plessys announced the advent of Romanism as an inevitable development, but the reasons alleged by them seem inconclusive and specious. Raynaud insists that a pagan incursion was needed since literature was menaced by mysticism.50 While it is true that poetry among the symbolists had rarely sought its inspiration in mythology, it seemed hardly necessary to make an issue of the myth as opposed to Christian or esoteric backgrounds. Although dramatic poems like Quillard's La Fille aux mains coupées and Herold's La Joie de Maguelonne, both of which were called “mystères,” recall the religious theater of the Middle Ages, a work such as Vielé-Griffin's Ancæus found its background in Greece. Raynaud's articles on the new school are not too clear. He speaks of the romantic error, the Parnassian error, and the Symbolist error and says that outside of the Romanists there is no hope for poetry, but one understands with difficulty why he insists that symbolism is gliding into the muddy bogs of Parnassianism. In truth the loyal followers of Moréas seem never to have wished to accept the principles enunciated in the preface of the Pèlerin passionné but to legislate and create new refinements of doctrine. This is true with Maurras, who preached against the inspiration of the North and who represented to some readers of 1891 simply a defender of the Félibrean movement of southern France.

A curious year for poetry was 1891. The triumph of symbolism sung at the February banquet and the death knell proclaimed by the Romanists before the passing of many months seem the paradoxical highlights of the period. In truth a new literary chapel had been formed, and while its advent caused much discussion and occasioned useless debate the influence was not by any means decisive. The mysticism so dreaded by Raynaud, the Wagnerianism against which Maurras spoke, continued to be poetic elements, enriched, it is true, by the re-entry of Greek and Roman myth. Nature, as an important part of lyric inspiration, was already heard in the work of Vielé-Griffin, and Henri de Régnier by this time represented a broader appreciation of Parnassian artistry. The importance of 1891 in the history of symbolism is that by that date all its inherent elements had been presented. In form, the double acceptance of free verse and syllabic count was present; rhyme and assonance or even blank verse had all received their consecration in print. The idealism, the suggestion, the synthesis of the senses, the indirect statement of the emotions, the use of symbol to express the emotions had all been amply demonstrated. The efforts to find new musical effects had been multiple and, if not always successful, had indicated most of the possible paths to follow.


  1. On December 24, 1890.

  2. During the last months of 1890 La Plume apologizes several times for delay of the issue.

  3. Barrès' article had appeared in Le Figaro, December 25, 1890.

  4. A supplement to the issue, “Etrennes symbolistes” by Maurice du Plessys, was also a panegyric of Moréas' work.

  5. La Revue indépendante, XVIII, 145-152, 160-166.

  6. Three of the poems from the volume were printed in La Plume, No. 56 (August 15, 1891), pp. 268-269.

  7. The Mercure de France printed three of Rimbaud's poems from the Reliquaire in its issue of November, 1891. A review in the following number of the magazine, by Remy de Gourmont, criticized sharply the preface and indicated little admiration for Rimbaud. The first criticism is amply justified and Gourmont could have spoken of the poor editing of the volume. His article was later revised and became a part of the Livre des masques.

    Le Reliquaire, in which were certain apocryphal poems, contained a preface signed Rodolphe Darzens. Darzens later protested that he was not the author and asked that the edition be seized as a forgery.

  8. The publication of selections from Lautréamont's Poésies in the Mercure de France (February, 1891), was of some importance, since the famous passage in which the author denied that poetry had made any progress since Racine and in which the poets of the romantic school receive such strange titles was included.

  9. It may seem strange that Baudelaire did not furnish more often the matter for entire critical essays in this period. His name occurs frequently in the periodicals throughout the 1890's and almost always with veneration and respect. But his was a recognized reputation among the symbolists and their principal effort was toward establishing those whose fame was less secure. It is noteworthy how often his poetry seems to have produced, in succeeding young writers, imitations which were almost too close. For example, Camille Mauclair published in 1891 a poem entitled “Spleen” which begins:

    L'amertume et l'horreur des ciels pluvieux
    Que Décembre épandit sur nos fronts effarés
    Evoquent des linceuls moisis et déchirés
    D'où suinterait un sang pâle d'homme très vieux.

    La Revue indépendante, March, 1891

  10. La Revue indépendante, XVIII, 173-215, 315-360.

  11. III (July, 1891), 4-8.

  12. III (August, 1891), 67-72.

  13. Dubus is paraphrasing René Ghil's judgment on Moréas: “Des vers de mirliton écrits par un grammarien.”

  14. La Plume, No. 50 (May 15, 1891), p. 169. The work of art by Odilon Redon appeared at the beginning of Iwan Gilkin's La Damnation de l'artiste.

  15. This is the year when Gabriel Mourey's translation of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads appeared in France.

  16. The winners of that contest were Marcel Noyer, Bénoni Glador, and Jules Laloue. The subscribers to the magazine judged the poems.

  17. See La Plume, No. 49, p. 154; Mercure de France, II, 368; La Revue indépendante, XVIII, 405-407.

  18. Mercure de France, II (April, 1891), 249.

  19. Reprinted in Nos maîtres from articles in La Revue wagnérienne.

  20. See Mercure de France II (March, 1891), 189.

  21. For details on friendships between painters and writers see Charles Chassé's Le Mouvement symboliste dans l'art du XIXe siècle.

  22. La Revue indépendante, XX (September, 1891), 311-344.

  23. Albert Jounet changed his name to this more exotic spelling about 1890. Shortly afterward he, as well as Jules Bois, began giving public lectures. Emile Michelet founded a magazine Psyché in November, 1891, and about the same time Péladan announced his “Salon esthétique,” of which the program was the rejection of all materialism and the search for the ideal in beauty.

  24. La Revue indépendante, XXI (October-November, 1891), 70-79, 239-243.

  25. Entretiens politiques et littéraires, III (September, 1891), 95-109.

  26. La Plume, No. 55 (August, 1891), pp. 251-253.

  27. Entretiens politiques et littéraires, III (August, 1891), 56-60.

  28. La Revue indépendante, XX (July, 1891), 29-79.

  29. Jean Moréas, Poésies 1886-1896, p. 35.

  30. La Revue indépendante, XX (July, 1891), 1-29.

  31. Ibid. (August, 1891), 178-251.

  32. The volumes by these authors which inspired critical articles in 1891 were: Le Pèlerin passionné, Œuvres posthumes, Les Cornes du faune, La Gloire du verbe, Le Règne du silence, Au pays du mufle, Diptyque, Les Fastes, La Joie de Maguelonne, Chantefable un peu naïve, Chansons d'amant.

  33. Laurent Tailhade's Au pays du mufle is of course an exception, but the reviewers turn from his volume of 1891 to speak of Au pays du rêve and ask whether he will not abandon violent satire and return to his earlier poetic manner.

  34. Entretiens politiques et littéraires, II (March, 1891), 65-66.

  35. Ibid. (May, 1891), 153-158.

  36. Revue des deux mondes, CIV (April 1, 1891), 684.

  37. On September 12, 16, 23; October 6, 7, 8, 1891.

  38. France includes Robert de la Villehervé, born in 1849, and more in the tradition of Théodore de Banville than in that of the symbolists, as well as Daniel de Venancourt, born in 1873, whose first volume Les Adolescents was published in 1891.

  39. Anatole France, this same year, wrote two articles on Verlaine in Le Temps. In the issue of April 19, 1891, he tells the story of “Gestas,” thereby giving definite form to the Verlaine legend. In the course of the same article he reviews Bonheur, and although he calls Verlaine a true poet and indeed the only Christian poet of the period, he predicts that the new volume will be less well received than Sagesse. France's essay of November 15, 1891, is concerned with Mes hôpitaux and the curious blend of mysticism and cynicism in Verlaine.

  40. The preface to Joies and numerous articles in the Entretiens politiques et littéraires are his chief contributions. See Entretiens politiques et littéraires, I, 3-12, 56-60; II, 155-162, 213-217.

  41. F. Vielé-Griffin, Poèmes et poésies, p. 220.

  42. Gustave Kahn, Premiers poèmes, p. 213.

  43. Ibid., pp. 177-178.

  44. Entretiens politiques et littéraires, III (September, 1891), 110-114.

  45. See Mockel's article on Fernand Séverin's first volume Le Lys (1888). This review appeared in La Wallonie, III, 137.

  46. Stuart Merrill, Les Fastes, p. 59.

  47. Mercure de France II (February, 1891), 117-118.

  48. Ibid. (April, 1891), p. 248.

  49. Concerning Devoluy's admiration for Ghil see La Revue indépendante, XXI (October, 1891), 128-133.

  50. Mercure de France, III, 163-167. Raynaud mentions Barrès, Huysmans, and Bloy as these dangerous forces, and makes no allusion to Jules Bois, V.-E. Michelet, or Péladan. He appears to be thinking of some form of Christian mysticism or, in the case of Huysmans, of satanism rather than the esoteric manifestations of the epoch. Perhaps Paul Adam's pronouncement that the future of literature would be in mysticism served as a point of departure for Raynaud's theories.

René Wellek (essay date 1970)

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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 1912.1

What I want to discuss is something much more specific: not even symbol and symbolism in literature but the term and concept of symbolism as a period in literary history. It can, I suggest, be conveniently used as a general term for the literature in all Western countries following the decline of nineteenth-century realism and naturalism and preceding the rise of the new avant-garde movements: futurism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism, or whatever else. How has it come about? Can such a use be justified?

We must distinguish among different problems: the history of the word need not be identical with the history of the concept as we might today formulate it. We must ask, on the one hand, what the contemporaries meant by it, who called himself a “symbolist,” or who wanted to be included in a movement called “symbolism,” and on the other hand, what modern scholarship might decide about who is to be included and what characteristics of the period seem decisive. In speaking of “symbolism” as a period-term located in history we must also think of its situation in space. Literary terms most frequently radiate from one center but do so unevenly; they seem to stop at the frontiers of some countries or cross them and languish there or, surprisingly, flourish more vigorously on a new soil. A geography of literary terms is needed which might attempt to account for the spread and distribution of terms by examining rival terms or accidents of biography or simply the total situation of a literature.

There seems to be a widespread agreement that the literary history of the centuries since the end of the Middle Ages can be divided into five successive periods: Renaissance, baroque, classicism, romanticism, and realism. Among these terms baroque is a comparative newcomer which has not been accepted everywhere, though there seems a clear need of a name for the style that reacted against the Renaissance but preceded classicism.2 There is, however, far less agreement as to what term should be applied to the literature that followed the end of the dominance of realism in the 1880s and 90s. The term “modernism” and its variants, such as the German “Die Moderne,”3 have been used but have the obvious disadvantage that they can be applied to any contemporary art. Particularly in English, the term “modern” has preserved its early meaning of a contrast to classical antiquity or is used for everything that occurred since the Middle Ages. The Cambridge Modern History is an obvious example. The attempts to discriminate between the “modern” period now belonging to the past and the “contemporaneous” seem forced, at least terminologically. “Modo,” after all, means “now.” “Modernism” used so broadly as to include all avant-garde art obscures the break between the symbolist period and all postsymbolist movements such as futurism, surrealism, existentialism, etc. In the East it is used as a catchall for everything disapproved as decadent, formalistic, and alienated: it has become a pejorative term set against the glories of socialist realism.

The older terms were appealed to at the turn of the century by many theorists and slogan writers, who either believed that these terms are applicable to all literature or consciously thought of themselves as reviving the style of an older period. Some spoke of a new “classicism,” particularly in France, assuming that all good art must be classical. Croce shares this view. Those who felt a kinship with the romantic age, mainly in Germany, spoke of “Neuromantik,” appealing to Friedrich Schlegel's dictum that all poetry is romantic. Realism also asserted its claim, mainly in Marxist contexts, in which all art is considered “realistic” or at least “a reflection of reality.” I need only allude to Georg Lukács' recent Aesthetik, in which this thesis is repeated with obsessive urgency. I have counted the phrase “Widerspiegelung der Wirklichkeit” in the first volume; it appears 1,032 times. I was too lazy or bored to count it in Volume Two. All these monisms endanger meaningful schemes of literary periodization. Nor can one be satisfied with a dichotomy such as Fritz Strich's “Klassik und Romantik,” which leads away from period concepts into a universal typology, a simple division of the world into sheep and goats. For many years I have argued the advantage of a multiple scheme of periods, since it allows a variety of criteria. The one criterion “realism” would divide all art into realistic and nonrealistic art and thus would allow only one approving adjective: “real” or some variant such as “true” or “lifelike.” A multiple scheme comes much closer to the actual variety of the process of history. Period must be conceived neither as some essence which has to be intuited as a Platonic idea nor as a mere arbitrary linguistic label. It should be understood as a “regulative idea,” as a system of norms, conventions, and values which can be traced in its rise, spread, and decline, in competition with preceding and following norms, conventions, and values.4

“Symbolism” seems the obvious term for the dominant style which followed nineteenth-century realism. It was propounded in Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931) and is assumed as a matter of course in Maurice Bowra's Heritage of Symbolism (1943). We must beware, of course, of confusing this historical form with age-old symbolism or with the view that all art is symbolic, as language is a system of symbols. Symbolism in the sense of a use of symbols in literature is clearly omnipresent in literature of many styles, periods, and civilizations. Symbols are all-pervasive in medieval literature and even the classics of realism—Tolstoy and Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens—use symbols, often prominently. I myself am guilty of arguing for the crucial role of symbol in any definition of romanticism, and I have written at length on the long German debate from Goethe to Friedrich Theodor Vischer about the meaning of the term “symbol” and its contrast to the term “allegory.”5

For our purposes I want to focus on the fortunes of the concept as a term, first for a school, then as a movement, and finally as a period. The term “symbolisme” as the designation for a group of poets was first proposed by Jean Moréas, the French poet of Greek extraction. In 1885 he was disturbed by a journalistic attack on the decadents in which he was named together with Mallarmé. He protested: “the so-called decadents seek the pure Concept and the eternal Symbol in their art, before anything else.” With some contempt for the mania of critics for labels, he suggested the term “Symbolistes” to replace the inappropriate “décadents.”6 In 1886 Moréas started a review Le Symboliste, which perished after four issues. On September 18, 1886, he published a manifesto of “Symbolisme” in the Figaro.7 Moréas, however, soon deserted his own brainchild and founded another school he called the “école romane.” On September 14, 1891, in another number of the Figaro Moréas blandly announced that “symbolisme” was dead.8 Thus “symbolisme” was an ephemeral name for a very small clique of French poets. The only name still remembered besides Moréas' is Gustave Kahn. It is easy to collect pronouncements by the main contemporary poets repudiating the term for themselves. Verlaine, in particular, was vehemently resentful of this “Allemandisme” and even wrote a little poem beginning “À bas le symbolisme mythe / et termite.”9

In a way which would need detailed tracing, the term, however, caught on in the later 80s and early 90s as a blanket name for recent developments in French poetry and its anticipations. Before Moréas' manifesto, Anatole Baju, in Décadent, April 10, 1886, spoke of Mallarmé as “the master who was the first to formulate the symbolic doctrine.”10 Two critics, Charles Morice, with La Littérature de tout à l'heure (1889) and Téodore de Wyzéwa, born in Poland, first in the essay “Le Symbolisme de M. Mallarmé” (1887), seemed to have been the main agents, though Morice spoke rather of “synthèse” than of symbol, and Wyzéwa thought that “symbol” was only a pretext and explained Mallarmé's poetry purely by its analogy to music.11 As early as 1894 Saint Antoine (pseudonym for Henri Mazel) prophesied that “undoubtedly, symbolism will be the label under which our period will be classed in the history of French literature.”12

It is still a matter of debate in French literary history when this movement came to an end. It was revived several times expressly—e.g. in 1905 around a review, Vers et prose. Its main critic, Robert de Souza, in a series of articles, “Où Nous en sommes” (also published separately, 1906), ridiculed the many attempts to bury symbolism as premature and proudly claimed that Gustave Kahn, Verhaeren, Vielé-Griffin, Maeterlinck, and Régnier were then as active as ever.13 Valéry professed so complete an allegiance to the ideals of Mallarmé that it is difficult not to think of him as a continuator of symbolism, though in 1938, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the symbolist manifesto, Valéry doubted the existence of symbolism and denied that there is a symbolist aesthetic.14 Marcel Proust, in the posthumously published last volume of his great series Le Temps retrouvé (1926), formulated an explicitly symbolist aesthetics. But his own attitude to symbolist contemporaries was often ambiguous or negative. In 1896 Proust had written an essay condemning obscurity in poetry.15 Proust admired Maeterlinck but disliked Péguy and Claudel. He even wrote a pastiche of Régnier, a mock-solemn description of a head cold.16 When Le Temps retrouvé (1926) was published and when a few years later (1933) Valery Larbaud proclaimed Proust a symbolist, symbolism had, at least in French poetry, definitely been replaced by surrealism.17

André Barre's book on symbolism (1911) and particularly Guy Michaud's Message poétique du symbolisme (1947), as well as many other books of French literary scholarship, have, with the hindsight of literary historians, traced the different phases of a vast French symbolist movement: the first phase, with Baudelaire (who died in 1867) as the precursor; the second, when Verlaine and Mallarmé were at the height of their powers, before the 1886 group; the third, when the name became established; and then, in the twentieth century, what Michaud calls “Néo-symbolisme,” represented by “La Jeune Parque” of Valéry and L'Annonce faite à Marie of Claudel, both dating from 1915.18 It seems a coherent and convincing conception which needs to be extended to prose writers and dramatists: to Huysmans after A Rebours (1884), to the early Gide, to Proust in part, and among dramatists, at least to Maeterlinck, who, with his plays L'Intruse and Les Aveugles (1890) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), assured a limited penetration of symbolism on the stage.

Knowledge of the French movement and admiration for it soon spread to the other European countries. We must, however, distinguish between reporting on French events and even admiration shown by translations, and a genuine transfer and assimilation of the French movement in another literature. This process varies considerably from country to country; and the variation needs to be explained by the different traditions which the French importation confronted.

In English, George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and his Impressions and Opinions (1891) gave sketchy and often poorly informed accounts of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Laforgue. Mallarmé's poetry is dismissed as “aberrations of a refined mind,” and symbolism is oddly defined as “saying the opposite of what you mean.” The three essays on Mallarmé by Edmund Gosse, all dating from 1893, are hardly more perceptive. After the poet's death Gosse turned sharply against him. “Now that he is no longer here the truth must be said about Mallarmé. He was hardly a poet.” Even Arthur Symons, whose book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) made the decisive breakthrough for England and Ireland, was very lukewarm at first. While praising Verlaine (in Academy, 1891) he referred to the “brain-sick little school of Symbolistes’’ and “the noisy little school of Décadents,” and even in later articles on Mallarmé he complained of “jargon and meaningless riddles.”19 But then he turned around and produced the entirely favorable Symbolist Movement. It should not, however, be overrated as literary criticism or history. It is a rather lame impressionistic account of Nerval, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Maeterlinck, with emphasis on Verlaine. There is no chapter on Baudelaire.20 But most importantly, the book was dedicated to W. B. Yeats, proclaiming him “the chief representative of that movement in our country.” Symons had made his first trip to Paris in 1889; he had visited Mallarmé, met Huysmans and Maeterlinck, and a year later met Verlaine, who in 1893 became his guest on his ill-fated visit to London. Symons knew Yeats vaguely since 1891, but they became close friends in 1895 only after Yeats had completed his study of Blake and had elaborated his own system of symbols from other sources: occultism, Blake, and Irish folklore. The edition of Blake Yeats had prepared with Edwin Ellis in 1893 was introduced by an essay on “The Necessity of Symbolism.” In 1894 Yeats visited Paris in the company of Symons and there saw a performance of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axël.21 The essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900) is then Yeats' first full statement of his symbolist creed.22 Symons' dedication to Yeats shows an awareness of symbolism as an international movement. “In Germany,” he says, exaggerating greatly, “it seems to be permeating the whole of literature, its spirit is that which is deepest in Ibsen, it has absorbed the one new force in Italy, Gabriele D'Annunzio. I am told of a group of symbolists in Russian literature, there is another in Dutch literature, in Portugal it has a little school of its own under Eugenio de Castro. I even saw some faint stirrings that way in Spain.”

Symons should have added the United States. Or could he in 1899? There were intelligent and sympathetic reports of the French movement very early. T. S. Perry wrote on “The Latest Literary Fashion in France” in The Cosmopolitan (1892), T. Child on “Literary Paris—The New Poetry” in Harper's (1896), and Aline Gorren on “The French Symbolists” in Scribner's (1893). The almost forgotten Vance Thompson, who, fresh from Paris, edited the oddly named review M'lle New York, wrote several perceptive essays, mainly on Mallarmé in 1895 (reprinted in French Portraits, 1900) which convey some accurate information on his theories and even attempt an explication of his poetry with some success.23 But only James Huneker became the main importer of recent French literature into the United States. In 1896 he defended the French symbolists against the slurs in Max Nordau's silly Entartung and began to write a long series of articles on Maeterlinck, Laforgue, and many others, not bothering to conceal his dependence on his French master, Remy de Gourmount, to whom he dedicated his book of essays Visionaries (1905).24 But the actual impact of French symbolist poetry on American writing was greatly delayed. René Taupin, in his L'Influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine (1929), traced some echoes in forgotten American versifiers of the turn of the century, but only two Americans living then in England, Ezra Pound around 1908 and T. S. Eliot around 1914, reflect the French influence in significant poetry.

