Albert Thibaudet (essay date 1938)

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

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

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

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


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

He cleared it principally to the benefit of those poets born after 1860 who were later called the symbolist generation and whom one must be careful not to view too expressly as a reaction against Parnassus and against naturalism. Through their masters, Verlaine and Mallarmé, on the one side, and through Hérédia on the other, their connection with the Parnassians is evident. And one of the reasons why that date of 1885 is important is that in the preceding year one of the naturalists of Les Soirées de Médan, Huysmans, published A Rebours, a book that put the public at the disposal of the new poetic school and that, in a certain measure, played the preparatory part of a Génie du symbolisme.

Symbolism's no! was not very categorical, or else it was shouted with a certain confusion. It is not by what it denied that it must be defined but by what was new in its contribution. Now it produced three revolutionary drives that changed the conditions of poetic life in France. By reason of the fact of symbolism and the five pre-symbolist dissidents, a new poetry was opposed not only or chiefly to Parnassus but to the whole body of French poetry from Ronsard to Hugo.


The first and most serious revolution: the liberation of verse. The question of the origins of free verse is not complicated. It came from popular poetry, which, from time immemorial, has never shackled itself to rhyme or to syllabic scansion. The first deliberately free verse ever printed appeared in 1873 in Une Saison en enfer, in imitation of popular songs. There was a similar origin in Jules Laforgue. But side by side with this spontaneous free verse a deliberately planned free verse was to prosper, worked out with a calculated technique, an often arbitrary and abstruse dogmatism: in this field the initiator was Gustave Kahn. Be that as it may, the free-verse revolution changed the nature of the instrument put into the hands of half the French poets and created a rupture between the “normal” poets and the “free-verse” poets.


The second revolution: the advent of a pure poetry in contact and commerce with music. Symbolism, a contemporary of Hugo's departure, was also a contemporary of Wagner's arrival; he won the French public in a few years, and in 1885 one of the young symbolist magazines was called La Revue wagnérienne. The major aspiration of symbolism, according to the directive laid down by Mallarmé, was “to recapture the best in music.” And, if it is possible to speak accurately of a reaction against Parnassus, it was above all in this sense that the poetic enemy of symbolism was precision in all its forms, by which we mean, as in music, the preciseness to be given to the reader or the listener, not that technical precision invested by the author in his work, which in music is rigorous, and which the theoreticians of free verse easily carried into pedantism. Hérédia, who in the precision of his sonnets sought to suggest, was still favored by the symbolists, while Sully-Prudhomme, the final purpose of whose poetry was precision and who strove to apply it to the inner life, was viewed by symbolism as the enemy incarnate, on the same ground as Coppée.


The third revolution: the idea itself of revolution. The purpose of the romantic and Parnassian revolutions was a conquest and an organization, a stable condition of poetry—freedom perhaps, but freedom within forms. The fine frenzy of romanticism did not last ten years, and Parnassus was always careful. But symbolism accustomed literature to the idea of indefinite revolution, an artistic Blanquism, [Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who participated in the revolution of 1848, was the ancestor of the political theory of permanent revolution.—Translator.] a right and a duty of youth to overturn the preceding generation, to run after an absolute. If the poets were divided into “normal,” or “regular,” and free-verse, literature was divided into normal literature and “advance-guard” literature. The chronic avant-gardism of poetry, the “what's new?” of the “informed” public, the official part given to the young, the proliferation of schools and manifestos with which these young hastened to occupy that extreme point, to attain for an hour that crest of the wave in a tossing sea—all this was not only a new development of 1885 but a new climate in French literature. The symbolist revolution, the last thus far, might perhaps have been definitively the last, because it incorporated the theme of chronic revolution into the normal condition of literature.


It is possible that in an old literature this might be a sign of decadence. But it will be noted first of all that this was a question of a poetic climate and that poetry, precisely since symbolism, has been less and less the principal concern of literature. And it will be observed also that decadence as a word and as a fact was first inscribed on one of the banners of the new school and that one of its magazines was called Le Décadent. It was specifically in order to get rid of this name and to restore it to its natural state as a nickname that Jean Moréas invented the name of symbolism.

The symbolist impetus lasted some fifteen years, until about 1902. It was at its height of creative youth in 1890, when Jules Huret's Enquête sur l'evolution littéraire appeared in L'Echo de Paris. After 1902 one wondered what was going to take the place of symbolism. One of its prominent representatives, Henri de Régnier, was indeed admitted to the Académie in 1911. But that did not at all mean: “Symbolism not dead.” On the contrary.

Some order could be brought into the overcrowded picture of the poets of this school by making distinctions—somewhat artificially, as is inevitable—among the militants, the allies, the representatives, the heirs, and the rank and file.


The militants were the early symbolists who established the forms and stated the problems of the school. Their activity was linked chiefly to that of the “little magazines” that were really big, like Harpagon's money box, by reason of their content and that were one of the bright ideas of symbolism. Two of the leading positions in this field must be given to the editors of La Vogue (the first issue appeared in April 1886), Jules Laforgue and Gustave Kahn. Laforgue, who died at the age of twenty-seven, would probably have been one of the newest and most complete writers of his generation. What he contributed to symbolism that was essential was the alliance between the habits (or the methods) of popular poetry and the widest and most delicate contemporary sensitivity. Let us add to this the not too beneficial influence of his reading of Schopenhauer and Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann. He has gone out of fashion but he has retained the loyalty of many. Gustave Kahn was an organizer and a technician in poetry. The history of symbolist technique should likewise not overlook either Stuart Merrill, an excessive champion of alliteration, or Robert de Souza, a poetic phoneticist. The most astonishing technical apparatus of this militant age of symbolism was the work of René Ghil, who aspired to depict, or rather to score, the evolution of the world and mankind in stonily schoolboyish free verse. All these militants were extremely serious, and, if one of the glories of poetry consists in these attacks, of which Mallarmé remains the hero, on a frontier,—they will deserve rescue from oblivion.


The influence of a school is measured by the allies or the sympathizers through whom it succeeds in infusing its color into the general complexion of a literature. Semi-symbolists hovered between symbolism and Parnassus and helped the imprecise musicality peculiar to the new school to enter into normal verse. They included Ephraïm Mikhaël, who was most purely Parnassian; Louis Le Cardonnel, a harmonious pagan who died a Christian; Albert Samain, whose median qualities made him the poet of his generation most read by the general public; the vibrant and burning Signoret, Pierre Quillard, Adolphe Retté, and, less Parnassian and more turned inward, Georges Rodenbach, a meticulous poet of Flanders, and Charles Guérin, a master of the elegy and even of the epistle.


