Ralph Freedman (essay date 1967)

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

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

An analysis of the achievement of the French Symbolist Movement...

(The entire section contains 29507 words.)

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

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

An analysis of the achievement of the French Symbolist Movement exacts both a strong measure of awe and a sharp critique. The grounds for awe are evident: for many reasons, not the least among them the towering figure of Mallarmé, symbolism was able to render the clearest answer to the modern confrontation of self and world, to give the most precise shape to the self-conscious concern with the nature of the object in an “atmosphere of the mind.” Indeed, the insistent probings of symbolist poets in France, Belgium, and eventually throughout Europe created a climate which forced realism in literature into a radical crisis. Once poets had discovered the means whereby to accept the dominance of the psyche over the object, of aesthetic freedom over scientific causation, the issues of romanticism had been successfully joined in an era of fin de siècle technology. But such an appraisal of symbolism is necessarily accompanied by an awareness of its implicit failure, for in shaping its program, it created its own impasse.


Although historically the language of French symbolism was developed as a lyrical language, many of its implications are revealed with particular clarity in prose. Le symbole is, after all, an object transformed by the poet's mind to reveal the true or ideal reality beyond. The inward turning of experience, its deformation by the mind through the word's alchemy, expresses and suppresses the act of knowledge which to dramatize is one of the classic functions of narrative. The early Gide—refined prose artist par excellence—dramatized precisely this situation in his Traité du Narcisse (1892). As the self reaches for knowledge, the world is instantaneously transformed. “I” and objects, psychologically fused in apprehension, become one metaphysically as le symbole is born to represent both in the ideal. Such a reworking of the Coleridgean imagination is more easily accepted in poetry than in prose because the epistemological difficulties implied by this transformation are blurred by the instantaneous action of the lyric and by the poet's concentration on the word as a thing-in-itself. But in prose narrative, writers and critics must deal with an established convention in which the intercourse between minds and things is rendered explicit and hence cannot avoid whatever difficulties may be implied in the language of symbolism.

Kenneth Cornell, then, need not wonder that critics of symbolism viewed the “parallel path” of prose fiction with the same anathema as that bestowed upon the poets.1 Their hostility had to be particularly directed at prose. And, surely, it is not coincidence that long after Jean Moréas' lofty claims for symbolism in the Manifeste of 1886, one of the most incisive attacks upon it occurred in the series of essays entitled “Le Roman d'aventure” (1913). In turning against the symbolist novel, Jacques Rivière clearly criticized the problematic character of its language. His chief point of departure signified a renewed insistence on the traditional terms of narrative, for he seized upon the symbolists' abandonment of subject matter, i.e., of the world and objects the story is about. Describing the symbolist's method in an image, he likens his reworking of subject matter to the sweep of fire consuming the frame of a house, gradually transforming and dissolving the beams until only an iridescent suggestion of structure is left. In this way, Rivière insists, the mind consumes its objects, analyzing and decomposing them, until there remain only the ideas behind them.2 Now this critical perception would have been less evident in the lyric where we actually admire the disintegration of subject matter as a higher artistic act. Yet the problem is the same; only it is revealed more sharply by the expectation of narrative. As we shall see, the symbolist's manner of dissolving and transforming the objects of life is epistemologically more difficult than it has been in other forms of experimental distortion, because it requires that objects qua objects be eliminated and transmuted into different things. It therefore disengages the mind from its usual intercourse with things in the midst of the act of knowledge by confronting it with a different set of objects—objects unknowable by the usual means of sense perception. Transforming, like Baudelaire, a forest of trees into one of symbols, the poet demands of the reader that he abandon epistemological for metaphysical understanding while maintaining the posture of confrontation implicit in the act of knowledge.

The symbolist's linguistic requirement, then, is his most pervasive paradox in a theory of literature in which paradox plays so important a role. A dream house becomes a diadem, a silver buckle, a black book, even a moment of stillness, yet the knower relates to the new objects in a pose of perception appropriate to the apprehension of houses. This paradox has profound implications for literary composition, both in terms of the continuity of language and of its moral and ideational content. Language and meanings, as Huysmans' Des Esseintes put it, can be concentrated in a state of “meat” as a picture embodying their significance.3 Yet language, especially prose, also strains outward towards a telling of interrelations between sensibility and world. Moreover, such a contraction of the mind's intercourse with life—at the same time a contraction of the act of knowledge—introduces new terms of relation. When Des Esseintes was struck by Gustave Moreau's painting of Salomé dancing for Herod, he observed a transformation of moral causality into formal extension. As the aroused king is affected by the glittering jewels and snake-like movements of the dance, as moral decision and psychological response produce John the Baptist's fate, all these causes are absorbed into the shining objects of art. The causal term response is thus gradually transmuted into the term embodiment which is metaphysical and pictorial alike. Mind has created a situation in which the artificial object embodies the idea. It therefore cannot strain towards knowledge, for in the place of the usual epistemological object it views a thing in which knowledge is already contained.4

“Neither “discontinuity” nor “transformation” appears first in symbolist language. Both suggest the stresses and strains between movement and form common to the lyric. But used as a self-conscious artistic method and a programmatically defined vision of language they have issued in a special kind of writing. If in a dramatic poem like Mallarmé's Hérodiade gardens are not perceived through the shrubs and flowers of nature's creation, nor allegorically in Marvell's sense, but have become “jardins d'améthyste, enfouis / sans fin dans de savantes abîmes éblouis,” ordinary perception loses its meaning. The act of knowledge is already complete and its significance (rendered through the confluence of object and mind) exists within and beyond the objects presented to the reader. It is this inversion of the act of knowledge—the conversion of the epistemological into a metaphysical object prior to cognition—that has led to the characteristic impasse in symbolist literature which is particularly crucial to narrative.


The symbol is an object which the mind has absorbed into its internal world where it exists as a new creation. When we look at the gardens of Mallarmé, at the dining-room of Huysmans' Des Esseintes, or at the “chimerical islands” in Gide's Voyage d'Urien (1893), we view mental images whose significance is not given directly in sense experience. But we also realize that any understanding we might have of these “metaphysical” objects must somehow involve perception. The austere décor in Mallarmé's sonnet “Ses purs ongles …,” for example, presupposes a very visual imagination, equally adept at composition and at decomposition. As the mind recreates the “metaphysical” form from scattered objects, it at once reaches beyond itself. We confront, then, a version of Coleridge's imagination, for the mind seems to repeat God's creation, reassembling a world of shapes, colors, and things. But there is also a great difference. Coleridge, like Schelling and the other romantics, retained the vision's empirical base, the ground in Lockean sensibility, which the imaginative vision transcends. It is one of the paradoxes of fin de siècle symbolism that the poet literally makes the objects of his imagination, that he deforms and in fact obliterates the ground in sense experience as well.5 The inquiring mind, intrigued by the sensual display, soon comes upon the unknowable object, one which his senses cannot fathom.

This paradoxical activity of the mind creates a highly problematic character for the self and its role in literature. Again in poetry the difficulty is obscured by the purity of the lyrical process into which the self as Poet-Magician can be absorbed. Thus, it is part of the imagery of “Ses purs ongles …” for the Poet-Master to withdraw, leaving behind an emptiness which contains only a suggestion of the assemblage of objects, “car le Maître est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx / avec le seul objet dont le Néant s'honore.” The poet's role as the ordering spirit, accentuated by his absence, is part of the composition which emerges like a locked box whose key has been deliberately removed. But once the poet functions as a protagonist, his relation to the deformed or absent world must somehow be dramatized. Jean Moréas describes the hero in symbolist narrative as a clown, a unique personage whose world has been deformed by his own hallucination, i.e., who creates his own reality by transmuting the empirical world in accordance with his image of himself. He therefore “acts out” what the lyric implies. Figures with mechanical gestures exist only as a pretext for the protagonist's sensations and conjectures. The clown's mask, already seen by Baudelaire as the poet's proper costume, comes to represent the true reality, reflecting the self's own dream as it is mirrored in art.6

Moréas' hero, like Gide's Narcissus, thus reveals the paradox implied in symbolist “cognition.” He appears to perceive, but at the crucial moment deforms the worlds he encounters: images of perception are turned into images of hallucination, i.e., they are transmuted into something else. At the same time they are also part of his own mask as clown, produced in the very pose of knowledge. The epistemological object, then, not only is actually a metaphysical object, it is also an extension of the subject, its “mask.” In this way, the symbolist hero, as a persona for the poet's self, portrays in fiction the essential characteristics of Mallarmé's soliloquists—Hérodiade and the Faun.

This description of the self as hero is clearly supported in Mallarmé's view of Hamlet as the only reality in Shakespeare's play, contained in the famous review of 1886 (the same year as Moréas' Manifeste). “Comparses, il le faut! car dans l'idéale peinture de la scène tout se meut selon une réciprocité symbolique des types entre eux ou relativement à une figure seule.” Surely, this is to some extent a particular interpretation of Hamlet “si bien façonnée selon le seul théâtre de notre esprit,” but it is also a description of the symbolist hero and his existential situation. All figures other than the hero himself are deformed and become his attributes, that is, they become objects and images which derive their existence solely from their relation to the hero. Polonius, therefore, becomes more than the foolish, senile character he is, but a mere figure “… comme découpée dans l'usure d'une tapisserie pareille à celle où il le faut rentrer pour mourir.” “Qui erre autour d'un type exceptionnel comme Hamlet,” Mallarmé concludes, “n'est que lui, Hamlet.”7 The “I” is not the percipient; it is the only existent for whom things and figures are attributes.

Mallarmé's conception of Hamlet gives us a clue not only to the function of the self but also to the idea of transformation. Polonius may indeed be capable of functioning as a character in his own right, but in relation to Hamlet he is no longer himself. He becomes a thing deformed, cut out of the arras, finally an attribute of Hamlet. In the purely lyrical situation, such an absorption of selves into the poet's mind requires no explanation. “Die Poesie,” Novalis once wrote, “löst fremdes Dasein im eignen auf.”8 But an explanation is demanded in drama or narrative. Polonius has to be understood as ceasing to exist, as becoming a thing expressing a state of mind. If in “L'Evolution de la littérature” Mallarmé counsels against the description or naming of things and calls instead for the creation of symbols—new things that are states of the soul—he reinforces this dramatic interchange, this réciprocité between mind and thing (whether the latter is a person or not) which continues to give credence to the analogy between the symbolist poet's stance and the act of cognition. But this drama, which suggests knowledge but conveys no knowledge, indicates the turn from the perceptually based imagination of Schelling and Coleridge to the world-denying will of Schopenhauer. Instead of being a knowing mind, the poet or hero acts as a mind that dissolves the world of things and accepts only those that embody his special vision.9

The implication of this view for narrative is clear. The epistemological act, while suggested, must at once be denied. Narrative action which had been turned into perception in the novel of sensibility, as well as in romantic allegories, is now stripped down even further to a symbolic interplay of mind and self-created images. In the very act of story-telling, a world of sensible nature is rendered and is at once transformed. The effect of this manner is particularly evident in the prose poem which had once been celebrated as the “purest novel” because it shows great affinity with the lyric while at the same time retaining the motion and form of prose discourse. In the eighteenth century Gessner's idylls and Macpherson's Ossian suggest a base in description. But when in the nineteenth century the prose poem reached its late but vigorous flowering in France, it was also this effort to describe that delineated the boundaries of lyrical prose. Description, hence perception seen through the empiricist's eye, became the means of defining both the world of objects and the poet-narrator's masks. From Chateaubriand to Aloysius Bertrand, from Baudelaire and Laforgue to Mallarmé and Valéry, prose poems came to be defined as arrangements of described scenes, perceptions absorbed into limiting designs. Thus Baudelaire's clown in “Le Fou et la Vénus” transforms a brilliantly described garden into a meaningful image of beauty which is finally condensed into the fool's artificial costume as he kneels at the feet of the statue of Venus in a persiflage of a Petrarchan lover. Even in stories like “Le Mauvais vîtrier,” in which the poet maligns a vendor for his inability to brighten squalor with beauty, the poet's double persona (both himself and his victim) insists on the juxtaposition of patterns (the deftly described city and the suggested possibilities of beauty) which are exploded in the comically violent gesture of his acte gratuit. Although most of these poets were guiltily hesitant about their form, and although the public was never wholly won over, the prose poem developed more and more sharply into a mode of expression that played the cadences of prose, and even its narrative potential, against the concentrated imagery of objects drawing the poet's self.

It is therefore no coincidence that since the beginning of the modern prose poem so many examples of the genre have been descriptive, relating perceptions to the poet as a present or effaced consciousness. Although many important prose poems—Rimbaud's Illuminations en prose, for example—developed a “free” sensibility through the poet's heightened vision, much significant prose poetry is also restrictive. Especially in the later nineteenth century limits were clearly drawn and Breton's comparison of the prose poem to the sonnet was by no means misplaced. Far from opening the form to Whitmanesque cadences, an important version of the later prose poem established rigid conventions, perceptions condensed into aesthetically formed patterns of objects. Especially the compositions of Mallarmé have utilized consecutive prose to achieve repetitions and counterpoints with which to explore, in poetry, the paradox of movement and form, of the self's act of knowledge directed towards objects and their disposition as things in which a new knowledge is already contained.

A passage from Mallarmé's prose poem “Le Nénuphar blanc” may serve as an example. The poet, rowing a boat, stops briefly at the bank near a park. He reflects in silence, imagining the figure of a lady to whom he addresses a soliloquy in adoration. The self delivering this address is a specially created, imaginary self—poet, troubadour, pirate. His dream counsels him against making himself known. He departs, taking with him the idea of a white water lily as a symbol of his devotion. The story opens:

J'avais beaucoup ramé, d'un grand geste net assoupi, les yeux au dedans fixés sur l'entier oubli d'aller, comme le rire de l'heure coulait alentour. Tant d'immobilité parassait que frôlé d'un bruit inerte où fila jusqu'à moitié la yole, je ne vérifiai l'arrêt qu'à l'étincellement table d'intiales sur les avirons mis à nu, ce qui me rappela à mon identité mondaine.

Qu'arrivait-il, où étais-je?10

The passage renders its description in the narrative past with all the outward trappings of story-telling. A situation akin to that of a tale is actually established by the poet's figure rowing his boat, stopping, listening, his oars half raised. Yet all these tangible relevancies to fact are at once cancelled out. The self's action is set in the past perfect tense: “J'avais … ramé.” His eyes are turned within: they are fastened neither on motion nor on stillness but on “l'entier oubli d'aller,” forgetfulness of motion. Immobility is personified: “(il) paressait.” In this way, Mallarmé converts description and action into a denaturalized type of action implied by objects. He does not tell us events directly, although he seems to. For example, he does not say that the boat reached shallower water which changed the sound of the oars. Rather, he was “frôlé d'un bruit inerte où fila jusqu'à moitié la yole.” He realizes the motion had stopped by the glistening initials on the oars raised above the water. Things and personified abstractions act the part of characters and natural objects, but they also cancel out their own activities as they produce the cessation of the very motion they appear to create. A picture emerges in which all things are related to the poet, no longer as perceptions but as re-envisioned objects in which movement is rendered immobile and projected in images through an ostensible narrative form.

Fiction developing from, and accompanying, this type of prose poem, is determined by such a use of prose to render explicit the new relation between self and thing. Remy de Gourmont's novel Sixtine (1890), for example, reflects a mode of narrative by today's standards fairly conventional, within which characters constantly seek to mirror the empirical self and its adventures in an ideal self and its symbolic creation. Our example is drawn from a remarkable passage in a seduction scene which occurs in a story narrated by the hero Entragues. Coquerette has taken a lover, Sidoine. Unlike husbands who are fathers (this is a Victorian age) lovers are things one has created for one's pleasure. Coquerette experiences the most sensuous thrill as Sidoine begins his seduction by kissing each joint of each of her fingers, his lips playing on her fingers much as Des Esseintes had played on the bottles of colorful liqueurs to achieve a symphony of taste. Even as he thus transforms parts of her person into things, in his turn creating his erotic toy, Sidoine professes his love and calms her suspicions. Kissing each joint he first exclaims “Magnifique,” then, as he reaches the second joint of her ring finger, varies it with “Funèbre!” At first Coquerette does not understand and takes these words to be witty professions of love; each time she believes and is content. But suddenly the expected campaign halts in its predetermined course and the individual actions are given a new meaning. Pale, Sidoine rises and looks upon the bed as upon a sad spectacle: “L'appareil est funèbre, et mon coeur s'épouvante.” From the actual sensual encounter, a new vision has emerged:

Les mots s'étaient rejoints et de la conjonction magique naissait et surgissait l'unité réelle contenue en leurs éléments.

The fingers have become funeral candles, the woman a corpse, the bed a coffin in which her beauty is laid out in a sterile and perfect immobility. The recognition continues in an image:

Trois cierges au chevet s'allumèrent et à cette lueur la blanche figure sembla sourire aux anges, comme les petits enfants dans leur berceau. Un grand crucifix noir apparut sous ses mains croisées; des fleurs furent semées, des roses sur son sein, sur son ventre des lys et à ses pieds des violettes.11

The lover's titillating kisses have turned his mistress into an object of his vision, a Poësque horror which also becomes a source of their passion. But in this scene, in which the play between self and other, consciousness and thing, is reversed with clever irony, feeling becomes “real” only through a game of illusion. The thick sensuousness continues to act on the reader like a drug, but as fingers become candles and the recollection of the idea of death—immobility and artifice—becomes the true stimulant, the psychology of motive is dissolved. In this way, the deformed object is not rendered only as a mental object; it is also depersonalized. The candles, which have replaced the fingers, embody the idea intended through their transformation. Emerging from the mind, but ultimately excluding it, these deformed things have become symbols into which the mental act that gave rise to them has been wholly absorbed. The symbol has become a terminus.

Symbolist conversions of empirical into “real” objects require, then, not just a psychologization of experience. Their mirrored images, like that of Narcissus, must themselves become artifacts, purposive distortions of the original perceptions which become part of the self's own features—the mask of poet, persona, or hero. Thus Coquerette's inviting body must first become a corpse of her lover's imagination, the images in Moréas' and Paul Adam's Thé chez Miranda must turn into tableaux, or encounters must be distorted in the Gothic of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Contes cruels. In one of these tales, “Le Désir d'être un homme,” for example, several blocks of Paris are set on fire in an artificial stimulation of remorse that does not come off. An old tragedian, playing at being Nero with real matches, finds that even this self-created stimulus cannot turn the defunct image of himself he had perceived in a mirror into a real identity. But, despite this necessary failure, the search for a “real” self through the violent transformation of the empirical world is clearly seen. Objects, converted within the poet, are transformed as if by a magic hand. These “real” objects may have moral consequences—like the diadems of Salomé in the painting to which we have referred—but they do not exist for this purpose; they exist for ends of their own, suggesting a trans-empirical “real” world which is basically inaccessible to the organs and language of sense. By reversing and corrupting nature, by numbing himself with real flowers aping horrible artifice rather than with artificial flowers emulating the real, by being nursed with colorful enemas rather than human food, Des Esseintes of A rebours counteracts impotence in life with the grandeur and madness of the symbolic imagination.