More recently and in retrospect one hears of a symbolist period in American literature: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are its main poets; Henry James, Faulkner, and O'Neill, in very different ways and in different stages of their career, show marked affinities with its techniques and outlook. Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931) was apparently the very first book which definitely conceived of symbolism as an international movement and singled out Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Valéry, Proust, and Thomas Mann as examples of a movement which, he believed, had come to an end at the time of his writing. Here we find the conception formulated which, very generally, is the thesis of this paper and the assumption of many historians since Wilson's sketch. Wilson's sources were the writings of Huneker, whom he admired greatly, and the instruction in French literature he received in Princeton from Christian Gauss.25 But the insight into the unity and continuity of the international movement and the selection of the great names was his own. We might only deplore the inclusion of Gertrude Stein. But I find it difficult to believe that Wilson's book could have had any influence outside the English-speaking world.

In the United States Wilson's reasonable and moderate plea for an international movement was soon displaced by attempts to make the whole of the American literary tradition symbolist. F. O. Matthiessen's The American Renaissance (1941) is based on a distinction between symbol and allegory very much in the terms of the distinction introduced by Goethe. Allegory appears as inferior to symbol: Hawthorne inferior to Melville. But in Charles Feidelson's Symbolism and American Literature (1956) the distinction between modern symbolism and the use of symbols by romantic authors is completely obliterated. Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Whitman appear as pure symbolists avant la lettre, and their ancestry is traced back to the Puritans, who paradoxically appear as incomplete, frustrated symbolists. It can be rightly objected that the old Puritans were sharply inimical to images and symbols and that there is a gulf between the religious conception of signs of God's Providence and the aesthetic use of symbols in the novels of Hawthorne and Melville and even in the Platonizing aesthetics of Emerson.26

The symbolist conception of American literature is still prevalent today. It owes its dominance to the attempt to exalt the great American writers to myth-makers and providers of a substitute religion. James Baird, in Ishmael (1956), puts it unabashedly. Melville is “the supreme example of the artistic creator engaged in the act of making new symbols to replace the ‘lost’ symbols of Protestant Christianity.”27 A very active trend in American criticism expanded symbolist interpretation to all types and periods of literature, imposing it on writings which have no such meaning or have to be twisted to assume it. Harry Levin rightly complained in an address, “Symbolism and Fiction” (1956), that “every hero may seem to have a thousand faces; every heroine may be a white goddess incognita; and every fishing trip turns out to be another quest for the Holy Grail.”28 The impact of ideas from the Cambridge anthropologists and from Carl Jung is obvious. In the study of medieval texts a renewed interest in the fourfold levels of meaning in Dante's letter to Can Grande has persuaded a whole group of American scholars, mainly under the influence of D. W. Robertson, to interpret or misinterpret Chaucer, the Pearl poet, and Langland in these terms.29 They should bear in mind that Thomas Aquinas recognized only a literal sense in a work invented by human industry and that he reserved the other three senses for Scripture.30 The symbolist interpretation reaches heights of ingenuity in the writing of Northrop Frye, who began with a book on Blake and, in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), conceived of the whole of literature as a self-enclosed system of symbols and myths, “existing in its own universe, no longer a commentary on life or reality, but containing life and reality in a system of verbal relationships.” In this grandiose conception all distinctions between periods and styles are abolished: “the literary universe is a universe in which everything is potentially identical with everything else.”31 Hence the old distinctions between myth, symbol, and allegory disappear. One of Frye's followers, Angus Fletcher, in his book on Allegory (1964), exalts allegory as the central procedure of art, while Frye still holds fast to symbolism, recognizing that “the critics are often prejudiced against allegory without knowing the real reason, which is that continuous allegory prescribes the direction of his commentary, and so restricts his freedom.”32

The story of the spread of symbolism is very different in other countries. The effect in Italy was ostensibly rather small. Soffici's pamphlet on Rimbaud in 1911 is usually considered the beginning of the French symbolist influence, but there was an early propagandist for Mallarmé, Vittorio Pica, who was heavily dependent on French sources, particularly Téodor de Wyzéwa. His articles, in the Gazetta letteraria (1885-86), on the French poets do not use the term; but in 1896 he replaced “decadent” and “Byzantine” by “symbolist.”33 D'Annunzio, who knew and used some French symbolists, would be classed as “decadent” today, and the poets around Ungaretti and Montale as “hermetic.” In a recent book by Mario Luzi, L'Idea simbolista (1959), Pascoli, Dino Campana, and Arturo Onofri are called symbolist poets, but Luzi uses the term so widely that he begins his anthology of symbolism with Hölderlin and Novalis, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and can include Poe, Browning, Patmore, Swinburne, Hopkins, and Francis Thompson among its precursors. Still, his list of symbolist poets, French, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and Greek, is, on the whole, reasonable.34 Onofri was certainly strongly influenced by Mallarmé and later by Rudolf Steiner; Pascoli, however, seems to me no symbolist in his poetry, though he gave extremely symbolist interpretations of Dante.35 It might be wiser to think of “ermetismo” as the Italian name for symbolism: Montale and possibly Dino Campana are genuine symbolists.

While symbolism, at least as a definite school or movement, was absent in Italy, it is central in the history of Spanish poetry. The Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío initiated it after his short stay in Paris in 1892. He wrote poems under the symbolist influence and addressed, for instance, a fervent hymn to Verlaine.36 The influence of French symbolist poetry changed completely the oratorical or popular style of Spanish lyrical poetry. The closeness of Guillén to Mallarmé and Valéry seems too obvious to deny, and the Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig (1873-1909) is clearly in the symbolist tradition, often of the obscurest manner.37 Still, the Spanish critics favor the term “Modernismo,” which is used sometimes so inclusively that it covers all modern Spanish poetry and even the so-called “generation of 1898,” the prose writers Azorín, Baroja, and Unamuno, whose associations with symbolism were quite tenuous.38 “Symbolism” can apply only to one trend in modern Spanish literature, as the romantic popular tradition was stronger there than elsewhere. García Lorca's poetry can serve as the best known example of the peculiar Spanish synthesis of the folksy and the symbolical, the gypsy song and the myth. Still, the continuity from Darío to Jiménez, Antonio Machado, Alberti, and then to Guillén seems to me evident. Jorge Guillén in his Harvard lectures, Language and Poetry (1961), finds “no label convincing.” “A period look,” he argues, does not signify a “group style.” In Spain there were, he thinks, fewer “isms” than elsewhere and the break with the past was far less abrupt. He reflects that “any name seeking to give unity to a historical period is the invention of posterity.” But while eschewing the term “symbolism,” he characterizes himself and his contemporaries well enough by expounding their common creed: their belief in the marriage of Idea and music—in short, their belief in the ideal of Mallarmé.39 Following a vague suggestion made by Remy de Gourmont, the rediscovery of Góngora by Ortega y Gasset, Gerardo Diego, Dámaso Alonso, and Alfonso Reyes around 1927 fits into the picture: they couple Góngora and Mallarmé as the two poets who in the history of all poetry have gone furthest in the search for absolute poetry, for the quintessence of the poetic.40

In Germany the spread of symbolism was far less complete than Symons assumed in 1899. Stefan George had come to Paris in 1889, had visited Mallarmé and met many poets, but after his return to Germany he avoided, I assume deliberately, the term “symbolism” for himself and his circle. He translated a selection from Baudelaire (1891) and smaller samples from Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Régnier (in Zeitgenössische Dichter, 1905), but his own poetry does not, I think, show very close parallels to the French masters. Oddly enough, the poems of Vielé-Griffin seem to have left the most clearly discernible traces on George's own writings.41 As early as 1892 one of George's adherents, Carl August Klein, protested in George's periodical, Blätter für die Kunst, against the view of George's dependence on the French. Wagner, Nietzsche, Böcklin, and Klinger, he says, show that there is an indigenous opposition to naturalism in Germany as everywhere in the West.42 George himself spoke later of the French poets as his “former allies,” and in Gundolf's authoritative book on George the French influence is minimized, if not completely denied.43 Among the theorists of the George circle Friedrich Gundolf had the strongest symbolist leanings: Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911) and Goethe (1916) are based on the distinction of symbol-allegory, with symbol always the higher term.44 Still, the term symbolism did not catch on in Germany as a name for any specific group, though Hofmannsthal—e.g. in “Das Gespräch über Gedichte” of 1903—proclaimed the symbol the one element necessary in poetry.45 Later, the influence of Rimbaud—apparently largely in German translation—on Georg Trakl has been demonstrated with certainty.46 But if we examine German books on twentieth-century literature, symbolism seems rarely used. I found a section so called in Willi Duwe's Die Dichtung des 20. Jahrhunderts (1936) which includes Hofmannsthal, Dauthendey, Calé, Rilke, and George, while E. H. Lüth's Literatur als Geschichte (Deutsche Dichtung von 1885 bis 1947), published in 1947, treats the same poets under the label “Neuromantik and Impressionismus.” Later, however, we find a section, “Parasymbolismus,” which deals with Musil and Broch. Hugo Friedrich, in his Struktur der modernen Lyrik (1956), avoids the terms and argues that the quick succession of modernist styles—dadaism, surrealism, futurism, expressionism, unanimism, hermetism, and so on—creates an optical illusion which hides the fact of a direct continuity through Mallarmé, Valéry, Guillén, Ungaretti, and Eliot.47 The little anthology in the back of the book adds St. John Perse, Jiménez, García Lorca, Alberti, and Montale to these names. Friedrich's list seems to me the list of the main symbolist poets, even though Friedrich objects to the name. Clearly, German literary scholarship has not been converted to the term, though Wolfgang Kayser's article “Der europäische Symbolismus” (1953) had pleaded for a wide concept in which he included, in addition to the French poets, D'Annunzio, Yeats, Valéry, Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner.48

In Russia we find the strongest symbolist group of poets who called themselves that. The close links with Paris at that time may help to explain this, or possibly also the strong consciousness of a tradition of symbolism in the Russian Church and in some of the Orthodox thinkers of the immediate past. Vladimir Solovëv was regarded as a precursor. In 1892 Zinaida Vengerova wrote a sympathetic account of the French symbolists for Vestnik Evropy,49 while in the following year Max Nordau's Entartung caused a sensation by its satirical account of recent French poetry which had repercussions on Tolstoy's What is Art?, as late as 1898. Bryusov emerged as the leading symbolist poet: he translated Maeterlinck's L'Intruse and wrote a poem “Iz Rimbaud” as early as 1892.50 In 1894 he published two little volumes under the title Russkie simvolisty. That year Bryusov wrote poems with titles such as “In the Spirit of the French Symbolists” and “In the Manner of Stéphane Mallarmé” (though these were not published till 1935) and brought out a translation of Verlaine's Romances sans paroles.51 Bryusov had later contacts with René Ghil, Mallarmé's pupil, and derived from him the idea of “instrumentation” in poetry which was to play such a great role in the theories of the Russian Formalists.52 In the meantime Dimitri Merezhkovsky had, in 1893, published a manifesto: On the Causes of the Decline and the New Trends of Contemporary Russian Literature, which recommended symbolism, though Merezhkovsky appealed to the Germans: to Goethe and the romantics rather than to the French.53 Merezhkovsky's pamphlet foreshadows the split in the Russian symbolist movement. The younger men, Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov as well as Bely, distanced themselves from Bryusov and Balmont. Blok, in an early diary (1901-02), condemned Bryusov as decadent and opposed to his Parisian symbolism his own, Russian, rooted in the poetry of Tyutchev, Fet, Polonsky, and Solovëv.54 Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910 shared Blok's view. The French influence seemed to him “adolescently unreasonable and, in fact, not very fertile,” while his own symbolism appealed to Russian nationalism and to the general mystical tradition.55 Later Bely was to add occultism and Rudolf Steiner and his “anthroposophy.” The group of poets who called themselves “Acmeists” (Gumilëv, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam) was a direct outgrowth of symbolism.56 The mere fact that they appealed to the early symbolist Innokenty Annensky shows the continuity with symbolism in spite of their distaste for the occult and their emphasis on what they thought of as classical clarity. Symbolism dominates Russian poetry between about 1892 and 1914, when Futurism emerged as a slogan and the Russian Formalists attacked the whole concept of poetry as imagery.

If we glance at the other Slavic countries we are struck by the diversity of their reactions. Poland was informed early on about the French movement, and Polish poetry was influenced by the French symbolist movement, but the term “Młoda Polska” was preferred. In Wilhelm Feldmann's Współczesna literatura polska (1905) contemporary poetry is discussed as “decadentism,” but Wyspiański (a symbolist if ever there was one) appears under the chapter heading: “On the Heights of Romanticism.”57 All the histories of Polish literature I have seen speak of “Modernism,” “Decadentism,” “Idealism,” “Neo-romanticism,” and occasionally call a poet such as Miriam (Zenon Przesmycki) a symbolist, but they never seem to use the term as a general name for a period in Polish literature.58

In Czech literature the situation was more like that in Russia: Březina, Sova, and Hlaváček were called symbolists, and the idea of a school or at least a group of Czech symbolist poets is firmly established. The term “Moderna” (possibly because of the periodical Moderní Revue, founded in 1894) is definitely associated with decadentism, fin de siècle, a group represented by Arnošt Procházka. A hymnical, optimistic, even chiliastic poet such as Březina cannot and could not be classed with them. The great critic F. X. Šalda wrote of the “school of symbolists” as early as 1891, calling Verlaine, Villiers, and Mallarmé its masters but denied that there is a school of symbolists with dogmas, codices, and manifestoes.59 His very first important article, “Synthetism in the New Art” (1892), expounded the aesthetics of Morice and Hennequin for the benefit of the Czechs, then still mainly dependent on German models.60

The unevenness of the penetration of both the influence of the French movement and very strikingly of the acceptance of the term raises the question whether we can account for these differences in causal terms. It sounds heretical or obscurantist in this age of scientific explanation to ascribe much to chance, to casual contacts, and to personal predilections. Why was the term so immensely successful in France, in the United States, and in Russia, less so in England and Spain, and hardly at all in Italy and Germany? In Germany there was even the tradition of the continuous debate about symbol since Goethe and Schelling; before the French movement Friedrich Theodor Vischer discussed the symbol elaborately and still the term did not catch on.61 One can think of all kinds of explanations: a deliberate decision by the poets to distance themselves from the French developments; or the success of the terms “Die Moderne” and “Neuromantik.” Still, the very number of such explanations suggests that the variables are so great that we cannot account for these divergencies in any systematic manner.

If we, at long last, turn to the central question of what the exact content of the term is, we must obviously distinguish among the four concentric circles defining its scope. At its narrowest, “symbolism” refers to the French group which called itself “symbolist” in 1886. Its theory was rather rudimentary. These poets mainly wanted poetry to be non-rhetorical—i.e. they asked for a break with the tradition of Hugo and the Parnassiens. They wanted words not merely to state but to suggest; they wanted to use metaphors, allegories, and symbols not only as decorations but as organizing principles of their poems; they wanted their verse to be “musical,” in practice to stop using the oratorical cadences of the French alexandrines, and in some cases to break completely with rhyme. Free verse—whose invention is usually ascribed to Gustave Kahn—was possibly the most enduring achievement which has survived all vicissitudes of style. Kahn himself in 1894 summed up the doctrine simply as “antinaturalism, antiprosaism in poetry, a search for freedom in the efforts in art, in reaction against the regimentation of the Parnasse and the naturalists.”62 This sounds very meager today: freedom from restrictions has been, after all, the slogan of a great many movements in art.

It is better to think of “symbolism” in a wider sense: as the broad movement in France from Nerval and Baudelaire to Claudel and Valéry. We can restate the theories propounded and will be confronted by an enormous variety. We can characterize it more concretely and say, for example, that in symbolist poetry the image becomes “thing.” The relation of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor is reversed. The utterance is divorced, we may add, from the situation: time and place, history and society, are played down. The inner world, the durée, in the Bergsonian sense, is represented or often merely hinted at as “it,” the thing or the person hidden. One could say that the grammatical predicate has become the subject. Clearly such poetry can easily be justified by an occult view of the world. But this is not necessary: it might imply a feeling for analogy, for a web of correspondences, a rhetoric of metamorphoses in which everything reflects everything else. Hence the great role of synesthesia, which, though rooted in physiological facts and found all over the history of poetry, became at that time merely a stylistic device, a mannerism easily imitated and transmitted.63 This characterization could be elaborated considerably if we bear in mind that style and world view go together and only together can define the character of a period or even of a single poet.

Let me try to show, at least, how diverse and even incompatible were the theories of two such related poets as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Baudelaire's aesthetic is mainly “romantic,” not in the sense of emotionalism, nature worship, and exaltation of the ego, central in French romanticism, but rather in the English and German tradition of a glorification of creative imagination, a rhetoric of metamorphoses and universal analogy. Though there are subsidiary strands in Baudelaire's aesthetics, at his finest he grasps the role of imagination, “constructive imagination,” as he calls it in a term ultimately derived from Coleridge.64 It gives a metaphysical meaning, “a positive relation with the infinite.”65 Art is another cosmos which transforms and hence humanizes nature. By his creation the artist abolishes the gulf between subject and object, man and nature. Art is “to create a suggestive magic containing at one and the same time the object and the subject, the external world and the artist himself.”66

Mallarmé says almost the opposite in spite of some superficial resemblances and the common attachment to Poe and Wagner. Mallarmé was the first poet radically discontent with the ordinary language of communication; he attempted to construe an entirely separate language of poetry far more consistently than older cultivators of “poetic diction” such as the practitioners of trobar clus, or Góngora, or Mallarmé's contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His aim of transforming language was, no doubt, in part negative: to exclude society, nature, and the person of the poet himself. But it was also positive: language was again to become “real,” language was to be magic, words were to become things. But this is not, I think, sufficient reason to call Mallarmé a mystic. Even the depersonalization he requires is not mystical. Impersonality is rather objectivity, Truth. Art reaches for the Idea, which is ultimately inexpressible, because so abstract and general as to be devoid of any concrete traits. The term “flower” seems to him poetic because it suggests the “one, absent from all bouquets.”67 Art thus can only hint and suggest, not transform as it should in Baudelaire. The “symbol” is only one device to achieve this effect. The so-called “negative” aesthetics of Mallarmé is thus nothing obscure. It had its psychological basis in a feeling of sterility, impotence, and final silence. He was a perfectionist who proposed something impossible of fulfillment: the book to end all books. “Everything on earth exists to be contained in a book.”68 Like many poets before him, Mallarmé wants to express the mystery of the universe but feels that this mystery is not only insoluble and immensely dark but also hollow, empty, silent, Nothingness itself. There seems no need to appeal to Buddhism, Hegel, Schopenhauer, or Wagner to account for this.69 The atmosphere of nineteenth-century pessimism and the general Neoplatonic tradition in aesthetics suffice. Art searches for the Absolute but despairs of ever reaching it. The essence of the world is Nothingness, and the poet can only speak of this Nothingness. Art alone survives in the universe. Man's main vocation is to be an artist, a poet, who can save something from the general wreckage of time. The work or, in Mallarmé's terms, the Book is suspended over the Void, the silent godless Nothingness. Poetry is resolutely cut off from concrete reality, from the expression of the personality of the poet, from any rhetoric or emotion, and becomes only a Sign, signifying Nothing.70 In Baudelaire, on the other hand, poetry transforms nature, extracts flowers from evil, creates a new myth, reconciles man and nature.

But if we examine the actual verse of the symbolists of this period, we cannot be content with formulas either of creative imagination, of suggestion, or of pure or absolute poetry.

On the third wider circle of abstraction we can apply the term to the whole period on an international scale. Every such term is arbitrary, but symbolism can be defended as rooted in the concepts of the period, as distinct in meaning, and as clearly setting off the period from that preceding it: realism or naturalism. The difference from romanticism may be less certainly implied. Obviously there is a continuity with romanticism, and particularly German romanticism, also in France, as has been recently argued again by Werner Vordtriede in his Novalis und die französischen Symbolisten (1963).71 The direct contact of the French with the German romantics came late and should not be overrated. Jean Thorel, in “Les Romantiques allemandes et les symbolistes français,” seems to have been the first to point out the relation.72 Maeterlinck's article on Novalis (1894) and his little anthology (1896) came late in the movement.73 But Wagner of course mediated between the symbolists and German mythology, though Mallarmé's attitude, admiring toward the music, was tinged with irony for Wagner's subject matter.74 Early in the century Heine, a romantique défroqué as he called himself, played the role of an intermediary which, to my mind, has been exaggerated in Kurt Weinberg's study, Henri Heine: Héraut du symbolisme français (1954).75 E. T. A. Hoffmann, we should not forget, was widely translated into French and could supply occult motifs, a transcendental view of music, and the theory and practice of synesthesia.