Let us define as official representatives of symbolism those poets who in the twentieth century, after the deaths of Verlaine and Mallarmé, figured as leaders and were recognized, in the manner of Gautier and Vigny, as veterans of the school or the movement.

About 1900 there was a tendency to couple the names of Henri de Régnier and Francis Viélé-Griffin, who helped to make free verse popular. Régnier seems to us the most complete, the most flexible, and the most varied poet of the symbolist movement. With a poor vocabulary, monotony of device, casualness, chance or padding in his themes, he exerts a deep charm through his sustained musicality, his remarkable gift for making the substance of words soft and sensual. An intelligent opportunism devoid of abdication and concession made it possible for him to go from a gracious freed—rather than free—verse to the finest and most solid forms of the sonnet and the stanza.

If Régnier moved through free verse as a courteous guest, Viélé-Griffin absolutely inhabited it, guiding and following its fortunes. Little odes, light sketches of spring in Touraine, secrets of love, tender, tranquil stories grow in gracious gradations that, with time, have passed.


It is to genuine symbolism that Paul Valéry's work and remarkable career must be linked. Following Mallarmé, he conceived and practiced poetry as a series of explorations, experiments, games to be tried, obstacles to be overcome. The games were tried at first under influences—Mallarmé and Leonardo; then, beginning with La Jeune Parque after a long silence, in an independent and inventive fashion.

Valéry presents us with a man endowed with a dual faculty, or with two manias that thus far had been regarded as opposites. Two extremes met in him. On the one side there was the gift of pure poetry, which, in many forms, was the great discovery of symbolism. On the other side there is a singular sense of precision, the habit of conceiving every operation of the mind as a victory of the precise over the vague. He reminds us of the double harness of Bergsonian thought, but also of Leonardo's pictorial genius, of the necessary genius of music.

When the sense of poetry and the sense of precision exist together in the same mind, they would tend, it seems, to execute together the same work, a precise poetry. This is just the part that was played by the ingenious Sully-Prudhomme. Valéry played the opposite part. There is no precise poetry; there is pure poetry carried to its hyperbole and there is poetic form, poetic rigor, carried to the same hyperbole. The steam engine is used to make ice. It is the alliance of a pure poetry and a pure technique: a seemingly nonhuman position, for which Valéry would probably not have incurred the risk if there had not been the precedent of Mallarmé.

In the case of Sully-Prudhomme, as in that of a philosopher or a writer of prose, the face of poetry and mystery was the inner face, turned toward the poet, possessed in secret by the poet; the face of precision was the outer face, turned toward the reader, striven after with effort for his comfort and his pleasure: poetry was at the origin, precision at the goal. In the case of Valéry, on the contrary, the face of precision was the secret face that clung to the mind and the operation of the poet, and the face of pure poetry, of music, of accessibility and suggestion was the face turned toward the reader, the face that the reader perceived and enjoyed. Sully-Prudhomme's poetry is like a machine whose human driver is invisible. In Valéry's poetry the precise machinery is underneath, the human beauty above: this is the Hadaly of L'Eve future.

And indeed, reading Valéry's verse, one recalls the soft, elastic, incorruptible substance of Hadaly's naked arm. Valéry is one of those without whom one of the five or six extreme peaks of French verse would not exist. It was also, but it was not only, in the manner of a mathematician that he introduced new functions into poetry. And schools are not in vain: it required all the laboratory and all the sacrifices of symbolism to arrive at the Cimetière marin and La Jeune Parque.

One of the platitudes of critics hostile to symbolism consisted in reproaching it for being a school of foreign poets. That is also a title of honor. It must be observed that it was through symbolism that Belgium, which had had no French-language poets since the times of the Dukes of Burgundy, found herself once more incorporated into French poetry. Charles Van Lerberghe, Max Elskamp, Albert Mockel delivered their tributes. Maurice Maeterlinck's bare, mysterious, and musical Lieder were celebrated before his plays. But it was really within the ranks of symbolism, and as one of its greatest representatives, that the poet of Flanders, Emile Verhaeren, took his place.


With Viélé-Griffin Verhaeren was the recognized master of free verse. In the five collections of Toute la Flandre the favorite form is the set of irregular verses, oratorical, spontaneous, stressed on strong syllables, as habitually as Viélé-Griffin's groupings are lightened by the mute e. A symbolist both in his love of symbols and in his use of free verse, a fugitive from symbolism in his eloquent romanticism, Verhaeren flees it also in his stressed and consistent development, which is never satisfied with allusion and suggestion. This powerful and honest poet lacks resonance, opposes to pure poetry a poetry ballasted with heavy alloys, a civic and social poetry, too, which is never disinterested. He looked into the shadows as, in contrast, Viélé-Griffin's pastels turned paler.

The breadth of the symbolist movement is such that we can encompass in it an ultra-Parnassian like Signoret, a cicada drunk with music in the pines of Aix, as well as a poet as anti-Parnassus as Francis Jammes. The case of Jammes is instructive here. First Lamartine and then the Parnassians, by propagating their styles among the thousands of provincial poets, created and long kept alive a provincial style. Now Jammes was a provincial poet who would literally have been made impossible by the Parnassian system and who could have been brought to life only enveloped in and sanctioned by the symbolist climate. This poet, not so much of free verse as of freed verse given suppleness, is undoubtedly, with Lamartine and Mistral, the most original incarnation of the poetry of the provinces, and, through a fortunate rejection of Paris, a well-governed and subtly wary spontaneity, and the porosity and the freshness of an earthen jug, he was able, in his corner of Béarn, like Mistral in the middle of Province, to preserve the habit and the intimacy of its ways.

Laurent LeSage (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3761

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

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

The Symbolist movement can be viewed today as a development and, in some respects, a fulfillment of the ideals set up by the earlier Romantic generations everywhere in Europe.1 It seems indeed a part of Romanticism, which, in the broad sense of the word, stands for the intuitive as opposed to the rational, the subjective as opposed to the objective, for individuality and liberty.2 Thus philosophically and esthetically considered, Symbolism is a modern expression of one of the fundamental tempers of man, and, as such, can be properly placed in the line of all mystic, oracular, illuminist, or idealist traditions.3 This is the broad view. It takes in some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century in France and includes as well the chief creative geniuses of our own times. But if we take the narrow view, we see merely a swarm of poets loosely called Symbolists grouping and regrouping themselves during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century into ephemeral schools and cliques. No poet of genius is within the field of our vision, nor, in spite of constant jockeying for position, any single great leader capable of rallying writers under a clearly defined banner marked Symbolism.