The point of these reflections is two-fold: first, that objects in symbolism exist only in relation to the particular mind of the artist and his persona. They are deformed by him as they become extensions of himself in the way Mallarmé's Polonius becomes an extension of Hamlet. Secondly, they exist by themselves, being significant as ideas. The self is thus freed from the bondage of race, moment, or milieu. It acts in the realm of the infinite. It makes and unmakes objects as it transforms them into universal symbols which replace psychologically conditioned motives. The symbol as terminus, however, creates a paradox and an impasse. For on the bed of Coquerette and in the actor's pose before the mirror we see dramatized an interchange of self and “other” that issues in the classic posture of cognition but ends in the object's conversion into something other than itself. We thus witness the problem always implicit in the symbolist imagination: to the extent that the object suggests the infinite it is no longer itself and cognition is a pose; to the extent that consciousness engages itself in it, the self is deformed by its own creation.

These points have been, to be sure, a dead issue since “Le Roman d'aventure,” which denounced the circularity of the symbolist novel and, by implication, exposed its paradox. For its crucial difficulty resides in the discrepancy between symbolism as a substantially lyrical method and the nature of the genre to which it has been applied. The result has been a kind of prose narrative in which the self (elsewhere in the novel the hero or an acting persona) becomes the receptacle for objects and an agent for their transmutation into objets d'art. On the one hand, the hero is liberated by asserting his independence in the realm of the imagination while conceding his impotence in the realm of fact. On the other hand, he is imprisoned, locked, as it were, into the work with all the rigor and severity of Mallarmé's famous swan. But despite this paradox the symbolist imagination has remained a constant alternative to classical realism as the techniques it developed became crucial to the novel of the mind. The insistence on the bankruptcy of the external world led to an elevation of private vision to public symbols and to an overvaluation of aesthetic relations over cause, time, or character—the conventional determinants of narrative form. Thus, the point Rivière criticized more than half a century ago still lingers in our conception of narrative. The external world, transmuted and projected into the self, thence abstracted from the self as objects in which knowledge is contained, leaves us with a circular vision in which the novel's traditional intercourse between persona and world can be dissolved and replaced by configurations of imagery.


  1. Kenneth Cornell, The Symbolist Movement (New Haven, 1951), p. 73.

  2. Jacques Rivière, Nouvelles études, 9th ed. (Paris, 1947), p. 238.

  3. Joris Karl Huysmans, Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1928-34), VII, 301-302.

  4. Note Rivière's insistence on the mind-enclosed dissolution of the perceived world into a “weak” reality. “Le monde sensible s'était réduit en une tapisserie légandaire, ornée de motifs noblement fantastiques, et qui semblait tendue sur les parois intérieures du cerveau.” Nouvelles études, p. 246.

  5. This intricate concept of poetic creation through the negation of the external world has been illuminated in all its subtlety in Georges Poulet's essay on Mallarmé in La Distance intérieur (Paris, 1952), pp. 298-355 passim.

  6. In Léon Vanier, Les Premiers armes du symbolisme (Paris, 1889), pp. 40 ff.

  7. Stéphane Mallarmé, Divagations (Paris, 1942), pp. 176-177. In his study of Mallarmé and the symbolist drama, Haskell Block speaks of Mallarmé's cosmic symbolization of Hamlet, the “collision of dream and destiny” as “the full expression of the tragedy of the human condition.” Mallarmé and the Symbolist Drama (Detroit, 1963), p. 91.

  8. Schriften, ed. P. Kluckhohn (Leipzig, 1929), II, 327.

  9. These ideas were developed explicitly in Remy de Gourmont's Idéalisme and in his Esthétique de la langue française as well as in the Philosophie de Schopenhauer. A clear exposition of de Gourmont's view of the poet as percipient can be found in the small volume by Karl Uitti, The Concept of Self in the Symbolist Novel (The Hague, 1961) and, more elaborately, in Uitti's La Passion littéraire de Remy de Gourmont (Paris, 1962).

  10. Stéphane Mallarmé, p. 51.

  11. Remy de Gourmont, Sixtine (Paris, 1915), pp. 171-172.

Virginia A. La Charité (essay date winter 1978)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3909

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

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

In the poetic universe of Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet has the power to create with words, to go beyond the object by making an absolute out of language. On nearly every page of his prose commentaries on the essence of poetry, Mallarmé expresses commitment to “le Texte … parlant de lui-même” (“the Text speaking by itself,” OC, p. 663).1 And, indeed, in his poetry, the object becomes a word which dissolves its material reference points and reveals a permanence beyond words, an authentic silence which communicates “perfect certainty” (OC, p. 446). This transformation of the real permits us to describe him as a “pure” poet.

Looking at the great diversity of Mallarmé's writing—his verse poems, letters, prose poems, theoretical musings, articles, notes—we find two fundamental patterns in operation in his communication of the pure realm of poetry. On a thematic level, Mallarmé is concerned first and foremost with the representation of poetry regardless of its actual mode of expression (formal poem, music, theater, ballet, art, prose), while, on a linguistic level, he continually has recourse to a language of elasticity, a language which expands and contracts in a vibratory movement of displacement. As the poet is an “ordonnateur de fêtes” (OC, p. 330), poetry is “[la] nature animée” (OC, p. 303), and both conjoin in the mobilization of words (OC, p. 336), a rhythm of constricted release. The recurring motif which brings together these two patterns into a single contextual structure is what Mallarmé calls “la mobilité de l'écrit” (“the mobility of the text,” OC, p. 455), and it takes the form of his favorite word as object, object as word: the fan.

A fan is basically a segment of a circle which is constructed with thin rods which move on a pivot; made out of silk, feathers, paper, it opens and closes, mystifies and reveals, in a simulation of movement which is neither dynamic nor static, but vibrant. Fans commonly produce air currents and promote a cooling, refreshing sensation. But fans are not limited to their use by people; they are also connected to leaves, bird wings, bird tails, cards, book pages, garden trellises, marine construction, painting. Structured on the principle of folding and unfolding, a fan always recovers its size and shape regardless of its effects and affects of deformation. Never rigid, a fan maintains a measure of control which permits resistance to change and mobility, and its elasticity is inherent to its fundamental intactness. While a fan may suggest formation through color, shape, or movement, it never abandons its original source of form or balance. Yet, a fan is not mobile in that it can change its condition; rather, a fan transforms the perspective and angles of the condition.

Certainly, Mallarmé's interest in fans is well-known2 and has been well-documented in numerous critical studies.3 But attention to his use of the fan is limited to an examination of vocabulary clusters in which fan is linked with wing, pen, feather, foam, fold. What is singularly overlooked is Mallarmé's usage of the fan as a preferred intertextual structure in the basic act of writing. For Mallarmé, writing fixes; and, by its fixity, it denies reader space and textual autonomy. In order to cede the initiative to words (OC, p. 366), in order to project words towards the reader so that he may discover their significance, Mallarmé turns to a textual linguistic form which animates the words on the page (“des places variables,” OC, p. 455). Moreover, this mobilization and manipulation of words—the act of writing—evolves chronologically in his work from the fixity of the texts in Entre quatre murs to a veritable volatilization of the reading-writing experience in Un Coup de dés, in which the text finally becomes subject and the reader becomes object.

In his first works (Entre quatre murs and Poëmes d'enfance et de jeunesse), Mallarmé writes in standard traditional verse forms and rime schema. While he experiments with the pliancy of language, his early poems are marked by a spatial and temporal localization: words are concepts which do not reveal things which have no existence other than a poetic one. Yet, in the early poems, we find a vocabulary of motion which remains in his work: fan, foam, wing, wave, fold, smoke, swan, feather. In fact, all of Mallarmé's poetry can be justly described as a repository of terms of motion as though his very word choices are efforts to unblock the immobility of the act of writing in order to capture the “mobiles variations de l'Idée, que l'écrit revendique de fixer” (“mobile variations of the Idea, which the text insists on fixing,” OC, p. 648).

Parallel to Mallarmé's early use of words of motion is his fascination with punctuation as a means to vibrate the text. The dash, ellipses, capital letters, quotation marks, parentheses, and exclamation point (described in one text as a “plumet,” OC, p. 168), as well as his concern with varying type sizes, attest to Mallarmé's interest in the visual power of the word on the page. But when he later finds that punctuation is artificial (OC, p. 407), a hindrance to textual mobility and reader manipulation, he undertakes experiments with the formal structure of the verse poem in a studied attempt to eliminate the artifices which punctuation imposes. Copies of his fan poems, for example, reveal the absence of punctuation, but fan poems appear rather late in Mallarmé's career. It is as though his initial efforts to deal with writing on paper fail to free sufficiently the poem from the confines of black ink. Once Mallarmé begins to play with writing on objects, notably the fans, envelopes, pebbles, Easter eggs, bottles of Calvados, etc., in Vers de circonstance, he decreases and frequently eliminates punctuation. It appears that the substitution of an object for a sheet of paper enables him to overcome the obstacle of the page as well as the trappings of punctuation. Like the textual gamesmanship which Mallarmé displays in Vers de circonstance, the later texts of Poésies, which are considered his most hermetic and purest poems, reflect an increasing liberation of the written word from its position on the page. In “A la nue accablante tu” (OC, p. 76), for example, we are struck by the diminished use of punctuation and by syntactical dislocations. The words and phrases literally move on the page, free from time and space, free from material referentials. As a text of verbal displacement,4 “A la nue accablante tu” destroys the word as concept and offers the word as object and the text as process.

Yet, looking closely at the inner fiber of “A la nue accablante tu,” we find in operation the same structuring principle of the object poems in Vers de circonstance.5 The words and phrases move on a pivot; portions of the text appear and disappear as the reader folds and unfolds the words and lines. The use of parentheses in this highly ambiguous poem signifies the mobilization of an occasion. In the final analysis, the actual event of the text—be it the capturing of the floating debris of a shipwreck or a fanciful rendering of a bath—should not concern us; rather, because we can recover the referentials, we should be more detached in our approach to the process of the echoes which draw attention to the unsaid by the details of what is said. Dispersal of the fragments is what Mallarmé describes in a fan poem as the disengagement—liberation—of a future verse (“Le futur vers se dégage,” OC, p. 57)—the verse which the reader will “write” in response. In other words, we are supposed to be mystified in order to read the traces and construct our own poems. Mallarmé's success in the creation of a text of release which engenders reader desire for union is dependent upon the structure he uses in his fan texts.

While the elastic “A la nue accablante tu” is a preparation for Un Coup de dés, there are other poems, especially ones written before “A la nue accablante tu,” which indicate that Mallarmé is moving in the direction of such highly polished experimental texts. In “Brise marine,” for example, he uses the folding-unfolding fan technique to transpose the quayside scene into an exotic dream. The final lines of the text contain the evocation of the voyage and the longing of the poet for adventure: “… sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots … / Mais, ô mon coeur, entends le chant des matelots!” (“… without masts, without masts, nor fertile islets … / But, o my heart, hear the song of the sailors!” OC, p. 38). By folding the words mâts and îlots into matelots, Mallarmé creates a mobile image of the sailors and reduces the entire text to an evocation of departure.

Linguistic constriction and expansion is present in all of Mallarmé's poetry and the examples in Poésies are numerous: “de la cendre/descendre” (OC, p. 54), “un frisson/unisson” (OC, p. 49), “la flamme/l'âme” (OC, pp. 52-53), “le plumage est pris/mépris” (OC, p. 68), “le vide nénie/dénie” (OC, p. 76), “harpe par l'Ange/phalange” (OC, p. 54), “vole-t-il/vil” (OC, p. 73). At times, Mallarmé reverses the process and unfolds, expands, a given word or phrase (“las/les lilas,” OC, p. 34), while on other occasions he merely alters one letter or syllable (“glacier/l'acier,” OC, p. 43; “lune/l'une,” OC, p. 42). His “Prose (pour des Esseintes)” (OC, pp. 55-57) is rich in examples of a linguistic fan structure: “de visions/devisions,” “se para/sépara,” “désir Idées/iridées,” “devoir/de voir,” “sensée et tendre/entendre,” “par chemins/parchemins,” “sépulcre ne rit/Pulchérie,” “site/cite.” But, after all, is this not Mallarmé's famous invocation to “Hyperbole!”, the opening line of the text? Hyperbole is a figure of rhetoric which either greatly augments or diminishes the expression; it is the extravagant exaggeration of something as much greater or much lesser. In Mallarmé's universe, hyperbole enables the poet to avoid narrative (“on évite le récit,” OC, p. 455) in an acceleration and retardation of movement (OC, p. 455).

The structure of the fan is not limited to linguistic contraction and expansion, however, for it also accounts for a predominant interplay of light and dark in Mallarmé's work. The use of shadows cast by the folds of things, the opening and closing of a book, a fan, a spectacle of any sort, what Mallarmé describes as suspense in the “Scolies” to Igitur (OC, p. 450), is basic to all of his work. “L'Après-midi d'un faune” is particularly rich in its reliance upon recreative fading light, as the nymphs are metamorphosized at the end into a shadow which perpetuates the fawn's dream of them (OC, p. 53). The scintillation of the constellation in the mirror at the end of “Sonnet en yx” (OC, pp. 68-69) is glimpsed through the shadows cast by the lamp bearer at midnight; further, the effect of shimmering (motion) in a fixed mode (stasis) is dependent upon a simultaneous opening and closing of the decor. The in-out and out-in juxtaposition of the mirror and the constellation is reworked into an ascending-descending motif in Mallarmé's 1891 fan poem to his wife, a text in which the setting (“logis”) reflects “un battement aux cieux” (“a fluttering in the skies,” OC, pp. 57-58).

Hence, Mallarmé's poetry reveals a preoccupation with a stable but mobile structure, an elasticity, and we find this same quality in his short story Igitur, as well as in his theatrically oriented works. His notations and articles in Crayonné au théâtre and Variations sur un sujet continually return to the problem of the elastic, as we witness a definite movement in his formal poetry from fixity to displacement. In addition, in his correspondence and prose commentaries on the essence of poetry, we note a chronologically developing concern for a vocabulary and form which capture the substantive nature of a fan. In fact, one may accurately read his theoretical writings as descriptions of fans,6 especially his discussions of ballet and music, which he praises for their fluid qualities which communicate an order despite the motion inherent to their representation. In a poem on Edouard Manet's painting of Polichinelle (OC, p. 161), Mallarmé views the dance in a simultaneous rise and fall motif, while his poem on Léopold Dauphin's music (OC, p. 161) is built around the image of a fountain. Focus on the pulsation of rhythmic movements enables the reader to grasp the relationships between things, just as the curve of a fan suggests motion and indicates the gesture of movement (“les gestes de l'idée”).

Generation without a translative intermediary is the construct of the hyperbolic fan: “Je dis: une fleur!” (“I say: a flower!” OC, p. 368). It is little wonder, then, that in La Dernière Mode Mallarmé chooses as one of his pseudonyms Ixion, the tortured ancestor of the centaurs, who was condemned to a flaming wheel in Hades; only when Orpheus visited was the wheel still. Like a turning sun, Mallarmé the poet seeks a textual stricture which retains the mystery of its motion. Nowhere is this motif more developed, more actualized from theory into practice, than in Un Coup de dés.

Like his fan poems and relying in fact upon a fan-like structure, Un Coup de dés is formally written without the artifices of punctuation and depends upon the reader's act of unfolding for entry into the text. While the fragments of Le Livre7 go beyond this text in Mallarmé's insistence upon the role of the reader in folding, refolding, and moving around the given pages in order to generate a plurality of readings, Un Coup de dés is, nonetheless, a conscious text-as-subject which insists upon a skillful reader (OC, p. 455). Like a fan, Un Coup de dés has neither verso nor recto pages, and it is topographically a segment of a circle which opens and closes, folds and unfolds, moving from a flat and static horizon to a heightened arc of activity.8 Moreover, it has two definite terminal slats, the pair of dice which begins and ends the text. Visually, Un Coup de dés crystallizes what Mallarmé declares in a fan poem dedicated to Méry Laurent: “A jeter le ciel en détail” (“To cast the heavens in detail,” OC, p. 59). For, every double page of Un Coup de dés reads like a fan poem, literally and figuratively turning idea into object. The pieces make the horizon withdraw, as they open up the vastness of the universe. Breaking up into various stellar scintillations, the rods of the fan so agitate the air that the act basic to the text, the throwing of the pair of dice, actually disperses into a final unity of the poetic experience. The “frisson final” of “Toast funèbre” (OC, p. 55) survives intact through total engagement in the transformation of the real.9

A pattern of “obliquité-déclivité” reduces the profusion of the dispersed words and white spaces. Signaling “sidéralement,” the Master hurls his dice in a challenge to the reader to open his eyes to the variables of the fiction which “affleurera et se dissipera, vite, d‘après la mobilité de l'écrit” (“will crop out and vanish, quickly, according to the mobility of the text,” OC, p. 455). Consequently, in Un Coup de dés, we find a vocabulary and a phraseology of motion: lancé, naufrage, furieux, plane, retombée, dresser le vol, jaillissements, bond, envergure, penché, surgi, conflagration, s'agite et mêle, jeter, reployer, jouer, flots, crispée, rejailli, précipité, hurlé, tourbillon, vertige, sursaute, dispersa, and the final verb in the poem, émet.10 But despite the overwhelming onslaught of a vocabulary of motion, there is an immovable quality about the text, a pivot of the immutable and the rigid. The first indicator of this in the text is found in the negative “ne … jamais” of the title: A throw of the dice will never abolish chance.