Possibly even more important were the indirect contacts through English writers: through Carlyle's chapter on symbolism in Sartor Resartus and his essay on Novalis; through Coleridge, from whom, through another intermediary, Mrs. Crowe, Baudelaire drew his definition of creative imagination; and through Emerson, who was translated by Edgar Quinet.76

Also, French thinkers of the early nineteenth century knew the theory of symbolism at least, from the wide application to all the religions of the world made by Creuzer, whose Symbolik was translated into French in 1825.77 Pierre Leroux used the idea of “symbolic poetry” prominently in the early thirties.78 There was Edgar Allan Poe, who drew on Coleridge and A. W. Schlegel and seemed so closely to anticipate Baudelaire's views that Baudelaire quoted him as if he were Poe himself, sometimes dropping all quotations marks.79

The enormous influence of Poe on the French demonstrates, however, most clearly the difference between romanticism and symbolism. Poe is far from being a representative of the romantic world-view or of the romantic aesthetic, in which the imagination is conceived as transforming nature. Poe has been aptly described as an “angel in a machine”: he combines a faith in technique and even technology, a distrust of inspiration, a rationalistic eighteenth-century mind with a vague occult belief in “supernal” beauty.80 The distrust of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it; while Rilke, a symbolist in many of his procedures and views, appears as highly romantic in his reliance on moments of inspiration. This is why Hugo Friedrich excludes him from his book on the modern lyric and even disparages him in a harsh passage.81 This is why the attempt to make Mallarmé a spiritual descendant of Novalis, as Vordtriede tried, must fail. Mallarmé, one might grant, aims at transcendence, but it is an empty transcendence, while Novalis rapturously adores the unity of the mysterious universe. In short, the romantics were Rousseauists; the symbolists, beginning with Baudelaire, believe in the fall of man or, if they do not use the religious phraseology, know that man is limited and is not, as Novalis believed, the Messiah of nature. The end of the romantic period is clearly marked by the victory of positivism and scientism, which soon led to disillusionment and pessimism. Most symbolists were non-Christians and even atheists, even if they tried to find a new religion in occultism or flirted with Oriental religions. They were pessimists who need not have read Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, as Laforgue did, to succumb to the mood of decadence, fin de siècle, Götterdämmerung, or the death of God prophesied by Nietzsche.82

Symbolism is also clearly set off from the new avant-garde movements after 1914: futurism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, and so on. There the faith in language has crumbled completely, while in Mallarmé and Valéry language preserves its cognitive and even magic power: Valéry's collection of poems is rightly called Charmes. Orpheus is the mythological hero of the poet, charming the animals, trees, and even stones. With more recent art the view of analogy disappears: Kafka has nothing of it. Postsymbolist art is abstract and allegorical rather than symbolic. The image, in surrealism, has no beyond: it wells, at most, from the subconscious of the individual.

Finally, there is the highest abstraction, the wide largest circle: the use of “symbolism” in all literature, of all ages. But then the term, broken loose from its historical moorings, lacks concrete content and remains merely the name for a phenomenon almost universal in all art.

These reflections must lead to what only can be a recommendation, to use the third sense of our term, to call the period of European literature roughly between 1885 and 1914 “symbolism,” to see it as an international movement which radiated originally from France but produced great writers and great poetry also elsewhere. In Ireland and England: Yeats and Eliot; in the United States: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; in Germany: George, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal; in Russia: Blok, Ivanov, and Bely; in Spain and South America: Darío, Machado, and Guillén. If we, as we should, extend the meaning of symbolism to prose, we can see it clearly in the late Henry James, in Joyce, in the later Thomas Mann, in Proust, in the early Gide and Faulkner, in D. H. Lawrence; and if we add the drama, we recognize it in the later stages of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hauptmann, and in O'Neill. There is symbolist criticism of distinction: an aesthetics in Mallarmé and Valéry, a looser creed in Remy de Gourmont, in Eliot, and in Yeats, and a flourishing school of symbolist interpretation, particularly in the United States. Much of the French “new criticism” is frankly symbolist. Roland Barthes' new pamphlet, Critique et vérité (1966), pleads for a complete liberty of symbolist interpretation.

Still, we must not forget our initial reminder. A period concept can never exhaust its meaning. It is not a class concept of which the individual works are cases. It is a regulative idea: it struggles with preceding and following ideals of art. In the time under consideration the strength of the survivals was particularly great: Hauptmann's Die Weber was performed in the same year (1892) as Blätter für die Kunst began to appear; Blok's Poems on the Beautiful Lady were written in the same year (1901) as Gorky's Lower Depths. Within the same author and even within the same work of art the struggle was waged at times. Edmond Jaloux called Joyce “at the same time a realist and a symbolist.”83 The same is true of Proust and Mann. Ulysses combines symbolism and naturalism, as no other book of the time, into a synthesis of grand proportion and strong tension. In Trieste Joyce lectured on two English writers and on two English writers alone: they were characteristically Defoe and Blake.84

As agreement on the main periods of European literature grows, so agreement to add the period term “symbolism” to the five periods now accepted should increase. But even were a different term to be victorious (though none I can think of seems to me even remotely preferable), we should always recognize that such a term has fulfilled its function as a tool of historiography if it has made us think not only about individual works and authors but about schools, trends, and movements and their international expansion. Symbolism is at least a literary term which will help us to counteract the dependence of much literary history on periodization derived from political and social history (such as the term “Imperialism” used in Marxist literary histories, which is perfectly meaningless applied to poetry at that time). Symbolism is a term (and I am quoting the words I applied to baroque in 1945) “which prepares for synthesis, draws our minds away from the mere accumulation of observations and facts, and paves the way for a future history of literature as a fine art.”85


  1. Berlin, 1912.

  2. See my paper “The Concept of Baroque in Literary Scholarship” (1945) and my “Postscript” (1962), in Concepts of Criticism (New Haven, 1963), pp. 69-127.

  3. Eugen Wolff, Die jüngste Literaturströmung und das Prinzip der Moderne (Berlin, 1887), seems the source of this form. In 1884 Arno Holz urges “Modern sei der Poet, / Modern vom Scheitel bis zur Sohle.”

  4. See my “Periods and Movements in Literary History,” in English Institute Annual, 1940 (New York, 1941), pp. 73-93, and the chapter “Literary History” in my and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (New York, 1949).

  5. See my paper “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History” (1949), in Concepts of Criticism (New Haven, 1963), pp. 128-99, and the passages on symbol and allegory in my History of Modern Criticism (4 vols. New Haven, 1955-65), e.g. 1, 210-11; 2, 41-42, 76, 174-75; 3, 221-22.

  6. Paul Bourde in Le Temps, Aug. 6, 1885, was the aggressor. See Moréas in XIXe Siècle: “Les prétendus décadents cherchent avant tout dans leur art … le pur Concept et l'éternel Symbole”; quoted from Guy Michaud, Message poétique du symbolisme, 2 (3 vols. Paris, 1947), 331.

  7. Reprinted in André Barre, Le Symbolisme (Paris, 1911), p. 110.

  8. Quoted in M. Décaudin, La Crise des valeurs symbolistes (Toulouse, 1960), p. 22.

  9. See Barre, pp. 160-61. Verlaine's verse in Invectives (1896).

  10. Michaud, 2, 335: “Le maître qui a formulé le premier la doctrine symbolique.”

  11. See ibid., pp. 355 ff.; cf. pp. 427 ff. See also Téodor de Wyzéwa, Nos Maîtres (Paris, 1895), pp. 115-29. On Morice see Paul Delsemme, Un Théoricien du symbolisme: Charles Morice (Paris, 1958). On Wyzéwa see Elga L. Duval, Téodor de Wyzéwa: Critic without a Country (Geneva, 1961).

  12. Quoted by Décaudin, p. 15, from L'Ermitage (June 1894): “Telle est sans doute l'étiquette sous laquelle notre période sera classée dans l'histoire de la littérature française.”

  13. In Vers et prose, 1 (mars-avril-mai 1905), 79: “Il me semble d'abord que l'enterrement du Symbolisme était un peu prématuré. Craignons les inhumations hâtives.”

  14. “Existance du symbolisme” (1938), in Oeuvres, 1, Pléiade ed. (Paris, 1957), 686-706.

  15. “Contre l'Obscurité,” Revue blanche (July 15, 1896); reprinted in Chroniques.

  16. For details see Walter A. Strauss, Proust and Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp. 191-93, 204.

  17. Preface to Emeric Fiser, L'Esthétique de Marcel Proust (Paris, 1933).

  18. See also Michaud's paper “Symbolique et symbolisme,” Cahiers de l'Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises, 6 (1954), 75 ff.

  19. For references see Bruce Morrissette, “Early English and American Critics of French Symbolism,” in Studies in Honor of Frederick W. Shipley (St. Louis, 1942), pp. 159-80.

  20. A chapter on Baudelaire was added to the expanded edition in 1919.

  21. See Richard Ellmann's Introduction to the 1958 New York reprint of The Symbolist Movement. On Symons see Roger Lhombreaud, Arthur Symons, A Critical Biography (London, 1963), and Ruth Zabriskie Temple, The Critic's Alchemy: A Study of the Introduction of French Symbolism into England (New Haven, 1953).

  22. Reprinted in Ideas of Good and Evil (1903); then in Essays and Introductions (New York, 1961), pp. 153-64.

  23. Cf. Morrissette's paper quoted above, n. 19.

  24. See Arnold T. Schwab, J. G. Huneker, Critic of the Seven Arts (Stanford, 1963).

  25. On Huneker see Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials (New York, 1950), p. 114, and his The Shores of Light (New York, 1952), p. 73. On Gauss see the essay introducing that volume.

  26. Cf. Ursula Brumm, Die religiöse Typologie im amerikanischen Denken (Leiden, 1963), e.g. pp. 81 ff.

  27. Baltimore, 1956, p. xv.

  28. Contexts of Criticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 207.

  29. I allude particularly to D. W. Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1963), and D. W. Robertson and B. F. Huppé, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (Princeton, 1951).

  30. Cf. Morton W. Bloomfield, “Symbolism in Medieval Literature,” Modern Philology, 56 (1958), 73-81. He quotes Thomas Aquinas, Questiones quodlibetales, VII.a.16: “Unde in nulla scientia, humana industria inventa, proprio loquendo, potest inveniri nisi literalis sensus; sed solum in ista Scriptura, cujus Spiritus sanctus est auctor, homo verum instrumentum.”

  31. Princeton, 1957, pp. 122, 124.

  32. Ibid., p. 90.

  33. See Olga Ragusa, “Vittorio Pica: First Champion of French Symbolism in Italy,” Italica, 35 (1958), 255-61, and Luigi de Nardis, “Prospettive critiche per uno studio su Vittorio Pica e il decadentismo francese,” Rivista di letterature moderne e comparate, 19 (1966) 202-09.

  34. Milano, 1959. Luzi lists, besides the French, Bryusov, Balmont, Ivanov, Blok; Yeats, Eliot; George, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Benn; Pascoli, D'Annunzio, Onofri, Campana; Darío, Antonio Machado, Jiménez; and the Greek Chantzopulos.

  35. Pascoli, Minerva oscura (1898), in Conferenze e studi dantesche (1921), etc.

  36. “Verlaine: Responso,” beginning “Padre y maestro mágico, liríforo celeste.” On Darío see E. K. Mapes, L'Influence française dans l'œuvre de Rubén Darío (Paris, 1925).

  37. Cf. Bernard Gicovate, Julio Herrera y Reissig (Berkeley, 1957).

  38. See Gustav Siebenmann, Die moderne Lyrik in Spanien (Stuttgart, 1965), esp. pp. 43 ff., and Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, Modernismo frente a Noventa y Ocho (Madrid, 1961).

  39. Cambridge, Mass., 1961, p. 214.

  40. Remy de Gourmont, Promenades littéraires, IVe série (Paris, 1912). Dámaso Alonso, Góngora y la literatura contemporánea (Santander, 1932); also in Estudios y ensayos gongorinos (Madrid, 1955).

  41. See B. Böschenstein, “Wirkungen des französischen Symbolismus auf die deutsche Lyrik der Jahrhundertwende,” Euphorion, 58 (1964), 375-95. Werner Vordtriede, in “Direct Echoes of French Poetry in Stefan George's Works,” Modern Language Notes, 60 (1945), 461-68, lists trivial parallels to Baudelaire and Mallarmé. More in Claude David, Stefan George. Son Oeuvre poétique (Paris, 1952).

  42. Blätter für die Kunst, 1, No. 2, “Über Stefan George, eine neue Kunst”; reprinted in Die Sendung Stefan Georges (Berlin, 1935), pp. 69-70.

  43. “Stern des Bundes,” quoted in David, p. 285, Friedrich Gundolf, George (Berlin, 1920), pp. 50-51.

  44. See Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (Berlin, 1914), pp. 1-2, for the distinction of symbol-allegory; and Goethe (Berlin, 1916), pp. 16, 28, for classification of Goethe's works.

  45. 45. Prosa II, 104.

  46. See Böschenstein, above, n. 41, and Herbert Lindenberger, “Georg Trakl and Rimbaud,” Comparative Literature, 10 (1958), 21-35. Trakl read the translation by K. L. Ammer (pseudonym of Karl Klammer) published in 1907.

  47. Hamburg, 1956, p. 108.

  48. In Die Vortragsreise, Bern, 1958, pp. 287-304.

  49. Vol. 9 (1882), 115-43; reprinted in Literaturnye Kharakteristiki (St. Petersburg, 1897).

  50. Cf. G. Donchin, The Influence of French Symbolism on Russian Poetry (The Hague, 1958), p. 23.

  51. In Neizdannye stikhotvoreniya (Moscow, 1935), pp. 426, 428.

  52. See Lettres de René Ghil (Paris, 1935), pp. 13-16, 18-20, and Ghil's Traité du verbe (Paris, 1886).

  53. O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techenyakh sovremennoy russkoy literatury (St. Petersburg, 1893).

  54. “Yunocheski dnevnik Aleksandra Bloka” (1901-02), Literaturnoe Nasledstvo, 27-28 (1937), 302.

  55. “Zavety simvolizma,” Apollon, 8 (1901), 13, and in Borozdy i mezhi (Moscow, 1916), p. 133.

  56. For a good discussion see Jurij Striedter, “Transparenz und Verfremdung: Zur Theorie des poetischen Bildes in der russischen Moderne,” in Immanente Aesthetik: Aesthetische Reflexion, ed. Wolfgang Iser (Munich, 1966), pp. 263-89.

  57. In vol. 3: “Na wyżynach romantyzmu.”

  58. Zenon Przesmycki had written an essay on Maeterlinck in 1891 (in Świat). More in Henryk Markiewicz, “Młoda Polska i ‘izmy,’” in Z Problemów literatury polskiej XX wieku, 1 (Warsaw, 1965), pp. 7-51, esp. 15; Teofil Wojeński, Historia literatury polskiej (Warsaw, 1946), has chapters “Symbolizm” and “Neoromantyzm w Polsce”; Julian Krzyżanowski, Neoromantyzm Polski, 1890-1918 (Wrocław-Warsaw, 1963), has a chapter “Drama naturalistyczno-symboliczny” (pp. 182 ff.).

  59. In “O škole symbolistů,” in Kritické projevy, 1 (Prague, 1947), 185-86; originally as “Zasláno,” Literární listy, 13 (1891), 46-48, 65-66, 85-86. See J. Pistorius, Bibliografie díla F. X. Šaldy (Prague, 1948), p. 79.

  60. “Syntetism v novém unmění,” originally in Literární listy (1891-92). See a brief discussion in my “Modern Czech Criticism and Literary Scholarship,” in Essays on Czech Literature (The Hague, 1963), pp. 179-80.

  61. “Das Symbol” (1887), Altes und Neues. Neue Folge (1889).

  62. Quoted by Décaudin, La Crise, p. 15, from La Société nouvelle (avril 1894). “Anti-naturalisme, anti-prosaïsme de la poésie, recherche de la liberté dans les efforts dans l'art, en réaction contre l'enrégimentation parnassienne ou naturaliste.”

  63. See the many articles by Albert Wellek, e.g. “Das Doppelempfinden in der Geistesgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für Aesthetik, 23 (1929), 14-32; “Das Doppelempfinden im 18. Jahrhundert,” Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 14 (1936), 75-102.

  64. “Constructive imagination,” quoted in English from Catherine Crowe, The Night Side of Nature, in Curiosités esthétiques, Conard ed. (Paris, 1923), p. 279.

  65. Ibid., p. 275: “Elle est positivement apparentée avec l'infini.”

  66. L'Art romantique, Conard ed. (Paris, 1925), p. 119: “C'est créer une magie suggestive contenant à la fois l'objet et le subjet, le monde extérieur à l'artiste et l'artiste lui-même.”

  67. Oeuvres complètes, Pléiade ed. (Paris, 1949), p. 368: “une fleur … l'absente de tous bouquets.”

  68. Ibid., p. 378: “Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.”

  69. Jacques Scherer, in L'Expression littéraire dans l'œuvre de Mallarmé (Paris, 1947), pp. 155 ff., collects evidence for Mallarmé's contacts with Platonism and occultism. Mallarmé denied knowledge of Buddhism in Propos sur la poésie, ed. H. Mondor (Monaco, 1946), p. 59. Hasye Cooperman, in The Aesthetic of Stéphane Mallarmé (New York, 1933), makes much of the influence of Wagner. The only evidence of concern for Hegel is a letter of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam to Mallarmé, quoted in Henri Mondor, Vie de Mallarmé (Paris, 1941), p. 222: “Quant à Hegel, je suis vraiment bien heureux que vous ayez accordé quelque attention à ce miraculeux génie.”

  70. See Guy Defel, L'Esthétique de Stéphane Mallarmé (Paris, 1951).

  71. Stuttgart, 1963.

  72. In Entretiens politiques et littéraires (Sept. 1891).

  73. In La Nouvelle Revue (1894) and Les Disciples à Saïs, suivi de fragments (Bruxelles, 1895). The article on Novalis is included in Le Trésor des humbles (1896).

  74. Cf. his “Richard Wagner: Rêverie d'un poète français” (1885), Oeuvres, pp. 541-45.

  75. New Haven, 1954.

  76. A. G. Lehmann, in The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895 (Oxford, 1950), makes good suggestions.

  77. Friedrich Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (1810), appeared as Religions de l'antiquité considerées dans leurs formes symbolistes, translated by J. D. Guigniaut in 1825.

  78. See his “Du Style symbolique,” Le Globe (March 29 and April 8, 1829), and a series of articles in La Revue Encyclopédique (1831). See my History of Modern Criticism, 3, 27-28.

  79. In the essay on Gautier Baudelaire reproduces “The Poetic Principle.” See also Marcel Françon, “Poe et Baudelaire,” PMLA, 60 (1945), 841-59.

  80. See my chapter in History of Modern Criticism, 3, 152-63.

  81. Struktur der modernen Lyrik, p. 116; in rev. ed. (1962), pp. 161-62.

  82. See the review of Vordtriede's Novalis by Hans Robert Jauss in Romanische Forschungen, 77 (1965), 174-83.

  83. Quoted by Harry Levin in James Joyce (Norfolk, Conn., 1941), p. 19: “À la fois réaliste et symboliste.”

  84. See Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York, 1959), pp. 329-30. The lectures in 1912 were called “Verismo ed idealismo nella letteratura inglese.”

  85. See my Concepts of Criticism, p. 114.

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9818

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 history of French literature that cannot be separated from a comparable revolution in painting. The Salon of 1827, the painting exhibit held the same year the Préface de Cromwell was read and published by Victor Hugo, showed Delacroix's Le Christ au jardin des Oliviers and the work of a twenty-one-year-old artist, Louis Boulanger, a painting called Mazeppa, which was enthusiastically received by the painters. Boulanger became momentarily Hugo's favorite painter.

This union of poetry and art was further consecrated by another cénacle, quite different from Hugo's, which is sometimes considered the birthplace of the movement called l'art pour l'art. It was a studio workshop, an atelier, on the rue du Doyenné, today replaced by the Place du Carrousel, in front of the Louvre. The two leaders and spokesmen of the group were Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval.

The word rapin, first designating a fine-arts student, and then, by extension, a “bohemian” artist, is most apt in describing the type of artist frequenting the meetings of friends in the rue du Doyenné. The rapins were eccentrics, hostile to all bourgeois standards, truculent in their behavior, often very gifted, and usually representing failures in their vocation.

At the beginning of his career, Théophile Gautier hesitated between painting and poetry. When he finally chose poetry, he brought to it the style, ideas, and habits of the painting studio. In his book Les Jeunes-France, he gave an animated picture of the young “left-wing” romantics.

The questions relating to “art for art's sake” have been raised in every age, but the phrase in its most precise meaning applies to this French movement, originating with Gautier, Nerval, and Pétrus Borel, in their avowed aversion to the bourgeois spirit and Saint-Simonianism, or humanitarianism. Most scholars agree that the first reference to l'art pour l'art is in a work by the philosopher Victor Cousin, Questions esthétiques et religieuses (1818), in which he says that art is not enrolled in the service of religion and morals or in the service of what is pleasing and useful. Art exists for its own self: “Il faut de la religion pour la religion, de la morale pour la morale, et de l'art pour l'art.

With the founding of the Second Empire, in 1852, the opposition between those writers concerned with the defense of a national morality and the cause of progress and those representing the tradition of art for art's sake became clear. In his preface to the Poèmes antiques (1852), Leconte de Lisle quarrels with everyone on every subject, and sees the political future sullied for a long time with bourgeois meanness, industrialism, and utilitarianism. As the politics of the Second Empire (1852-70) continued, the younger writers and artists looked for a new faith not in participation in active life but in rejuvenated forms of art.