Understood in this very literal and limited sense, the Symbolist movement began in 1886 when Jean Moréas, smarting under the accusation that he and his associates were morbid and neurotic, denied the charge in the 18 September issue of the Figaro and went on to explain their lofty aims and ambitions. They were seeking, he affirmed, to create beauty through a search for the “pure concept” and the “eternal symbol.” Although vague, verbose, and very abstract, Moréas's remarks pleased almost all the new poets. They approved his emphasis upon the positive quality and the grandeur of their aspirations and accepted the article as a manifesto. Symbolism became thereby officially baptized and Jean Moréas was constituted leader of a school so denominated.

The new poets soon proved themselves more enthusiastic and energetic than disciplined. Individual talents cried for expression, and vied with one another in the numerous little magazines that sprang up following Moréas's manifesto. Poetic circles were in a foment of activity, a general mêlée ensued. René Ghil became editor of a new periodical called La Décadence and challenged the leadership of Moréas. Moréas immediately took up the challenge and, with Gustave Kahn, founded another magazine, Le Symboliste. Other leaders and other magazines joined in the fray, with poets and supporters constantly shifting allegiance. Ghil, by 1890, had lost his following and was embarked alone on a course of poetic speculation leading away from Symbolism. The following year Moréas himself stepped down. In another letter to the Figaro, he announced that Symbolism, only a transitory phenomenon, was dead and that he was founding the Ecole Romane to succeed it. The movement went on without leaders or found new ones. Conflict, at least nominal, increased as new poets established their theory either outside the Symbolist cadre or in apparent opposition to it. In the name of nature, life, simplicity, or clarity, Symbolism came under attack. Chief among the adversaries were, besides the Ecole Romane, the Naturists, but there were many Lilliputian schools hoping to deal Symbolism a death blow. Magazines pronounced it already dead and covered it with ridicule. The general public, never vitally concerned, was more interested in the Dreyfus Case than in poetry. Poets themselves turned from their metaphysical speculation to affairs of the day; writers like Régnier or Samain moved away from Symbolism in proportion as their native genius declared itself. No champion of any stature would present himself to defend the cause that had been espoused with such pride and confidence. As the century drew to an end, there was little left to attack, the subject was scarcely discussed and, although for some time there would be attempts to rally old adherents and enlist “Neo-Symbolists,” the period of the schools was over. As Michel Décaudin declares, “S'il y a encore des poètes symbolistes en 1900, il n'y a plus de symbolisme.”4

The self-conscious and self-styled Symbolist poets represent, as I have already suggested, only an articulate and militant phase of a general development in French poetry stemming from the Romantic period and continuing to the present day. Moréas's manifesto did not begin the movement, nor did the ultimate abandonment of all hopes of founding an integrated and enduring Symbolist school alter the trend. Poets of the twentieth century have continued in theory and practice where nineteenth-century Symbolists left off. Among them we can count our greatest contemporary poets, far greater than any who wrote and argued in the little magazines of the eighties and nineties. Poets of genius preceded and followed the movement strictly defined, whose chief significance is to have glossed and exploited the genius of the ones and to have thereby made possible the full flowering of the other. To trace the Symbolist heritage, I have chosen those poets whom I consider significant and representative. Doubtless other selections could have served and surely no claim is made for comprehensiveness. Some of the greatest poets—from Victor Hugo to Apollinaire or to Saint-John Perse—have been left out because their identity is only partially or incidentally defined by Symbolism. In the matter of emphasis, intrinsic merit has not served as sole criterion for the treatment given individual poets; if some of the major figures receive less than their due, it is because they have abundantly obtained it elsewhere. It has seemed more useful to present a minor figure difficult of access than to expatiate upon the familiar. Similar thinking prompted the choice of texts, although, when possible or useful, the most often anthologized pieces were used. Even these are not always easy to come by, and one of the justifications of this work is the broad sweep of pertinent texts, not to be found in translation or even in the original. Among the poets of the Romantic period, we now distinguish several who, somewhat off the main highway, seem to have followed a byway that would broaden into Symbolism. Hence our interest in Aloysius Bertrand, who recorded his hallucinations in prose poems; Gérard de Nerval, who strove to associate music and transcendental knowledge with poetry; Sainte-Beuve, whose poetry struck a rare intimate note; Charles Baudelaire, who integrated and gave the most complete expression to these early manifestations of the Symbolist spirit.

Baudelaire (1821-1867) is thus the first of the great Symbolist masters. In the words of Hugo, this poet had brought a “frisson nouveau” into French poetry, a “frisson” induced by intimate revelation and poetic suggestion of mystery, evil, unhealthy and melancholy beauty. The influence of the Fleurs du Mal operated through successive generations of latter nineteenth-century poets. The Parnassian craftsmen, following Gautier, were interested primarily in the technical aspect of Baudelaire's verse; Decadents and Symbolists, however, were attracted by its broad implications. A concept of beauty that included the ugly and the evil (the “frisson nouveau”) strongly appealed to the Decadents. Symbolists saw in Baudelaire a poet on the track of a poetic magic that might conjure up, through a blending of rhythm, sound, and image, the veritable face of the universe. In his famous sonnet entitled “Correspondances” and in his article on Théophile Gautier (“L'Art romantique”), he had suggested that the poet was in moments of perfect evocation capable of perceiving the analogies in nature which bind the universe together, of establishing the symbols which stand for the absolute itself.

From these two aspects of Baudelaire, the artist and the seer, may be traced the two traditions that have threaded through poetic history down to the present day.5 In the line of artists, there are the Mallarmés and the Valérys; in that of the seers, Rimbaud and the Surrealists.6

Verlaine (1844-1896), following his natural inclination, had moved slowly away from the Parnassian ideal toward a concept of poetry that anticipated Symbolism. Even in his earliest collection of verse, the Poèmes saturniens (1866), a strong current of Baudelairianism, running counter to its general Parnassian themes and techniques, indicated the direction which this young poet was going to follow. Not many years later, Verlaine formulated his anti-Parnassian notions about poetry in the piece which has become famous, “Art Poétique.” Verse must be musical, a harmony of sounds inspiring revery. Rime, architecture, must be attenuated; rhetoric must be replaced by suggestion and nuance.

Toward 1885, the young poets discovered poor Lélian, as Verlaine had called himself. Captivated by the legend that had grown up around his name, they saluted him as a leader and tried to imitate his manner. His verses were eagerly sought after by all the Symbolist magazines. He had given in his Poètes maudits models for the young poets to follow: Tristan Corbière, the naive bohemian author of the Amours Jaunes; Mallarmé; Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, whom they called their Chateaubriand; Lautréamont, poet of Promethean revolt and the prodigious image.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) is the third major force in the Symbolist movement. Like Verlaine he proceeded from Baudelaire, like Verlaine he was a guide and teacher to younger poets writing during the latter nineteenth century. Unlike Verlaine, his own poetic production was very limited. But his poetic ambitions exceeded those of Verlaine, and have interested successive generations at least as much as Verlaine's accomplishments. His poetry stands for the most sublime of all Symbolist dreams, one which has challenged the greatest poets and which is still the object of numerous and voluminous commentaries.