It is certainly possible to read “chance” as a euphemism for change, the dynamic principle of motion, the actual power to move and relocate place and condition. And, such a reading would not be inconsistent with Mallarmé's demonstrated preoccupation with a writing which is neither static nor dynamic. The reader's throw of the dice—turning of the pages, opening of the fan—is controlled by the poet's arrangement of the rods—the words and phrases. The contextual structure—its outer limits and framework—cannot be moved; only its inner fragments are free from the constraints of time and place. The reader may fold and unfold the pages as he will, and I suspect that inherent in Mallarmé's use of double pages lies the same interchangeability seen in the fragments of Le Livre. We do not have to read Un Coup de dés in a linear fashion, from the first page to the last one; we may read it backwards, and we may even read it in random order. Like a painting, we may enter the universe of the poem at will; like a fan, we may open as many rods at a time as the notion may take us, but, regardless of the approach to the reading of the text which we may adopt, we cannot escape the allegorical capital letters of the title which orient our reading, nor can we escape a certain typographical structuration which aligns phrases into fixed groups (the pages in italics, the pages in Roman type, etc.). The reading experience is elastic;11 we can never leave the source of the text; we may only dwell upon its variations, for, in the manner of a fan, the text continually retracts to its base, its “fil conducteur.” The images of the shipwreck, the constellation, the feather, the foam, all conspire to control the freedom of the reading experience. The original throw of the dice is Mallarmé's; he has set in motion a given set of “subdivisons prismatiques” (OC, p. 455), which deform the reality of the referentials but which at the same time affirm the authenticity of the fiction.

Doubling and redoubling upon itself, Un Coup de dés fulfills Mallarmés own stated description for Le Livre, The Work of Poetry (OC, p. 663). It must be premeditated and architectural; it must have a prescribed, predetermined pivot around which the lines are formally constructed. It must be conjunctive, rather than disjunctive. And we find in Un Coup de dés a linguistic coding of terms of union and fusion which qualitatively dominate the vocabulary of motion: résume, l'horizon unanime, unique Nombre, conjonction suprême, Fiançailles, le lieu, une constellation, un compte total en formation, Toute Pensée. As in Igitur, a work which is demonstrably related to Un Coup de dés, we find Mallarmé concerned with reducing “le hasard” (“chance,” “happenstance”) to Infinity (OC, p. 442), that is, to absolute fixity through an action. The attempt on his part to conquer chance word by word (OC, p. 387) has frequently been viewed as a metaphysically oriented effort; what is overlooked in our reading of Mallarmé on chance, especially in Un Coup de dés, is that this term usually appears in the context of conjunction and in connection with the role of the reader. If the text is truly subject (the fan) and the reader is object (the recipient of the poet's fan), then the conquest of chance in the Mallarmé universe is ultimately a challenge to the reader to act, to discover the potentials (unfold the rods) of the conjunctions (“le hasard infini des conjonctions,” OC, p. 435).

Writing several decades before Reverdy published his famous definition of the image, Mallarmé juxtaposes heterogeneous elements in order to make a third appear—appear to the reader—and, like Reverdy, his measure of control, his pivot, is “le mot juste,” which expands before the reader in an unlimited horizon of signs. The pleasure of the Mallarmé text lies less in the purity of its ambiguity and more in its structure of contraction-expansion, its elastic intertextuality. Neither open nor closed, it receives an impression, turns it into a form, and then returns to its unique source, Poetry.


  1. Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1945). All references to Mallarmé's work are from this edition and appear within the text, abbreviated as OC and with page numbers. All translations are my own; obvious cognates and listings of vocabulary patterns have not been translated.

  2. Mallarmé wrote 21 fan poems, and three of these are found in Poésies. Fan poems are his only object poems (poems written on things) which appear with his “pure” poetry. In addition, Mallarmé refers to fans in Variations sur un sujet and other writings when he writes about poetry.

  3. See Jean-Pierre Richard, L'Univers imaginaire de Mallarmé (Paris: Seuil, 1961), especially pp. 19, 28, 79, 122, 177-179, 285; also see Robert Greer Cohn, Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965).

  4. Robert Goffin does not hesitate to describe “A la nue accablante tu” as an elastic text, Mallarmé vivant (Paris: Nizet, 1956), p. 8.

  5. Mallarmé's Easter egg poems, for example, are structured so as to allow the interchange of the verse lines; destruction of imposed formal order permits the reader to rearrange the lines at will.

  6. Typical of critical usage of the fan referential when describing Mallarmé's poetry is Jacques Derrida's observation: “La polysémie des ‘blancs’ et des ‘plis’ so déploie et se reploie en éventail … il désigne … l'objet empirique” (“The polysemy of the ‘blanks’ and ‘folds’ unfolds as a fan … it designates … the empirical object”), La Dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972), p. 283. In L'Univers imaginaire de Mallarmé, Richard suggests that the fan may be an ars poetica for Mallarmé (pp. 314-315), but not a poetic structure.

  7. See Jacques Scherer, Le “Livre” de Mallarmé (Paris: Gallimard, 1957).

  8. For a discussion of vertical and horizontal dimensions in this poem, see Robert Greer Cohn, L'Oeuvre de Mallarmé: Un Coup de dés (Paris: Librairie Les Lettres, 1951).

  9. Mallarmé's use of frisson (shiver, quiver) to evoke the vibrancy of poetry and life also survives in contemporary literature in Louis Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris (1926), in which frisson is the key term, in André Breton's 1928 Nadja (“La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas”), and in Denis Roche's pulsion of Eros énergumène (1968).

  10. In fact, the only act which occurs in the present tense in Un Coup de dés is found in the final line: “Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés.” Emettre (to send forth) is a dynamic verb of motion which actually indicates the creation of motion.

  11. Again, however, in Un Coup de dés as in the object poems of Vers de circonstance, the lines are static in their arrangement on a pivot, while the reading process is dynamic in the freedom to move the order of the lines, thus capturing the elastic quality of the poetic experience: its pulsating, vibrant essence. See Jean-Paul Sartre: “L'objet littéraire … n'existe qu'en mouvement. Pour le faire surgir, il faut un acte concret qui s'appelle la lecture” (“The literary object … exists only in movement. To call it forth, there must be a concrete act which is called reading”), Situations II (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 91.

John Porter Houston (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7565

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

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


From the early nineteenth century on, there are aspects of French aesthetic thought which stand out from contemporary English and German theory and anticipate the characteristic ideas on art of a later period. In fact, the first deeply influential and significant volume of French romantic poetry, Victor Hugo's Les Orientales (1829), has, both in its preface and contents, features whose consequences extend beyond what we normally think of as the chronological limits of French romanticism. The poems, which are set in parts of the Mediterranean world remote from Paris, are presented as the reveries of a city-dweller. Their style is, in comparison to previous French poetry, rich in evocations of light, color, line, and detail. In the preface Hugo compares the individual poems to paintings and to the varied architectural monuments of an old Spanish city; the book as a whole he characterizes as a useless one of pure poetry. A work of art which is constructed with skill out of the dead materials of pigment, canvas, or stone is pure artifice, not a natural object; the additional presentation of it as resembling a reverie could, in a sense, imply a certain remoteness from the immediate emotions of life. Hugo's conception of his art in Les Orientales acquires significance when we compare it to the ideas of imagination and organic form typical of English and German aesthetics in the early nineteenth century. Certainly the English romantics' idea of imagination as the faculty encompassing the totality of human and natural experience conjoined resulted in poetry which embodied a greater span of vital perceptions and feelings than Hugo's notion of art implied. The theory of the imagination as it gave both shape and theme to poems was the most powerful aesthetic of the early nineteenth century.

The word imagination was current in eighteenth-century France as it was in England, and was similarly associated with poetry descriptive of nature—which, in France, was largely imitated from English work. The final philosophical elaboration of this term, however, did not occur; imagination did not take on the suggestion of an essential higher life force relating the ideas of God, nature, and love.1 As a result, French nature poetry, as exemplified in the work of Alphonse de Lamartine and in Hugo's work of the 1830s, seems far closer to the aesthetic of James Thomson's The Seasons, the epitome of the eighteenth-century love of nature, than it does to William Wordsworth or Percy Bysshe Shelley. Personifications and pathetic fallacy, more than mythic life, generally inform it. Nature is simply the pleasant experience of the countryside uplifted with thoughts about life or God.2 Even without knowing it to be the case, as with Hugo, one might have the impression nature poetry was written by someone who vacationed in the countryside but whose most decisive experiences were those of a city-dweller. On the other hand, the poetry of the English romantics or, especially among the Germans, of Joseph von Eichendorff, conveys the point of view of someone whose life is completely involved in nature, the inhabitant at most of a village. This is, of course, an artistic matter, not one of circumstances: one would never guess that Eichendorff spent his days toiling as a bureaucrat in large cities.

The idea that a poem is an object made from materials and not a living thing parallel to nature may seem to reflect on Hugo's part a continuing adherence to that side of neoclassical theory which saw art as craft. This is not at all surprising: neoclassicism was not, from the early nineteenth-century French point of view, merely an episode in the history of literature, it was the French tradition and French art itself, renaissance and baroque works constituting more a group of irregular forms than a coherent tradition of their own. 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).

Hugo's other major statement, besides the comparison of poems to the fine arts, takes on its significance only in regard to a favorite neoclassical dictum: his declaration that Les Orientales is a useless book is intended as an allusion to the theory, after Horace, of joining the utile to the dulce, which appealed to the unitarian thinking of neoclassicists. By the useful Horace meant, of course, the moral exemplum of art, and by useless Hugo meant, of course, that his poems were not didactic like eighteenth-century odes. The sense of these terms, however, was shortly modified by Théophile Gautier, principally in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin. The useful Gautier equated not with moral suasion but with the practically and commercially useful, and his example was the lieux d'aisance. This leap of ideas was not completely far-fetched: the bourgeois public's often conservative, neoclassical views of art were reinforced by the Saint-Simonian doctrine which maintained both that practical usefulness and flourishing commerce were a high goal and that art should make itself useful by lofty moral teachings. Gautier chose to reduce the two senses of the utile to one for polemical purposes. However, there is also a far-reaching implication in his talk of latrines and Ghiberti's doors; he has strengthened Hugo's perhaps largely implicit notion of the poem as a rich object and made it clear that this object has no place in the world of moral purposefulness. The character of the poem as artifact suggests, as Hugo's comparison already had, that the sensory value of art should predominate, that poetry should contain luxuriant imagery, as neoclassical poetry did not. Furthermore, the poem might not simply be morally useless, it might be antimoral or immoral. Beyond this lies a further dialectic step: it can be maintained that there is a higher code of values than that of the middle-class reading public, that there is a morality of art subsuming the ordinary notions of moral and immoral.

Gautier suggests the nature of such an ethic to some extent in the text of Mademoiselle de Maupin, but the poet most concerned with reconciling the notions of art and morality was Charles Baudelaire, who returned to the question time after time in his critical writings. What is perhaps most arresting about Baudelaire's thinking on the subject is the impression he gives that art contains morality: that art does not merely imitate the moral conflicts implicit in life but that nearly everything important in life, such as morality, is lesser than and embraced by art. This is, however, merely an impression, a tendency in Baudelaire's thinking; he was sufficiently under the sway of traditional religious conceptions that he could not replace God by art; something remained outside art and was at least of equal importance.

There is one other among Baudelaire's many and sometimes contradictory thoughts on art that is relevant here: the distinction between art and nature, implicit in both Hugo and Gautier's comparisons of poetry with carved stone or bronze, becomes explicit in Baudelaire's view of a hierarchy of values in which art is above nature, the latter being flawed by original sin. (Baudelaire sometimes takes the next step and identifies art with redemption.) This has consequences for poetic imagery; “la froide majesté de la femme stérile” and similar expressions convey the idea that beauty is opposed to life because it is opposed to nature. (This is by no means Baudelaire's only conception of beauty, but it was an influential one.) Another opposition between beauty and life, which is based on quite different assumptions, is found in Charles Leconte de Lisle's poetry and theorizing. There, present-day life, supposedly based on a commerce of the utile alone, is consciously ignored in favor of evocations of the remote in space or time. Nature appears, but is exotic and alien; life assumes a distant, heroic, and mythic character. Although Leconte de Lisle intended his poetry to exalt truth, beauty, and pristine vital forces, the embodiments of these are at such a remove from our ordinary sense of reality that they paradoxically have appeared lifeless to many readers despite intense sensory imagery.

Leconte de Lisle was content with the conception of poetry as a craft; Baudelaire timidly and metaphorically called it evocative sorcery, but Hugo, in the last phase of his career, and later poets found it necessary to have recourse to transcendental notions in order to account for their creative activity. The concept of the logos (le Verbe) occurs in Hugo and Arthur Rimbaud, the supernatural “mystery of a name” in Mallarmé's picture of an Adam-poet ordering the world. Vision and sight, meaning the perception of normally invisible realms, are other terms common to the three poets; Mallarmé used the word “idea” as well, in the sense of a higher reality.3 None of these notions is really explored: they serve their purpose of characterizing poetry as coming from beyond life or being above it, and the essential is that they do not put poetry in conflict with life, practical or otherwise, but obviate the possibility of comparing the two, just as one would not compare the infinite with the finite. The various oppositions typical of earlier poetic theory yield, especially in Mallarmé's thought, to a harmonious view of an ascending scale with art at its transcendental summit: art is no longer a beautiful object which can be placed opposite a practical one.

In Hérodiade, the mystery (the sense is religious and theatrical at once) which Mallarmé worked on at various times in the course of his life and never finished, Salome, who is here given her mother's name, and John the Baptist represent beauty and the artist: John's glance violates the princess, his death comes as a result, and the “cold jewels” of Hérodiade, her sterile nature, “open.” It is from having absorbed John's life that she, no longer a princess, “triumphs as queen.”4 After the imagery of metal, moon, and ice, which has earlier characterized her, there is a synthesis symbolized by sexual union between life and the inorganic.

Hérodiade reflects the persistence in the nineteenth century of the belief that there is a category of things subsumed under the idea of the beautiful: of course, instead of the neoclassicists' version of the beau idéal, nineteenth-century poets chose their own imagery—in which we find the gold and jewels and decor of Mallarmé's poem—but the habit of thinking of the beautiful as a prestigious class of things remains a characteristic neoclassical one. At some point, however, Mallarmé began to realize that the beauty of a poem comes from structural relations, not just from specific images, and with this he moved into a new perspective on art. Up to this time, the English and German organic theory of poetic form was undoubtedly superior to any thinking done about it in France; now, however, Mallarmé's new definition of poetry as “music in the Greek sense, basically meaning a rhythm among relationships” avoided the distracting vegetal associations of the organic theory and permitted Mallarmé to use quotidian imagery like furniture and to focus on questions of design, the more essentially poetic element in poetry.5 Mallarmé had arrived at this aesthetic conception by meditating on music, of which he knew little and had no technical knowledge. His ignorance, however, seems to have preserved him from the supposedly Wagnerian ideas current in late nineteenth-century France, according to which music is primarily a matter of repetition.

Mallarmé's theory of art as relationships is of considerable value in confronting many poems of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It suits, for example, symbolic poems, like some of Wallace Stevens', in which the whole meaning depends on sensing the bonds between two or more somewhat cryptic objects or creatures. In a sense, it does for much modern poetry what the idea of imagination did for English romantic nature poetry: it is relevant to both the formal conception of the poem and its subject; it provides a general idea of much subtlety and flexible application.

The movements in French aesthetics we have been surveying are generally referred to as l'art pour l'art, a term I have avoided because it seems to say something rather simple but actually encompasses quite diverse positions and currents of thought. The evolution of ideas on art from the beginnings of romanticism to the final stage of Mallarmé's aesthetic has, as I have sketched it, certain correspondences to poetic imagery. It is by no means the only sequence of aesthetic conceptions that could be traced: indeed, the more closely one studies them, the more it appears that from each idea one could move to any one of several others in a proliferation of dialectic. The aesthetic thought of Baudelaire or Mallarmé, for example, can be reduced to a system only by ignoring various implications and by limiting the conflicting tendencies one allows to become apparent. The nineteenth century was not, as I choose to see it, so much a period of critics and doctrinaires as a time when the practical aesthetics of poets and novelists were both abundantly recorded and highly significant. Their wealth of ideas, set forth in a largely unsystematic fashion, makes every account of them an experiment in dialectic, and I have chosen the conceptions that seemed best to lead into the intense formal concerns of nineteenth-century poets.


The shifts in the conception of poetry in nineteenth-century France are related to, if not completely identifiable with, changes in the actual shaping of poems. These changes cannot be fully appreciated, however, without reference to the forms that preceded and persisted alongside the new ones. I shall attempt briefly to outline a morphology of the lyric in its principal romantic manifestations, with some indication of how poets were to deviate from them.

While romantic types of poems could be exemplified by the work of all the many minor poets published in Le Parnasse contemporain (1866), which is interesting as a kind of encyclopedia of French poetic common practice on the eve of Symbolism, I shall refer rather to poems by more substantial figures. Perhaps an insignificant piece would, through its lack of general salience, illustrate more clearly this or that tendency in poetic structure; on the other hand, major poems, or at least the work of major poets, provide valuable examples of the range of effect possible within the limits of a specific rhetorical configuration. Reference can usefully be made not only to English and German romantic poetry but also to the work of the great French innovators of the late nineteenth century; in Rimbaud, and especially in Mallarmé, many basic patterns of earlier poetry persist, as they do even in Valéry. In the very middle of the century, Baudelaire is a particularly rich source of illustration of well-articulated rhetorical structures. What follows is based on extensive attempts to classify large bodies of poetry, such as all of John Keats and Shelley's lyrics, the complete works of the major French poets, William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Friedrich Hölderlin's body of work, a generous representation of Goethe's lyric poetry, and so forth. While I do not doubt that it has imperfections, there seems to be an undeniable and even surprising limit on the poetic structures one is likely to find.

The structures we are going to examine have, as their general characteristic, 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. While the rhetorical relationships may be at least hypothetically formulated for any discourse, the body of poetry we are dealing with does not, as a rule, accidentally or intentionally create confusions between the speaking voice or subject, to use a grammatical analogy, and the various objects, as happens in modern poems rendering consciousness, where the speaker's mental activity and what he perceives may fuse. 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, distinctions which are often not at all clear in an inner monologue like “L'Après-midi d'un faune.” Another characteristic of well-defined rhetorical forms is that we can perceive the poem's reference as general, exemplary, or particular; in Rimbaud's “Mémoire,” on the other hand, we cannot readily be certain whether the experience is that of one person or not. Figurative language is often found in exemplary poems, where its symbols, if not transparent, suggest the tradition of the parable rather than the modern kind of symbolism, in which important words may be cryptic or a strange figure or object appear, like the grey jar set down in Tennessee in one of Wallace Stevens' poems. Visionary lyrics of great resonance in the larger context of the poetry of Shelley, Blake, or Novalis commonly lend themselves to an at least momentarily satisfactory limited interpretation. While longer works, notably those of Blake, may offer considerable difficulty, the short poem tends to illustrate readily the desire to move an audience in some way, the original sense of rhetoric, in virtue of which we can answer the questions of from whom, to whom, and about what. On the other hand, some modern poems, such as Valéry's “Les Vaines Danseuses,” convey little about speaker, subject, or hearer.