The “bourgeois” art of the day had no originality and no style, according to the strong attacks made against it by Baudelaire, Flaubert, Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, and Théodore de Banville. The younger Hugo of 1830 was still revered, and Alfred de Vigny was respected for having said that a book must be composed, cut and sculptured as if it were a statue of Parian marble. Gautier represented the continuation of that tradition. Baudelaire regretted having come too late, after the glorious days of romanticism, after le coucher de soleil romantique. At the end of his career Gautier, in his Histoire du romantisme, spoke of the early period as a golden age. The beginnings of the new movement, between 1851 and 1853, resembled the beginnings of romanticism. The new bohemianism was celebrated and idealized. Henri Murger is perhaps the best historian of this renaissance, in Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1851), a novel made famous years later by Puccini in his opera La Bohème.

In reality, there was no “school” uniting such different temperaments as Flaubert and Renan, the Goncourts, and Leconte de Lisle. But there were common aspirations and a belief in the principle of the independence of art. The historian of Parnassian art, Catulle Mendès, went to great pains to point out that Le Parnasse never represented a school. It was a theory—a doctrine—similar to art for art's sake, a form of faith coming directly from romanticism. Théophile Gautier was the central figure. He had proclaimed as early as 1835 the doctrine of art for art's sake in the preface to his novel Mlle de Maupin.

Flaubert admired Gautier, and at least during the early part of his career considered himself Gautier's disciple. Both were joined in their dislike for their contemporary world. In his home in Neuilly, Gautier often received at his Thursday dinners Flaubert, Banville, Jules and Edmond Goncourt, and Baudelaire. Baudelaire, who had probably met Gautier for the first time in 1849 at the Hôtel Pimodan, where both of them lived briefly, dedicated Les Fleurs du Mal to Gautier:

Au poète impeccable, au parfait magicien ès lettres françaises, au très cher et au très vénéré maître et ami.

(To the impeccable poet, to the perfect magician of French Letters, to the very dear and very venerated master and friend.)

Gautier, in his turn, wrote the laudatory introduction to the complete works of Baudelaire.

The new poets were published in three anthologies by the publisher Lemerre in 1866, 1869, and 1877, under the title Le Parnasse Contemporain. The word parnassien can be applied to theories of l'art pour l'art. There was very little development or change in these theories after 1870. Gautier died in 1872. Flaubert seemed to look upon the new democracy, the Third Republic, as the end of art. He was convinced that a reign of utilitarianism was going to triumph: “Nous allons devenir un grand pays plat et industriel comme la Belgique” (“We are going to become a great flat industrial country like Belgium”).

For about fifty years the principles of art for art's sake (Parnassianism) were current in France. Belief in the artist's freedom was clearly stated in Hugo's preface to Cromwell, but the specific doctrines themselves were analyzed and clarified best in Flaubert's letters and the Goncourts' journal, the prefaces of Leconte de Lisle, and the critical writing of Baudelaire.

Flaubert was the least charitable of these writers. He examined the French bourgeoisie as if it were a world reserved for his research, and collected a long series of extracts from conversations he had overheard, out of which he compiled the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. He and Baudelaire referred endlessly to examples of bourgeois stupidity—la bêtise, as they called it.

These French writers and artists often analyzed the difficulties in creating the kind of work that would match their ideals. Their pages on the slow, painful process of artistic creation are among their most valuable contributions. The achievement of anything like perfection requires time and labor and constant revision. The emotions of the artist in the process of creating his art are brilliantly studied in Delacroix's Journal, in Flaubert's correspondence, and in the Goncourts' journals. But whereas romanticism emphasized the sentiments and sorrows of the individual, the Parnassian creed emphasized the artist's passion for beauty, which separates a man from everything that is vulgar and banal.

The principal theories on morality and art, as developed by Flaubert, Baudelaire, and the Goncourts, are still the bases for the aesthetics of modern art. These writers would say that truth is not immoral, and art is not immoral. Obscurity is immoral only when it is untruthful. Intellectual honesty is a leading characteristic of the true artist, and such honesty is in itself a moral principle. Such men, for whom art is almost a religion (Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Joyce, Henry James, T. S. Eliot), were morally unified in their temperaments and in the scrupulousness with which they carried out their work as artists.

Art contains in itself its own principle of morality. With this thought in mind, the exponents of l'art pour l'art advanced the theory that there is more moral integrity in a work of art when it is devoid of a specific moralizing intention. A vigorous, bold depiction of vice and passion can have a moral effect on the public. The morality of a great artist is in the forcefulness and the truthfulness of his treatment of whatever subject he chooses. In other words, the morality is in the form of the art and not in its subject matter.


When Sainte-Beuve used the phrase “ivory tower” to designate Alfred de Vigny's retreat from the world and from the activities of Paris, he could not have realized how the phrase would be used subsequently by those exponents of l'art pour l'art to describe precisely the site of the artist's isolation—not for the purpose of exile, not to manifest his scorn for the world of everyday actuality, but for the purpose of understanding his world more deeply and discovering the means of expressing his thought in a richer and more original manner. The ivory tower (la tour d'ivoire) was used this way, with this precise meaning, by Flaubert and Henry James, by Pound and James Joyce, by Proust in his cork-lined room, by Eliot, and by Yeats.

The word associated with Baudelaire in the new aesthetic credo was bizarre. In announcing in his salon of 1855 that “le beau est toujours bizarre” (“beauty is always strange”), he indicated that the artist's attraction to the strange is an element of his personality and separates him from most men, who submit easily to the conventional and the traditional, who prefer not to be startled by originality. Those impulses that often manifest themselves in the subconscious—fantasies, hallucinations, and sentiments of fear—and which in most men are not allowed to develop represent the sources of experiences in man's moral and physical life. The artist, for Baudelaire, feels a desire to know and explore such fantasies that border on dreams and nightmares.

The word maudit (“cursed”), used by Verlaine in three essays in 1883 to characterize the new type of poet, was more aggressive than the word bizarre. The three poets he discussed were Corbière, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé—“Satanic” poets whom normally constituted citizens would repulse through fear that their work contained the germs of dissolution.

More vigorously than the essays of Verlaine, J. K. Huysmans's novel A rebours (1884) developed the theme of decadence in art. The book's protagonist, Des Esseintes, represents Huysman's philosophical pessimism about the world, strongly reminiscent of Schopenhauer's thought, and a horror for what he considered the stupidity of most people and the malice of fate.

Des Esseintes is as refined as the comte de Montesquiou (who participated later in the makeup of Charlus in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu). The tapestries in his house are chosen as carefully as the bindings of his books. The sensations of smell are as acute for him as they were for Baudelaire. Indeed all forms of sensuality are celebrated as if they were part of a mystical cult. Perfumes have an effect on his spiritual life. He creates symphonies of smells as if he were illustrating Baudelaire's sonnet Correspondances and the doctrine of synesthesia. He is as refined in his analysis of sensations as he is unusual in his taste for so-called decadent literature. In modern literature his predilections start with Baudelaire and continue with Poe, Ernest Hello, Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Verlaine, Corbière, Mallarmé. Neurosis and decadence (névrose, décadence) are terms freely expressed throughout the novel, in Des Esseintes's passion for the paintings of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon.

A rebours (Against the Grain) created a sensation. It revealed to a fairly wide public the work of the poètes maudits as continuing the work of the Parnassians and illustrating the renewed belief in l'art pour l'art. Such works and such theories formed the basis for attitudes that were struck in the 1890s in France and England, often referred to as aesthetic and decadent attitudes. The history of taste and morals and aesthetics is difficult to describe chronologically. The English terms “gay nineties” and “mauve decade” and the French term fin de siècle are applicable to at least fifty years of literary and art history.

In 1883, a poem of Verlaine, Langueur, called attention to the word décadence. The opening line is the poet's self-portrait as he calls himself “the ‘empire’ at the end of the age of decadence”: “Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la décadence.” In England, where the term was associated with certain aspects of French civilization, writers were, on the whole, worried about the term being attached to them. To offset the evil implied in the word “decadence” and a purely aesthetic view of life, comic elements were added. The tone of dead seriousness in A rebours is quite altered in Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. English levity offset French grimness. Swinburne, as well as Wilde, was able to parody himself. The high camp of Wilde and Max Beerbohm probably testifies to an English reticence and puritanism in the face of French extravagance and “immorality.” The thesis that Wilde develops so brilliantly in his essay “The Critic as Artist” (in his book Intentions) is one of the significant contributions to be drawn from the entire movement of l'art pour l'art.

Undoubtedly inspired by Gustave Moreau's paintings, Wilde's play Salomé (written in French), in which the heroine is turned into a sadist, was one of the more serious English contributions. But even here, the seriousness of the text was parodied by Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations. Arthur Symons, in his analysis of what he called “the decadent movement in literature,” did not minimize the French sources and examples. He called decadence a “beautiful disease” and suggested that a more appropriate name to use was “symbolism.” This may have influenced Symons in naming his book-length study of 1899 The Symbolist Movement in Literature. The words “decadent” and “aesthetic” were thereby given in England a healthier terminology. Corruption was given a new chance and a new garb.

At the time, during the Second Empire, when art for art's sake came into its own, Gautier, perhaps because of his limitations, or perhaps because he never felt with the intensity of a Baudelaire, reached a degree of impassiveness in his behavior and outlook and gave in his writing the clearest example of a belief in laborious, difficult technique. In his poem L'Art, printed in the second edition of Emaux et Camées, in 1857, he defined the precept that only those forms of art that are technically difficult and demanding of an artist's patience have any chance for survival. The harder the material is to work in, the more beautiful the work will be. Gautier lists as examples: first, poetry, and then marble, onyx, and enamel:

Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus belle
D'une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.
(Yes, the work emerges more beautiful
from a form
rebellious to labor
Poetry, marble, onyx, enamel.)

If these requirements of robustness and strength are met, the piece of sculpture and the poem, whose versification is complex, will endure longer than the city.

Tout passe.—L'art robuste
          Seul a l'éternité:
                    Le buste
          Survit à la cité.
(Everything disappears—Robust art
          alone is eternal:
                    The Bust survives the city.)

Ezra Pound, in Mauberley (1920), recapitulated this theory of Gautier and imitated the versification of the French poem. The art of Flaubert is compared to Penelope's tapestry, patiently and everlastingly begun over again each day in the artist's hope to reach perfection:

His true Penelope
Was Flaubert
And his tool
The engraver's
Not the full smile
His art, but an art
In profile.

In an earlier poem, L'Hippopotame, Gautier described the new attitude of the Parnassian poet by comparing his indifference to the hostile world of the bourgeoisie and the traditional critics with the thick hide of the hippopotamus. The poet's convictions, his aloofness and aloneness, were evoked in the hippo's stolid heaviness as he wanders through the jungles of Java:

L'hippopotame au large ventre
Habite aux jungles de Java …
Je suis comme l'hippopotame:
          De ma conviction couvert.
(The hippopotamus with the huge belly
Inhabits the jungles of Java …
I am like the hippopotamus:
          Protected by my conviction.)

Eliot wrote the same kind of poem, in terms of form and tone, in The Hippopotamus, but gave a different meaning to the metaphor by comparing the hippopotamus to the Church of Rome:

The 'potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

The cult of formal beauty and the application of elaborate technique were always present in art for art's sake. And in France, the passion behind this cult was, to some extent, hatred of successful mediocrity. The ascetic dignity and conscientiousness that Leconte de Lisle in Poèmes antiques and Heredia in his Trophées gave to pure craftsmanship were admired by the English—by Swinburne, for example—but the art was never directly copied by them. The French prose writers had perhaps more tangible influence. Walter Pater's essay “Style” recapitulates theories of Flaubert.

It is impossible to estimate how much Baudelaire's so-called morbidity and taste for extracting beauty from unusual experiences developed because of his hatred for the world in which he lived. At one time, and not very long ago, Baudelaire was looked upon, both in England and France, as an isolated psychopathic case. Today, largely because of Eliot's three essays on him, he is studied in England and America as the modern poet—the modern Dante, in fact—who has given to the doctrine of morality in art its profoundest meaning. The wide range of themes in contemporary poetry, extending from the classical theme of Gregory Corso's poem Uccello to the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, is owed in some degree to Baudelaire's example.

The word “symbolism” has come to have as many meanings as “romanticism.” Ibsen's plays and Wagner's operas have been called “symbolist.” For some, decadence became a means to religious conversion—in the cases, for example, of Barbey d'Aurevilly and Verlaine. Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer and Les Illuminations played a part in Paul Claudel's return to his faith. The decadent symbolist Huysmans of A rebours became a Catholic in Là-Bas (1891).

At the very end of the century, several events seemed to make clear that art for art's sake and its survival in decadence were over. The triumph of Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac in 1897 indicated that the public wanted heroes and sentiment, action and wit. The Dreyfus affair encouraged many writers to turn into fighters. Nationalism, an outgrowth of imperialism, was pioneered by Maurice Barrès, whose cult of human energy was an attack on art for art's sake. In England, Rudyard Kipling put his art in the service of energy and imperialism. The odor of decadence diminished before the socialism of Jean Jaurès and Zola and Anatole France. Yet some disciples of art for art's sake did survive. The turn-of-the-century movements did continue their work far into the century, although never occupying a central position in their day: Pierre Louÿs in France, for example, and George Moore in England.

The 1920s were characterized by the appearance of many forms of art for art's sake: a philosophical pessimism, an archsophistication, a renewed interest in literary techniques, the emergence of somewhat defiant forms of immorality. Abbé Bremond's discussion with Paul Valéry over the theory of poésie pure was a worthy topic for art for art's sake. In describing European art in 1925, José Ortega y Gasset called it “new,” and yet the traits he analyzed are those we associate with the pure art created in an ivory tower.

Such a doctrine as l'art pour l'art can be born and develop only in a blatantly materialistic age. The prosperity of Louis Napoleon's era, when Gautier, Baudelaire, and Flaubert wrote their best works, was not unlike the Victorian atmosphere of austerity in which Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater flourished. The letters exchanged between Gide and Valéry from 1890 to 1910 refer frequently to the uselessness of art and the characteristic of art as not serving any definable function. The type of man unable to understand and feel art is Flaubert's pharmacist, Homais, in Madame Bovary. He was the type easy to scandalize. “Epater le bourgeois” (scandalize the bourgeois) had once served almost as a battle cry. In America he was to become Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Such literary creations as Homais and Babbitt inevitably beget art for art's sake.

Since the time Jean-Jacques Rousseau revealed so much of himself in his Confessions to a public eager to know the personal details of his life, the artist's life and personality have been a part of literary study. There have been two moments in the history of literary criticism when marked opposition to biography was felt: in the 1930s in America, in the “new criticism,” the back-to-the text movement, and in the 1950s and 1960s in France, with the structuralist critics. From Rousseau's day on, despite the fact that most artists have led quite conventional lives, the general public has grown to believe that they are temperamental and irresponsible, if not immoral.

The great importance given to aesthetic theories in Baudelaire's generation, theories either identical with those of art for art's sake or closely related to them, tended to conceal or disguise the moral and philosophical problems felt by that generation. An attitude toward life that in the age of romanticism was called le mal du siècle is in evidence at the end of the century, when it is called le mal de fin de siècle. Paul Bourget's Essais and Nouveaux Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine (1883 and 1885) still offer today a penetrating analysis of a drama taking place in the moral conscience of a generation. The suffering studied by Bourget was more than the familiar phase of melancholy that most young people go through when their world seems limited and their aspirations limitless. It was something more than introversion. The poetry of Jules Laforgue reveals many aspects of a dissatisfaction and even resentment that had to do with the prodigious development of the large cities, with the monotony of provincial life, with the routine existence of employees and civil servants (fonctionnaires), and with la vie quotidienne in general, coming after two generations of romanticism in the arts in which individualism had been exalted.

Baudelaire occupied a central position in the Bourget essays as the artist who had the courage to call himself a decadent and adopt an attitude of sympathy with artificiality and strangeness. The mysterious word décadence would seem to mean the will of the artist to understand the basic drives of his nature, to explain what Baudelaire called the “inner abyss” or “cemetery” of the self, and to use the creation of art as a remedy for “ennui” or “spleen,” or what might be called by the simpler term “pessimism.”

The artists in France in 1885 were far more cut off psychologically and sociologically from society than their elders had been in 1820. Their suffering was more neurotic and morbid. Their inability to adapt to society was more radical. The themes of their poetry were more personal, more introverted, more symptomatic of serious psychological upheavals. A fatigue with life is at the basis of such a poem as Baudelaire's Chant d'automne. A disenchantment with everything that life had promised him pervades the verse of Jules Laforgue. The need to escape from the mortal boredom of provincial life is studied in Flaubert as well as in the poetry of the decadents. The desperate need to live in a distant legendary land is sung by Verlaine in Les Fêtes Galantes, by Baudelaire in L'Invitation au voyage, and by almost all of the lesser poets during the last part of the century. But finally, dreams themselves become impossible and all hope disappears. Albert Samain, in Au jardin de l'infante, says that the sense of the void, of nothingness, has forged a new soul for him: “Et le néant m'a fait une âme comme lui.

Around 1890, the proliferation in Paris of literary magazines was proof that le symbolisme had grown into something comparable to a movement. La Vogue, La Plume, L'Ermitage, and Le Mercure de France provided the new writers with the means of publishing and propagating those trends of the new literature that still preserved from the earlier Parnassian days an emphasis on art forms, especially those forms that would bring out the musical qualities of language. Less importance was granted to the shape and color of objects, those plastic qualities celebrated by the Parnassians. There were new traces of moral and psychological preoccupations, of metaphysical problems, and of a style of writing more impressionistic than Parnassian.

At the Saturday night gatherings in the Latin Quarter, under the auspices of La Plume, the Bohemian extravaganzas and enthusiasms for art recalled the rue du Doyenné meetings, where Gautier and Nerval once discussed their theories. Yet, on the whole, the fin de siècle gatherings were less bohemian than those of the rapins of 1835. Pierre Louÿs warned his new friends André Gide and Paul Valéry that Heredia was a mondain and that Mallarmé was so serious and correct in his behavior that they would have to give up wearing their wide-brimmed hats and long neckties. Mallarmé's mardis had almost an official air about them in 1890. At least in a social sense, Mallarmé had won out over Verlaine. The salon had replaced the café.

While Gide was still attending the “Tuesdays” of Mallarmé, he wrote and published a manifesto on art that, although it was subtitled théorie du symbole, was also a recapitulation of Parnassian theories on the role of the artist and his quest. The full title was Traité du Narcisse. Narcissus is the man seeking to find his own image and who sees at the same time the image of everything else in the world. Narcissus is presented by Gide as the myth of man's return to the beginning of time, when all forms were paradisaical and crystalline. Poetry is the nostalgia for Paradise that has been lost. Adam had seen this wonder before he had seen himself. When, according to Gide's interpretation of the myth, he saw himself, he then distinguished himself from everything else, and fell from grace.

By defining the poet as the man able to look, able to see Paradise behind appearance, Gide indicated affiliations with one part of the Parnassian creed. Every phenomenon is the symbol of a truth. The poet's duty is to manifest it. As the poet contemplates the symbols of the world, he penetrates at the same time their deepest meanings. This is why Gide calls the work of art a crystal, a partial paradise where the idea unfolds as a flower does, in its original purity. As an admirer of Mallarmé, Gide, in Traité du Narcisse, wrote a profession of faith in platonic idealism.

The symbol of Mallarmé's art, which can be as visible and precise as in Parnassian art—a swan, a vase, a faun—is the poet's creation, capable of suggesting. Suggérer is a key word in Mallarmé's aesthetics. It means first to awaken, to indicate without specifically naming or defining, to propose a meaning without dogmatically imposing it. Suggérer can also mean to incite and prolong an emotion on the part of the reader. During the decade of the 1890s, Mallarmé and his disciples enlarged the meaning of the symbol to include certain aspects of myth and allegory. Whereas an allegory is primarily didactic, a myth is addressed as much to the emotions of the reader as to his intelligence. It tends more to move him than to convince him. Allegory is therefore moralistic and myth is religious by nature. The object in Parnassian art and the symbol in symbolist art are primarily aesthetic, intended to give to the reader a sense of the beautiful. But the literary symbol, as it has been used since Baudelaire's time, in its aesthetic power, has a closer relationship with the religious spirit of man than with any reasonable, practical, or didactic use.

Symbolism has been a major study of literature since Baudelaire's Correspondances, which can be seen as a succinct manifesto. It has provided an aesthetic basis for works that have elements of both myth and allegory. They are among the most impressive literary works since 1850, which have reacted strongly against a realistic art of precision in order to reflect preoccupations that are religious and philosophical: the poetry of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Yeats and Eliot; the novels of Proust and Joyce.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the prevalence of pessimism throughout Europe between 1880 and 1900—the doubts and reservations expressed about science, the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy, the negativism of Ibsen and Nietzsche. The aesthetic beliefs, often designated as “decadent,” came in part from the spread of intellectual and moral pessimism, from an exalting of Baudelaire's thesis concerning the decadence of aging civilizations.