Obsessed by the notion of correspondences, which he had found in the Fleurs du Mal, Mallarmé saw everything in the universe bound by subtle analogies which the poet alone could detect. They might lead him beyond the world of appearances into that world of pure ideas whose existence had been affirmed by philosophers from Plato to Hegel. To serve him in his hermetic alchemy, Mallarmé deliberately made his verse obscure by omissions, peculiar syntax, and unconventional diction.

Mallarmé was made known to the poets of 1886 by Huysmans's description of him in the celebrated A Rebours. Soon he was surrounded by a fervent group who came every Tuesday to the apartment in the rue de Rome to listen to the master expound his doctrine. As Mallarmé spoke of the revelatory symbol, of Wagner and the possibility of synthesizing poetry with music, Moréas composed his manifesto and René Ghil mapped out his theory of “instrumentation verbale.”

Rimbaud (1854-1891) completes the tetrad of the masters of Symbolism. Ten years younger than Mallarmé or Verlaine, Rimbaud nevertheless belonged to their generation. At fifteen he was already a poet. At twenty his career was over. But in three or four years he produced his amazing work and had improvised an esthetic that would inspire writers of future generations. The “Alchimie du verbe” proudly and defiantly states his accomplishments: “… avec des rythmes instinctifs, je me flattai d'inventer un verbe poétique accessible … à tous les sens … je notais l'inexprimable. … Je m'habituai à l'hallucination simple. … Je finis par trouver sacré le désordre de mon esprit.”7 Rimbaud's assertions define the poet's rôle as that of a seer, of a voyant. As such he acclaimed Baudelaire “le premier voyant, roi des poètes, un vrai Dieu!8 Rimbaud's sojourn in poetic circles was too brief—moreover, he was too young—to exert the personal influence upon poets that Mallarmé and Verlaine held. His work itself, only partially known during his lifetime, had to wait until recent times to receive its fullest acclaim. Except for a few copies, Une Saison en Enfer remained with the publisher until the work was discovered in 1901, and the discovery was not made known until 1914. The “lettre du voyant” was first published in 1912. But the poets of 1886 used the Illuminations to illustrate their new theories, and writers like René Ghil were quite patently in Rimbaud's debt.

If Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud were to triumph in the mid-eighties, it is because the youthful rebels against the poetic party then in office had finally gathered enough strength to require leadership for a full-scale revolt. The school of Parnasse had ruled officially since 1866. But by the end of the seventies, a decade marked by poetic lethargy, opposition to the values upon which Parnassianism rested or with which it was associated became general enough to indicate a new poetic movement was underway. Positivistic philosophy, bourgeois society, the cult of form in art were under attack by an increasingly large proportion of the younger generation. The Hydropaths, the Hirsutes, and the others sought to outrage the bourgeois by their unconventional ideas and manners. Contemptuous society called the bearded and Bohemian revolutionaries the Decadents, and they accepted the label with bravado.

Although neither bearded nor Bohemian, the poet who represents the highest achievement of Decadentism is Jules Laforgue. To convey anguish and irony, cosmic visions and timid complaints, Laforgue found new and subtly effective measures. Fellow Decadents copied his neologisms, the liberties that he took with rhythm and rime. He is said to have invented free verse.

When Jean Moréas, in retort to the contemptuous attack upon himself and his colleagues, proposed the name of Symbolist to replace that of Decadent, the latter term soon fell into disuse. For a time there was conflict between poets calling themselves Symbolists and others calling themselves Decadents, but before long their differences were lost in the general Symbolist mêlée. The Decadent period had been one of general revolt and fierce defiance; the new one was in the main more constructive and more exclusively concerned with literature. The differences which soon cropped up among the Symbolists were on purely literary matters.

René Ghil founded a school called “symbolique et harmoniste” to oppose Moréas. Exploiting the implications of Rimbaud's vowel sonnet, Ghil developed his theory of “instrumentation verbale” to reduce the poem to pure music and suggestivity. Several magazines of the times supported Ghil and numerous poets studied with him.

The question of free verse for some critics summarizes the entire Symbolist movement. Gustave Kahn declared that it was his invention. He described, defined, and defended it in the Revue Indépendante in 1888, but his claim for paternity was hotly contested. The entire issue of free verse incited passionate and widespread controversy for years to come. It was the most radical alteration French verse had ever in its entire history undergone. The public was shocked and the poets dazzled by their own daring. But it was the logical step in the direction away from the visual toward the auditory in poetry. Less ambitious than Kahn, Vielé-Griffin nevertheless contributed much discussion to the theory of free verse. His own poetry is something between the regular stanza and free verse. The other outstanding vers-libriste, Stuart Merrill, likewise avoided excessive metrical eccentricities. In 1897, another innovation in poetic forms made a stir: Paul Fort had devised for his ballads a very personal sort of rhythmic prose that accommodated itself easily to the poet's moods.

When the critic Brunetière defined Symbolism as simply the “réintégration de l'idée dans la poésie” he was oversimplifying, but less so than those who found Symbolism merely a matter of free verse or music. His statement points out a very fundamental attitude of the poets who followed Mallarmé and accepted the metaphysic of Baudelaire's “Sonnet des Correspondances.” They all sensed the presence of a higher reality behind the world of appearances which they called the world of ideas. Accordingly, all phenomena assumed symbolic value, indications of that higher reality. Phenomena are linked to the ideas behind them and to one another by the mysterious bonds of analogies which are detected only in the poetic experience. Given this fundamental philosophic assumption and ambition, the matters of poetry=music, of free verse, of suggestion and obscurity take their place as secondary manifestations of the Symbolist thought.

Lying at the heart, therefore, of the Symbolist doctrine is the symbolic image. Each poet sought to translate his aspirations, his thoughts and emotions by its means. Mallarmé had taught that the humblest objects could serve, and many poets attempted to use familiar objects of daily existence. But the pictures tended to conventionalize: fountains and pools of water, moonlight, dawn, twilight, fogs, old parks, and dead cities. Antiquity and the Middle Ages were ransacked to build up a common fund of imagery. Greco-Latin lore offered sirens, chimeras, nymphs, satyrs; the recently discovered Middle Ages provided princesses and saints, figures from Celtic and Germanic legends. Henri de Régnier used legendary beasts, all sorts of medieval material, and gardens so dear to Marcel Proust. Albert Samain was fond of antique images and great sustained metaphors. Some studded their verse with novel images, some with quaint and some with modern metropolitan.