Certain speech situations directed at second persons, present or absent, provide very clear-cut forms: invitation, prayer, invocation, question, command, prohibition, interlocution (of which only one side may be represented), and the hortatory kind of imperative found in Paul Verlaine's “Art poétique.” Rhetoric has terms for these, whereas some modern uses of the second person, like that at the beginning of Verlaine's “Clair de lune,” completely elude classification. In rhetorical poetry there are various ways in which content can be structured within the traditional second person categories, as we shall see later. What must be remembered, however, is that great ranges of tone and situation are encompassed within them, however elementary they seem when reduced to a list. Poems 25 to 55 of Les Fleurs du mal contain most of the second person patterns, and in them we can observe another strong rhetorical element, which determines not form in a narrow sense, but the purpose of communication: praise and blame. Ode and satire (which, of course, may be third person as well as second) are obvious forms of praise and blame, and the ode in particular, taken in this general sense of a poem exalting its subject, accounts for an impressive amount of high lyric poetry. It persists in some modern poems like Mallarmé's “Toast funèbre.” Even in poems not normally thought of as odes, the matter of praise is abundantly found. In contrast, we might imagine a kind of modern poem in which praise or blame or their causes is entirely implicit. In Guillaume Apollinaire's “Un Soir,” furthermore, we cannot easily tell whether it is praise or blame that is implicit, although one or the other clearly is. In romantic and earlier poetry, the definition of second persons and the attitude taken toward them are often clarified by their falling into certain traditional categories: mistress, fellow-poet, the Christian God, patron, king, and so forth. On the whole, the poem addressed to someone or something seems to show most distinctly the changes that have come over poetry in the last century or two: from Greek and Latin lyric through European neoclassicism and much romantic poetry, the conceiving of the poem as a well-delineated act of address, and the explicit use of the second person helps circumscribe genres within the lyric and generally to suggest the specific occasion, real or fictional, of which the poem is a record. Mallarmé's “Hommage” to Richard Wagner, on the interpretation of which there is little agreement, shows how the kind of occasion and the degree of praise can be quite enigmatic in more modern work.

The apostrophe or invocation directed toward something personified is a special case of poetry of the second person in that it often is joined with much self-revelation on the part of the speaking first person: the “Ode to the West Wind” is only one of many of Shelley's poems that have this dual character. Before the rise of the dramatic monologue, even poems dominated by the first person (like Keats' nightingale ode) often have some second person point of reference. Both romantic odes show, furthermore, the poem tending toward general statements about life, beauty, and art and making sense in a simple, limited way, if that is as far as the reader cares to go. Even first person poems we may think of as unrhetorical, such as the songs in Elizabethan plays, often are connected to the tradition of public utterance by the use of maxims or commonplaces, generalized wishes or deliberations. In the work of a number of modern poets, the place the ode had in English romanticism is occupied by the dramatic monologue, which is concerned with specifics rather than the general. The elusive, unrhetorical song, of which one authority said there were no examples in France before the last three decades of the nineteenth century,6 is associated with Verlaine during the 1870s and 1880s before becoming abundant in volumes of poetry by 1900. These two genres, Verlainesque song and dramatic monologue, represent, in the Symbolist period proper, the farthest evolution away from traditional rhetoric. There are also other genres worth considering, which occupy a kind of borderline between specific and general reference.

As much as romantic poets were concerned with the individual and even the idiosyncratic, it is still quite perceptible in their work that experiences tend to be treated as something of general value to all. Poems of memory, which are characteristic of the nineteenth century and especially of Baudelaire, can be almost narrative in movement as recollections unfold (“La Chevelure”); their subject finds its justification in its exemplary quality. It is characteristic of first person poems to take what is local and individual and make of it something typical; anecdote and self-portraits (not necessarily presented as being of the poet) work this way. Blake's “Little Black Boy” and a number of other lyrics or Baudelaire's “Spleen” poems, “Je suis comme le roi” and “J'ai plus de souvenirs,” illustrate the great possible range of self-portraits. Longer first person poems may have important narrative elements (Valéry's “Ebauche d'un serpent”), or various combinations of self-portrait, episode, and meditation. A special case of the latter occurs in Hugo, where reflective poems often lead to visions in which cosmic patterns are revealed (“Les Malheureux” and “Halte en marchant” in Les Contemplations). Such poems also show the difficulty of classifying sometimes ambiguous forms solely by grammatical persons: the import of Hugo's visions is never relevant only or primarily to the seer but carries the objectivity of third person accounts. Of course, the objectivity of generally valid statements and the truth to be found in human types underlies most romantic first person poems, and modern criticism's identification of fictitious speakers or personae in them, like the prophet of Hugo's visions, emphasizes this element of ethos, as traditional rhetoric called the creation of character based on moral-psychological types. It may be that with ingenuity we could classify the speakers of all modern first person poems, but the aim of the poet often seems to be the devising of some startling, elusive, and even mysterious figure. Many of Jules Laforgue's speakers in Les Complaintes are of this sort, like the virgin King of Thule or the Munis (sages) of Montmartre.

Third person poetic genres include anecdotes, short narratives, portraits, and scenes. Hugo's Légende des siècles abounds in the first two; in Rimbaud, “Les Assis” and “Le Forgeron” typify the others. Speeches and narrative may be joined, notably in some of Alfred de Vigny's poems like “La Colère de Samson” or “Le Mont des oliviers.” Characteristic of all these are the great overtness of praise and blame, that is of the rhetorical motivation, and the frequency of historical or legendary material, with an attendant implication of exemplarity. These poetic narratives or fragments of narration make, if anything, only moderate use of novelistic plot devices like ellipsis. In Rimbaud's “Les Premières Communions” and some other poems, on the other hand, we shall find interesting parallels with modern fiction. Finally, from “Le Bateau ivre” to Dylan Thomas' “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait,” we find symbolic works with plot, or at least action, and some analogy to the allegorical tradition. In the case of the Thomas poem at least, it is clear that its technique goes beyond the romantic hermeticism of Blake and Gérard de Nerval.

In romantic poems which are not narratives, scenes, or portraits, we can distinguish structural principles shaping the body of the poem. Poetic arguments can be put together with an incremental movement, a unified tone, and perhaps rising intensity (“Au lecteur” in Les Fleurs du mal). Often this pattern seems enumeratory as in Baudelaire's “Les Phares.” The opposite principle is conflictual movement, in which antithesis, with or without resolution, dominates (Mallarmé's “Las de l'amer repos” and Baudelaire's “Causerie”) and may, in especially elaborate cases, be complicated by overt paradoxes (“Le Voyage” in Les Fleurs du mal). The conceit (Mallarmé's “La chevelure vol”) is generally a paradoxical argument that makes ordinary logic untenable. In general, the arguments of antithetical or incremental poems have a reasonable show of logical coherence, and occasionally we find a poem with a fairly formal kind of reasoning (the first piece of Les Contemplations, for example). The great meditations like “Tintern Abby” have, of course, an important element of psychological development, as well as an adequate logical one, and this combination can be found in some modernist poems like Stevens' “Le Monocle de mon oncle” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” and Valéry's “Le Cimetière marin.” These also show that stanzaic forms in meditation can lead to highly epigrammatic effects. What we do not find in all the poems we have mentioned is the seemingly irrelevant associative movement which imparts a deceptive stream-of-consciousness-like surface to many modern poems and of which an unusual, early example is to be encountered in Baudelaire's “Le Cygne.”

Incremental and antithetical patterns of argument often are combined with other rhetorical units such as elaborate addresses in the second person, descriptions or the noting of perceptions, or analogies (which, by themselves, of course, constitute the whole of some short poems: Mallarmé's “Les Fenêtres,” or, in a less formalized, bipartite manner, “M'introduire dans ton histoire”). Some poems, like Hölderlin's “Der Rhein,” are great composite structures in which we see a number of elements: in the Hölderlin poem we find a narrative of the Rhine's birth and course, an expository meditation on the gods, an apostrophe to Rousseau, a generalization with the specific example of Socrates, and an address to the friend to whom the poem is dedicated. Finally, the ending of a poem is often a distinctive unit in itself, though following from what precedes: sententiae (Keats' “Grecian Urn”), images (Keats' gathering swallows in the “Ode to Autumn” and countless poems by Hugo), rhetorical questions (the “Ode to a Nightingale”), the dialectic resolution of an antithesis (Baudelaire's “Hymne à la beauté”), in French an imposing quadripartite line with special sound repetitions and deployment of long vowels (“Et l'avare silence et la massive nuit,” Mallarmé: “Toast funèbre”) or some other rhetorical pattern (Baudelaire's “Voyage à Cythère” with its prayer, or the apostrophe of “Au lecteur”).

Modern poets have moved away from romantic poetic structures not only by using the dramatic monologue, which has a lesser degree of logical articulation than the meditation, but also in their tendency to use general statements without any easily traceable logical connection between them; rather, such disconnected statements often occur in dense patches of imagery, which is, itself, difficult to interpret. Apollinaire's “Le Brasier” and “Les Fiançailles” are excellent illustrations. Another feature of such statements is that they sometimes say exactly what one does not expect: “Beauty is momentary in the mind— / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal” (Wallace Stevens: “Peter Quince at the Clavier”). Countless poets have warned that beauty is most perishable in the flesh and survives only in verse. Modern poems that consist solely of juxtaposed images without commentary (like Mallarmé's “Ses purs ongles”) are by no means necessarily harder to interpret than the mysterious sententiousness of Rimbaud, Stevens, Eugenio Montale, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas.

A last element of poetic texture, which we have only mentioned in passing, is natural description, bringing us to a significant characteristic of romantic poetry: while description is inseparable from the English concept of imagination and the French idea of the poem as a richly colored object, it is nearly always handled as a coordinate or subordinate in the poem rather than as an independent, autonomous rhetorical entity. (A special exception can be found, at least theoretically, in descriptions designed to dazzle through artfulness and enargeia, as vividness was called.) The reason for this is that description, unless accompanied by even a slight interpretive analogy, represents a kind of neutral discourse, which does not fulfill the rhetorical purpose of influencing or moving. In the rhetorical tradition, even what may seem the most obvious symbolic functions of description, such as the equivalence between a winter landscape and old age, cannot exist without an explicit correlative. A new autonomy of description will be seen in more recent poetry.

The possibility of formulating, however briefly, a morphology of lyric based on the rhetorical tradition suggests that deviations from these patterns may also present themselves in recurrent types, and, furthermore, that the very absence of certain rhetorical features will be of use in interpretation of these forms. Here is the place to consider the new ideas that came to modify poets' handling of traditional poetic structures.


The idea of impersonal poetry in France, free of an overt rhetoric of praise and blame, is usually thought of as evolving in reaction to an emotive theory of poetry current in the romantic period. Actually, as we have seen, the conception of the poem as a beautiful object, from which a notion of impersonal poetry is easily derived, is quite as characteristic of French romanticism, but for the general public, the seemingly personal work of Alfred de Musset and his imitators, detested by most later poets, occupied the foreground. There is definitely a question of the sociology of literature here: as the bourgeoisie of 1830 had seemed utilitarian and neoclassical in its taste and thereby hardly amenable to the idea of poetry as gratuitous beauty, the bourgeoisie now appeared in the mid-century, because of its sentimentality, hostile to the further evolution of aesthetic thought in the direction of the autonomy of art. Moreover, the emotive theory of poetry was an eighteenth-century development, already present in Lamartine's predecessors, and therefore quite as conservative as neoclassicism: hence the connection between the new antibourgeois society, bohemia, and the new poetics of art for art's sake.

The most insistent theorist and practitioner of impersonal poetry in the mid-century was Leconte de Lisle, and the interest of his poetry and polemics lies in the fact that he provided ideas about verse which were a point of departure for later theorists, as well as a model of style which persisted through to the early twentieth century. (Many poets were to write, in not necessarily any evolutionary sequence, “Symbolist” poems and Parnassian ones, by which is usually meant an imitation of Leconte de Lisle's manner.) Leconte de Lisle derived certain general principles of style from the practice of Hugo, Vigny, and Gautier: the cult of euphony and the beau vers, generous adjectivation, abundant descriptions of a highly plastique character, unity of tone (he differs considerably from Baudelaire on this score), and polished conclusions for his poems. He had little imagination for metaphor, which is surely a factor in the monotony of his admirably finished verse. There is a curious resemblance between Leconte de Lisle's idea of a style generally valid for all worthy subjects and neoclassical aesthetics; this did not escape him.7 The idea uniting all these technical features is that of controlled emotion objectified and sustained through representations of things, figures, and events in all the elements of color, light, line, sound, and movement necessary to fix it. The narrow range of Leconte de Lisle's subjects, which, although vast as history and the greater continents, carefully excluded the local and modern, should not detract unduly from an interestingly thought-out ideal and achievement.

Impersonality is implicit perhaps in Leconte de Lisle's choice of subjects, but the technique of presenting the subject is also relevant. At the same time as Flaubert was working out the theory of the absent author in the novel, Leconte de Lisle was experimenting with poems devoid of the poetic equivalent of authorial intervention and therefore of the rhetorical persuasions of didacticism and sentimentality. By no means are all his poems free from commentary on their subject (any more than Flaubert's novels truly are). Some poems, like “La Mort de Valmiki,” have an interventional narrative technique almost like that of passages in Honoré de Balzac; in other poems the presence of the author is a relative matter, best judged by the standards of contemporary or previous poetry. Occasionally Leconte de Lisle reaches a high degree of impersonality, as in “Paysage polaire,” which in the quatrains exemplifies his command of imitative harmony and in the tercets his often elegant syntactic arrangements:

Un monde mort, immense écume de la mer,
Gouffre d'ombre stérile et de lueurs spectrales,
Jets de pics convulsifs étirés en spirales
Qui vont éperdument dans le brouillard amer.
Un ciel rugueux roulant par blocs, un âpre enfer
Où passent à plein vol les clameurs sépulcrales,
Les rires, les sanglots, les cris aigus, les râles
Qu'un vent sinistre arrache à son clairon de fer.
Sur les hauts caps branlants, rongés des flots voraces,
Se roidissent les Dieux brumeux des vieilles races,
Congelés dans leur rêve et leur lividité;
Et les grands ours, blanchis par les neiges antiques,
Çà et là, balançant leurs cous épileptiques,
Ivres et monstrueux, bavent de volupté.

A dead world, the sea's immense foam, an abyss of sterile shadow and spectral glimmers; bursts of convulsive peaks drawn out into coils, which move, dazed, through the bitter fog. A rough sky rolling in blocks, a harsh hell in which fly sepulchral cries, laughter, sobs, harsh shouts, and death-rattles, all torn from the sinister wind's iron horn. On the high, trembling promontories, gnawed by the ravenous waves, stiffen the misty gods of ancient races, frozen in their dream and leaden pallor. And the great bears, pale from the age-old snow, here and there, their epileptic necks quivering, drunk and monstrous, slaver with lust.

This kind of implicit commentary on the survival of the life force in horrible circumstances is much in the vein of Flaubert's conception of the artist as everywhere present in his work but nowhere visible.

“Paysage polaire” provides us with our first example of a description free from any coordinate statement. That it is not obscure comes from the contrast we immediately sense with landscapes of harmonious life, but ultimately we have to refer to the survival of the fittest, to nineteenth-century science and its hypothesis that the universe would perish in cold, and to the philosophical pessimism supported by that science, in order to see that this is not a poem primarily about hell or sexuality. In other words, the subject is covert, and the impersonality of technique permits an at least theoretical ambiguity. If the ambiguity here seems negligible, there are descriptions, and not only in more obscure modern poets, in which the sense of the poem is problematic. Shelley wrote an uncharacteristic piece of straight description called “Evening: Ponte al mare, Pisa” which is not easy to interpret, and the same is true of a rather impassive description from Verlaine's early period entitled “L'Heure du berger.” Verlaine wrote in a letter some years later of his plans for long poems about things from which man would be completely banished.8 He did not write the poems, but the technical and theoretical interest in the possibilities of this kind of poetry had occurred to him as it would, in various forms, to other poets.

The most elaborate theory of impersonal poetry is to be found in Mallarmé's letters of 1866 and 1867. Mallarmé went through an acute spiritual crisis in those years, which began with meditations on the buddhistic themes of Maya, the veil of appearances, the ultimate nothingness of the world, and the Glorious Lie which poetry therefore must be. (These notions were familiar from the work of Leconte de Lisle, Mallarmé's friend Henri Cazalis, and the vulgarizers of the relatively newly translated oriental texts.) Through another friend or through a not very accurate article, Mallarmé next drew on Hegelian ideas, which he worked out in a highly personal way, the result being that, from despair over nothingness, he was saved by the triadic concept that Being and Nothingness are synthesized in an Absolute, which is art or beauty. Furthermore, beauty corresponds to the absolute idea of the universe, which presented itself to Mallarmé's mind. “Beauty … finds in the entire universe its correlative phases.”9 With this, beauty was removed from dream and chance, those being the characteristics of contingent, personal art. After the two-year crisis had passed, Mallarmé, who had undergone much physical suffering in the anguish of his discoveries, resigned himself to writing poems “merely tinged with the absolute.”10 The poetry of his maturity, as we shall see, reflects in its style a certain conception of impersonality.

With Rimbaud another term related to impersonality, but rather more problematic, enters our considerations. In the famous letters of May, 1871, Rimbaud contrasted objective poetry with its insipid subjective opposite. The prose is sometimes difficult to follow, but it is clear that Musset's personal poetry represents everything detestable in verse. Objective poetry, as it fitfully occurred in the romantics, comes from a force outside the poet of which he may even be unaware. This might be the sense of “Je est un autre,” but the source of the other voice, at least as it has manifested itself already in other poets, remains obscure, although Rimbaud calls it universal intelligence. The imagery he uses suggests less intelligence than a collective unconscious, and the expression “plenitude of the great dream” confirms this. In any case, what the poet brings back from “down there” can be formless in its essential character and expression, by which Rimbaud meant that it does not have the symmetries and unity of tone proper to form in the neoclassical tradition; the idea of organic form, which was totally unfamiliar to Rimbaud, would better suit the case.