From today's perspective, it is fairly clear that decadence was one aspect of the development of symbolism. Stefan George's activities were efforts without any subversive characteristics, intended to rally young German writers around a set of beliefs that were almost identical with art for art's sake. English decadence was more complex to follow and understand, and in fact was so complex that the word “decadence” seemed inappropriate. It was used, however, because of the scorn on the part of some writers for conventional morality and for certain morbid elements of art that were esteemed. The English origins for this cult for beauty may be found in the poetry of Keats in the early part of the century and later redefined and reformulated by Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne. John Ruskin's teachings on aesthetics had a more direct influence, whereas the writings of Walter Pater rallied very little support. French influence was felt to some extent in the work of Swinburne and Pater, but especially in the writings of George Moore. In the 1890s, when the figure of Oscar Wilde dominated all others, the movement of decadence was openly a revolt against tradition.

The cult of art for art's sake continued well into the twentieth century. The assumption of this cult, as illustrated by Joyce and Proust, would claim that art by itself is capable of conferring value and meaning upon life, and even ultimate value. Such writers as Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, who were in closest sympathy with the theories of art for art's sake and whose work reflects strong influences of those French writers associated with the movement, continued to show a similar attitude toward the world, at least toward the world of politics. They tended to look upon democracy as a standardizing process. Yeats felt almost a resentment for the prestige of science. They often gave evidence of a preference for an earlier social order. The cultural atmosphere of the early twentieth century was characterized by yearnings for the religious, the mystical, the occult, by the development of a new romanticism that merged with a belief in the sovereignty of the word in literature.



Ever since the rich period of symbolism, in fact, ever since the work of the two leading forerunners of symbolism, Nerval and Baudelaire, French poetry has been obsessed with the idea of purity. To achieve poetry in a “pure state” has been the persistent ambition of a century of literary, and specifically, poetic, endeavor. The ambition is to create poetry that will live alone by itself and for itself. In a deep sense, it is poetry of exile, narrating both the very real exile of Rimbaud from Charleville and from Europe and Mallarmé's more metaphysical exile within his favorite climate of absence. In this effort of poetry to be self-sufficient and to discover its end in itself, it has appropriated more and more pervasively throughout the span of one hundred years the problem of metaphysics. As early as Nerval, who actually incorporated the speculations of the eighteenth-century illuminés, poetry has tried to be the means of communication between man and the powers beyond him. Nerval was the first to point out those regions of extreme temptation and extreme peril that have filled the vision of the major poets who came after him.

This search for “purity” in poetic expression is simply a modern term for the poet's will of all ages to break with the daily concrete life, to pass beyond the real and the pressing problems of the moment. Poets have always tended to relegate what may be called “human values” to novels and tragedies or to their counterparts in earlier literary periods. Poetry is the crossroads of man's intelligence and imagination, from which he seeks an absolute beyond himself. That is why the term “angelism” has been used to designate the achievement and failures of the modern poets, especially those of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Baudelaire called the poet “Icarus,” and Rimbaud called him “Prometheus, fire stealer.” The progressive spiritualization of modern art in all its forms is its leading characteristic. It brings with it a mission comparable to that of the angels, and also a knowledge of pride and defeat, which, strikingly, is the most exact characterization of some of the great poetic works of our day. Defeat of one kind is in Mallarmé's faun and in his Igitur. Claudel, in discussing Igitur, called it a “catastrophe.” Defeat of another kind is in the long literary silence of Rimbaud after his twentieth year. And still of another kind, there is defeat in most of the poetry of the surrealists, who found it impossible to apply their poetic theory rigorously to their actual poems.

The example of Mallarmé's art was never considered so fervently and piously as during the decade 1940-50. His lesson is the extraordinary penetration of his gaze at objects in the world and the attentive precision with which he created a world of forms and pure relationships between the forms. His will to abstraction isolated the object he looked at, and his will of a poet condensed the object into its essence and therefore into its greatest power of suggestiveness.

The object in a Mallarmé poem is endowed with a force of radiation, with a force that is latent and explosive. The irises, for example, in Prose pour des Esseintes, have reached a “purity,” from which every facile meaning has been eliminated. Such flowers as these come from the deepest soil of the poet's consciousness and emotions. They retain in their “purity,” exempt as they are from all usual responses, the virtue of their source in great depths of consciousness and dreams. Their purity is their power to provoke the multiple responses of the most exacting readers, those who insist that an image appear in its own beauty, isolated from the rest of the world and independent of all keys and obvious explanations. Whatever emotion, whatever passion, was at the source of the poem, it has been forgotten in the creation of the poem. Poetry makes no attempt to describe or explain passion—that is the function of the prose writer, of the novelist; rather the object or image is charged with the burden of the literal experience. The image becomes the experience, but so changed that it is no longer recognizable.

The metaphor is an image endowed with a strange power to create more than itself. Mallarmé's sonnet on the swan caught in the ice of a lake, “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui,” illustrates the power of metaphor to establish a subtle relationship between two seemingly opposed objects in the world: a swan and a poet. The relationship is not stated in logical, specific terms, but it is implied or suggested or evoked by the metaphor. The reader's attention is fixed on the swan, as it is almost never fixed on an ordinary object in the universe. This attention that the metaphor draws to itself becomes something comparable to a spiritual activity for the reader, as it had once been for the poet. The poet's consciousness is contained within the metaphor. When the metaphor is an image of a sufficiently general or collective meaning, it becomes a myth, not merely establishing a relationship with another object but translating some aspect of man's destiny or man's nature. It is often difficult to draw a clear distinction between a metaphor and a myth, as in the case of Mallarmé's swan, who testifies to a basic human struggle and defeat.

Today, almost a century after Rimbaud's death, his fame is higher than ever and the influence of his poetry is felt everywhere. Editions of his work multiply each year. More than five hundred books about him have been written in all languages. Perhaps never has a work of art provoked such contradictory interpretations and appreciations. One hears of his legend everywhere, and underneath the innumerable opposing beliefs, one continues to follow the legend and conceal whatever drama tormented him. He was the adolescent extraordinarily endowed with sight and equally endowed with speech. But with the advent of manhood he deliberately desisted from the prestige of letters and a poet's career. The period of wonderment about his life and his flight from literature is just about over now. In its place, the study of the writings themselves is growing into its own, and it is obvious that their mystery far exceeds the actual language of his writings. With Mallarmé's, it forms the most difficult work to penetrate in French literature and the most rewarding to explore, because for both poets the act of poetry was the act of obedience to their most secret drama.

The work of Rimbaud is far more knowable than his life, but in his case especially, the one cannot be dissociated from the other. The example of his human existence has counted almost as much as the influence of his writing. Breton named him a surrealist because of his life story. Rivière named him the supreme type of innocent. In all justice it must be noted that Breton modified his earlier view and called Rimbaud an apostate, one who renounced his discoveries and called them “sophisms.” Nerval's suicide and Lautréamont's total disappearance would please the surrealists more than Rimbaud's final choice of another kind of life than that of poetry.

Rimbaud's example will remain that of the poet opposing his civilization, his historical moment, and yet at the same time revealing its very instability, its quaking torment. He is both against his age and of it. By writing so deeply of himself, he wrote of all men. By refusing to take time to live, he lived a century in a few years, throughout its minute phases, rushing toward the only thing that mattered to him: the absolute, the certainty of truth. He came closest to finding this absolute in his poet's vision. That was “the place and the formula” he spoke of and was impatient to find, the spiritual hunt that did not end when the prey was seized.

Rimbaud's is the drama of modern man, as critics have often pointed out, by reason of its particular frenzy and precipitation, but it is also the human drama of all time, the drama of the quest for what has been lost, the unsatisfied temporal existence burning for total satisfaction, for total certitude. Because of Rimbaud's universality, or rather because of poetry's universality, the Charleville adolescent can seemingly appropriate and justify any title: metaphysician, angel, voyou, seer, reformer, reprobate, materialist, mystic.

The poet, as Rimbaud conceived of him, is, rightfully, all men. He is the supreme savant. The private drama of one boy, which fills the poignant pages of Une Saison en Enfer, is always deepened into the drama of man, tormented by the existence of the ideal he is unable to reach. And likewise, the pure images of Les Illuminations, which startle and hold us through their own intrinsic beauty, were generated and formed by a single man in the solitude of his own hope to know reality.

For the role of magus and prophet for the poet, so histrionically played by Victor Hugo, was substituted the role of magician, incarnated not solely by Rimbaud (whose Lettre du voyant of 1871 seems to be its principal manifesto) but by Nerval and Baudelaire, who preceded him, by his contemporary, Mallarmé, and by his leading disciples, the surrealists, thirty years after his death: Robert Desnos and René Char. This concept of the poet as magician dominates most of the poetic transformations and achievements of the last century. The poem, in its strange relationship with witchcraft, empties itself of much of the grandiloquence and pomposity of romanticism. The poet, in his subtle relationship with the mystic, rids himself of the traits of the Hugoesque prophet and the vain ivory-tower attitude of a Vigny. This emphasis on the poet as the sorcerer in search of the unknown and the surreal part of his being has also caused him to give up the poetry of love, or especially the facile love poetry of a Musset. Except for the poems of Eluard, a few pages of Breton, and a few poems of Apollinaire, there has been no love poetry in France since Baudelaire!

The modern poet in France has become the magician, in accordance with the precepts of Mallarmé, or a visionary, in the tradition of Rimbaud, by his willful or involuntary exploration of dreams and subconscious states. He prefers, to the coherence and the colors of the universe celebrated by the romantics, the incoherence and the half-tones of the hidden universe of the self. There the poet has learned to come upon thoughts and images in their nascent form, in their primitive beginnings, before a conscious control has been exercised over them. The vert paradis of the child's world, first adumbrated by Baudelaire, is the world the modern poet has tried to rediscover. To descend into it brought about a divorce between the poet and the real world around him. The world of childhood and innocence is so obscured in mystery and has been so outdistanced by the activities of adulthood that to return there, a system of magic, a new series of talismans, has to be invented. The richest source of the poet turns out to be the subconscious, precisely that world in himself that had not been expressed. The pride of the romantic poet and the somewhat melodramatic attitude he so often created for himself unquestionably helped him later to discover new regions of his spirit. The historical period of romanticism is seen more and more clearly to have been the preparation for the richer periods of symbolism and postsymbolism, when the poetic word is understood in terms of its potential magic and the symbol in its power of exorcism.

The critical writings of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry are as important as their poetry. They discovered, as if for the first time, some of the oldest laws of poetry. What Racine did in the seventeenth century for the ageless laws of tragedy, Baudelaire did in the nineteenth century for the ageless laws of poetry. He saw the constraints of rhythm and rhyme to be not arbitrary, but imposed by a need of the human spirit. A great line of poetry combines a sensual element with an intellectual vigor, and Valéry marveled at the delicate equilibrium that poetry established between them. This very equilibrium was defined by the modern poet as witchcraft, or the incantation of the word, which no other kind of word possesses.

Thus, poetry is not the art of obstacles and rules, but the art of triumph over obstacles and the transcending of adventure, brutality, love, and sorrow. Modern poetry will one day be described as the revindication of the profoundest principle of classicism where the most universal problems of life are transcribed in a style of language that has reached a high degree of enchantment. The most obscure mysteries of the French language, and of language in general, were explored by Rimbaud, in his seeming anarchy and disorder, and by Mallarmé, in his seeming abstractions and absences. The poetry toward which they were moving, and which they almost reached, was poetry that would have sung only of itself. Claudel and Valéry, in their time and in their acknowledged role of disciples, realized more acutely than Rimbaud and Mallarmé the perils of such an attainment, and they willfully diverted poetry from anarchy or verbal alchemy to a religious celebration of the universe, and from the dream of poetic purity to a celebration of the intellect.

Just at the moment when poetry might have become an abnegation or a defeat, Claudel redefined it as a conquest of the universe. Claudel's method, the new freedom of poetic expression developed by Léon-Paul Fargue, the new strength of poetic enumeration and breath discovered by Saint-John Perse, helped to close off the danger that poetry courted in the writings of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. If with Mallarmé poetry stopped being essentially a lofty mode of expression, it became in the subsequent poets what it had been only partially with Mallarmé—an instrument of knowledge, an art in the service of the human spirit, utilized in order to reach a higher degree of domination and knowledge of self. Cubism, surrealism, and existentialism have been some of the successive chapters in this same quest dominated by poetic experimentation.

Several French critics in the middle of the century—Rolland de Renéville, Thierry Maulnier, Jean Paulhan, Jules Monnerot, Roger Caillois, Maurice Blanchot—devoted the major part of their work to inquiries into the meaning and the scope of poetry. Their investigations and elucidations are varied, but they all agree on seeing poetry as one of the extreme “experiments” of modern times. The basis of their work is in their several interpretations of symbolism, in their effort to analyze the poet's indifference toward the world, his narcissism, and how close he came to a destruction of poetry by itself. They are the major critics who have seen the poetry of postsymbolism in France, the poetry published between 1900 and 1950, as the reconstruction of poetry.

Because of the extreme solitude of the poet, spoken of by Baudelaire and poignantly epitomized in the life stories of Rimbaud and Corbière, and because of the extreme detachment from the world exemplified in the art of Mallarmé, poetry almost ceased being the full creation that it really is. The past eighty years have witnessed a return of poetry to the joys and sufferings of man. This has signaled a revindication of the freedom of poetry, after the dizzying lessons of magic and abstractions of Rimbaud's alchemy and Mallarmé's purity. The act of constructing a poem has helped the poet to construct himself. The miracle of poetry has always been the conferring of a new life on that which already has life. By means of the word, designating signs in the physical world, the poet creates a world that is eternal. The lucidity with which the modern poet has learned to do this would probably not have developed without the examples of Baudelaire and the two major poets who succeeded him.

A poem is a marriage between expression and meaning. In order to compose the poem, the poet has to question everything all over again, because a successful poem is a new way of seeing and apprehending something that is familiar. This is Mallarmé's profoundest lesson, and it seems now to be fully incorporated in the contemporary poetic consciousness. The poet's power of questioning the universe is essential. His capacity to be amazed at what he beholds is his sign. Without it, his poem will never be the revelation it should be—the revelation to himself and to his readers of what his questioning glance has resurrected, illuminated, and understood. In order to be amazed, the poet has to practice a freedom that is unusual because it is related to everything: the physical world, morality, mythology, God. The practice of this freedom ensures what we may best call the poetic response to the world and to everything in it. This is vigilance, attentiveness, lucidity: all those disciplines that are impossible to define but that the artist needs in order to achieve his work.

Since 1940, French poetry has drawn its themes more directly from the tragic quality of contemporary events—war, catastrophe—than it did in the periods of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. And yet this newer poetry is far from being a reportage or direct transcription. The lesson taught by Mallarmé that there is no such thing as “immediate” poetry is to such a degree the central legacy of modern poetry that the younger poets move instinctively toward the eternal myths, like that of Orpheus, which are just beyond the event, the first reaction to it and the first sentiments.

The myth is man's triumph over matter. It is his creation of a world drawn from the world of appearance.

It is the world of poetry we are able to see and comprehend far more easily than the real world. This process was once called inspiration or enthusiasm by the Greeks. The modern poets prefer to call it the alchemy or the quintessence of the word.

French poetry is still engaged in one of the richest periods of its long history. Its roots are in symbolism, in the achievements of poetry between Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and the death of Mallarmé (1898). The first half of the twentieth century was dominated by four major writers, all born around 1870, and who reached the status of classical writer. Two were prose writers, Proust and Gide, and two were poets, Valéry and Claudel. Their common background was symbolism. Each reacted to symbolism in his own way and according to his own purposes. The first decade of the century was very much a part of the 1890s. These four writers had begun writing and publishing by the turn of the century, but recognition of their importance did not come until soon after World War I, about 1920.

Mallarmé was the guide, director, and high priest of symbolism. Rimbaud repudiated a literary career and had no direct influence on symbolism, although he wrote between 1869 and 1875. The example of Verlaine counted very little in the symbolist period. His was poetry of the heart and pure sentiment, a tradition maintained by Francis Jammes (1868-1938), who belonged to the first generation of twentieth-century poets. Even more isolated from the central evolution of French poetry stands Charles Péguy (1873-1914), celebrated for his deeply religious poetry on Notre Dame de Chartres and for his Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d'Arc (1910).

The combined examples and influences of Mallarmé and Rimbaud have proved more permanent and vital than any other in the twentieth century. The word “purity,” a concept with which modern poetry is permeated, is associated primarily with Mallarmé, with the doctrine he expounded on Tuesday evenings for so many years (1880-98) in his apartment on the rue de Rome. There his most brilliant disciple, Paul Valéry (1871-1945), in his early twenties, listened to Mallarmé's conversations on poetry. The leading symbols of Mallarmé's purity: his virgin princess Hérodiade, his faun, more interested in his own ecstasy than in the nymphs, his swan caught in the ice of the lake. All reappear, changed but fully recognizable in the leading symbols of Valéry's poetry: his Narcissus, the contemplation of self pushed to its mortal extreme; his Jeune Parque, and marine cemetery. La Jeune Parque (1914-17), composed during the war years, reflects in no way the events of the war. This poem, with the major poems of Mallarmé, with Rimbaud's Les Illuminations, and the early prose pieces of Gide, treated so pervasively the theme of solitude and detachment that it created a new mythology of poetic purity and human absence. This was poetry of exile, written outside the social sphere. It bore no relationship to a society or world that might have been comparable to the bond between the poetry of Racine and the monarchy of Louis XIV.

Rimbaud, in his own way, is as profound an example as Mallarmé of this separation of poetry from the immediate world. The experience of the bateau ivre was not only an exploration of exoticism and of the unknown, it was also a lesson on the exile that is man's solitude. After writing his poetry of exile, Rimbaud lived in exile in the deserts and cities of Abyssinia. The same need for voyage and solitude was felt by Claudel (1868-1955), who claimed Rimbaud as his master in poetry, as the writer who revealed to him the presence of the supernatural in the world. Rimbaud's ambition was to move beyond literature and poetry, and this was realized by Claudel, whose vocation as poet was always subordinated to his role of apologist of Catholicism. The form of his verset is reminiscent of the rhythms in Les Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer. He continued Rimbaud's Dionysian turbulence, whereas Valéry, in his more chastened, more classical style, represented, with Mallarmé, the Apollonian tradition of French poetry.

Rimbaud's real disciples were not the symbolists of the 1880s and 1890s. They were the surrealists of 1925-35. Claudel was the first to understand and appropriate Rimbaud's lesson on poetry. His Cinq Grandes Odes of 1911 and his Poèmes de guerre of 1922 treat the universe as the communication of God to man.

The second generation of poets were those men born at the end of the century. On the whole, they participated in the experience of World War I more directly than the generation of Valéry and Claudel. In fact, some of the most gifted writers of that generation lost their lives in the war: Apollinaire, Alain-Fournier, Ernest Psichari, Charles Péguy. The poet was for them a far less exalted being than he had been for Mallarmé and Rimbaud. The intellectualism and aestheticism of the late symbolist period were drastically modified and diminished. The experience of the war and the rise of the cinema were only two of the many new forces that were shaping the younger poets at that time. La Nouvelle Revue Française, founded in 1905 by Jacques Copeau, André Gide, and Jean Schlumberger, became, between 1920 and 1940, an organ of great influence. It was a literary chapel, exclusive as such groups tend to be, but intelligent and judicious in its power. Its editor, Gaston Gallimard, was responsible for the publication of most of the major literary texts during that time.

The oldest figures of this second generation were Max Jacob and Léon-Paul Fargue, both born in 1896. They had begun publishing poetry long before the war, but their influence was felt after the war. Stylistic traits of Verlaine and Laforgue are as present in their writing as characteristics of Mallarmé and Rimbaud. They were both friends of painters and musicians and participated actively in the avant-garde movement in France. Jacob died in the German prison of Drancy, in 1944. Fargue survived the war and died in 1947.

Surrealism was the most significant literary movement in France between symbolism and existentialism. It flourished especially in the decade 1925-35 and attracted many of the younger poets. Pierre Reverdy, born in 1889, was as closely allied to symbolism as to surrealism. Tristan Tzara, born in Romania in 1896, was the founder of the Dada movement, in collaboration with Jean Arp and Hugo Ball, in Zurich in 1916. Dadaism was the immediate forerunner of surrealism. André Breton, the leading spirit and theorist of surrealism, born in 1896, made attempts after World War II to revive surrealism as an organized movement.

Some of the most orthodox of the surrealists died before the middle of the century: René Crevel (1900-1935), whose suicide was interpreted as an act of heroism; Robert Desnos (1900-1945), a victim of a German concentration camp; Antonin Artaud (1895-1948), who spent the last nine years of his life in an insane asylum. Louis Aragon, born in 1897, became the best-known Resistance poet, but by that time had broken all ties with surrealism. The oldest of the surrealist group, Paul Eluard, born in 1895, was one of the most gifted.