Symbolist poets were eager to carry their theories into the theater. Wagner's prodigious dream of combining the arts in theatrical presentation had fascinated Mallarmé and continued to inspire his successors. Not that they, any more than Mallarmé, hoped to emulate the German master, but in their modest way they hoped to challenge the monopoly of the Naturalistic play and the pièce à thèse. Numerous poets, following Mallarmé's example in Hérodiade, composed poems in dramatic form. These could be adapted for the stage. Other poems and prose in dialogue could be recited effectively against scenery and accompanied by music, illustrated by mime or the dance. Lights and even perfumes might prove effective auxiliaries. Audiences, the Symbolists hoped, would become accustomed to this sort of dramatic entertainment just as they went to concerts made up of fragments of operas and symphonies. Between 1890 and 1900, several theaters made such experiments, notably the Théâtre d'Art of Paul Fort and the Théâtre de l'Œuvre of Lugné-Poe. However interesting these attempts may seem, the only real success that the Symbolist theater could claim was the work of Maurice Maeterlinck.

If by 1900 Symbolism was dead officially, it has nevertheless lived on in the most significant poets of the twentieth century. Apollinaire, in treating his whimsical and wistful themes, made full use of the metrical freedom that the Symbolists had won. Charles Péguy embroidered his medieval themes on Symbolist-inspired patterns. Paul Claudel throughout a long lifetime defended Symbolist theses and illustrated them in the most sumptuous theater of our century. Jean Giraudoux, who was hailed as having realized Symbolism in the novel, went on to create a theater that accomplished the Symbolist ambition to discredit Realism. The early plays and prose pieces of André Gide were written under Symbolist masters, and his style was marked forever by the Symbolist associations of his youth. His ethic, too, one might say. Proust's esthetic and metaphysic derive quite clearly from the great nineteenth-century poets. Paul Valéry is Mallarmé's successor. Dadaism and Surrealism, the chief poetic movements of the between-wars period, pushed Symbolist theories to their ultimate conclusion. In many respects, one may say that French poetry of the twentieth century comes out of Symbolism, and that from Baudelaire to the poets of the present age we can trace an almost unbroken line.

Nor has Symbolism's influence been restricted to France. Poets from all over the world have received inspiration from Symbolists, and carried into their own countries the ideas and techniques they found in France. Throughout Europe, the Americas, and even in Asia, Symbolism has stimulated great poetic revivals and oriented native geniuses. France, once described by Emerson as that country “where poets were never born,” has thereby acquired a prestige and importance that can scarcely be challenged.


  1. To introduce my subject, I have repeated here, in the main, an article which I wrote for the Dictionary of French Literature, edited by Sidney D. Braun (New York: Philosophical Library, 1958).

  2. It is always convenient, in such matters, to begin with Rousseau. In the Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire and in the Profession de foi du vicaire Savoyard, we find implicit already the Romantic attitude toward nature, the artist, and his work. Down through Surrealism, poets will continue to affirm the authority of the subjective ego, passivity as a condition of inspiration, etc. They will furthermore note that in revery, where the creative imagination plays freely, the subject seems to move into a blissful state of timelessness and of direct contact with the absolute.

  3. For ample treatment of this affiliation, see Georges Cattaui, Orphisme et Prophétie chez les poètes français, 1850-1950 (Plon, 1965); Alain Mercier, Les Sources esotériques et occultes de la poésie symboliste (Nizet, 1969); Jacques Roos, Aspects littéraires du mysticisme philosophique (Strasbourg: P. H. Heitz, 1951); Auguste Viatte, Les Sources occultes du Romantisme (Champion, 1928).

  4. Décaudin, La Crise des Valeurs symbolistes, p. 101. Literary historians like Décaudin and William Cornell have studied the fluctuations of Symbolism year by year, the personal quarrels, the ideological and political pressures, the shifting emphasis in doctrine and point of view. See Readings, p. vi [in this work].

  5. The emphasis on inspiration starting with Rousseau's Rêveries and Madame de Staël's Le Sentiment de l'Infini surely paves the way for the concept of the poet as seer. However, among the chief Romantic authors, inspiration may mean little more than exaltation of sentiment over reason, spontaneity over craftsmanship, particularity of the artist's rôle in society (Lamartine's “son cœur dicte, la plume obéit”; Hugo's “écho sonore,” etc.). Some of the lesser Romantics, such as those previously mentioned, did hold a more transcendental concept of the poet.

  6. The differences between Baudelaire and his successors have been emphasized by Marcel Ruff in L'Esprit du Mal et l'Esthétique Baudelairienne, Colin, 1955. Other critics have reminded us that the inclusion of evil and the ugly in the concept of beauty as well as the doctrine of correspondences was not peculiar to Baudelaire. Baudelaire's impact on subsequent poets has been nonetheless strong, and the genealogical scheme made famous by Marcel Raymond (De Baudelaire au Surréalisme, Corti, 1933) does not seem to be invalidated by such strictures.

  7. Arthur Rimbaud, “Une Saison en Enfer,” in Œuvres complètes de Arthur Rimbaud (Gallimard, 1946), p. 220.

  8. “La lettre du voyant,” ibid., p. 257.

Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)

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

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

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

Poe, “The Veil of the Soul”

In its strictest historical sense, symbolism describes the French and Belgian writers of the late nineteenth century who, rejecting realism, tried to suggest ideas, emotions and attitudes by using symbolic words, figures and objects. Around 1885 to 1895, they produced manifestoes, sponsored literary reviews, met in various literary groups and discussed points of artistic doctrine. But as several notable critics have shown, symbolism has a much broader aesthetic and historical base and may include works dating from 1857 (when Baudelaire's revolutionary book of poems, The Flowers of Evil, appeared) to the 1930s.1 Among the symbolist writers, one could then number the four greatest French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé (sometimes called pre-symbolists or precursors of symbolism); the lesser-known poets and theoreticians (e.g. Henri de Régnier, Gustave Kahn, René Ghil, Jean Moréas, Francis Vielé-Griffin, Charles Morice, Emile Verhaeren); and several of the finest writers of the first third of the twentieth century: Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens (sometimes called post-symbolists or heirs of symbolism). Symbolism would then imply a general trend, and a special attention to language.