The significance of the formless becomes clear when we look at the poems included in his letters. One, “Le Coeur supplicié,” is a kind of plaintive fool's song (fool's songs and mad songs occur in Hugo's Cromwell and Emile Verhaeren's Les Campagnes hallucinées; they are not so abundant as in English poetry). Other pieces are a repulsive portrait, “Accroupissements,” a punning account of the crushing of the Commune, and a violent, obscure vituperation against “Mes Petites Amoureuses.” Words and phrases in the latter sometimes border on the incomprehensible. The objectivity of these poems depends not only on their perhaps having been dictated by the universal soul (they are commonly taken as autobiographical); their dense, almost opaque style makes them indeed linguistic objects, which bear no resemblance to the transparent clichés of personal poetry. Here we have an important further development of the idea of the poem as object: obscurity of subject matter and complexity of expression give it the air of an artifact separated from its creator. Difficult poems have distance as much from the poet as from the reader, and the impossibility of readily seeing them as autobiographical or of penetrating the author's intentions, without special conjectures or information, precludes or should preclude local or anecdotal interpretations. Of course, the opposite argument can be maintained, that nothing is more subjective than hermetic language and, conversely, that commonplace idiom is objective; that, however, is a critic's point of view, not a poet's, and it is perfectly clear how, in the context of nineteenth-century French poetry and the prevalence in the reading public of a debased emotive theory of art as personal expression, Rimbaud evolved his theory of objectivity. Nor is this conception unique to him: it seems implicit in Tristan Corbière and later poets. Flaubert, speculating on possibilities in poetic style, suggested that for impersonality of subject matter, something related to the poet's life could be substituted, provided that it were “strange, disordered, so intense that it becomes creation.” What Flaubert is tacitly admitting is that the genetic argument, which seems often to lie behind the theory of impersonality, is not the issue: the real question is one of stylistic expression, not whether the subject comes from outside the poet's experience. Personal poetry as practiced was the poetry of cliché: creative language, whether dealing with personal anecdote, the poet's unconscious, the lives of others, or the universal intelligence, is objectivity.

The paradox inherent in the idea that an almost impenetrable metaphor, say, is more objective than a commonplace which everyone understands and uses, can be dispelled if we refer to the modern conception of the persona in literature. The most ordinary, direct form of expression does not always give the impression of a real, distinct, concrete person speaking. The personality in such circumstances is not clearly constituted, as Flaubert put it, through lack of precise details. What comes forth is such general and therefore approximate language that it lacks individual objectivity. Those who respond better to generalities and abstractions may have more highly evolved minds, as Remy de Gourmont thought, but less capacity for aesthetic discrimination and creativity. There is a middle ground, however, between the extremes, and it is worth noting that the persona envisaged by Flaubert and evolved by Rimbaud is slightly to one side of it: much poetry of earlier centuries assumes a speaker who is the poet in one of his conventional roles, but a poet and not a generalized ordinary man. What Rimbaud's practice implies is actually personae individualized according to the modern novelist's habit of trying to form a distinct consciousness for a character (as opposed to the pure type-characters of much fiction). This relation between modern fiction and poetry is only the first of several such rapprochements we shall observe.

Precise details and the communication of a feeling of personality bring us to one further nuance in poetic theory and practice: the objective poem can be thought of as attaining its goal through the representation of objects. This means that descriptive poems can convey something slightly different from the kind of covert theme we found in Leconte de Lisle's “Paysage polaire.” Their content may be a subjectivity whose rendering is objectified. Such an effect is clearly related to the idea of impersonality, but it is a further refinement and takes us beyond the domain of Leconte de Lisle's poetry and into the practice of poets associated with the term Symbolism.


  1. Baudelaire's use of the word imagination strikes me as insignificant, as does his quoting an English source on the subject late in his career.

  2. The theory of this poetry was formulated by Samuel Johnson in his essay on Denham. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (3 vols.; London: Oxford University Press, 1961), I, 54-62.

  3. Mallarmé's use of idée is not usefully elucidated by relating it strictly to any specific philosophical system; as used by him and others, the Idea is sometimes transcendental beauty, sometimes the structural principle of the artwork, and sometimes the image evoked by a word.

  4. Aside from the sections of Hérodiade Mallarmé published, we now have further fragments and his notes. See Stéphane Mallarmé, Noces d'Hérodiade: Mystère, ed. Gardner Davies (Paris: Gallimard, 1959).

  5. The quotation is from a letter to Edmund Gosse not in Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance, ed. Henri Mondor (3 vols.; Paris: Gallimard, 1959-1969). See Suzanne Bernard, Mallarmé et la Musique (Paris: Nizet, 1959), 75. I find Mallarmé's idea more subtle as a structural principle than the one of reconciliation of opposites, which supplemented the romantic organic theory.

  6. See the preface to the 1903 edition of Edouard Schuré, Histoire du Lied (Paris: Perrin).

  7. See the interview in Jules Huret, Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire (Paris: Charpentier, 1901), 280-85.

  8. Letter of 16 May 1873 to Edmond Lepelletier. See Paul Verlaine, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jacques Borel (2 vols.; Paris: Club du Meilleur Livre, 1959), I, 1035.

  9. Letter of 17 May 1867 to Eugène Lefébure. See Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance 1862-1871 (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 246.

  10. Letter of 3 May 1868 to Eugène Lefébure. See Ibid., 273.

Clive Scott (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7048

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

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

The purpose of this [essay] is to trace, with a broad brush, the pursuit by Symbolist and Decadent poets—or Symbolist and Decadent aspects of the same poet—of a verse-art adequate to their metaphysical and existential perceptions, and to ask what these developments in verse-art can tell us about the difference between the two terms. The sense of a change in oral and aural needs was widely shared:

En quelques années, l'oreille française s'est transformée. Elle qui n'était accessible qu'aux rythmes solides, réguliers, frappés à intervalles égaux à l'infinie variété des repos périodiques,—elle se plaît maintenant à l'infinie variété des mesures possibles, à la délicatesse des rythmiques relâchées, à la diversité d'expression qu'entraîne le perpétuel déroulement des idées.1

[In the space of a few years, the French ear has been transformed. Where once it was only responsive to firm, regular rhythms, accentuated at intervals equal to the infinite variety of periodic pauses,—it now takes pleasure in the infinite variety of possible measures, in the delicacy of looser rhythmic configurations, in that diversity of expression produced by the perpetual unfolding of ideas.]

It was in particular the death in 1885 of Victor Hugo, who had seemed to be French verse personified, and had thus as if confiscated the right of others to speak, which instigated those reflections (1886-96) gathered together in Mallarmé's ‘Crise de vers’ [‘Crisis in Verse’]. And Émile Verhaeren, reviewing Heredia's funeral oration for Leconte de Lisle in 1894, expressed similar opinions, concluding that free verse was the only viable medium for the modern mentality:

[Le vers libre] se sent plus adéquat à l'âme contemporaine qui veut tant de souplesse, de nuances pour ses complications infinies, et a aussi besoin de tant de promptitude, de la promptitude d'improvisation des trouvères, pour exprimer ses agitations incessamment renouvelées et si étonnament passagères.2

[[Free verse] feels more suitable to the contemporary soul which needs so much flexibility, so many nuances, to express its infinite intricacies, needs, too, such speed of reponse, the improvisatory speed of the troubadours, to convey its turmoil, ever renewed and so incredibly fleeting.]

These particular quotations should put us on our guard against placing Symbolist aspirations outside time, despite Yeats' words (see note 1). It is true that the contemplative states cultivated by Symbolists often involve a deceleration of the metabolism, the transformation of the mind into a ‘centre de suspens vibratoire’ [‘centre of vibratory suspendedness’],3 oscillating between sound and sense, presence and absence, sleeping and waking, between different kinds of reality and different sensory experiences. But to see the Symbolist as primitive and mythomaniac, devoted to the perpetuation of the sonnet, while the Decadent, the modern streetwise dandy-dilettante, experiments with formal revolution, is, for one thing, to miss their shared acceptance of the new relativity. An unequivocal affirmation of the relative is to be found in Jules Laforgue's 1883 article on Impressionism,4 but for our purposes Pater's essay on Coleridge (1865, 1880) may be more suggestive:

To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions. The philosophical conception of the relative has been developed in modern times through the influence of the sciences of observation. Those sciences reveal types of life evanescing into each other by inexpressible refinements of change. Things pass into their opposites by accumulation of undefinable quantities.5

Inasmuch as Symbolism is concerned to activate the memories, associations and unconscious impulses of the individual, as well as of the culture (myth, legend, archetype), so relativity is necessarily central to it; as Mallarmé so simply puts it, describing his ‘poétique très nouvelle’: ‘Peindre, non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit’ [‘To paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces’] (letter to Henri Cazalis of 30 October 1864).6 If the object is the sum of the effects it produces on the viewer, then in summing up the object, the viewer sums up himself (see Mallarmé's poem ‘Toute l'âme résumée’).

Pater speaks of change as an unbroken continuum, a sequence of adjustments which maintain their cohesiveness, a set of modulations which may ultimately lead into their opposite:

Mais langoureusement longe
Comme de blanc linge ôté
Tel fugace oiseau si plonge
Exultatrice à côté
Dans l'onde toi devenue
Ta jubilation nue.

[but some fleeting bird coasts languorously like white linen taken off if there plunge exultantly beside it in the wave yourself become your naked jubilation7]

In the sestet of this heptasyllabic sonnet, /a/ modulates to /s/, and then to /e/, with /a/ interposed (‘blanc’), all prefaced by /l/. Thereafter, /s/ is what survives (‘plonge’, ‘onde’, ‘jubilation’), with the /l/ still in attendance. At the same time, /g/, which follows the nasal vowel, softens to /ȝ/ (‘longe’) and this play between the two sounds continues (‘linge’, ‘fugace’, ‘plonge’, ‘exultatrice’), until resolved in a final /ȝ/, now expressed by the grapheme j (‘jubilation’). The ‘jubilation nue’, in which the naïad-like bather, discarded linen and coasting bird converge, is also the culminating point of the three sounds /y/, /i/, and /a/ which first appeared with the bird (‘fugace oiseau si’) and then in the pivotal ‘Exultatrice’, before saturating the final line, where each sound appears twice. We have, then, the sense that sounds both survive as elements of a continuity and also turn into their opposite: nasal shifts to non-nasal, back shifts to front, rounded shifts to unrounded. There is also a process of reversal in the sense that the absent but named swan of line 2, ‘Sans le cygne ni le quai’ [With neither swan nor bank] becomes the present but unnamed ‘fugace oiseau’, while the absent but named ‘quai’ becomes present, but only by implication, as the missing object of the transitive ‘longe’.

But if the moments of Symbolist relativity are enchained in seamless transition, so that, to use Mallarmé's phrase, words ‘s'allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries’ [‘light one another up with mutual reflections like a virtual trail of fire upon precious stones’] (‘Crise de vers’),8 the Decadent moment is more like the one described by Pater in the ‘Conclusion’ to his studies in the Renaissance: ‘To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down’.9 Moments like this are isolated, discontinuous, permeated by a sense of loss, by a sense of life shrinking, being ever more colonized by the profanum vulgus. The enjoyment of Paterian moments or Wildean sensations may be accompanied by a certain febrility, a certain sense of hurried theft. Instead of the expanding consciousness of Baudelaire's ‘Élévation’—

Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l'onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l'immensité profonde

[And as a strong swimmer swoons on the wavy sea, gaily you cleave the unfathomable vastness10]

—we find the cultivation of the miniature:

Les fleurs palustres sur ses paupières meurtries
Poseront le dictame adoré du sommeil,
Dans les jardins de nacre au sol de pierreries.(11)

[The paludal flowers will lay on her bruised eyelids the hallowed balm of sleep in the gardens of nacre with their gem-laden soil.]

These lines may sound slow and overcharged, but they are a stanza in a poem of terza rima and have the driven transience of the form; the last two lines of the stanza may be solid tetrametric alexandrines, but the first line is a curiously unstable trimetric structure (4+5+3); the stanza has a main verb, but its effect is that of a series of images telegraphically presented. This is not so much a cumulative sequence as an additive one, noun phrases strung together by prepositions, each supplying a new sensation, but consecutively. The Decadent unweaves and strings out those moments that the Symbolist weaves together. The Impressionist dynamism of particles, incessantly melting into each other,12 is replaced by the mosaic of juxtaposed local effects. Mallarmé warns François Coppée: ‘je crois que quelquefois vos mots vivent un peu trop de leur propre vie comme les pierreries d'une mosaïque de joyaux’ [‘I think that, sometimes, your words live a little too much a life of their own, like the gemstones in a mosaic of jewels’].13

If the Decadent and Symbolist moments differ, so does the nature of the temporal medium in which they are embedded. If the Symbolist poem is envisaged as verbal matter constantly being transformed into verbal energy by the thought of the reader, so that the signifier, far from becoming a conventional signified, becomes instead a group of semantic elements creating constellations of potential meaning with other signifiers, then the reading experience can only be accommodated by a time which is more elastic, more modalized, more qualitative and continuous, a version, in short, of Bergsonian durée. What the Decadent undergoes is an extrusion from this inner time; Des Esseintes's ‘expulsion’ from his house at Fontenay-aux-Roses, a house designed to his own idiosyncratic specifications, in Huysmans's A Rebours (1884), is a condemnation to external, so-called chronometric time, homogeneous, quantitative, discontinuous, the time of Baudelaire's ‘L'Horloge’, the corrosive time of spleen, of spiritual paralysis, in which all epiphanies are only temporary victories. Des Esseintes's expulsion coincides with the disempowerment of language: ‘[…] mais les mots résonnaient dans son esprit comme des sons privés de sens; son ennui les désagrégeait, leur ôtait toute signification, toute vigueur effective et douce’ [‘[…] but the words echoed in his mind like meaningless noises, his weariness of spirit breaking them up, stripping them of all significance, all effective and soothing force’].14

We may suspect that a similar extrusion from inner to outer time, with the same linguistic consequences, frequently occurred in Rimbaud's experience. The prose poem was Rimbaud's gamble. The prose poem promises the new because it predicts nothing; it has ‘des rythmes instinctifs’ [‘instinctive rhythms’] (‘Délires II: Alchimie du verbe’); it has no conventions of reading; its language is unmediated by form, has more raw power, more capriciousness, compromises less. But prose is also without mnemonicity; it does not ask to be accumulated in the mind, in relational patterns; it stakes its money on instantaneousness, it flirts constantly with the self-superseding. Inasmuch as Symbolism has a teleology, is as destinational as it is multiform, the prose poem is dangerously without formal guarantees, without those structures that make utterance self-retaining. Often Rimbaldian prose poems will end destinationally (e.g. ‘Promontoire’, ‘H’, ‘Fête d'hiver’, ‘Fleurs’), but there are those which end in erasure (e.g.‘Nocturne vulgaire’, ‘Les Ponts’) and those which end in withdrawal from a climax already reached (e.g. ‘Aube’, ‘Royauté’). It is the sonnet, as described, for example, by Paul Valéry, which is peculiarly able to dam up meaning for some final release:

un sonnet […] sera une véritable quintessence, un osmazôme, […] réduit à quatorze vers, soigneusement composé en vue d'un effet final et foudroyant. Ici, l'adjectif sera impermutable, la sonorité des mètres sagement graduée, la pensée souvent parée d'un Symbole, voile qui se déchirera à la fin …15

[a sonnet […] will be a true quintessence, a distillation, […] reduced to fourteen lines, carefully composed with a final overwhelming effect in mind. Here, the adjective will be impermutable, the sonority of the measures properly graduated, the thought often adorned with a Symbol, a veil to be rent in the last lines …]

It is not difficult to lay these Decadent ‘failures’ at the door of irony, of that vigilant consciousness which inhibits self-surrender and uncovers the self-delusion in visions of universal analogy. Irony separates, isolates and sees the solipsism in relativity.16 But if we can understand how, in Baudelaire's peremptory ‘Deux qualités littéraires fondamentales: surnaturalisme et ironie’17 [‘Two fundamental literary qualities: supernaturalism and irony’], irony works, it is less clear what he means by ‘surnaturalisme’:

Le surnaturel comprend la couleur générale et l'accent, c'est-à-dire intensité, sonorité, limpidité, vibrativité, profondeur et retentissement dans l'espace et dans le temps. […] 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.18

[The supernatural comprises general colour and accent, that is to say intensity, sonority, limpidity, vibrativity, depth and repercussion in space and time. […] In certain almost supernatural spiritual states, the profundity of life is revealed, in all its fullness, in the thing one is looking at, however banal it is. It becomes the symbol of that profundity.]

This state, in which our perception of the world is enlarged, in which our sense of the presence of reality is more vivid, more full of repercussion, in which the mind is freed to traverse space and time, uses the corridor of ‘profondeur’ to pass between the physical and the spiritual. Before reaching ‘profondeur’, Baudelaire's string of nouns are imbricated by their shared ‘-ité’ suffix, a suffix frequently used, as here, to nominalize adjectives, that is to say, to make quality substance, to suspend psycho-physiological experience in an encompassing sensory medium. And the combination of /i/—peculiarly insistent in the culminating noun of the string (‘vibrativité’)—and /e/, is the combination of unrounded high and high-mid front vowels, produced with the lips spread, projected out and as if up. This suffix also conceptualizes the sensory, and is different from the ‘-ement’ suffix of ‘retentissement’ in more than gender: the ‘-(e)ment’ ending is associated with verbal forms, making actions more durative, more gradual perhaps, more diffused, its nasal vowel /a/ still unrounded, but now low and back. If we concentrate on these features, it is because grammatical and syntactic transformations are central to the alchemical processes of the symbolist poem, whereby objects are transfigured by the reader's ability endlessly to rethink them, and because the repotentiation of language, its ‘essentialization’, derives from our sense of its being maximally motivated. It is not just that the poet, and verse form, reinvest language with its sacred and originating power; it is also the mystery of language which is recovered, our sense of its having sources both transcendent and immanent, coming to us both from afar and from the seat of our being.19 The Decadent ‘extremes’ of this linguistic sensitivity are inverted and hypertrophied forms: either ‘slumming it’ in the colloquialisms of a Verlaine, a Laforgue, or a Jean Lorrain (Modernités, 1885), or pushing the esoteric to the limits of flaunted excess. The dictionary of this latter trend is the Petit Glossaire pour servir à l'intelligence des auteurs décadents et symbolistes (1888) of Jacques Plowert (Paul Adam), which draws its examples from poets as diverse as Gustave Kahn, Henri de Régnier, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Francis Poictevin, Laforgue, Jean Moréas and Adam himself.