Jean Cocteau (1892-1963) wrote poetry intermittently throughout his career. He remains one of the most gifted poets of his generation, even if his signal success in other genres—theater, cinema, criticism—has somewhat detracted from his position as poet. One of the most independent modern poets, Henri Michaux (1899-1984) enlarged the domain of poetry. He was discovered in 1941 by André Gide, whose fervent criticism introduced him to a wider public than he had known. With Aragon, Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) is probably the most widely read of the French poets. More important than his poetry is his writing for films. Les Visiteurs du Soir and Les Enfants du Paradis are two major successes.

The ambition of this younger generation was, in general, to recall the poet to reality after the long experimentation of poetry with language, with the symbol, with the poet's hieratic role. The newer writers felt a greater desire for communication, for immediate communication with the reader. They appropriated the common basis of world events and world problems for their verse. This tendency had already been visible in the poetry of Eluard, of Jules Supervielle, and of Michaux.

Existentialism, as a literary movement, did not develop any poets, with the possible exception of Francis Ponge, on whose work Sartre himself wrote a long essay. Although Ponge was born in 1899, his first important publication was in 1942, Le parti pris des choses, a poetic work of great vigor and objectivity. In describing an object—a pebble, for example, or a piece of bread—Ponge wrote also as a moralist, as a contemporary of La Fontaine.

By many, and especially by Breton, Aimé Césaire (born in 1913) was considered the first major black poet in French. He lives in Martinique. Not until after World War II was his poetry discovered in France. Breton acclaimed him as one of the legitimate heirs of surrealism by reason of the violence and richness of his poems, and by the spirit of revolt against an unjust society.

Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5030

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 of consideration; we may divert our attention from it; but it will still survive subliminally, intact, and insulated from the salutary influence of competing ideas. Since we each have a personal history and pass through an organic life cycle, we shall always be compelled on some level to project the historical and organic metaphors onto other phenomena such as literature.

The prevailing scheme for structuring the history of nineteenth-century French poetry divides the century into three periods: Romanticism, an undifferentiated transitional phase, and Symbolism. Lacking the conceptual “home” of an identified literary movement, some major mid-century poets are neglected, while others are reft from their historical context so that they may be presented as precursors of Modernism rather than as representatives of their own times.

The French Romantics are perceived as revolutionary innovators. This perception has been shaped by the largely unexamined assumption that since literature reflects society, the French Revolution must have engendered radical transformations of literature. It touched off a quarter century of exhausting wars and internecine political strife that crippled developments in the arts. Overall, the first third of the nineteenth century was marked by the profoundly reactionary social movements of the Empire and the Restoration. During this time, literature reacted as well, retreating to a prerevolutionary Neoclassicism. We tend to overlook this fact in part because our perception of the French Romantics is unconsciously influenced by our awareness of the innovative poetic practice of the English writers Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake. Consequently, we assume that all Romantics of any stature must have transformed literature, and we dismiss Alphonse de Lamartine and Alfred de Vigny as minor poets when on close examination they seem to have added little to the established traditions of verse. Even those critics who might hotly deny so disparaging an evaluation seldom take the time to write defenses of these poets. Lamartine appears a belated elegist (nobody considers the turbulent epic La Chute d'un ange) and Vigny a nostalgic advocate of the Neoclassic Stoic that went out of fashion after Napoleon I and David.

The poetry of Lamartine, Vigny, and the early Victor Hugo actually represents an unrecognized Neoclassicism. The eighteenth century, having lost the sense of the lyric, settled down to telling stories in rhymed verse. The early French “Romantics” innovated through reaction, returning to the genres of the Renaissance. From their viewpoint, what we today think of as Neoclassicism was coextensive with French art and French tradition since the early sixteenth century (the Baroque being a fascinating minor deviation). As John Porter Houston has observed, “For much of the nineteenth century in France, formal aesthetic questions continued frequently to be conceived according to basic assumptions of neoclassicism (imitation, unity of detail, symmetry).”1

It has become a misleading commonplace to say that French Romanticism broke down conventional generic categories. True, the first third of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth in France of the historical novel (inspired by Sir Walter Scott), the “conte fantastique” (created by Charles Nodier and then given a great impetus by translations of E. T. A. Hoffmann), and the melodrama (Guilbert de Pixérécourt). The Rousseauistic (self-justifying) confession also blossomed into a genre. But the notion of a breakdown of genres does not explain what was happening in French lyric poetry up until at least 1830. In 1828, for example, Emile Deschamps's influential preface to his Etudes françaises et étrangères invoked the concept of genre rather than of a Romantic revolt against Classicism in order to explain the evolution of poetry in his day. Deschamps suggested that writers had surveyed existing genres and then chosen to devote themselves to those that had not already been overexploited: “The Lyric, Elegiac, and Epic being the weak areas in our former poetry … it is therefore in them that the energies of the poetry of today were destined to be focused. Therefore, Victor Hugo revealed his talents in the Ode, Lamartine in the Elegy, and Alfred de Vigny in the ‘Poëme.’”2 The generic subtitles the early French Romantics frequently employed indicate that they themselves thought of their lyric poems in terms of traditional genres. In sum, they conceived of their achievements in the lyric as a culmination of Neoclassicism, and they saw themselves as rejuvenating traditional forms with new ideas just as André Chénier before them had claimed to do. (One thinks of the quintessentially Romantic painter Delacroix's indignant rejection of that label when he protested: “Je suis un pur classique.”) They achieved novelty through a crystallization of generic self-consciousness; they revived the lyric genres by recentering them on metaphors that summed up the essence of each. Lamartine used the metaphor of the echo to subsume the traditional elegiac pattern of appeal and response; Vigny condensed the manifold heroic actions of the epic into a sculptural shorthand of assertive and submissive bodily attitudes and gestures, thus moving the short narrative poem toward the lyric; and Hugo telescoped the spatial sublime of the ode into the “metaphor maxima” (the juxtaposition of two nouns such as “monde châtiment” or “l'Hydre univers”) to form a kernel of revelation replacing the optimistic but rhetorical, verbose, and thus diluted prophecies of the eighteenth-century visionary ode. These revivals formed a literary parallel to the political developments of the time, specifically the Restoration.3

The codes (systems of widely understood and generally accepted references and meanings) of the elegy, short narrative poem, and ode, moreover, presume social solidarity. The elegiac poet has been isolated by loss and grief, but not by estrangement from society: he appeals for sympathy from others, who unquestionably share his values. The short narrative relates a socially significant event from the perspective of a shared heritage of history and tradition. Vigny deplores war, the injustice of the Old Testament God, the decline of the aristocracy, and society's lack of appreciation for poets, but he adopts the stance of a would-be reformer (or reactionary) working within the system. The encomiastic quality of the ode also presumes a community of values. The choice of such a genre takes for granted the facility of inspiration, the formality and elegance of diction, reference, and subject, and an attentive reception by a public in harmony with the poet and his or her values. Surveying the history of French poetry during the first two-thirds of the century, Théodore de Banville claimed that the ode had come to dominate the mainstream of French poetry.4

According to the consecrated, unexamined categories of traditional literary history, French poets of the middle third of the century fall into the chronological cracks between Romanticism and Symbolism. Like all awkward exceptions to a general scheme, they are accommodated by special labels—Théophile Gautier and Banville by “L'Art pour l'Art”; Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle and José María de Heredia by “Parnasse”—which reduce them to oddities and remove them from serious consideration. Baudelaire fits in uneasily as a transitional figure between Romanticism and Symbolism. Others, including Tristan Corbière, Jules Laforgue, Arthur Rimbaud, and le comte de Lautréamont (and on these poets much good work has been done) have been considered interesting mainly as harbingers of the twentieth-century ironic tradition, of Surrealism, or of Modernism.

In fact, poets such as Corbière, Lautréamont, and Laforgue were the true Romantics: only around mid-century did a real revolutionary departure from conventional genres, diction, and theme occur. Hugo waited until 1854 to claim “j'ai mis un bonnet rouge au vieux dictionnaire” (I have set a [revolutionary's] red cap on the old dictionary). In the work of these poets, as well as in that of Leconte de Lisle and Maxime Du Camp (Chants modernes, 1855), the code and context of traditional lyrics are affected.5 Romanticism proper retains the familiar poetic vehicles but changes their message, dramatizing a poet standing apart from society. Such a condition of literature is illustrated perfectly by Lautréamont's Poésies, which take an old form—the aphorism modeled after Pascal and Vauvenargues—and reverse its conventional wisdom.

The simplest of the familiar and therefore readily available ways of reshaping and subverting traditional themes was to shift from the tone of encomium to that of satire. To the dominant discourse declaring that whatever is, is right, the Romantics retorted with a counterdiscourse or oppositional narrative.6 This truculent mode of expression extended eventually to their vocabulary as well as their themes and led to the interjection of familiar and coarse locutions into what had traditionally been a solemn situation. Hugo claims to transform language, but the real changes in diction come with Corbière and Laforgue. The most obvious symptoms of this upheaval were the appearance of a major new genre, the prose poem; the reemergence of satire; and the de-euphemization of metaphor, which reversed the previous tendency of this master trope of the lyric to make the unpleasant pleasant.7

Lautréamont—in fact rather timidly—transforms the encounter between poet and reader from a didactic to a sexual one that claims to be neither useful nor pleasant. Even when the Romantic poet withdraws, however, even when society does not heed him or her, the poet's reaction is to forge better weapons and then reenter the fray, denouncing indifference, mediocrity, and complacency. (The Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet is still very much a Romantic.) Even a mutually aggressive, negative relationship remains a relationship. A bad object seems better than none. Wrestling with his loathsome God, Lautréamont still enjoys intimacy. In opposing convention, Romantic literature remains bound to it, engaged in an unending dialogue with accepted values and continually revitalizing them—like Hercules' hydra—through the very act of contestation.

In the Romantic system, then, values have become problematical, but the act of communication still has not. As Houston has explained, pre-Symbolist poetry in general is characterized by

great clarity in rhetorical situations, by which I mean the relationships among author, speaker, person or thing addressed, subject matter, and reader, or whatever combination of them is relevant. This clarity is demonstrable on the levels of syntax, vocabulary, and figurative language. … A noteworthy stylistic aspect of romantic lyric is the reader's ability to distinguish between concrete and figurative language or to recognize the simultaneous presence of both … we can perceive the poem's reference as general, exemplary, or particular.8

The actual transition from Romanticism to Symbolism was provoked by the problems raised by Romanticism's Neoplatonic worldview, which assumed that there were identifiable transcendent referents for language.

In practice, Symbolism is ordinarily defined either too narrowly or too broadly: as a general tendency of La Belle Epoque (1880-1914) or as the systematic, pervasive use of a restricted vocabulary of symbols in poetry. Standard definitions of Symbolism in dictionaries and encyclopedias tend merely to list some of the writers—and sometimes the painters and musicians—of the latter years of the nineteenth century, without defining what they may have had in common, as though the movement lacked definitive or even characteristic traits. It is therefore not surprising that literary historians have not agreed on who the Symbolists were. Attempts to identify and categorize them seem to follow at least four major tendencies. The first claims that Baudelaire was a precursor and that after him Symbolism divided into two “branches,” the musical and the metaphoric, dominated respectively by Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.9 A second view discerns two different branches: the free-form, alogical creations of Rimbaud and the intellectual, stringently formalistic verse of Mallarmé, an opposition echoed in the twentieth century by Paul Valéry (“a poem should be a festival of the intellect”) and André Breton (“a collapse of the intellect”).10 A third view would also include Corbière and Laforgue as Symbolists, presumably in order to give two fine neglected poets their due by sheltering them under the umbrella of an overarching movement in literary history.11 A fourth perspective extends the Symbolist period to the mid-1920s and embraces such twentieth-century figures as Paul Claudel, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Valéry.12 Only Mallarmé appears on everyone's list; Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valéry are each omitted by some formulation. And those critics who try to characterize the poetic practice of the Symbolist authors, in addition to merely enumerating them, almost inevitably divide these authors into two opposing groups.

One wonders, then, what if anything the representatives of those contrasting persuasions share. Musicality? Only Verlaine really demonstrates this characteristic, and indeed the last famous French poet able to produce verse consistently appropriate for a musical setting was Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377). The late-nineteenth-century composers Claude Debussy, Henri Du Parc, and Gabriel Fauré, through the magisterial achievement of their art songs, were mainly responsible after the fact for giving Symbolist poets the reputation of being musicians. Mallarmé's “Un coup de Dés” adopts a system of notation analogous to that of the musical score insofar as the spatial disposition of the words on the page suggests an attribute comparable to pitch and the type size suggests an attribute comparable to intensity (loudness). But this is an isolated experiment, and to call it musical is to confuse graphic notation, a feature of both poetry and music, with the arrangement of sounds in relation to one another at a given moment and also over time, a feature of music alone. Synesthesia? This quality is prominent only in Baudelaire and in his non-Symbolist master Théophile Gautier. Symbols? The essence of the symbolism of all periods as we have traditionally understood it is that its metaphors are organized into a system. But surely one finds a greater density of symbols in William Blake, John Donne, and Maurice Scève than in Rimbaud or Verlaine. Baudelaire uses allegory and simile more often than metaphor, although it is on his symbolism that I focus later. … And Rimbaud's poetry is more striking in its effects of disjunction than of coherence. Only Mallarmé deploys a limited and tightly organized vocabulary of metaphors as the main materials for his poetry. Must we then limit French Symbolism to Mallarmé?

The view I am advocating would replace the traditional division of the nineteenth-century French lyric into the phases of Romanticism/transitions/Symbolism with a division into Neoclassicism/Romanticism/Symbolism. One could schematize it as follows:

Mode Neoclassicism Romanticism Symbolism
Vehicles Conventional Conventional Original
Codes Conventional Original Original
Metalanguage Affirmative Questioning Negating

In epistemological terms, the Romantics assailed the absurdity and errors of existing institutions, seeking to reform them or replace them with others. The Symbolists saw all institutions as relative to time and place and circumstance and therefore as delusional. The rationale for the Symbolists' departure from tradition was most clearly expressed by Schopenhauer in Book III of The World as Will and Idea, where he summed up a current of thought widespread in the nineteenth century:

Time, space, and causality are that arrangement of our intellect by virtue of which the one being of each kind which alone really is, manifests itself to us as a multiplicity of similar beings, constantly appearing and disappearing in endless succession. The apprehension of things by means of and in accordance with this arrangement is immanent knowledge; that, on the other hand, which is conscious of the true state of the case, is transcendental knowledge. The latter is obtained in abstracto through the criticism of pure reason, but in exceptional cases it may also appear intuitively.13

Vigny had anticipated this contrast of two forms of knowledge in his ironically titled “Les Oracles,” referring to ambitious men who scatter their thoughts to the winds of political debate instead of trying to crystallize, in solitude, the diamond of pure poetry. So the poet's mission is to see beyond the flux of appearances in order to apprehend the essential. Baudelaire articulated these aspirations clearly in his article on Hugo in 1861: “tout est hiéroglyphique. … Or, qu'est-ce que le poète (je prends le mot dans son acception la plus large), si ce n'est un traducteur, un déchiffreur?” (Everything is a hieroglyph. … Now, what is a poet [I am taking the word in its broadest possible meaning] if not a translator, a decipherer?).14 Through the imagination Baudelaire tried to apprehend universal analogy, “ou ce qu'une religion mystique appelle la correspondance.15 Elsewhere he defined the experience of revelation in quasi-Schopenhauerian terms: “Dans certains états de l'âme presque surnaturels, la profondeur de la vie se révèle tout entière dans le spectacle, si ordinaire qu'il soit, qu'on a sous les yeux. Il en devient le Symbole” (In certain almost supernatural states of the soul, the depths of existence are entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary it may be, you have before your eyes. It becomes the Symbol [of those depths]).16

Seeking transcendence, the Symbolists abandoned both Neoclassic tradition and Romantic opposition, but as poets they remained tied to the use of language, a system of conventions which prima facie seemed hardly susceptible of attaining or even becoming the vehicle for a vision of transcendence. To evade this aporia, they adopted one of three main solutions. Two had already been tried by the Romantics and by earlier poets as well.

The first solution, the age-old doctrine of Cratylism, postulated that language in and of itself, as a divine creation, bears an ultimate signification. Its shape and sound constitute the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible transcendence. In addition to graphemes, etymology, homonymy, and onomatopoeia supposedly hold clues to primordial meanings. This tradition runs through Rousseau to Nodier and of course Mallarmé, whose speculations on the expressive forms of letters and typography are well known.17 The rapid development of historical linguistics in the nineteenth century, as it traced Western languages back to an Indo-European root, encouraged belief in Cratylism. Some poets believed that one could “purify” language by using it so that it more closely reflected its origins. Mallarmé had urged: “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (Give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe). In his “Suite à une réponse à un acte d'accusation,” Hugo for one had earlier expounded an almost mystical concept of language; in passages dated from 1830 to 1864 and collected in the Postscriptum de ma vie he repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of fusing form and matter—a notion echoed by Banville in his Petit Traité de poésie française of 1872.18 Hugo, however, finally confronted the unbridgeable gap between language and the transcendent in the last ten pages of his unfinished visionary poem “Dieu,” one still too little known. After presenting ten successive and ever more refined depictions of God by winged beings whom the poet encounters during an imagined ascension toward Heaven—a progress that metaphorically asserts his claim of being in contact with a realm of higher knowledge—the poet capitulates:19

Le mot noir est un grain de cendre dans la brume,
O gouffre, et le mot blanc est un flocon d'écume,
L'infini ne sait point ce qu'on murmure en bas;
.....Pourquoi chercher les mots où ne sont plus les choses?
Le vil langage humain n'a pas d'apothéoses.

(The black word is a speck of ash in the fog, / O abyss, and the white word is a trace of foam, / The infinite is unaware of what is murmured below; / Why seek words where there are no things? / Vile human language has no apotheoses.)20

For ten more pages the conclusion of the poem expatiates on the inadequacy of language, and the last word is an angelic command to the poet: “Silence!” Hugo complied by not completing the last two of the projected ten sections of the poem.

If a direct attack on the transcendent by means of words seemed bound to fail, there remained the hope that the beyond could be intuited, suggested, indirectly evoked. So Baudelaire referred to poetry as a “magie suggestive,” and Banville called poetry “this sorcery by means of which ideas are infallibly communicated to us in a certain way by words which do not express them.”21 And Mallarmé of course declared, “Nommer un object, c'est supprimer les trois-quarts de la jouissance du poëme qui est faite de deviner peu à peu: le suggérer, voilà le rêve. C'est le parfait usage de ce mystère qui constitue le symbole” (To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which consists in guessing little by little: to suggest it, that is my dream. The symbol is constituted by the flawless practice of this mystery/ministry).22 In practice, such an enterprise must steer a treacherous course between the Scylla of obscurity and the Charybdis of preciosity based upon periphrasis and allusion. In the latter instance the flash of insight achieved in guessing the answer to a riddle may masquerade as a window on transcendence.

After abandoning the prophetic statements of frankly visionary literature or the alternative of suggestion, the poet is reduced to a third possibility: to despair of the success of the communicative process altogether, since only the transcendent is worth communicating and since the poet's verbal vehicle must be the antithesis of transcendence. Such despair is what characterizes Symbolism proper—or more precisely, the first or crisis period of Symbolism as opposed to the optimistic “second Symbolism” of the mid-1880s on—as distinguished from Romanticism. Romanticism preserved a robust optimism about its ability to apprehend an ultimate truth and to communicate it, be it only eventually and to only a happy few. Although Hugo abandoned his attempt to depict God verbally, he persisted till the end of his life—for another quarter century—in his attempts to describe the reverberations of Providence in human history. In advance, he scheduled his posthumous publications at five-year intervals so as to ensure the greatest possible impact for his revelations. But all the major Symbolist poets in France underwent a crisis of loss of faith in the communicative process. They experienced what the French call “l'incommunicabilité”—the difficulty or impossibility of mutual understanding. (Before, during, and after the apogee of Symbolism, of course, this motif is commonplace in larval form as the quiproquo of comic theater; it receives thematic development in plays such as Alfred de Musset's Fantasio and in the theater of the absurd.) Eléonore Zimmermann and Claude Cuénot come to mind as two critics with a keen sense of this unifying principle in French Symbolism. Cuénot, for example, has said that “Verlaine is modern in his effort to express the inexpressible, and in that respect he is indeed a disciple of Baudelaire and a kindred spirit to Rimbaud and Mallarmé. … The magnificent generation of poets that followed Baudelaire owes its greatness to this almost despairing attempt.”23

Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud all encounter hindrances to communication at all points along the axis running from sender to receiver: inspiration is elusive, the words available for embodying a transcendent poetic vision are conventions, and the potential audience remains indifferent or alien. Symbolist poetry is a poetry of failure. But each poet chooses to dramatize only one particular problem as insoluble, while merely stating or implying solutions to the others.