In its largest and most interesting aesthetic sense, symbolism implies at once a rebellion and a re-creation. It is a revolt against the kind of realism that is but the description of things, feelings and people. For the symbolists do not wish merely to describe; instead, they aim to re-create through their words a state of being, a feeling, a glimmer, a vision. They want the reader to sense, and to react to, the experience itself. Seen this way, symbolism is above all an attempt to transmit by means of symbols—frequently by means of a poetic language that the poet must invent—the mysteries that palpitate beneath appearances. A symbol is something that stands for or represents something else. It calls attention to itself while also suggesting far more than it is itself. The “meaning hidden behind the appearance is not necessarily one: the symbol is not a riddle. … There is therefore, in the symbol, polyvalence: a multiplicity of meanings,” writes Henri Peyre.2

And so symbolism uses a veil, and seeks to pierce a veil. It uses a veil of words to convey emotions, perceptions and visions. And it seeks to pierce the veil of nature, of sensation and of truth: of truth that is the experience of a moment, and of truth that is eternal. In its most elevated reaches, symbolism is a quasi-religious quest that seeks to capture and to convey the ephemeral, the mysterious and the transcendent. “Every thing sacred and that wishes to remain sacred envelops itself in mystery,” writes Mallarmé, whose pronouncements on poetry are invaluable to an understanding of what symbolism means in its most arcane and exalted aspects.3

Mystery, therefore, is paramount: mystery not merely described or interpreted or explained, but mystery reenacted, by means of the word. Mystery implies secrecy, obscurity and the quality of being inexplicable. Mystery also evokes a religious experience, suggesting by its etymology a supernatural thing, a secret rite or a divine secret. In fact, poetry for some of the symbolists is at times an almost divine utterance during which the poet appears a kind of god or a medium for a god. Through the mystery of the word, which may evoke the Word—the Logos, the poet seeks to commune with and to reveal the invisible, the infinite or the unknown. In “The Beacons,” for example, Baudelaire portrays art as a reaching out toward the infinite; and at the end of “The Voyage,” the poet exclaims that he wishes “to plunge … / … Into / The depths of the Unknown to find something new!” Rimbaud, who followed Baudelaire and who went farther than Baudelaire, proclaims that the poet “arrives at the unknown!” (Letter of May 15, 1871 to Paul Demeny). These poets' reachings out for the infinite, the invisible, or the unknown are certainly not traditional religious experiences. Nevertheless, their strivings and their exaltations carry overtones of the religious and of the prophetic: the ecstasy of experiencing, and of transmitting through words, the mystery.

In many ways, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé seek to create, by means of their art, a religion of poetry. Verlaine, on the other hand, creates at times, as in some of his poems in Sagesse (Wisdom) (e.g. “My God said to me …”), a poetry of religion. But in his own way Verlaine, too, seeks to capture and to convey his experience of the mystery. For his lyric transpositions are glimmerings of what is most fragile and most mysterious—mysterious in all senses of the word—in life: emotions, moods, memories, and moments.

Along with mystery, the secret and sacred value of the word, several other traits are more or less characteristic of the writers one may call symbolist, and particularly of the four poets upon whom we shall concentrate. Their poetry is above all suggestive. “I think that … there must only be allusion,” Mallarmé told Jules Huret in an interview. “To name an object … is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem … to suggest it, there's the dream. The perfect use of this mystery constitutes the symbol: to evoke little by little a mood, or, inversely, to choose an object and to disengage from it a mood, through a series of decipherings” (Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, p. 869).

Their sensitivity is acute. Frequently they plunge into sensations, memories and dreams. So deeply do they delve into themselves that at times they become isolated and hermetic as they re-create their inner, private worlds. Their poetry then extends and develops the Romantic image of the poet isolated from the uncomprehending and hostile crowd: Baudelaire's “The Albatross” and Mallarmé's “Edgar Poe's Tomb” explore such figures. Mallarmé's poetic language and at times Rimbaud's (e.g. in “Memory” and other poems he wrote during the spring and summer of 1872—poems included in this book under the heading of “Last Poems Written in Verse”—and throughout much of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations), draw their richnesses from the secrets of the poets' psyches that perhaps they could explain, but certainly will not. Instead, the artists wish to remain obscure, seemingly aloof, isolated, disdainful. It is up to the reader to pierce the veil, to approach the mystery. The lonely towers in Yeats's poems are emblematic of such involuntary—and voluntary—isolation and alienation from the world.

Often in symbolist poetry there is music: music evoked to capture the poet's mood and to epitomize his emotions (as in Baudelaire's “Music”), or music re-created in sounds that filter through the lines. “Music before anything else …,” Verlaine advises in his “Art of Poetry.” In fact, Verlaine's book Romances sans paroles ([Sentimental] Songs without Words) takes its title from music and implies that the poet's words are superfluous or that they are the music itself. There are also Rimbaud's beautiful rhythms and rhymes in lyrics like “The Crows” and “Shame”4 and in the “songs” (like Verlaine, Rimbaud uses the word “romances”) he mentions in “Deliriums II” of A Season in Hell: songs like “Eternity,” which appears in an earlier version in this book. For Mallarmé, poetry in its purest, most ideal form is music, created by words: “Poetry, approaching the Idea, is Music, par excellence” (“Variations sur un sujet: Le Livre, instrument spirituel” [“Variations on a Theme: The Book, Spiritual Instrument”], p. 381). His lyrical and finely sensual “A Faun's Afternoon” inspired Debussy to compose in 1894 his melodious and exuberantly sensual Prelude to A Faun's Afternoon. In fact, Mallarmé said that his method of poetical notation (“this naked use of thought”) in “Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard” (“A Cast of the Die Will Never Abolish Chance”) would create, in that poem partaking of free verse and of the prose poem, the effect of a “musical score” (p. 455).

For these four French symbolists, poetry becomes the search for, and the shaping of, a new poetic language. In order to transmit feelings, sensations and tremors, intimations of the invisible, glimmerings of truth and explosive visions; in order to re-create the vast panoply of emotions ranging from melodious languor to suicidal depression, from ethereal exaltation to volcanic joy, each poet forges his own special language: a language clothed in mystery, to reveal the mystery.

Each writer, therefore, introduces innovations, some more daring than others. Baudelaire, the earliest and perhaps the least innovative in terms of poetic diction, breaks away at times from the traditional French alexandrine (the line of 12 syllables) and from lines with an even number of syllables to use instead the vers impair, the line with an uneven number of syllables that Verlaine would later find so attractive, so appropriate to his unsettled, and unsettling, psyche. (“Prefer the Uneven-Syllabled Line,” he would advise in his “Art of Poetry.”) Baudelaire uses the vers impair, for example, in one of his most beautiful and lyrically unnerving love poems, “Invitation to the Voyage.” He also introduces some linguistic innovations. For example, he uses anatomical and pathological vocabulary, in order to shock the reader, of course, but also and above all in order to depict fully, in all its grotesqueness and its beauty, the human condition.5 Also, he infuses sensuous and sensual eroticism into great lyrical poetry. Not that French literature had been lacking in eroticism until Baudelaire's day, but in Baudelaire's poetry sensuality is at once lyrical, sensuous, erotic and spiritual (and not merely lewd, or crude or ribald). Baudelaire also uses synaesthesia, the evoking of one sense impression by means of another, to produce some of his most revolutionary, most powerful and most transcendent effects. For example, touch and smell call forth taste, sight and sound—all the body, mind and soul, therefore—in “Exotic Perfume,” where the poet, who inhales “the scent” of his mistress's warm breast, sees and feels a vision unfolding that includes dazzling sights, “savory fruits” and the perfumed scents of exotic trees that mingle in his “soul with the bargemen's melodies.”