One further phrase from Baudelaire's definition deserves some comment: ‘tout entière’. This is the title of a poem in which Baudelaire depicts the Devil's (Irony's) attempt to make the poet prefer the fragmented and differentiated; the poet resists in the name of a wholeness which, however, is inaccessible to analysis:

Et l'harmonie est trop exquise,
Qui gouverne tout son beau corps,
Pour que l'impuissante analyse
En note les nombreux accords.

[and the unison that governs all her beautiful form is too exquisite for sterile analysis to detail its countless harmonies20]

The subject of the exchange between the Devil and the poet is the beloved. The Symbolist/Decadent femme fatale is more important for us, perhaps, as an image of the work than as the reflection of male anxieties about the New Woman. The work disempowers the artist, the work is the object of desire which requires the suicide of the artist, the work evades all possession, the work is the dancing Salomé and Pater's all-knowing Mona Lisa.21 And what is at stake is that transcendence of ‘sexual’ difference in a higher reconciliation, after the necessary decapitation/emasculation, of the kind we find in Gustave Moreau's Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus (1865), or Yeats' ‘The Cap and Bells’ (The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899) or A Full Moon in March (1935). French verse's ability to exploit gender expressively, in its rhymes, is, as we shall see, very pertinent to this Symbolist metaphor.

The Symbol, then, and the work as Symbol, is the sublimate of ‘sexual’ confrontation, where ‘sexual’ means any elements which attract each other, or evoke each other, in order to ‘établir les identités secrètes par un deux à deux qui ronge et use les objets au nom d'une centrale pureté’22 [‘establish secret identities by a two-by-two which gnaws at objects and wears them away, in the name of a central purity’]; or as Émile Verhaeren puts it: ‘Le Symbole s'épure donc toujours, à travers une évocation, en idée: il est un sublimé de perceptions et de sensations’23 [‘The Symbol, then, always purifies itself, through an evocation, into an Idea: it is a sublimate of perceptions and sensations’]. Baudelaire's ‘surnaturalisme’, Rimbaud's ‘voyance’, Mallarmé's preoccupation with the book as multidimensional semantic theatre, and with the silent poem, are all expressions of the desire to become ‘une aptitude qu'a l'Univers Spirituel à se voir et à se développer, à travers ce qui fut moi’24 [‘an aptitude which the Spiritual Universe has to perceive and develop itself through what was me’]. Mallarmé's words remind us that the Symbolist enterprise entails the death of the poet as personality in order to assure his life as medium or mediator. Baudelaire speaks of this process as the ‘vaporisation of the Self’,25 as a ‘sacred prostitution of the soul’ (‘Les Foules’), and, as experienced by the taker of hashish, he describes it thus:

Il arrive quelquefois que la personnalité disparaît et que l'objectivité, qui est le propre des poètes panthéistes, se développe en vous si anormalement, que la contemplation des objets extérieurs vous fait oublier votre propre existence, et que vous vous confondez bientôt avec eux.26

[Sometimes it happens that personality disappears and that objectivity, which is the distinguishing mark of pantheistic poets, develops so abnormally in you, that the contemplation of external objects makes you forget your own existence and you soon merge with them.]

The Decadent, or Decadent persona of the Symbolist, remains imprisoned in personality, either as a defensive strategy, or as part of an ethos of self-cultivation (dandyism), or as inability to escape ironic self-consciousness. The cult of personality involves the Decadent in questions of morality and behaviour which never assail the Symbolist. Personality ties the Decadent into the social, and delivers him to the determinisms of Naturalistic heredity. Symbolism, which implies ‘la disparition élocutoire du poète’ [‘the elocutory disappearance of the poet’],27 wants the communion of the reader with the text to remain undisturbed by voice. Personality pushes the Decadent poet towards open dialogue with the reader, a dialogue which must entail the sacrifice of Symbolist intentions, a dialogue into which the moral and didactic are likely to insinuate themselves, a dialogue likely to be informed by derision, aggression, the desire to shock. Baudelaire's ‘Au lecteur’, no less than Rimbaud's taunting challenge ‘Qu'est mon néant, auprès de la stupeur qui vous attend?’ [‘What is my nothingness compared with the stupor which awaits you?’],28 or Laforgue's arch asides, may redefine the writer/reader contract and set the agenda for modernism, but they are antipathetic to symbol-making.

If Decadence is something, whatever its aggressive ironies, permeated by a sense of loss, present or imminent, then a peculiar poignancy attaches to the way this sense of loss combines with a sense of surfeit, so that verse has that ‘air exténué d'avoir fait le tour de tous les rêves’29 [‘wearied look from having explored all available dreams’]. Rodenbach's comment refers to Verlaine's cultivation of the vers impair (line with an odd number of syllables). The impair is a verse form which hangs equivocally between Decadent and Symbolist functions. As a potential ‘vers boiteux’ or ‘vers faux’ (line without the required number of syllables), it serves Decadent impulses both as a symptom of careless world-weariness and as an aural irritant, a line designed to leave the reader uneasy, teased, bereft of metrical guidelines. But this lack of metrical pedigree also gives the impair an expressive space of its own, a territory as uncharted generically and temperamentally as it is metrically. The impair is regarded as volatile, nervous, mercurial, after Verlaine's enneasyllabic ‘Art poétique’:

De la musique avant toute chose,
Et pour cela préfère l'Impair
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l'air,
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.

[Music before everything, and for that reason, prefer lines of an uneven number of syllables, vaguer and dissolving better into air, with nothing in them that is weighty or comes to a stop.]30

This may, from the point of view of metrical fact, be only a collection of metaphors. But there can be no doubt that, culturally, the impair represented scumbled outlines, evaporating shapes, elusive proportions.

As verse underwent its metrical crisis, rhyme's values also became radically polarized. In a sense, rhyme was an ideal Symbolist instrument. Rhyme is the language from elsewhere, not from the common language, but from the rhyming dictionary, a grimoire. It is a language which belongs as much to the stanza as to the line (that is to say that it is already line-transcendent) and in partnership with the ‘pieuse majuscule’31 [‘pious capital letter’] at the beginning of the line is able to transform the line into a new word: ‘Le vers qui de plusieurs vocables refait un mot total, neuf, étranger à la langue et comme incantatoire, achève cet isolement de la parole’ [‘The line of verse which from several vocables recomposes a total word, new, foreign to the language and as if incantatory, perfects this isolation of the word’].32 This new total word is, in many senses, the equivalent of a proper noun: it is a complex, compound word, made up of many associations, a history, and is thus almost infinitely semanticizable, always in the process of having its meanings made and remade, a word which has the power to designate without defining. It is fitting that rhyme should be the privileged site of the proper noun, from which position it can both assimilate its acoustic kin and suffuse the rest of the poem with its own peculiarly associative semanticity: ‘Dis-moi, ton cœur parfois s'envole-t-il, Agathe’ (Baudelaire, ‘Mœsta et errabunda’) [Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agathe]. ‘Où son nom de blancheur était gravé “Stéphane”’ (Samain, ‘Keepsake’) [Where his name all of whiteness was engravedStéphane”]. But this is also the place in which the common noun, the accidental and contingent, is transformed into its essential self: ‘Que vêt parmi l'exil inutile le Cygne’ (Mallarmé, ‘Le vierge, le vivace …’) [Worn in his useless exile by the Swan]33 or where the abstract noun: ‘—Est-ce en ces nuits sans fonds que tu dors et t'exiles / Million d'oiseaux d'or, ô future Vigueur?’—(Rimbaud, ‘Le Bateau ivre’) [—Do you sleep, are you exiled in those bottomless nights, O million golden birds, Life Force of the future?34] is no longer didactic personification, the instrument of argument and demonstration, but a power or feeling which has assumed independent activity and influence. The risk run, of course, is that the process reverses itself, that the common bleeds the proper of its semantic range and fixes it, wriggling on the pin of its semantic vulnerability. This, too, is a Decadent falling from grace:

Tu t'en vas et tu nous quittes,
Tu nous quittes et tu t'en vas!
Couvent gris, chœurs de Sulamites,
Sur nos seins nuls croisons nos bras.

[You go away and leave us, you leave us and you go! Grey nunneries, choirs of Shulamites, over our non-existent breasts let us cross our arms35]

In this polyvocal poem, whose voices are mutually corrosive, Laforgue explores the discrepancies between the romantic hopes and realistic expectations of bourgeois girls. The chanson of the stanza's first two lines, in impair heptasyllables, rubs against the cantique, in octosyllables, of its last two lines. ‘Sulamites’ refers to the loving and beloved Shulamite of the ‘Song of Songs’, and the erotic charge of this biblical text collides with the ‘couvent gris’, and is as if denied by the ‘seins nuls’. In the stanza's final line, a further intertext contributes its pennyworth: Verlaine's ‘En sourdine’, a poem exhorting the beloved to join the lover in self-surrender to the ecstasy and despair expressed in nature, contains the line: ‘Croise ton bras sur ton sein’ [Lay your arm across your breast]. We now see that the ‘Sulamites’ achieve octosyllabicity, escape the heptasyllable's lack of respectability, by adding a syllable—‘nuls’—which ‘rhymes’ with the first syllable of ‘Sulamites’ and at the same time mischievously erases their sexuality. Rhyme helps to bind these girls into destinies which vulgarize and banalize the longed-for beatitude. The ideal is locked by rhyme into the recurrent refrain of a popular song, which casts that ideal as a behavioural reflex, biologically driven. Symbolist aspiration is undermined by Darwinian principle; in Decadent mode, the poem multiplies persona, both liberates the poet into, and imprisons him in, the fluctuations of personality and attitude, the pity and mockery, the envy and disdain.

In free verse, on the other hand, rhyme serves very different purposes. As an occasional resource, it might operate as the motor of improvization and association, might act as the agent of the aleatory or, alternatively, might be called upon to insinuate an ironic self-consciousness into the verse, or sharpen a satirical sally, or engineer a change of register. By mixing rhyme with rhymelessness, repetition and half-rhyme, by varying the interval between rhymes, and by casting into question what is partnered by what, the poet can ‘psychologize’ verse structure, can begin to explore the whole gamut between the subliminal, the liminal and the fully conscious, can layer kinds and degrees of readerly response, can activate participatory reading.

If it is easy to imagine how free verse might suit either a Decadent sensibility playing its hide-and-seek with the reader, or a Symbolism increasingly situating itself in the psychological, in the multiplicity of the self rather than in the multiplicity of the object, it might be more difficult to envisage free verse combining comfortably with Symbolism's mythological or legendary topics. If we turn, however, to Pierre Louÿs's depiction of the Nereid ‘Glaucé’ (Astarté, 1891), to the third stanza:

Son fin buste émerge de l'eau 3+5/3+2+3
Comme un nénuphar chevelu d'or rouge 5+3+2
Ses yeux sont comme deux flammes sur l'eau 2+5+3
Vertes étoiles ses yeux doux d'Asie 5′+3+2/4+4+2
Mais sa bouche est un coquillage de pourpre 3+5+3
Et sa chevelure est sur sa bouche 5+4
Sa chevelure cramoisie. 4+4

[Her shapely head emerges from the water / Like a water-lily with hair of ruddy gold / Her eyes are like two flames upon the water / Green stars her soft oriental eyes / But her mouth is a purple shell / And her hair lies across her mouth / Her crimson hair.]

We can see how free verse relativizes, ‘modernizes’, a paratactic syntax, whose function here is precisely to mythicize, to restore an image of a primordial innocence unaware of its power to enthral. The end-of-line music consists not only of full rhyme (‘Asie/cramoisie’), but also of repetition (‘l'eau’) and assonance (‘rouge/pourpre/bouche’), so that the image remains mobile, shifting between the focused and unfocused, as the spectator's eye runs back and forth across the features, a prey to the imperious associations of simile and metaphor. Freed from the constraint of alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, the stanza gathers the mutably feminine around the immutably masculine (‘eau’ is grammatically feminine but a masculine rhyme), which is, however, the element of the feminine. And although the stanza rounds off the circle with an octosyllable and the stability of a noun phrase, and although the lines connected with Glaucé's hair and eyes create a momentary sequence of decasyllables, her mouth attracts two impair lines, a hendecasyllable and an enneasyllable, a loss of syllabic steadiness, a sensory disarray, announced by ‘Mais’.

But in speaking of the second, third and fourth lines as decasyllables, we must go carefully. As if dealing with chronometric time, regular verse treats its syllables as metrically equal (with the implication that they are also isochronous); in demetrifying verse, the poet liberates another kind of time, a heterotemporality. These decasyllables are not decasyllables, and all that that entails of metrical equivalence and caesura; no, these are trimetric lines of ten syllables where the expressive qualities of syllables (duration, semantic colouring, articulatory characteristics) enjoy greater individual foregrounding. And the sub-lineal rhythmic units have a greater autonomy, too. One might argue that the really important unit here is the pentasyllabic measure, which in lines 2, 3, 4 and 5 is the measure of imagination, of simile and metaphor. How fitting, then, that in the line following it should be the vehicle of that feature, the ‘chevelure’, which has been the theme of this set of psycho-physical variations. Finally, the pentasyllabic measure modulates into a sequence of three tetrasyllables, as the hair, across Glaucé's mouth, at last catches up with itself, coincides with itself. Instead, then, of myth classicizing itself in a mythology, in a narrative or tableau, we have a mobile, dynamic verbal surface which seeks to recover from myth its vivid proximity, its capacity to make inexhaustible meaning out of our world.

As a final note on this text, we might mention the presence of the seven articulated ‘mute’ es in this stanza—‘émerge’, ‘comme’, ‘flammes’, ‘Vertes’, ‘étoiles’, ‘coquillage’, ‘chevelure’—not to mention the phonatable es of the feminine rhymes. If free verse offered the freedom to modernize pronunciation (by introducing syncope and apocope, and by reducing diaeresis to synaeresis), Symbolist and Decadent verslibristes rarely availed themselves of it. Louÿs himself gives us a reason why:

L'i consonne et l'e muet donnent des sons indistincts et pourtant réels, qu'on entend, et qu'on n'entend pas, qui se manifestent et qui se dissimulent, qui vont être et qui ne sont déjà plus.36

[The semi-consonant i and the mute e produce sounds which are indistinct and yet real enough, which you both can and cannot hear, which are at once manifest and concealed, which are about to occur but have already died away.]

The mute e is a twilight syllable, on the cusp between presence and absence, an auditory illusion, a space of semantic ‘retentissement’, a sound which beckons as from a distance, drawing us below the level of consciousness. When it occurs with a coupe enjambante (where the coupe pushes the e forward into the next measure, as in ‘est un coquilla:/ge de pourpre’ or ‘Sa chevelu:/re cramoisie’), the mute e acts as an acoustic complicity, the relational, the broker of seamless transition. With a coupe lyrique (where, for syntactic or expressive reasons, the coupe falls after the mute e, as in the first reading of ‘Vertes etoiles/’), the mute e acts as a momentarily isolating, insulating extinction of sound as the image seems to withdraw into itself, the ‘voile de Silence sous quoi [les objets] nous séduisirent et transparaît maintenant le Secret de leur Signifiance’37 [‘veil of Silence from behind which [objects] captivated us and through which now shows the Secret of their Significance’].

But free verse and regular verse are not as conflictually related as might at first appear. The prosodic space between the regular and free is occupied by all manner of Symbolist and Decadent variation and formal experimentation. As far as the sonnet was concerned, Baudelaire had already provided examples of the ‘sonnet renversé’ (‘Bien loin d'ici’) and the ‘sandwiched’ sonnet (‘L'Avertisseur’, tercets between quatrains). Jean Lorrain reverses the pattern of ‘L'Avertisseur’ in several of his sonnets, ‘Les Paons blancs’ (Les Griseries, 1887) for example:

La demeure humide et noire
Est close, un reflet de moire
Baigne le perron désert;
Et du sommet des grands hêtres
De grands paons blancs, essaim clair,
Calme s'abattant dans l'air,
Tombent au bord des fenêtres.
Dans leur suaire argenté
On dirait un troupeau d'âmes,
Ames d'implorantes femmes
Autour d'un logis hanté
Et le vieux parc enchanté,
Est plein de frissons de soie
Et de satin qu'on déploie.

[The house, damp and dark, is closed, a shimmering reflection bathes the deserted steps; and from the top of the tall beeches, great white peacocks, bright flock, calm tumbling in the air, drop down beside the windows. In their silvery shrouds, they look like a gathering of souls, souls of imploring women encircling a haunted habitation. And the old enchanted park is full of ripples of silk and satin being spread out.]

Symbolist art is certainly well populated by peacocks, as the attributes of Hera, as many-eyed, Argus-like guardians of deserted demesnes, as the spirits of departed nobility, with tails also like the starry firmament. Lorrain's particular variation on sonnet structure creates a rhyming interdependence between tercet and quatrain, so that the poem divides 7 + 7 rather than the standard 8 + 6, and in each half, one rhyme sound, the masculine, occurs as a triplet: ‘désert/clair/air’; ‘argenté/hanté/enchanté’. These triplets suggest a fixation, moments of obsessive fascination. In fact, this masculinism is at first clearly overborne by the feminine presences that the peacocks, themselves masculine and the generators of the /a/ of the second triplet, mediate or corporealize. Curiously, although the feminine occupies all the other rhymes, its /a/ becoming particularly insistent in the final seven lines, the /waR(s)/ of the opening couplet loses its /R/ in the closing couplet and thus assimilates itself more to the masculine (masculine rhymes tend to be consonant + vowel rather than vice versa). Conversely, the first triplet not only shares /ε/ with the ‘-êtres’ rhymes; its terminal /R/ clearly gives it affinities with the /waR(s)/ rhymes; this latter affinity is also evident in the phrase ‘suaire argenté’. We might then find in this poem an example of that sexual disempowerment as a prelude to a ‘higher’ sexual union which we have already adverted to. The interplay of linguistic and prosodic gender reveals here the Symbolist desire to make boundaries and categories permeable, reinterpretable: all post-lapsarian distinctions must be redeemed in the prelapsarian androgyne.