Thus the relationship with a Muse—a dramatized figuration of inspiration—is problematic in the verse poems of Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, who depict their respective lyric personae as being afflicted, dominated, or disgusted by the (often supernatural) female Other. But Mallarmé's personae can achieve no relationship at all with this figure, who flees and eludes them. Given the problem that only the conventional tokens of human language are available to convey the unique and transcendent poetic vision, Mallarmé, as we have seen, resorts to Cratylism, finding in the shape of letters and in the sound and etymology of words innate meanings deeper than the conventional signifieds. Baudelaire denounces the vacuity of words (“tel est du globe entier l'éternel bulletin” [such is the tedious news bulletin of the entire planet]) as a reflection of our spiritual emptiness without God.24 Rimbaud violently distorts conventional prosody and tortures the lexicon with glaring neologisms. But only Verlaine literally erases all human discourse by inserting into his lines words denoting musical tones and nonhuman noises that appear to function autonomously and not merely as an element of a description, as does the howling city street in Baudelaire. And while other poets may have trouble reaching their audiences or may at times be reduced to talking to themselves, only Baudelaire must seemingly forfeit all self-expression in his messages in order to attract the attention of an audience, by bribing potential hearers with a narcissistic image of themselves. Finally only Rimbaud—in the early verse—imagines an audience that is attentive but so hostile and overwhelming that he must assassinate it or flee it, or both.

So each French Symbolist impresses a distinctive, personal stamp upon the common theme that the unreliability of language and communication makes it difficult to be a poet even when one does not have to endure alienation from an unappreciative society. And the poetic dark night of the soul eventuated differently for each of them. Mallarmé ultimately regained faith in the existence of an absolute signification that could be verbally conveyed to a public: most of his surviving notes for the totalizing “Livre” (the poetical parts must have been burned after his death by his daughter, at his request) involved counting the house of the potential future audiences for public readings. Verlaine relapsed into a dilutely confessional neo-Romanticism with his collections of anecdotes about “My Hospitals” and “My Prisons.” Baudelaire turned to writing self-critical prose poems that brilliantly disparaged his past hopes. And Rimbaud, of course, abandoned poetry: the most authentic and consequently, for those of us who cherish the chimera of lyricism, the most dismaying solution to the communicative crisis.


  1. John Porter Houston, French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement: A Study of Poetic Structures (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), p. 2. For an authoritative overview of the entire Symbolist phenomenon, with discussions of its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings, see The Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages, ed. Anna Balakian (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiado, 1982), pts. I-II, pp. 15-123.

  2. Emile Deschamps, Etudes françaises et étrangères (Paris: A. Levavasseur, 1828), pp. 12-13.

  3. See Laurence M. Porter, The Renaissance of the Lyric in French Romanticism: Elegy,Poëme,and Ode (Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1978), pp. 11-14.

  4. Théodore de Banville, Petit Traité de poésie française (Paris: Charpentier, 1891 [1872]), p. 158: “L'ode, je le répète une dernière fois, a absorbé tous les genres poétiques … elle est devenue toute la poésie moderne.”

  5. For a discussion of the terms “code” and “context” as used in linguistics, see Roman Jakobson's influential Studies on Child Language and Aphasia (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 41-48, 54-55, 61, and 67-73; his “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Selected Writings (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), 3 vols., III, 18-27; and the famous “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1960), pp. 350-77.

  6. See Richard Terdiman, Discourse and Counterdiscourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), and Ross Chambers, Mélancolie et opposition: Les Débuts du modernisme en France (Paris: Corti, 1987).

  7. On this last point see Laurence M. Porter, “Modernist Maldoror: The Deeuphemization of Metaphor,” L'Esprit Créateur, 18 (Winter 1978), 25-34.

  8. Houston, French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement, pp. 7-8.

  9. See Thomas A. Kovach, “A New Kind of Poetry: Hofmannsthal and the French Symbolists,” Comparative Literature, 37 (Winter 1985), 50n, 51; and The Oxford Companion to French Literature, ed. Joyce M. H. Reid (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), s.v. “Symbolism,” pp. 603-4.

  10. See Hugo Friedrich, The Structure of Modern Poetry, from the Mid-Nineteenth to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 109.

  11. See Houston, French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement, pp. 59-83 and passim.

  12. See James R. Lawler, The Language of French Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. vii-ix and passim.

  13. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 3 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948), I, 224.

  14. Charles Baudelaire, “Réflexions sur quelques-uns de mes contemporains: Victor Hugo,” in his Oeuvres complètes, ed. Yves Le Dantec and Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1975-76), II, 129-41 (p. 133); hereafter cited in text and notes as OC.

  15. Baudelaire to Alphonse Toussenel, January 21, 1856, in his Correspondance, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), I, 336.

  16. Baudelaire, Fusées XI (frag. 17), OC I, 659. This passage and the two previous quotations from Baudelaire are all cited by Henri Peyre, Qu'est-ce que le Symbolisme? (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1974), pp. 44-46.

  17. See Gérard Genette, Mimologiques: Voyages en Cratylie (Paris: Seuil, 1976), especially the chapters on Nodier and Mallarmé.

  18. Banville, Petit Traité, pp. 262-63; see also Margaret Gilman, The Idea of Poetry in France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 233.

  19. See Porter, Renaissance of the Lyric, pp. 100-106.

  20. Victor Hugo, La Légende des siècles; La Fin de Satan; Dieu (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), pp. 1066, 1104.

  21. Banville, Petit Traité, p. 291, cited in Gilman, Idea of Poetry in France, p. 236.

  22. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Réponses à des enquêtes sur l'évolution littéraire,” in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1956), p. 869.

  23. Claude Cuénot, “Situation de Paul Verlaine,” L'Information littéraire, 9 (May-June 1957), 106-10 (p. 109); and Eléonore M. Zimmermann, “Mallarmé and Rimbaud in Crisis,” in Mary Ann Caws, ed., Writing in a Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, Stanford French and Italian Studies, vol. 23 (Stanford: Anma Libri, 1984), pp. 102-16.

  24. For detailed comments on the influence of the great seventeenth-century French preachers (Bossuet, Bourdaloue, Massillon) on Baudelaire's poetry, see Jean Starobinski, “Les Rimes du vide,” Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 11 (1975), 133-44. This influence is obvious elsewhere, for instance in Les Paradis artificiels, although it has never received adequate critical attention.

Richard Shryock (essay date September 2000)

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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 having the socio-political dimension of their works taken seriously. In part, this is because their writing is at some distance from usual forms of littérature engagée which may come to mind. Critics doubted then, and still today, that any socio-political dimension motivated Symbolist literature, arguing that many Symbolists openly embraced anarchist ideas only in the 1890s when anarchism had become fashionable. This impression is further magnified by the fact that almost without exception all of the critical attention has been directed at the 1890s, thereby ignoring the socio-political orientation of the movement at its inception. However, Merrill's perspective, which was shared by numerous fellow Symbolists, was that Symbolism did not become political; it was political in its essence. Indeed, a reexamination of the second half of 1886 reveals that the ties between the Symbolist movement and anarchism can be traced to the very beginnings of the movement.

Although aspects of Symbolist aesthetics are clearly derived from Baudelaire's poetry in the 1850s and then developed by Mallarmé and Verlaine in the following decades, the Symbolist movement itself, in terms of a group of writers who consciously used the label “Symbolist,” does not begin until Jean Moréas's “Manifeste” published in Le Figaro on September 18, 1886. These writers, mostly born between 1855 and 1865, were called “decadent” by the public.3 One of the goals of the manifesto was to move them beyond this pejorative epithet in the hope that the press would regard them as a serious movement.

The question arises as to when the Symbolists saw their writing as possibly having a socio-political dimension and whether others recognized this same potential. In fact, these connections can be traced to the very period during which the Symbolist movement was establishing itself during the second half of 1886.

In the months after the publication of the manifesto, an intense fight arose over which faction of the new writers could be called “Symbolist,” which should remain “decadent” and which journal would represent the new school. During this time, three literary conférences4 took place on October 20, October 25, and December 9, 1886. During the first two, the famous fin-de-siècle anarchist Louise Michel and other anarchists stood side-by-side with what were then considered to be “decadent” writers to discuss and promote this new literary movement. Louise Michel was announced as the main speaker at the third conference but failed to show. The October conférences have been studied by Noël Richard in Le Mouvement décadent5 and by Edith Thomas in Louise Michel ou la Velléda de l'anarchie.6 Both critics take their tone from the press reports of the time, which sarcastically greeted the unexpected fusion of the new, incomprehensible young writers and la Vierge Rouge, who, since her return from exile in New Caledonia, had become one of the leading figures of anarchism in France. Neither book grants much importance to the conférences, which are presented as an amusing fait divers of the life of the decadent movement (for Richard) or the life of Louise Michel (for Thomas).

Rather than representing “quirks” of literary history, these conférences are part of an overall openness by many future Symbolist writers toward revolutionary politics at the exact time when the Symbolist movement was establishing itself. Moreover, they show the early interest of anarchist groups in the revolutionary potential of this new form of writing.

Among literary groups trying to promote themselves as the representative of a new generation of writers are three main camps, each associated with one or more journals. The first included the journals La Vogue and Le Symboliste (Gustave Kahn, Jean Moréas, and Paul Adam); the second comprised the journals Le Scapin and La Décadence (Alfred Vallette, Édouard Dubus, René Ghil, Léo d'Orfer et al.); the third was Anatole Baju's Le Décadent. The boundaries between these groups was fluid to some extent. Ghil, for example, collaborated with all three of the groups yet was, by October 1886, most closely associated with Le Scapin and especially La Décadence. However, other boundaries remained intact: none of the main writers of La Vogue-Le Symboliste group (after Kahn took control) ever published in Le Scapin or La Décadence. Baju of Le Décadent seemed the most open of all and even allowed the La Vogue team to produce an issue of his journal on September 25, 1886.7

While Baju was content to claim decadence as the movement of the future, the other two groups fought over the right to represent the Symbolist movement. The name “Symbolism” seemed to have immediate resonance for many of the young writers trying to establish themselves in the literary field. It had the potential of offering respectability. Moréas was quite explicit about this as a motivation for writing his manifesto. However, this fundamental moment was more than a struggle for names. The two groups were separated by aesthetic differences and egos (Kahn, Moréas, and Ghil each wanted to be the chef d'école). Thus, the group who could claim the title “Symbolist” would also be in a position to define and mold the shape of the new movement.8

The period of intense maneuvering began with the publication of Jean Moréas's manifesto on September 18. Ten days later, on September 28, Kahn had printed in L'Événement the “Réponse des Symbolistes” (an article whose title suggested that Kahn spoke for all the Symbolists). This article, along with most of Moréas's manifesto, was reproduced in Paul Adam's piece “Le Symbolisme” (La Vogue, October 4-11, 1886). While Moréas, Kahn and Adam began claiming the designation “Symbolist” in the last two weeks of September, the rival pair of journals, Le Scapin and La Décadence, deposited a sample copy of a new journal, Le Symbolisme, artistique et littéraire, with the police on September 30 and with the Ministry of the Interior on October 1.9 In its October 1 issue, La Décadence claims to be “l'organe de l'école symbolique” (4) with Ghil at the head because of his Traité du Verbe with an “Avant-dire” by Mallarmé. Thus, at the beginning of October, Le Scapin and La Décadence appeared to be carrying the torch of Symbolism. However, a few days later, Kahn, Adam and Moréas published the first issue of Le Symboliste, journal hebdomadaire (dated October 7-14). After the second issue of Le Symboliste, the rival group of Le Scapin-La Décadence renounced—temporarily at least—its attempts at being “Symbolists.” An article by Alfred Vallette appeared in the October 16, 1886 issue of Le Scapin. Entitled “Les Symbolistes,” it attacked Moréas and Symbolism, concluding that “On peut dès maintenant affirmer que la littérature de notre fin de siècle ne sera point symboliste” (79). Although the timing of the article could give the impression that Le Scapin was suffering from a case of sour grapes, Vallette's article was curiously dated September 20. No explanation is given as to why it was published nearly one month later nor why Vallette would criticize Symbolism when the journal in which he played an important part had wanted to create a new journal called Le Symbolisme. Ghil, who was closely associated with Le Scapin and La Décadence would return to the adjective “symbolique” when describing his school in his new journal Les Écrits pour l'Art in January 1887, founded just weeks after the demise of Le Symboliste and La Vogue.

The “decadent” writers' interest in socio-political questions and their associations with anarchists began before the manifesto and continued through the period of the conférences. La Vogue—which Gustave Kahn called the first Symbolist journal10—had an anarchist, Henri Mayence (who also founded the artistic and literary group La Butte in 1885) as its gérant. Its first issue carried a column entitled “Courrier social” (probably written by Léo d'Orfer) which declared that “la Révolution sociale se fera. … L'urgence est qu'elle se fasse consciemment et intelligemment, contrairement à la Révolution politique au dix-huitième siècle.”11La Vogue sought to publish documents that would aid its “œuvre éminemment rénovatrice.” At the end of May, Mayence and d'Orfer disappeared from the journal as did the “Courrier social,” but Kahn—whose anarchist sympathies led him later to describe himself as an intellectual anarchist—took full control. In mid October 1886, a change in the subtitle of La Vogue to artistique, scientifique et sociale [emphasis added] is announced.12 The same week as the first conférence, La Vogue published “Jubilé des esprits illusoires,” an excerpt from the novel Les Demoiselles Goubert, critique de mœurs by Moréas and Adam. This texte-limite of Symbolist writing challenged mainstream norms of readability13 and overtly mocked notions of liberty and patrie. Less than one week before the first conférence, Le Symboliste (Oct. 15-22) changed its subtitle to Journal littéraire et politique [emphasis added]. Kahn's contributions to Le Symboliste addressed both cultural and social concerns. In fact, one of Kahn's attacks on the bourgeoisie earned the admiration of Trublot (Paul Alexis) who, writing for Le Cri du Peuple in popular French stated: “… M. Gustave Kahn met excellemment l'nez d'la bourgeoisie dans son ordure” (Oct. 31, 1886). Le Scapin, for its part, published poems by Louise Michel in July and August 1886 as well as a short article by her in the second November issue. Members of Le Scapin played an important part especially in the first conférence with Louise Michel. La Décadence listed Louise Michel as a collaborator. During June and July 1886 Le Décadent printed contributions from three anarchists—Charles Malato, Léon Schiroky, and Paterne Berrichon—all of whom frequented the monthly gatherings of the literary and artistic circle La Butte which Baju also attended. Anatole Baju, despite his claims of being uninterested in politics was an intensely political man.14Le Décadent ceased publication definitively in 1889 so that he could run as an anti-Boulangist candidate that year. That same year he likely was involved with the anarchist group “La Commune,”15 an organization that became “le groupe des Huit Heures” in 1890. Baju assisted in the founding of La Maison du Peuple in the 18th arrondissement.16 He later published Principes du Socialisme with a preface by Jules Guesde in 1895. Le Décadent included in its columns portraits of the famous anarchist Séverine as well as Paterne Berrichon and Henri Mayence. It also published announcements for the revolutionary socialist literary journal Le Coup de Feu, revue politique, littéraire, artistique.

While it is important not to overstate the significance of these contacts with anarchists and far-left politics, they provide evidence that the “decadent” writers were concerned with socio-political questions and did not live in a world apart from the anarchists. In fact, the worlds of the anarchists and the “decadents” always overlapped to some degree. Moreover, the openness these writers showed toward anarchism was not manifested toward any other political tendency.

On the other hand, most anarchists were suspicious of, if not hostile to, the new literature. This would remain true even during the 1890s. The majority of anarchists—the militants—felt that such forms of literature were not a serious way to participate in the movement. The revolution and a new social order would come from acts, not words. Often the militants came from working-class backgrounds whereas the writers who had an intellectual interest were bourgeois. Even the lead article of Jean Grave's Le Révolté, entitled “Le Pessimisme bourgeois,” decried this new literature:

Il paraît que les jeunes réactionnaires qui écrivent les romans à la mode et constituent l'école littéraire de l'avenir sont maintenant pessimistes. Depuis trois ou quatre mois environ, ces intéressants produits de la culture bourgeoise épanchent leur tristesse dans le sein de respectables journaux qui discutent gravement la question et cherchent quels moyens on pourrait bien employer pour ramener le calme dans ces pauvres âmes.17

This article is representative of most anarchists who preferred realist literature and usually held up Émile Zola and Jules Vallès as exemplary writers. Later, as the idea of the “intellectual anarchist” gained acceptance in Parisian anarchist milieus, Grave would be one of the leading anarchists to realize the revolutionary potential of this new literature, and he established friendly relations with a number of Symbolists. The main openness came from those anarchists who saw an educational value to literature. Of these, the strongest proponent was the former school teacher Louise Michel who wrote, for example, “Pour faire des révolutionnaires et des révolutionnaires conscients, il faut donner aux facultés intellectuelles et viriles tout leur développement, toute leur intensité.”18 She herself had published several literary works with this same goal.

Although the antagonism and mistrust between anarchist militants and anarchist intellectuals persisted, some militant anarchists did not shun contact with the world of avant-garde writers. One crossroad between these two worlds was the literary and artistic circle La Butte. Paul Alexis presided over the monthly meetings which began on November 28, 1885. As the anarchist Charles Malato described it, “je faisais partie d'un cercle montmartrois appelé “La Butte,” où se cultivaient la poésie et la prose. Naturalistes, symbolistes, et décadents s'y sont rencontrés sans se dévorer.”19 Among the anarchists who attended and often participated in these gatherings were Malato, Léon Schiroky, Jean Pausader, Paterne Berrichon and Henri Mayence.20 The first three founded the Ligue Cosmopolite in 1886 in the 20th arrondissement near Père Lachaise Cemetery and started the review La Révolution Cosmopolite, journal révolutionnaire socialiste indépendant with the collaboration of Louise Michel that same year.

One of the first groups of anarchists, if not the first, to embrace openly the new literature as having a revolutionary social potential was called “Les Décadents, groupe politique et littéraire.” This group appears to have been formed independently from Le Décadent and other literary groups. Information about it is sketchy. Although the Paris police archives show there was a file on “Les Décadents,” it appears to have been lost or destroyed. This group, which existed for a few months in late 1886, was headquartered at 47, rue des Amandiers in the 20th arrondissement just a few blocks away from the Ligue Cosmopolite. Members organized not only the three conférences with Louise Michel, but also nine other announced meetings between October 6 to December 9, most of which were relatively small. They were at least 13 in number.21 Five names can be gleaned from the requests they made to the police to hold meetings: Paul Ridoux, Année, Paul Riotor, Charles Schaeffer, and Georges Deherme. Although little information is available on Année and Riotor, the others, especially Schaeffer, Ridoux and Deherme, were committed anarchists. Riotor and Schaeffer frequently attended anarchist meetings, and the latter was occasionally a featured speaker at some anarchist rallies. Année also attended anarchist meetings and helped Deherme draft a letter of support to La Révolution Cosmopolite.22

Georges Deherme is the member who has had the most significant impact on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France. A wood worker from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, he collaborated on two anarchist journals in the mid-1880s. He also began one of his first educational groups with some fellow compagnons on rue Boulet.23 He was arrested in February 1887 for putting up posters for the anarchist Ligue des Anti-Patriotes entitled “Aux conscrits” calling on soldiers to mutiny.24 The police archives show him to be an active participant in anarchist meetings through the 1890s. During the 1890s, his activity moved toward reconciling the militants and the intellectuals of the anarchist movement. Lucien Mercier writes about Deherme:

Ainsi, entre 1890 et 1900, le “prolétariat intellectuel,” composé d'étudiants, de journalistes à la recherche d'un emploi, de jeunes écrivains …, groupe social aux contours mal définis, sensible à la dégradation de son statut, en proie aux difficultés d'insertion dans un monde en évolution, a des préoccupations proches de celles du monde ouvrier ou du moins l'imagine. Beaucoup seront auprès de Georges Deherme pour faire cesser le malentendu qui existe entre manuels et intellectuels.


The journal he founded, La Coopération des Idées, Revue mensuelle de Sociologie positive, pursued this same idea. In it, for example, he saw the social implications of the Symbolist writing of Bernard Lazare's Les Porteurs des torches: “Ce nouveau livre … est des plus intéressants. Il contribuera, nous en sommes convaincu, à éclairer les consciences et à secouer les torpeurs” (191).25

The Décadents appeared to try to reconcile the militant and intellectual tendencies within anarchism. While little information exists on Deherme's exact role in the Décadents, most of his life was spent in pursuits compatible with the activities of this group.

Another clue to the view of the Décadents toward literature is found in what they intended to do with the proceeds from the conférences. The poster announcing the conférence indicated that its profits were to go to the “groupe politique et littéraire indépendant les Décadents.” Details of the use of the money were openly raised in the second meeting. The reporter of L'Événement writes: “Un décadent … répond … que le groupe décadent a été fondé pour répandre la littérature dans les classes ouvrières et que la recette doit servir à fonder une revue décadente ouvrière.”26 Two police reports indicated either a “journal anarchiste” or “une revue littéraire ouvrière.” The type of project followed the lines that Deherme would later take. It was also in keeping with the direction taken the next year by Jean Grave when he added a literary supplement to the anarchist La Révolte and by the socialist Coup de Feu which reoriented itself to make it explicitly “l'organe littéraire du peuple” in 1887.27

It is likely that this anarchist group was closely allied and overlapped with one of the most important anarchist groups in Paris. La Ligue des Anti-Patriotes (section du XXe arrondissement) used 47, rue des Amandiers as their headquarters and held meetings there during the same period as the Décadents.28 The Anti-Patriotes, formed at the beginning of August 1886, included about 20 participating members.29 Among those actively attending meetings were Malato, and Schiroky (who had collaborated with Le Décadent) and Georges Deherme. The Ligue spawned a series of other anarchist anti-patriot groups across Paris in 1886. One means by which they planned to spread anarchism was by establishing an anarchist and antipatriot library at 47, rue des Amandiers.30 This topic was on the agenda of the November 22, 1886 meeting: “Discussion sur l'utilité d'une bibliothèque socialiste et antipatriotique” (Nov. 23, 1886, “Convocations”). At the close of 1886, Jean Grave's Le Révolté considered the creation of this group to be one of the year's major achievements for anarchism.