Following Baudelaire's lead in linguistic and rhythmic innovations, Rimbaud begins his poetic career with daring uses of blasphemy and scatology (e.g. “Evening Prayer”), and with stark, often grotesque evocations of human physiology or bodily excretions (e.g. “The Seated Ones,” “The Plundered Heart” and the lines in “The Drunken Boat” about “vomit,” birds' “droppings,” and “mucus”). Both Baudelaire and Rimbaud, in fact, create an aesthetics of ugliness—partly through a predilection for perversity and perversion, a turning away from what is conventionally accepted (from the Latin per, an intensive, + vertere, to turn); partly through a desire to scandalize; and partly through their perceiving beauty in what is traditionally regarded as repulsive. For example, in “To the Reader,” the prefatory poem to The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire says: “In repugnant objects we find alluring charms.” And as a fat and foul-smelling woman rises from an old bathtub in Rimbaud's sonnet “Venus Anadyomene,” her “broad rump” is “hideously / Beautiful with an ulcer on the anus.” While the title and the first thirteen lines clearly deride the classical conception of beauty, Venus rising from the sea, the words “hideously / Beautiful” reveal that for Rimbaud there is something sensuously and intellectually pleasurable in what others consider repulsive.

In his use of rhythmic innovations, Rimbaud goes much farther than Baudelaire, for he frees himself so completely from the constraints of French versification (he begins to break away in some of his poems of the spring and summer of 1872) that he writes two of the first free verse poems in French (“Marine” [“Seascape”] and “Mouvement” [“Movement”], which were eventually published in the Illuminations). More, he invents in the Illuminations a prose poem truly his own: a poem-illumination that is a synaesthetic explosion of sound, color, emotion and perpetual movement. Baudelaire, too, had created an original type of prose poem in his book published posthumously in 1869, Petits Poèmes en prose: Le Spleen de Paris (Little Prose Poems: Paris Spleen). But Baudelaire's prose poem, more discursive than Rimbaud's, is closer to lyric prose: a musical meditation that caresses, unnerves, and thrills. Rimbaud's poem-illumination, like a flash of lightning, is fiery and concentrated: a vision that bursts into being during a moment of almost divine revelation and is gone the next, remaining only—but remaining searingly, for one does not forget such explosions—in the memory and in the awakened senses. An illumination that dazzles, before the inevitable darkness.

Verlaine's poetry is on another plane, but it too scintillates with intimations of immortality, and mortality. His language is less daring than Rimbaud's; his innovations are far more timid. But while Verlaine never abandons rhyme, at times he stretches rhyme to its farthest limits by rhyming on an unstressed syllable, as in “Autumn Song,” where he uses the article “la” as a rhyme word: “Et je m'en vais / Au vent mauvais / Qui m'emporte / Deça, delà, / Pareil à la / Feuille morte.” (My translation attempts to capture that unexpectedness: “And I go off in / The evil wind / That carries me ahead / To this area / And that, like the / Leaf that is dead.”) Or in “Moonlight,” Verlaine's rhyming on the unstressed adjective “quasi” creates an unexpected rhyme that highlights the importance of this word which questions the very nature of his description. The maskers and bergamasche, he says, are “quasi / Sad Beneath their fantastical disguises.” Thus, while rhyme is present for the eye in these cases, it is not there naturally for the ear unaccustomed to hearing an unstressed syllable as a rhyme word.

Verlaine is also somewhat innovative in terms of rhythm (he prefers the vers impair, as we have noted) and in vocabulary. Upon occasion he introduces colloquial, even popular, expressions into his poetry, phrases that he then juxtaposes with images that are extremely lyrical or delicate. For example, in the fourth stanza of “Brussels: Merry-Go-Round,” a poem in which he immerses himself in dizzying sounds and movements, he says, using rather colloquial language: “It's entrancing how drunk it makes you to go / Like this in this silly carrousel: / Well-being in the belly and in the head, aching, so / Much aching and heaps of feeling well.” But in the seventh, which is the final stanza, his language is highly poetic: “Go round, go round! the sky in velvet comes / To dress itself with golden stars.” In “Kaleidoscope” he combines the colloquial and vulgar with the lyrical. In the sixth stanza he evokes prostitution, disease (“scurf”) and “the scents of urine,” as well as the sound of firecrackers, which in French may suggest passing gas (the French word for firecracker is le pétard). But the last stanza is delicate, sensuously lyrical and refined in vocabulary: “It will be like when one dreams and one wakes from sleep! / And one falls asleep again and one dreams once more / Of the same enchantment and the same décor, / In the summer's grass, to the moiré noise of the flight of a bee.”

Like Rimbaud, Mallarmé was a daring and inimitable inventor of a poetic language. In “Edgar Poe's Tomb,” his sonnet eulogizing and epitomizing his vision of the American poet, Mallarmé writes that Poe's goal was to “give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.” This is Mallarmé's goal, as well. To achieve his ends, Mallarmé takes words away from their ordinary usage in order to set them apart and to purify them. He dislocates syntax, places words in an unconventional, yet profoundly meaningful and above all suggestive order. He uses common words in uncommon ways, or he selects strange and uncommon words. He wrote to a friend on May 3, 1868, that he hopes that the word “ptyx,” which he was using in his sonnet “Her pure nails …” (which critics now call the “sonnet inix”), “does not exist in any language” because that would give him “the charm of creating it by the magic of the rhyme” (p. 1488).6 To Mallarmé, the meaning of “ptyx”—and of the whole poem—is unimportant in comparison to the word's—and to the entire poem's—evocative, mysterious and even mystical powers. In July 1868, Mallarmé wrote Henri Cazalis that this sonnet's “meaning, if it has one (but I would console myself with the opposite thanks to the dose of poetry it includes, it seems to me) is evoked by an internal mirage of the words themselves. In murmuring it several times one experiences a rather cabalistic sensation” (p. 1489). Meaning—or its opposite—is suggested here by what is beautiful but intangible, perceptible but unattainable, alluring but evanescent: the “internal mirage of the words themselves.” This mirage is a vision created by the words, contained, closed in (Mallarmé uses the word “renferme”), concealed—yet also revealed—by the words. And this mirage, like all mirages, is bound to delight, and to deceive. For Mallarmé, the experience of poetry, an experience that is filled with hope even as it struggles ceaselessly against imminent annihilation, emptiness, nothingness and despair—the mirage that may, that will vanish—is like an esoteric and spiritual ecstasy. It is mysterious, mystical, cabalistic. One is entranced and transported by the poet's words in the way that one experiences and is exalted by practicing a religious rite. One enters into, and becomes part of, the ecstasy.