We might have looked at other formal experiments, at the ‘tailed’ sonnets of Lorrain or of Samain, at the ‘free verse’ sonnets of John-Antoine Nau, at the four-line terza rima of Louis Le Cardonnel, or this same poet's development of rhymelessness in otherwise strict, enneasyllabic, five-line stanzas. Formal experimentation was what the Symbolist and the Decadent shared. Poets of the period were at once trying to turn away from the long prosodic shadow cast by Hugo—and indeed by Baudelaire in one of his guises38—and the kind of rhetoric it perpetuated, without, however, abandoning these poets' visionary drive; and, at the same time, to carry forward in verse that sensibility and aesthetic to be found in ‘the other’ Baudelaire's prose poems. Looked at from another point of view, the enterprise of Symbolism was, from the outset, both metaphysical (the ‘supernatural’, the ‘illumination’, the world of the ‘Idea’, the ‘Pure Notion’) and physiological (synaesthesia). While reinvesting words with the ability to reach beyond conventional signification and transformatively to act on mind and matter, poets also came to terms with the nerves as a creative source, and with the psychology of sensory experience, and its relativization. When language, no less than the human organism, was called upon to ‘cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul’,39 then, as with Dorian Gray, awkward schisms were bound to occur, and that disequilibriated state called ‘Decadence’ came to disturb the contemplative equanimity of Symbolism.


  1. Pierre Louÿs, ‘Idées sommaires sur le nouveau vers français’, in Ouvres complètes XII (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1973), pp. 31-32. Unless otherwise stated, the translations are my own. Louÿs's words cannot but remind us of Yeats' assessment of the necessary change: ‘[…] we would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates, because it has done with time […]’ (‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900), Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 163).

  2. Émile Verhaeren, ‘Leconte de Lisle: Le Vers prosodique et le vers libre’ (1894), Impressions: Troisième Série (Paris: Mercure de France, 1928), p. 99.

  3. Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Le Mystère dans les lettres’ (1896), in Ouvres complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p. 386.

  4. Jules Laforgue, ‘L'Impressionnisme’, in Textes de critique d'art, ed. Mireille Dottin (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1988), p. 172: ‘L'objet et le sujet sont donc irrémédiablement mouvants, insaisissables et insaisissants. Les éclairs d'identité entre le sujet et l'objet, c'est le propre du génie’ [‘The object and the subject are thus incurably shifting, elusive and unapprehending. Capturing the flashes of identity between subject and object is the peculiar gift of genius’].

  5. Walter Pater, ‘Coleridge’, in Appreciations (London: Macmillan, 1907), p. 66.

  6. Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance complète 1862-1871 suivi de Lettres sur la poésie 1872-1898 avec des lettres inédites, ed. Bertrand Marchal (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), p. 206.

  7. Mallarmé, ‘Petit Air I’; translation by Anthony Hartley, Mallarmé (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 81.

  8. Ibid., p. 171.

  9. Walter Pater, ‘Conclusion’, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Kenneth Clark (London: Collins Fontana, 1961), p. 222.

  10. Translation by Francis Scarfe, Baudelaire (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 35.

  11. Laurent Tailhade, ‘Les Fleurs d'Ophélie’, in Vitraux, 1891.

  12. In an article for The Art Monthly Review (September 1876), Mallarmé describes this effect in relation to Manet's Le Linge (1876): ‘Everywhere the luminous and transparent atmosphere struggles with the figures, the dresses, and the foliage, and seems to take to itself some of their substance and solidity; whilst their contours, consumed by the hidden sun and wasted by space, tremble, melt, and evaporate into the surrounding atmosphere, which plunders reality from the figures, yet seems to do so in order to preserve their truthful aspect’ (see Penny Florence, Mallarmé, Manet and Redon: Visual and Aural Signs and the Generation of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 14).

  13. Letter to François Coppée of 5 December 1866, Correspondance complète 1862-1871, pp. 329-30.

  14. Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours, ed. Pierre Waldner (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1978), p. 240; translation by Robert Baldick, Against Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959), p. 219.

  15. Paul Valéry, ‘Sur la technique littéraire’ (1889), in Ouvres I, ed. Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), p. 1809.

  16. Again, Pater's is the classic formulation of this existential condition: ‘Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without’ (‘Conclusion’, p. 221).

  17. Baudelaire, Ouvres complètes I, ed. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 658.

  18. Ibid., pp. 658-59.

  19. As Baudelaire puts it in one of his projected prefaces for Les Fleurs du Mal: ‘comment la poésie touche à la musique par une prosodie dont les racines plongent plus avant dans l'âme humaine que ne l'indique aucune théorie classique; que la poésie française possède une prosodie mystérieuse et méconnue, comme les langues latine et anglaise’ [‘how poetry has affinities with music thanks to a prosody whose roots plunge further into the human soul than is indicated by any classical theory; that French poetry, like the Latin and English languages, possesses a prosody both mysterious and poorly understood’ (Ouvres complètes I, p. 183].

  20. Scarfe, Baudelaire, p. 145.

  21. ‘Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how they would be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, […]’ (Pater, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, in The Renaissance, p. 122).

  22. Mallarmé, Propos sur la poésie, ed. Henri Mondor (Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 1953), p. 174.

  23. Verhaeren, Impressions: Troisième Série, pp. 114-15.

  24. Mallarmé, letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867 (Correspondance complète 1862-1871, p. 343).

  25. Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes I, p. 676.

  26. Ibid., p. 419.

  27. Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, p. 366; trans. Hartley, p. 171.

  28. Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, ed. Nick Osmond (London: The Athlone Press, 1976), p. 59; trans. by Oliver Bernard, Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 246.

  29. Georges Rodenbach, ‘La Poésie nouvelle: A propos des décadents et symbolistes’, Évocations (Brussels: La Renaissance du Livre, 1924), p. 253.

  30. Trans. John Porter Houston and Mona Tobin Houston, French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 50.

  31. Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, p. 645.

  32. Ibid., p. 368; trans. Hartley, p. 175.

  33. Trans. Hartley, p. 86.

  34. Trans. Bernard, p. 170. Of these lines, Louÿs writes: ‘Enfin le mot Vigueur prend ici une force, qu'il n'avait jamais eue en français’ [‘Finally, the word ‘Vigueur’ here takes on a force that it had never before had in French’] (‘Rimbaud’, Oeuvres complètes XII, p. lviii).

  35. Laforgue, ‘Complainte des pianos qu'on entend dans des quartiers aisés’. Translation by Graham Dunstan Martin, Laforgue: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 32. In ‘Complainte de l'orgue de barbarie’, Laforgue rhymes ‘Sulamites’ with ‘rites’.

  36. Louÿs, ‘Idées sommaires sur le nouveau vers français’, p. 42.

  37. Mallarmé to Rodenbach, 25 March 1888, on receipt of the latter's first collection Du Silence (Correspondance III 1886-1889, ed. Henri Mondor and Lloyd James Austin (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 177).

  38. One remembers the charge levelled at Baudelaire by Rimbaud in his letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871: ‘et la forme si vantée en lui est mesquine. Les inventions d'inconnu réclament des formes nouvelles’ [‘and the form which is so much praised in him is trivial. Inventions from the unknown demand new forms’] (trans., with French text, Bernard, p. 16).

  39. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Peter Ackroyd (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 26.

William Franke (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6279

SOURCE: Franke, William. “The Linguistic Turning of the Symbol: Baudelaire and His French Symbolist Heirs.” In Baudelaire and the Poetics of Modernity, edited by Patricia A. Ward, pp. 15-28. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

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

The process of symbolization begins when one thing is used to stand for something else. A stone thrown into a pit for the purpose of counting whatever sort of objects may be considered a primitive symbol. A link is thereby forged between items that have nothing to do with each other in the nature of things, simply by virtue of the one's being made to take the place of the other. Some such model as this generally informs the notion of the symbol current in linguistics and semiotics and in a broad spectrum of empirical disciplines where phenomena of signification are studied scientifically. The aspect of the symbol that is stressed in these fields is its arbitrariness or conventionality and the fact that it is not the object it symbolizes, but just some substitute for it in the object's absence.1

For poets, and generally in aesthetic theory, the symbolic has quite a different meaning. The symbol distinguishes itself from other types of signs (or as against the sign altogether) by virtue of its making concretely present the thing it signifies. This function of presencing has consistently been described in the language of “participation,” with the implication that the symbol is actually a part of the larger whole it represents—pars pro toto. In Coleridge's famous formulation, the symbol “always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative.”2 Consequently, in aesthetics the idea of the symbol has tended to imply an intrinsic affinity with what is symbolized (to the point of being it, at least in part) and often the fundamental unity of all things—all things being reflected in the symbol as in a microcosm or monad.3 In addition to the monadology of Leibniz, Hegel's doctrine of the concrete universal and Kant's notion of an a priori intuition which is not “schematic” but rather “analogical” (Kritik der Urteilskraft, sec. 59) supply some of the German idealistic underpinnings for this originally romantic conception of the symbol.4 Another important source can be found in magic and totemism, as is signaled by the interest of symbolist poets from Baudelaire to Yeats and beyond, for example, to James Merrill, in the occult. In occult tradition and lore, the symbol participates in reality to the extent of being able effectively to transform it, typically through the manipulation of tokens, rather than remaining just an external representation devoid of any real efficacy and power over what it represents (Lévi-Strauss, “L'efficacité”).

That the symbol is a part of the whole it represents (and by universal analogy this expands to include the whole universe), that it thereby makes present what it signifies, presenting it, precisely, in part, means also that the symbol may be said to signify not merely by virtue of convention but by its “nature.” What it actually is in itself and not just what it may be arbitrarily used to stand for determines what the symbol signifies. To say a “sail” was seen on the horizon in order to mean that a ship was seen (Coleridge's own example) is in some sense a natural mode of expression. There is something not entirely arbitrary about using a sail to represent a ship. A ship is indeed in a certain manner present in a sail; it is present in part. And a sail is, approximately, a ship: that is, it is a piece of a ship.

The goal of giving access to nature beneath the level of social conventions of signification has been fairly constantly in view throughout the history of symbolic expression in poetry: it is epitomized by the myth of Orpheus as the singer-poet whose music tames beasts and even moves the inanimate elements. His mastery over the natural world indicates that his poetry is the very language of nature (Bays). The endeavor to return to a state in which language would signify by virtue of its being and intrinsic nature rather than by conventions socially imposed was a program already of the romantics. Hölderlin's “Nun, nun, müssen die Worte dafür, wie Blumen, entstehen” [Now, now, must words therefore like flowers originate] in “Brot und Wein” can be taken as emblematic of the need for rediscovering language as a natural thing. This is the ideal of a poetic language that would be literally things, in which the breach between sign and referent that characterizes (and curses) postlapsarian language would be repaired.5 The symbolist tradition from Hölderlin to Rilke activates this Orphic claim for poetry in a particularly intense and self-conscious, even at times self-ironic, way. The notion often holds a powerful attraction still for contemporary poets—as witness the undiminished fascination with Orpheus—however far they may be from considering it possible to realize.

The art of the symbol, accordingly, at least from the romantic period on, was supposed to make beings speak, or to provide by the symbol a channel that would make their natural speech audible. Baudelaire crystallized the idea that language should ideally be the natural speaking of things in some essential verses in “L'Invitation au voyage”:

          Tout y parlerait
          À l'âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

(OC [Oeuvres Completes] 1:53)

[There everything would speak / To the soul in secret / Its sweet native language.]

These lapidary lines seem to envisage a language unmediated by arbitrary conventions and by meanings imposed by practical functions of communication, deaf to the things' own native voices. Things speaking to the soul in their own native language, attuned to its own inner being, communicate in virtue of what they are. What speaks in the symbol or in the space to which Baudelaire voyages in the poem is everything, tout, since by universal analogy any particular thing speaking its sweet native language—that is, the language of things—speaks for all beings and perhaps for being itself. Of course, Baudelaire is also, in decisive ways, fiercely negative on nature, loathing it as ugly and evil, yet his “flowers of evil” are nevertheless themselves produced by descent to precisely this soil in order to transform it into art. It is all the more necessary, therefore, to begin from these romantic doctrines in order to account for his transmutation, in effect a denaturalization, of the symbol.

In the symbolic universe, all things are interconnected, and all are immanent in each individual thing. This is to say that the world is composed of correspondences: its qualities “answer to one another,” as Baudelaire puts it in “Correspondances” (“Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent”), just like the mutually defining elements of a language. Indeed, as the linguistic metaphor of “answering” suggests, the things that make up the world, at least as it is reflected in poetry, are the elements of a language. Baudelaire was fond of describing all nature as a vocabulary for the artist's use (“La nature n'est qu'un dictionnaire”).6 However, although he evokes the romantic topos of the language of things—as again in “Elévation”: “le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes” [the language of flowers and of mute things]—Baudelaire turns out ultimately to be more interested in recreating the whole order of things as a language and therefore as not natural. The implication is less that language should return to a state of nature and more nearly the reverse—that even nature might be subsumed into language.

Baudelaire's closed, symmetrical stanzaic forms and the interiorization of the world in the supposedly authentic dimension of “cœur” contribute to construing reality as a language where everything is differentially defined, so that all elements are ordered by internal relations into a self-enclosed system.7 In “L'Invitation au voyage,” “things” such as “les soleils mouillés” and “ces ciels brouillés” are not just kindred natural phenomena. They actually create each other in relation to one another—for example, by the reciprocity of their rhyming and the differential play of assonances and consonants—in the splendor in which they poetically exist, each as distilled out of the other and as fused together into one whole. The experience of reading a Baudelaire poem is (or at least can be) one of being carried away to a sphere where all things and sensations are transubstantiated by appearing within the structural wholes of the poem. The world is presented as essentially translated into a poetic idiom and as articulated in a harmony of purely formal, mutually defining values. Things sublated thus into a system of correspondences or relative differences have been turned essentially into language.

Romantics, and long before them writers of the Middle Ages, had conceived nature as language—that is, as a system of signs, or, metaphorically, a book. However, the creed that the experience of everything as one is a possibility engendered specifically by poetic language became operational first for the symbolists, and they recognized Baudelaire as having opened up this possibility. The sensuously symbolic power of his verse made it a superior, all-encompassing kind of “seeing” to which a veritable universe accrued. Hence Baudelaire could be hailed as voyant and a “vrai dieu” by Rimbaud. Baudelaire's essential achievement and legacy to symbolism is to have convincingly created the experience of how everything (at least as sensed and felt by an individual) can be known in and as language. Feelings and perceptions themselves become an alphabet to be used according to the grammar of poetic art. Even when it is strongly evocative of a specific historical epoch and milieu, Baudelaire's poetry refers to these external phenomena only as essentially transfigured by their representation in and as poetic language: “Tout devient allégorie” [All becomes allegory]—“Le Cygne.” Baudelaire tended to use allégorie interchangeably with the term symbole (for example, at the end of “Un voyage à Cythère”), since both serve equally well to indicate the linguistic transfiguration of the real.8 In this perspective, which is the soul of symbolism, language is not just a reality but all reality, and perhaps suprareality as well.

Language tends to become identical with all it represents in Baudelaire's poetry: it is the part which concretely embodies and becomes symbolically identical with the whole. This is not to be confused with a metaphysical thesis that there is nothing but language.9 It is rather a poetic experience of everything becoming accessible to be known symbolically—that is, as identical, on the model of part and whole, with the concrete, sensuous instance of the poem itself. A symbol is the presence of a unity that is not completely given as such to the senses but is present in language through the partial, or rather participatory, identity of symbol and symbolized. The poem as symbol is, at least in part, what it represents. This results directly from the drive toward identity at work in language as symbol. The symbol annexes to itself everything with which it comes into contact. It makes everything it touches over into itself. By virtue of its intense sensuality and almost hallucinatory inebriation, Baudelaire's language becomes the palpable presentation or incarnation of a whole (symbolic) universe.

The symbol proposes to participate in a large reality, but for the symbolist this means, by a logic of supplementarity, that it ends up producing virtually, in the element of language, the reality it was supposed to symbolize. Its synthetic energy becomes the creative force that constitutes the world it symbolizes. For the symbol is invested with a force for becoming symbolically the whole that it is not literally, either by throwing things together into unity (symballein) or as the part of a token (symbolon) that represents, in the absence of the missing half, the whole of which it was originally part. The drive to identity at work in language as symbol is concentrated and heightened by the harmonious language of lyric based on symmetries and correspondences—that is, on various forms of repetition of the same; for example, rhythm and rhyme. All such devices of the lyric imagination serve in the production of varieties of identity.

Identity that is forged by the very symbolic nature of language, brought out and enhanced by the form as well as the intent and meaning of Baudelaire's verse, surfaces as a totally obsessive trope in a poem like “L'Invitation au voyage.” The incipit—“Mon enfant, ma sœur” [My child, my sister]—creates identity immediately by its grammar of apposition. This already suggests some collapse of natural boundaries of difference, a promiscuous mix of distinct kinds of kinship. All intimate relations seem to be embraced together in one, an incestuous intimacy disregarding essential differences between progeny and sibling and, implicitly, lover. The country to which the voyage is directed is itself at least partially or approximately identical with the beloved (“pays qui te ressemble”). The skyscapes and weather are for the poet-speaker but the reflection of the beloved's eyes and their stormy emotions. Even love and death collapse together in identity by conjunction: “Aimer à loisir, / Aimer et mourir” [To love at leisure, / To love and die], as loving here becomes at the same time a suspension of activity and a dying. This world of complete identity is expressed finally in the last stanza of the poem in that the ships traveling from the furthest limits of the earth nevertheless move wholly within the sphere of the beloved's desire: “C'est pour assouvir / Ton moindre désir / Qu'ils viennent du bout du monde” [It is to satisfy / Your least desire / That they come from the end of the world]. The external world here is totally at the service of, and has no determination or identity independently of, the innerness of desire. By thematizing the principle of identity in this way, the poem gives a lyric image of how language in fact operates in symbolist poetry—namely, by identifying itself concretely with what it represents and erasing the difference between representation and reality, the inner world and the outer.

The intrinsic relation of language and world in symbolism is grounded not only in the Neoplatonic trope of participation, but also, particularly for romantic theorists of the symbol like Coleridge, Goethe, and Hamann, in the language of revelation, Offenbarung, which intimates a prophetic precedent for symbolist poetics. In the biblical tradition of Logos, the Word of God creates all things and, consequently, all creatures are symbols bespeaking their Creator. Hence this paradigm, too, induces to construing language and world as communicating with, and indeed as intrinsic to one another, at the most originary level. Baudelaire explicitly alludes to the Creator Word's becoming flesh (“Et verbum caro factum est”) in his preface to Les Fleurs du Mal.