The exact relationship of the Anti-Patriotes to the Décadents is uncertain. However, when the police searched 47, rue des Amandiers in pursuit of members of the Anti-Patriots in February 1887, one report indicates: “il y a bien là une chambre louée par cinq ou six individus; ils sont connus sous le nom de ‘décadents.’”31 In addition, when the poster which caused the search was released to the press, Henry Fouquier, commenting on the language used in the poster, remarked: “Ils ont parmi eux un littérateur, au moins, fort distingué, qui connaît les formules de Blanqui aussi bien que les artifices de langage.”32 While it is impossible to say who the author of this poster was, the Ligue des Anti-Patriotes obviously had a concern for the importance of language in bringing people to anarchism or in encouraging them to commit anarchist acts. Not only does the language of the poster suggest this, but so too do their plans to begin a library at 47, rue des Amandiers. Thus, in addition to sharing an address with the Décadents, they appeared to have a compatible appreciation of the power of words in the battle for anarchism.

The first conférence with Louise Michel took place on October 20. Her personal involvement in literature and her commitment to radicalizing people through education made her the ideal person to lead such a gathering, especially since she had published poetry in one of the leading “decadent” literary journals, Le Scapin, and was listed as a collaborator of La Décadence.

The poster announcing the first conférence gave the topic, “Analyse des quatre principales écoles: romantique, classique, naturaliste, et décadente,” thus placing the most recent school, “décadente,” on the same plane as three other well-established movements. The choice of invited guests is revealing: Clovis Hugues, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Alexis, René Ghil, Moréas, and Francis Enne. Three of them—Mallarmé, Ghil, and Moréas—were writers associated with the “decadents.” Hughes was known for his political literature (with a socialist inclination). Alexis and Enne were both naturalists.33 Not surprisingly for a group that called itself “Décadents,” “decadent” writers were disproportionately favored.

It is not clear to what extent the Décadents coordinated their efforts with any of the literary groups in organizing the conférences. From the literary side only Anatole Baju and five or six people from Le Scapin—Alfred Vallette, Édouard Dubus, Gaston Dubédat, André Bucquet, Julien Leclercq, and possibly E-G Raymond—were mentioned by name in the press and police reports. One and possibly two members of Le Scapin helped run the meeting. Alfred Vallette was an assesseur and a “Raymond” was president, but it is unclear if this was Émile-Georges Raymond of Le Scapin or a Raymond whose name appeared from time to time at anarchist meetings.34 The large presence from Le Scapin could be because Michel had published with them. Dubus presented his attendance as accidental, claiming that he and Julien Leclercq just happened upon the conference. One press report indicates that La Vogue and Le Symboliste were represented (Montorgueil 1). This could have likely been Gustave Kahn (who was on the editorial staff of both) as Jean Moréas did not attend and no indication of Paul Adam's presence can be found.35

Judging from the press and police reports, the organizers must have been disappointed. Louise Michel showed an openness to the new school and mentioned the importance of musicality in literature, but spoke mostly of other matters indirectly related to literature. Dubus with a little help from Vallette tried to explain the new movement's purposes and help a mocking crowd understand poems by Mallarmé and Ghil.

In addition to the writers, journalists from the principal Parisian dailies were invited. The organizers clearly sought to publicize the event as much as possible. They got their wish, but every newspaper covering the conférence treated it in strongly derisive terms. The reporter from Le Temps wrote: “Il n'y a qu'à Paris qu' on puisse voir un spectacle pareil: Louise Michel venant donner son appui à Stéphane Mallarmé; … Quelle ville surprenante! Étonnez-vous que l'incohérence y ait des expositions.”36 Théodore Massiac writing in Le Gil Blas commented: “Nous avons assisté hier soir à l'une des réunions les plus abracadabrantes où il nous ait été donné de nous trouver jusqu'ici.”37

The second conférence received significantly less press coverage. This time, just one person from Le Scapin was listed as attending: Bucquet (who was an assesseur) and perhaps a second, Henri Feuchère.38

The reporter from L'Événement indicates that Louise Michel was to speak:

1) Sur l'école décadente ou symboliste, sa raison d'être, sa philosophie et sa portée sociale;

2) Sur le romantisme, le symbolisme et le naturalisme.

This time, according to a police report, Louise Michel praised “la nouvelle école ‘décadente et symbolique’” and defended many of the ideas of the “decadent” writers.39 Another police report indicates:

Louise Michel parle sur l'introduction des symboles dans le langage de la littérature. Elle dit que dans l'art littéraire comme dans les autres sciences, il faut créer des expressions nouvelles et imagées. À propos des symboles, elle compare les inventeurs à Prométhée. …

And yet a third report:

Louise Michel a dit que l'École Décadente a pour objet de chercher dans les symboles des choses réelles qui répondent aux besoins de l'humanité. Au lieu de la tourner en ridicule, il faudrait étudier les idées des Décadents et approfondir les symboles sur lesquels s'appuyent leurs théories. On y trouvera peut-être quelque chose qui fera sortir des vieilles traditions.

Elle demande une discussion libre afin d'arriver à persuader que les Décadents sont appelés à faire jaillir des idées nouvelles, utiles aux générations futures.”40

This meeting, like the first, was constantly interrupted by people in the audience, making it difficult to hear and preventing the conférences from being anything close to the type of events the announcements suggested would take place. The Décadents received no help from Anatole Baju who is quoted as saying “la littérature n'est pas comme la politique; elle ne se discute pas en public.”41 In addition to being mocked by the audience, even some of those who spoke at the podium were hostile. For example, at both meetings Léon Roux vociferously attacked “decadent” literature in favor of naturalist literature.

Once again, the invitations addressed to the mainstream press backfired: already the young “decadent” writers who wrote incomprehensible verse were frequently ridiculed by the large dailies as were the anarchists who were considered to be little more than thieves or crazy people. The reporter of L'Événement described it as “une réunion de fumistes” (Flûte 1). For many, it was as if two parts of the lunatic fringe had come together to produce a highly amusing farce. For example, the article in the Gil Blas stated, “Louise Michel est aussi fantaisiste en art qu'en politique.” In most press accounts, the interruptions from the audience received more coverage than what the speakers attempted to present.

The third meeting was held on December 9, 1886 at the salle de l'Ermitage. It was attended by only about 70 people and largely seemed to have escaped the attention of the press, perhaps in part because Louise Michel did not come as had been announced. The conférence appears to have had little to do with literature and consisted of anti-Semitic and anti-republican speeches. Édouard Dubus is the only literary writer cited in the police records.42

The three events also served to exacerbate the uneasy relations between the anarchists and revolutionary socialists. The naturalist author Paul Alexis, whose socialist positions earned him a daily column in the far-left Le Cri du Peuple and who was specifically invited to the first conference, wrote on October 22, 1886 that he did not attend and summed up his disappointment by writing in popular French “Que [sic] rigolade j'ai manquée.” In addition, prior to the conférences, Louise Michel had been a regular contributor to the socialist literary journal Le Coup de Feu and had attended their social activities. In the issue following the conférences, Alphonse Germain wrote about Louise Michel and the conférences:

Bien que son acte, purement littéraire, n'engageât en rien ses coreligionnaires, encore bien moins nous socialistes, la presse bourgeoise, accoutumée à travestir nos faits et gestes pour nous perdre dans l'opinion publique, en a profité pour faire une charge à fond de train sur les révolutionnaires, … et les montrer comme devant bouleverser les règles de la grammaire en même temps que les bases de la société. C'est pourquoi, bien que ne partageant pas toutes les idées de la citoyenne Louise Michel, nous devons protester.43

After the conférences her name disappeared from the columns of this journal.

At least one account attests to the lack of interest among some anarchists. In the meeting of the anarchist group “Terre et Liberté” on October 23, the lack of success of the conférence is noted: “Mais les réunions de Décadents, de Louise Michel, ont peu de succès auprès des anarchistes.”44 None of the anarchist journals wrote about the conférences.

On the literary side, the silence was nearly total. No articles appeared in La Vogue or Le Symboliste. Le Chat Noir in the November 6, 1886 issue printed an article saying, “Les récentes réunions … ont attiré l'attention de tous sur l'école décadente” and announced a series of texts by Louise Michel, Moréas, Ghil, Dubus, etc. However, a poem by Paul Adam in the same issue was the only part of this series to appear. Only in Le Décadent of October 30, 1886 are there any references. Baju, in the lead article, “Deux Littératures,” takes what happened at the second conférence as his point of departure to argue for the necessity of a popular literature and a separate “littérature de l'Aristocratie,” the latter being the literature of the Decadents. Even Baju, who was probably one of the most open journal directors among the petites revues, now closed the door—at least temporarily—on the idea of a literature that would not be divided along class lines.

Le Scapin, despite the participation of several of its members, did not even mention the conférences in passing. However, one interesting article on aesthetics by Louise Michel entitled “Le Symbole” appeared in the second November issue.45 This article resembles some of the remarks she made at the two conférences. In general, she argues for the importance of the symbol as a tool that will allow people to see more of the world around them. For her, the symbol gives humanity the means by which to move forward toward a more promising future. Her article helps to provide a link between the type of language the Symbolists use and social progress.

On the left, the conférences added to the existing hostility directed toward the “decadents.” Far from being a simple farce, the revolutionary potential of this new form of writing was a threat to their position in the literary field. Some socialists and anarchists began to denounce this emerging group for fear that “decadent” literature might become the form of social art. Already in the September issue of Le Coup de Feu Eugène Chatelain wrote:

Les décadents … sous prétexte d'esthétique, ils cherchent à tomber les réalistes, les naturalistes et les socialistes.

La décadence littéraire, poétique et politique, sera bafouée et effacée par des écrivains vigoureux et vaillants qui feront de la littérature sensée, naturelle, virile, dans la société nouvelle qui vit déjà terre à terre avec nous.46

He sees “decadent” literature as directly competing with the realist literature of the socialists. The November issue of Le Coup de Feu claims that the decadents are “réactionnaires.”47 The following month this same journal attacked the language the decadents use (Germain 19-20). Léon Roux, who fought the decadents at both conférences attended by Louise Michel, is quoted as saying that naturalism is the “seule arme littéraire de la sociale.”48 He continued his fight for a realist form of social art by organizing his own literary conférence a few months later in February 1887 which presented his vision of literature's role in the revolution.49 In addition, within a week of the second conference, the Cercle Vallès—which described its goal as “donner à la jeunesse littéraire et artistique l'impulsion socialiste-révolutionnaire qui doit en faire le porte-étendard de la cause du Peuple”50—had as its topic of discussion: “L'École décadente; le romantisme et le naturalisme et sur le rôle de la littérature dans la Révolution” (Oct. 31, 1886 “Convocations”). Given the socialist politics of this group, it is unlikely that they would have been supportive of the “decadents.” However, the conférences helped to make the question a pertinent one for some on the revolutionary left.

Although open declarations linking Symbolism to anarchism would not, for the most part, come until the 1890s, the writers of the Symbolist movement were in contact with anarchists and showed an openness that did not extend toward any other political tendency. The socio-political dimension that the Symbolists claimed for their writing was visible to those on the far left. Some, such as revolutionary socialists and many anarchists, decried it. However, some currents in the anarchist movement did see a social potential in Symbolist writing and promoted this new movement from its beginnings.

Finally, I would like to propose that the negative fallout in the press was so severe that it would be impossible for these two groups to come together openly for several years. Both groups were looking for recognition and wanted to be taken seriously. The negative press coverage of the two events with Louise Michel did not erase the compatibilities between these groups, it only made it more difficult to publicize these compatibilities. Only a few years later, in the 1890s, when both Symbolism and anarchism had gained a greater degree of acceptance, could these young writers openly associate themselves with revolutionary politics.


  1. Stuart Merrill, “Critique de poèmes.” La Plume 291 (June, 1 1901) 409.

  2. Jacques Monférier, “Symbolisme et Anarchie,” Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France 2 (avril-juin 1965): 233-38; Pierre Aubery, “L'Anarchisme des littérateurs au temps du symbolisme,” Mouvement Social 69 (1969): 21-34; Dick Gevers, “Anarchie et Symbolisme,” Avant-Garde 3 (1989): 12-28; Richard Sonn, Anarchism and Cultural Politics in Fin de Siècle France (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989); Thierry Maricourt, Histoire de la littérature libertaire en France (Paris: Albin Michel 1990); see especially “Les Écrivains symbolistes et l'anarchisme” 79-85; and to a lesser extent Alexander Varias, Paris and the Anarchists: Aesthetes and Subversives during the Fin de Siècle (New York: St Martin's Press, 1996).

  3. In this article, I use “decadent” in quotations to reflect the way contemporary society (and many writers) referred to these authors—sometimes derisively, sometimes not.

  4. Lacking a suitably clear English equivalent, I will retain the French term for these meetings at which there was an invited group of speakers and at which members of the audience could also speak.

  5. Noël Richard, Le Mouvement décadent (Paris: Nizet, 1968).

  6. Edith Thomas, Louise Michel ou la Velléda de l'anarchie (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  7. La Pléaide was also an important journal for the Symbolist movement although it appeared primarily in the first half of 1886 and published issues in July, August and November before ending. This journal was also more independent and more distant from the question of labels than the other journals (even though Le Symbole was a name originally proposed for the journal). The writers of La Pléiade—Rodolphe Darzens, [Saint-] Paul Roux, Pierre Quillard, Jean Ajalbert, and Ephraïm Mikhaël—all became directly involved with politics at a later date (with the exception of Mikhaël who died young).

  8. For further information on these rivalries see Guy Michaud, Message poétique du Symbolisme (Paris: Nizet, 1947), especially 332 ff.

  9. According to the inside cover of La Décadence, no. 2. Oct. 15, 1886.

  10. Gustave Kahn, Symbolistes et Décadents (1902; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1977) 42.

  11. “Courrier social.” La Vogue I.1 (April 4, 1886): 28.

  12. According to Le Symboliste of October 15-22, 1886.

  13. Richard Shryock, “L'Autoréférentialité dans la littérature décadente-symboliste: de l'illisible au social,” Symposium 48.1 (spring 1994): 78-88.

  14. Baju, like many of his generation, made a distinction between “politics” as parliamentary or traditional politics and other forms of involvement leading to social and/or political change.

  15. Archives de la Préfecture de Police (APP), police report, B/a 1520.

  16. APP, police report, B/a 1544 “La Maison du Peuple.”

  17. “Le Pessimisme bourgeois,” Le Révolté, organe communiste-anarchiste 10 (Aug. 16-29, 1885): 1. This article responds largely to an exchange between Paul Bourde in Le Temps, “Les Poètes décadents” (Aug. 6, 1885) and Jean Moréas “Les Décadents” in Le XIXe Siècle (Aug. 11, 1885).

  18. Louise Michel, “La Ligue Cosmopolite,” La Révolution Cosmopolite 3 (September 18-25, 1886): 1.

  19. Charles Malato, “Mémoires d'un libertaire: de Paris à Paris par Londres,” Le Peuple (January 1, 1938): 1.

  20. Malato, Schiroky, Pausader, and Berrichon were all later sentenced to prison for their involvement in anarchist activities. Malato became one of the leading anarchists in France during the 1890s. Schiroky, who would later take the last name Ortiz, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the Procès des Trente for aiding Émile Henry, the anarchist responsible for two deadly bomb blasts (Jean Maitron, ed., “Léon Ortiz [Léon Schiroky],” Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français [Paris: Les Éditions Ouvrières 1976]). Pausader took the name Jacques Prolo and became a major figure in promoting anarchism in the 1880s and 90s. Mayence was also the gérant and a writer for the anarchist Sans-Culotte.

  21. Georges Montorgueil, “Décadence et Révolution,” Paris (Oct. 22, 1886): 1.

  22. APP, police report, Sept. 24, 1886, B/a 913.

  23. Lucien Mercier, Les Universités populaires: 1899-1914: éducation populaire et mouvement ouvrier au début du siècle (Paris: Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1986) 17.

  24. This sentence would later be reduced to one month of prison and a 100F fine.

  25. “Les Livres qui font penser, Les Porteurs de torches,La Coopération des Idées 15 (April 1897): 191. In his work in La Coopération des Idées and other journals of the time, he often brought together ideas and action (of which social art is one manifestation). This same task was at the heart of the highly successful Universités Populaires which he founded in 1899.

  26. Flûte. “Notes parisiennes: la seconde des décadents,” L'Événement (Oct. 26, 1886): 1.

  27. “À nos lecteurs” [signed “la Rédaction”], Le Coup de Feu (July 1887): 1-2.

  28. Obviously, an address can correspond to scores of apartments; however, the announcements both indicated that the meetings were held “au fond de l'allée.” Some addresses, such as the Salle Hormel on rue Au Maire, were the frequent meeting place of several different groups. A number of anarchist groups (Communistes anarchistes des Amandiers, Anarchistes des Amandiers, or simply Anarchists) did use 47, rue des Amandiers, but only the Ligue des Anti-Patriotes and Les Décadents referred to it as their headquarters. It is probable that the same group used different names as all of the announcements that appeared in Le Cri du Peuple were almost identical in presentation. Often the time and the description of the meeting location were exactly the same, as can be seen in the “Convocations: réunions d'aujourd'hui, divers” section of the Cri du Peuple:

    14 novembre

    —Anarchistes.—8h 1/2s., 47, rue des Amandiers (au fond de l'allée).—Causerie sur la littérature et la Révolution.

    30 novembre

    —Ligue des anti-patriotes section du XXe. 8h 1/2s., au siège social, 47, r. des Amandiers (au fond de l'allée). Discussion sur le rôle de l'enfant dans la société future.—Tous les jeunes socialistes sont invités.—Entrée libre.

    2 décembre

    Les Décadents, groupe politique et littéraire indépendant.—8 h 1/2 s au siège social, 47, rue des Amandiers.—Causerie sur le mariage et l'union libre. Entrée libre.

  29. APP, police report, B/a 913.

  30. APP, police report, B/a 913, Nov. 26, 1886.

  31. APP, police report, B/a 913, Feb. 18, 1887, Police Commissioner Hamon.

  32. Henry Fouquier, “La Vie de Paris,” Le XIXe Siècle (Feb. 9, 1887).

  33. On Alexis and Enne, see René-Pierre Colin, Zola, Renégats et alliés: la république naturaliste (Lyon: PUL, 1988).

  34. Édouard Dubus reported “ce sont de nos amis qui composent le bureau” (“Une conférence décadente en 1886,” La Plume 34 [Sept. 15, 1890]: 167). The plural suggests that Raymond may have been from Le Scapin. Likewise Sutter-Laumann writes: “l'élément anarchiste de la réunion, représenté au bureau par un assesseur” (“Compagnons et Décadents,” La Justice [Oct. 21, 1886]: 1) which suggests that the president of the meeting was not an anarchist.

  35. Ernest Raynaud claims that these meetings were organized by Dubus and that Rachilde, Sébastien Faure, Paule Minck, Paul Adam, Séverine, P.-N. Roinard, and Ibels all spoke (Ernest Raynaud, La Mêlée symboliste: (1870-1910); portraits et souvenirs [Paris: Nizet, 1971], 191-92). This recollection written more than 30 years after the event seems to have been affected by the passage of time. Indeed, Raynaud left the Symbolist movement and joined the École Romane because he disagreed with the anarchist influence (Richard Shryock, “Reaction within Symbolism: The École Romane,” French Review 71:4 [1998]: 577-84). His accounts of certain aspects of the Symbolist movement are influenced by his own conservative political and esthetic views.

  36. “Au jour le jour,” Le Temps (Oct. 22, 1886): 1.

  37. Théodore Massiac, “Louise Michel et l'école décadente,” Le Gil Blas (Oct. 22, 1886): 1.

  38. In the police report the name is listed as “Fresch.”

  39. APP, Contrôle Général, Oct. 26, 1886 B/a 1185.

  40. APP, police report Oct. 26, 1886, B/a 1185.

  41. APP, police report Oct. 26, 1886, B/a 1185.

  42. APP, “Rapports Quotidiens,” 1886, B/a 97.

  43. Alphonse Germain, “Décadence et Naturalisme,” Coup de Feu (Dec. 1886): 19.

  44. APP police report, B/a 74.

  45. Louise Michel, “Le Symbole,” Le Scapin 2.5 (Nov. [deuxième fascicule] 1886): 156-57.

  46. Eugène Chatelain, “Revue du Mois” (Sept. 1886): 7.

  47. “Fiches de notes,” Le Coup de Feu (Nov. 1886): 22-24.

  48. Maxime Boucheron, “L'Actualité: Louise Michel décadente,” L'Écho de Paris (Oct. 22, 1886): 1.

  49. APP, police report, Feb. 21, 1887, B/a 527.

  50. Announcement in Le Coup de Feu, October 1886 without title or author.

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