Other ways in which Mallarmé shocks the reader in order to make him grasp the full and pristine, the holy value of words, include his resorting to preciosity and periphrasis, elaborate verbal imagery orchestrated through sounds to evoke sensations, impressions and visions. To imply that the woman in “The hair flight of a flame …” wears no rings on her fingers, Mallarmé says that she moves “no star nor fires on her finger.” A suicide full of gore and glory is the way he suggests a sunset in “Victoriously the beautiful suicide fled / Firebrand of glory, blood through foam, gold, tempest!” His images call upon a military conquest, beauty, fear and flight; flames and splendor; the darkness, tumult and destruction of a storm; death and drowning; blood that is horrible, but may be holy; gold that images richness, jewelry, brightness, beauty and purity.

In Mallarmé's utterances about poetry and in his poetry itself, there are persistent overtones of the spiritual. In “Solennité” (“Solemnity”), he speaks of “the ministry of the Poet” (p. 336). Often there is a delicate balancing of the physical and emotional with the religious, what Robert Greer Cohn so aptly calls Mallarmé's “real and poetic hunger for the supremely sensuous Infinite.”7 For poetry is a religion to Mallarmé, and the poet is a kind of priest who, in performing the rites of the word/Word, serves as an intermediary between the divine and those who would commune with the Mystery.

In what is called Mallarmé's “Autobiography” (his letter of November 16, 1885 to Verlaine), Mallarmé writes that he dreamed of the “Great Work … a book. … I shall go farther, I shall say: the Book. … The Orphic explanation of the Earth, which is the sole duty of the poet and the literary game par excellence” (pp. 662-63). The word “Orphic” evokes poetry, entrancing music, the occult, oracular pronouncements, and the Orphic mysteries celebrating the dismemberment and rebirth of the god Dionysus. The poet for Mallarmé is both Orpheus with his lyre and Dionysus torn apart—sacrificed, made sacred thereby—and reborn, in the Poem. More, the sacrificed and re-created Dionysus may be seen as the image of Mallarmé's poetic language: the word ripped from its ordinary context, the sentence torn asunder, in order to be reborn, pristine and pure—reshaped as the poem, the symbol of everlasting life. In this mystical setting, the word “game” (“le jeu”) is shocking and richly suggestive. The word startles, dramatizing Mallarmé's revolutionary use of language. “Le jeu” may imply an amusement that follows rules (games that children—or adults—play); gambling, with its financial, moral and spiritual risks; a medieval play (the theater was dear to Mallarmé); or a performance, the way an actor interprets a role. For Mallarmé, the game—or Game—assumes metaphysical connotations, veiling and unveiling the nature of being, the essence of things. “A lace annuls itself totally / In the supreme Game's uncertainty,” he begins one sonnet. “This mad game of writing,” he says in his lecture about Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, “to arrogate to oneself by virtue of a doubt—the drop of ink related to the sublime night—the duty to re-create everything” (p. 481). Many themes are united here: madness (like the Dionysian or Orphic frenzy), the game, doubt, the poet's arrogance and duty, and his search for the sublime. Writing, that Mallarmé calls a game, a recreation, is also, profoundly, for him a re-creation: “the duty to re-create everything.” In this perspective, the poet is a kind of god. His poetry is metaphysics, music and mystery; agony and exaltation; “the Orphic explanation of the Earth.” His poetry is a game that torments and transcends, a religion that is sensuous, spiritual and, always, self-renewing. “Poetry,” writes Mallarmé, “is the expression, by means of human language brought back again to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it thus endows with authenticity our sojourn and constitutes the sole spiritual task.8

For these four French symbolist poets—and to some extent for all the writers one may call symbolist—art is a kind of religion, a supreme aesthetic experience that seeks to penetrate and to transmit, to discover and to re-create, the mystery; the invisible, ineffable, intangible and secret; the evanescent and eternal; the sensuous that is at once bodily, mental, emotional and spiritual. Such revelations are necessarily disturbing, shocking, unnerving—and exhilarating. Often, and in different ways, these poets jolt you, arouse you, grasp you, and transport you—even Verlaine, whose poetry at first, but only at first and not upon closer examination, seems so disarmingly simple. Art for these poets is the transmission of ultimate experience: of life, or of Life. And their poetic word, through the symbol, seeks to veil—and to unveil—the Mystery.


  1. See, for example, Anna Balakian, The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal (New York: Random House, 1967); James R. Lawler, The Language of French Symbolism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969); Henri Peyre, Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974); and Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931).

  2. See his excellent book Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? (note 1 above). Unless otherwise noted, all translations throughout are my own.

  3. “Hérésies artistiques: L'Art pour tous” (“Artistic Heresies: Art for Everyone”) in Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1945), p. 257. For the other three poets, I quote from the following editions: Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1961); Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972), and Paul Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1962). Unless otherwise stated, all references to the four poets are to these four editions. I give English titles for poems translated in this book; for other works, I list the French titles first.

  4. For studies of these poems, see Enid Rhodes Peschel, “Rimbaud's ‘Les Corbeaux’: A Hymn of Hopelessness—and of Hope,” French Review, Vol. LII, No. 3 (Feb. 1979), 418-22; and “Shame” in Enid Rhodes Peschel, Flux and Reflux: Ambivalence in the Poems of Arthur Rimbaud, Preface by Étiemble (Geneva: Droz, 1977), pp. 71-78.

  5. See Robert L. Mitchell, “From Heart to Spleen: The Lyrics of Pathology in Nineteenth-Century French Poetry” in Medicine and Literature, ed. Enid Rhodes Peschel (New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1980), pp. 153-59.

  6. In 1940, Emilie Noulet pointed out that before Mallarmé, Victor Hugo had used the word “ptyx,” which has a Greek origin, in Le Satyre, but as a proper noun and not as a common noun. She noted that the Greek dictionary gives for “ptyx”: “the sense of folds and recesses [windings, coils] of an organ and cites an example in which ‘ptyx’ means oyster shell” (Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, p. 1490).

  7. See his outstanding book Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965), p. 49.

  8. Letter of June 27, 1884 to Léo d'Orfer in Mallarmé, Correspondance II: 1871-1885 (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 266.

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Criticism: Symbolist Aesthetics