Whether Neoplatonically or biblically backgrounded, whether conceived in terms of participation or of creation as revelation, symbolist poetics are predicated on a peculiarly privileged relation of language and world. Indeed the absorption of all reality into language as poiesis may be taken to be the key premise of the entire symbolist vision. The consequences of this fundamental premise, however, turn out to be diverse and even contradictory. On the one hand, reality puts up no more resistance: all is simply fused into unity in an exquisite and unrestricted universal harmony forged in and by language. On the other hand, the collapse of all extralinguistic reality into language leaves language empty of real substance and consequently disoriented. Without being anchored to anything real beyond itself, language has trouble maintaining even its own unity and integrity.

The essential tension between these opposite sorts of consequences of its pan-linguisticism can, in fact, be detected in every aspect and dimension of symbolist art. Ineluctably, together with the presence of the object in and to the symbol, its immanence to language, comes also an emptying of all objective content. The symbol contains everything immediately within itself, but only at the price of becoming a pure ideality devoid of relation to anything beyond the purely linguistic sphere. Every supposedly external object of language collapses into just a linguistic artifact. This makes it possible ultimately to dissolve the presumed external sources of language, including subjectivity and all its attendant postulates, into material forces and drives conceived of as working and manifest immanently in language. And it is this direction in which symbolist poetry subsequent to Baudelaire and down to our own times decisively moves.

Baudelaire used his art of the symbol in order to discover the mysterious and profound unity (“une ténébreuse et profonde unité”) of all things based on revelation by the word or on correspondences in a Neoplatonic order of being. But that this is peculiarly the poet's prerogative, a secret reserved for disclosure by the master of words, suggests that it is a unity that exists essentially in the order of language. As the purely linguistic status of the vision proclaimed in symbolist poetry becomes more overt, the synthesis Baudelaire's poetry celebrates shows itself to be not just a synthesis of what is supposed to be higher reality but equally, and paradoxically, an exclusion from and avoidance of the real. Hence the “double aspect” of symbolism individuated by Paul de Man in his homologous essay “The Double Aspect of Symbolism.”10 It is because the poet in the solitude of his individual consciousness finds himself alienated from the world that he attempts, in vain according to de Man, to recover lost unity by means of his symbolic language.

Given this double aspect of symbolism, together with the aspiration toward an ideal life of unity goes a discomfiting and even shocking avowal of the ultimate truth of dissolution and death. It is only too clear that the ecstatic experiences so exuberantly enjoyed are dependent upon and even transpire within, wholly within, language. Language is the element in which the symbol lives and dies. It is a synthetic, unifying medium, but it is also in itself purely formal, empty of substance, a kind of dead artifact destined to be identified with the dead letter of writing. Consequently, its use to synthesize unity is inevitably artificial. The pure religion of art, practiced self-consciously as a calculated linguistic craft or alchemy, is constrained to exploit the very sorts of mechanical and material means that the symbolist artist otherwise affects to despise. Thus, to the extent that it is an act of faith, symbolism is almost inevitably in bad faith, for it is acutely aware of its own artifices and, in effect, of the contradiction of striving to synthesize unmediated experience of the whole harmonious unity of things.

This precarious posture of symbolist poetry is held intact by Baudelaire, buoyed up on the exuberance of his discovery of an almost all-powerful verbal magic. As the historical distance from this burst of creative inspiration lengthens, it becomes more difficult for the sheer passion of poetry to either make good or render irrelevant the self-deceptions that go into the making of the symbol. It is language that permits the total, unified knowledge sought by symbolists, yet language is also at the same time a false, or at least a fictive, element of such knowledge. What is “merely” linguistic is also in a sense nothing. The nothingness and death with which symbolist voices are so seductively obsessed has its remote motivations in this predicament. Irrepressibly, this sense of an encroaching emptying out and annihilation of reality by language asserts itself as a dominant mood throughout French symbolist poetry starting from Baudelaire's own poetry precipitated into the abyss (le gouffre) opened up by its own infinite expanse unlimited by any reality it cannot absorb. Indeed death comes to be figured as the very perfection sought, and the goal of knowledge by poetry's symbolic gnosis is represented as being reached precisely in death.

As Walter Benjamin perceived, Baudelaire's poetry presents a challenge to conceive language in its purity. In introducing his translation of Tableaux parisiens, he describes his attempt to translate the pure essence of language itself. Translation allows pure language “to shine upon the original more fully. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another” (Benjamin 1969, 227). However, while insisting on the absoluteness of language, taking inspiration from Baudelaire's poetry, the last work of lyric poetry with European-wide significance (“Die ‘Fleurs du mal’ sind das letzte lyrische Werk gewesen, das eine europäische Wirkung getan hat”), Benjamin also encompasses the other, inseparable aspect of symbolism in analyzing Baudelaire's lyric art as a way of coping with shock, the most distinctive modern experience, as registered first in Baudelaire's poetry. Originally shocking experience can be confronted and digested by being assimilated into a total structure of meaning—that is, essentially as language, but a language scarred with the traces of trauma. Baudelaire's lyric production represents a highly conscious reworking in and as lyric language of lived stimuli that have left the psychic mechanism traumatized, and Benjamin deciphers beneath the smooth surface of the mellifluous verses the ruptures and impasses of Baudelaire's quintessential experience as inaugural of the modern. The apparent wholeness of language into which experience was lifted by symbolic lyric in fact shows through to another aspect of language, especially of prophetic or messianic language, as consisting essentially in ruptures and abrasions. Still on the basis of its sublation of reality into language, symbolism's language thus reveals quite a different, unsuspected face marked by materiality and fragmentation. Baudelaire's language read profoundly translates the breakdown that the modern age was witnessing, whereby the aura of things that connects them with their context and past by involuntary memory disintegrates (“Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire”).

Benjamin's reflections confirm the two aspects of symbolism and adduce a sort of historical, material account of their derivation. But it is also possible to interpret how the drive toward unity and presence inherent in the symbol converts into disunity and rupture with the real by its own internal logic, by the very fulfillment of its own impulse to total unity and the consequent cutting asunder of the tension between reality and symbol, language and world. The grand symbolic vision of the identity of All leads not only to a total structure or monism of the universe: it entails equally a shattering into autonomous fragments, since each individual element is wholly self-contained, indeed is in itself all-containing. The totally relational identity characteristic of language and therefore also of a linguistic universe turns into an equally total self-sufficiency of every particle, since each is endowed with an absolute identity already in itself, unconditioned by any external relations—all relations having become internal to it. In symbolism, everything has become language, but as a result language no longer mediates anything extra-linguistic. Without any real content, language becomes purely image or, as is suggested by other forms of symbolist art, purely musical incantation: it is unbounded, but is lacking in any rule or concept such as only an external limit could provide, and this leads eventually to language's being threatened even in its own internal cohesion.

The breakup of language and of everything in language was to be overtly pursued by Baudelaire's poetic successors, and it has been discovered retrospectively as subtext in Baudelaire himself by recent critics, especially in Benjamin's wake.11 It can be understood as resulting ineluctably from the logic and dynamic of the symbol itself, with its absolute exigencies of identity, presence and immediacy, achieved no longer just by means of, but actually in and as, language. For once language has totally penetrated nature, leaving no remainder, nature is turned wholly into artifice. Nature can no longer supply the paradigm of organic unity after which language models itself in romanticism. Rather, everything becomes subject to the nature of language as an artificial synthesis with no substance in itself and therefore in a constant state of dissolution. When the universal identity forged by the symbol turns into an identity of all with language itself, the symbolic order of things is poised to collapse in upon itself, to implode in an uncontrolled proliferation of pure form. Baudelaire's transmission of the romantic doctrine of the symbol radicalizes and in effect reverses it, resulting in its no longer effecting union with all that is, but rather causing an alienation from nature and the real. Although he at times embraces the idea of a harmoniously ordered universe of natural correspondences, he lays the groundwork for its undoing in and by the symbol, which becomes the dynamite that explodes the universe eventually into Mallarmé's constellations of unmasterable chance. Precisely these disintegrative implications of the unrestricted identification of all with language have manifested themselves persistently in the course and direction of symbolist poetry in its development ever since Baudelaire. (For sometimes contrasting views on this descent, see Charles Altieri.)

Baudelaire was a believer in the identificatory power of the symbol, and he remained the undisputed master of this creative faculty for the symbolist poets that followed him. Yet he did not believe in the all-embracing, benevolent Nature in which symbols were supposed to be embedded, and into which they beckoned invitingly, binding all things, including whoever could interpret them, together into one whole. For Baudelaire, this romantic dream had become a nightmare and, consequently, the symbol, in significant ways, sinister. Indeed, he was haunted by the symbol and its solicitations to communion with a Nature that he loathed. In “Obsession,” Baudelaire recoils from nature, from its great forests which frighten him, as do cathedrals with their windy organs (“Grands bois, vous m'effrayez comme des cathédrales; / Vous hurlez comme l'orgue”). He would like the night to be without stars, for their light speaks to him, and it is a known language, whereas he is in search rather of the empty, the black and naked, what is divested of signs and therefore devoid of significance:

Comme tu me plairais, ô nuit! sans ces étoiles
Dont la lumière parle un langage connu!
Car je cherche le vide, et le noir, et le nu!

(OC 1:75)

[How you would please me, O night, without these stars / whose light speaks a known language! / For I seek the empty, the black and the naked!]

This constitutes an anguished palinode that effectively retracts the soul's enchantment with the sweet native language of things in “L'Invitation au voyage.” Here Baudelaire is horrified of nature and its language, indeed of nature as language, and not because it is strange but because it is all too familiar. The “regards familiers” of “Correspondances” reappear in order to become terrifying. The forest is experienced as a cathedral whose significance is frightfully overdetermined, rather than as the mysteriously alluring temple of “Correspondances.” Nature now is already fully codified: the cries of the woods that reply to one another out of their depths (“Répondent les échos de vos De profundis”) are already articulated as a church liturgy. They are natural rites in a manner reminiscent of “Correspondances,” but now precisely their symbolic force makes them a negative, indeed a nightmare experience.

Baudelaire is repelled not so directly by nature as by the significance of nature, which is a form of human culture, indeed a language. The ocean's waves, with their heaving and tumult, are execrable because they are already found by the mind within itself (“Je te hais, Océan! tes bonds et tes tumultes, / Mon esprit les retrouve en lui”), just as the defeated man's bitter laugh full of sobs and insults is found in the enormous laugh of the sea. Even night fails to be other, and darkness—“les ténèbres”—consists in canvasses (“des toiles”) painted on, or to be painted on, by human signs. Nature offers no escape from the human, and the human has become just as abhorrent as the natural. The symbolic-linguistic mechanism that reduces everything to language is at the bottom of this viciously circular mirroring, since everything that can be reached through language is reduced to identity. All that is known is known through the identity of signs circulating in the linguistic system: it is all too familiar and too wretched, in effect a prison house of language from which there is no exit.

Of course, what Baudelaire loathes at bottom is himself, because that is what he sees at the bottom of Nature. He begins the desperate struggle to escape himself by crying out after the name of “the other” that is still the watchword of so much of French, left-bank culture today. What he is trying to escape is the viciously narcissistic self-reflexivity of the symbolist quest that is palpable in a poem like “La Chevelure,” in which the poet imagines plunging his amorous head into the black ocean in which “the other” is enclosed:

Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d'ivresse
Dans ce noir océan où l'autre est enfermé …

(OC 1:26)

The “other” is sought in desperation in order to escape the self, but it is indeed already an other that is “enclosed” (enfermé). It risks being confounded with the blackness of the self's own spleen. In the universe of total identity there is really no escaping the self. The seeker necessarily voyages endlessly in quest of le nouveau and l'inconnu. The absolute identity of everything is the truth of the symbol that Baudelaire found himself imprisoned by and from which he chafes to escape. All this he bequeathed to his poetic posterity.

Baudelaire adopts the symbol as a basic strategy but denaturalizes and also denatures it in the process. The universal identification of each with all that is characteristic of symbolic vision and the basis for the correspondences of things takes a peculiar turn when the identification of all things in the symbol is taken to be an identity of all with language. This is, in effect, what the symbolists explicitly do, rendering manifest the revolution in poetic language brought about in nuce by Baudelaire. It means that the identities of the symbolist vision, rather than being natural, indeed the deep structure or essence of nature, turn out to be purely artificial, indeed nothing but language. There is still an all-pervading logic of identity, but it takes on a very different significance, in important ways just the opposite of the significance it had in romanticism. The natural order of things is no longer reassuring and restorative, healing human breaches and diseases. The order of things is only linguistic and therefore only a reflection of the human world of cultural artifacts and in fact already infected with the sickness of the self.

Baudelaire pursues to its furthest limits the logic of identity inhering in the symbol. He identifies everything with everything else. But the result he obtains is not oneness with the mystery of nature and the universe (even though he leaves some traces of a suffering longing for an encounter with the Other or the Unknown), but rather an expansion of language so as to actually encompass everything, beyond simply serving as the instrument of establishing the symbolic identity of all being. It remains only for this linguistic mechanism to expose itself as such, and to collapse for lack of external support, in order to produce the brilliant artificial paradises and chance constellations of subsequent symbolism. Thus is set the program that symbolist poets, eminently Rimbaud and Mallarmé, were to follow. It is the linguistic turning and totalizing of the symbol achieved substantially by Baudelaire that constitutes the premise for the shattering even of language itself, no longer held intact by anything beyond it, that was to be pursued to its furthest extremes by later symbolist poets.

The identification of everything with language has remained an absolutely central preoccupation of French poetry and poetics in the twentieth century. It is at issue, for example, in the way Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses hovers between treating words as natural things and then again ruthlessly unmasking this fiction and fighting against language in the name of “la chose même,” which escapes it. Yet, given the double aspect of the symbolism inaugurated by Baudelaire's poetry, whereby the breaking down of language, which collapses from within, belongs together with the absorption by language of the world of things and its becoming itself a thing (acquiring thereby also the thing's vulnerability to amorcelation, dismemberment, and dissolution), even this sort of resistance to the idealizations inherent in language suggests in indirect ways how subsequent poets continue to remain Baudelaire's heirs. For although Baudelaire stands as the great poet of mysterious and profound unity in the symbol, in which domain “Tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté / Luxe, calme et volupté” [All is but order and beauty / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness], it is nevertheless possible to see how this complete freedom from discord and all external constraint contains the seeds of its own destruction—of the shattering of language as total system into infinite disunity and limitless dis-semination. This is the decisive creative innovation that makes Baudelaire's poetry so seminal for symbolist poetry in its widest ramifications.


  1. The prevalence and authority of this linguistic notion of the symbol, which equates it with a sign that signifies by absence, shows up in anthropological discourse; for example, that of Claude Lévi-Strauss in “L'efficacité du symbolique”: “It is a relation of symbol to thing symbolized, or to use the vocabulary of the linguists, of signifier to signified” (218). One of the most determined and extensive theorizations of the symbol as implying essentially absence is Lacanian psycholinguistics. Entry into the symbolic stage is marked by loss of presence and plenitude in undifferentiated union with the mother's body, the symbolic per se symbolizing absence and alienation, specifically in the form of castration fears vis-à-vis the symbol of all symbols, the father's phallus. Even in as literature-oriented a version of Lacanianism as Kristeva's, the “ordre symbolique” emerges as “the yawning gap between signifier and signified” in La Révolution du langage poétique (45).

  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Statesman's Manual, quoted by Angus Fletcher (16).

  3. Cf. Robert Greer Cohn, “Symbolism.”

  4. Jena romanticism, particularly that of Schelling and Schlegel, is documented in its influence specifically on French romantics by Michel Brix in the preceding essay [in this work].

  5. On the historical motivations and context for this endeavor, see Charles Taylor, chapters 22 and 23.

  6. Baudelaire is actually quoting Delacroix, for example, in Salon de 1846, section 4.

  7. This suggests why Baudelaire's poetry has lent itself so beautifully to formalist analyses such as Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss's “‘Les Chats’ de Charles Baudelaire.” Henri Meschonnic's numerous writings have further developed the linguistic approach to Baudelaire.

  8. Michael Hamburger, in The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s, argues that Baudelaire is an allegorical poet, which is true, but it does not follow that he is “not a Symbolist” (6). Basic contributions for situating Baudelaire as a symbolist include Guy Michaud, Lloyd Austin, and Henri Peyre.

  9. A corrective to the idea promulgated influentially by Hugo Friedrichs that referentiality is simply eliminated and reality liquidated in symbolist poetry is persuasively argued by Paul de Man in “Lyric and Modernity.”

  10. Fredric Jameson describes the shift between what can be recognized as these two aspects of symbolism as a transition from production of the referent to its erasure and elimination, and he articulates these two phases in terms of a modernist and a postmodernist Baudelaire. See “Baudelaire as Modernist and Postmodernist: The Dissolution of the Referent and the Artificial ‘Sublimé.’” Hans-Jost Frey addresses a similar issue in discussing Baudelaire as a critic of mimetic representation and as imitating only what is immanent to his own representations.

  11. In addition to de Man, Frey, and Jameson, see also Georges Poulet and Jean Starobinski.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. 1973. “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” Boundary 2 (Spring): 605-39.

Austin, Lloyd. 1956. L'Univers poétique de Baudelaire: Symbolisme et symbolique. Paris: Mercure de France.

Baudelaire, Charles. 1975-76. Œuvres complètes. 2 vols. Ed. Claude Pichois. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade).

Bays, Gwendolyn. 1964. The Orphic Vision: Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers.” Translated as “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, 69-82. New York: Schocken.

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1974. “Symbolism.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33 (Winter): 181-92.

de Man, Paul. 1983. “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” “Lyric and Modernity.” In Blindness and Insight. 2d ed. Ed. Wlad Godzich, 142-65, 166-86. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fletcher, Angus. 1964. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Frey, Hans-Jost. 1996a. “Baudelaire.” In Studies in Poetic Discourse, trans. William Whobrey, 61-115. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1977. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller, Ed. J. N. Finlay. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1985. “Baudelaire as Modernist and Postmodernist: The Dissolution of the Referent and the Artificial ‘Sublime.’” In Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker, 247-63. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. “L'efficacité du symbolique.” In Anthropologie structurale. Vol. 1. 205-26. Paris: Plon.

———. 1962. “‘Les Chats’ de Charles Baudelaire.” L'Homme 2 (January-April):5-21.

Michaud, Guy. 1947. Message poétique du symbolisme. 4 Vols. Paris: Nizet.

Peyre, Henri. 1971. Qu'est-ce que le romantisme? Paris: PUF.

Poulet, Georges. 1980. La Poésie éclatée. Paris: PUF.

Starobinski, Jean. 1989. La Mélancolie au miroir: Trois lectures de Baudelaire. Paris: Julliard.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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