French Symbolists Analysis


During the first half of the nineteenth century, poetry in France was dominated by Romanticism, which had broken the rules of classicism and had opened the way for freedom of poetic creation. Poetry had become emotive and descriptive; the poet had been recognized as an isolated individual alienated from society by his genius. Materialistic bourgeois society had been rejected by the poets. As the century progressed, French poetry evolved into three main schools or styles: Parnassianism, Decadence, and Symbolism. The Parnassians took as their credo the art-for-art’s-sake theory of poetry put forth by Théophile Gautier, in which form mattered more than idea. Purity of form and emotional detachment permeated the Parnassians’ works, which treated subjects from antiquity or described exotic places. The Decadents exploited the darker traditions of Romanticism and showed a preference for morbid and erotic subjects. The extreme dislike of the bourgeoisie and the pleasure in shocking them, the idea of the poet as alienated from society, and the preoccupation with death were major elements of their poetry. They regularly used opium, hashish, and absinthe to find an inscrutable truth beyond reality. The Symbolists rejected sentimental effusion of emotion over nature and did not accept this world as the true reality. Their poems expressed states of mind, moods, and sensations evoking inner experiences and communication with a transcendental other world. The musicality of the...

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Symbolism as a literary movement

In 1885, Gabriel Vicaire and Henri Beauclaire had published a scathing satire of symbolism, Les Déliquescenses d’Adoré Floupette (the corruption of Adoré Floupette). At first, the satire was viewed by the public as an actual Symbolist work. Then, when the truth was known, the work actually benefited the symbolists as it stimulated the public’s interest in their work. Several journals and reviews devoted to Symbolism were founded during the late 1880’s. Gustave Kahn published La Vogue; he was the first to publish works of Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Kahn, Paul Adam, and Moréas founded Le Symboliste. In 1889, Alfred Valette and his wife, Marguerite Eymery (known as Rachilde), founded Symbolism’s most important journal, Le Mercure de France. They also held a salon at which the Symbolists gathered to discuss their poetry and literary theory. While Mallarmé never presented himself as the leader of the Symbolist Movement, he is often considered as such because of the mardis (Tuesdays) when he hosted writers for literary discussions. He also acted as mentor to a number of young writers. One of these younger poets was Paul Valéry, who carried Symbolism into the twentieth century with his poems La Jeune Parque (1917; The Youngest of the Fates, 1947; also known as The Young Fate) and “Le Cimetière marin” (1920; “The Graveyard by the Sea”).

The Symbolist movement was at its peak from 1886 to 1892, and was largely over by 1905. Among the Symbolists were anarchists or supporters of the anarchist cause. When the anarchists adopted violent tactics (an anarchist threw a bomb into the French chamber of deputies in 1893), the popularity of the Symbolists suffered. After the turn of the century, Symbolism had become the established literary form against which new young writers were reacting, by either pushing its limits farther as in Surrealism or returning to older forms.

The poets and their doctrine

The major poets involved in the movement were Moréas, Kahn (who wrote free verse), Henri Régnier, Jules Laforgue, Emile Verharen, and René Ghil (who wrote purely Symbolist poetry). In 1891, however, Moréas abandoned Symbolism, returned to the poetic style of the Renaissance, and founded the École Romane. When Moréas left the movement, Remy de Gourmont, one of the editors of the Le Mercure de France, became the most enthusiastic advocate of Symbolism. Gourmont not only was a critic but also wrote in all literary genres and even created book designs and typography based on Symbolist theories. However, most of these poets were practitioners rather than creators of symbolist poetical theory. Symbolism as poetry and theory was developed in the works of Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Tristan Corbière, five of the poets praised in Verlaine’s Poètes maudits (1884; The Cursed Poets, 2003).

The poetry of the Symbolists did not present concrete realistic images and did not actually set forth ideas; instead it sought to convey nuances of feeling, states of mind, and the invisible world. It also suggested a connection between the world that is visible to the human eye and the invisible world that the Symbolists believed to be the real world. The qualities most appreciated in Symbolism were the poetry’s musicality, nuances, vagueness, and lightness. Meaning gave way to lyricism, and Symbolist poetry became poetry in its purest sense as it evolved into rhythm and sound.

Charles Baudelaire

Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), especially the poem “Correspondances” (“Correspondences”), by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), is the work to which Symbolism traces its origins. Baudelaire envisioned an invisible world beyond the one that appeared to the human eye. For him, everything he perceived was a portal to the invisible world, to the beyond. His senses, imagination, and intelligence—all superior in a poet—enabled him to unlock this invisible world and lead his readers and listeners into this world. The poem had to be heard, because for Baudelaire, the sound, the combination of syllables, alliterations, rhymes, and rhythms were as important, or more important, than the sense of the words of the poem.

In “Correspondences,” Baudelaire reveals that, for the most part, humans move through life without ever becoming aware of the real invisible world. Preoccupied by daily concerns and ambitions, people move within the temple of living pillars, which is nature, without ever hearing the words uttered. People are totally unaware of the symbols that observe all human activity with a friendly gaze. The last three stanzas of the poem present examples of the phenomenon of synesthesia, the correspondence of human sense perceptions. Baudelaire believed that the sensations received through the different senses interact, that a visual perception could trigger an olfactory or tactile perception or recall a memory of such a sense perception. In the second stanza, he describes echoes that are merged into each other far away in the world beyond the visible world and present themselves in the visible world as perfumes, colors, and sounds reaching humans through the olfactory, visual, and auditory senses. In the third stanza, he uses images in which the sense impressions of the perfumes transform and result in unexpected stimulation of the senses. The first image is tactile as the perfumes are compared to children’s flesh. The second is auditory, for these perfumes are as sweet as oboes; the third is visual, as the perfumes possess the greenness of prairies. The final verse of the stanza invokes other perfumes that are corrupted, rich, and triumphant; the image once again unites the sensatory reactions in a vague confusion. In the final stanza, Baudelaire reiterates the power or capacity of these elements to transport the soul as well as the senses into the invisible world of the spirit.

This invisible world that comforts the soul and transcends the misery of the materialistic world appears in many of Baudelaire’s poems. In “Elévation” (“Elevation”), he advises his spirit to leave the unhealthy reality of the visible world and to fly off to the other realm, where it can purify itself and drink the clear liquid fire. He celebrates the individual who can reach behind or beyond the boredom and misery of existence to the realm where serenity and light are found. Baudelaire speaks of the joy of those who can understand the language of flowers and mute things. The poem builds on the same theme as that of “Correspondences” and adds the theme of the voyage of the spirit. In the poem “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), Baudelaire again treats this theme. The poem begins with a description of travel that is familiar; it is a sea voyage. At first, the travelers are homesick, but soon the effect of the sea on their senses washes away all thoughts of the life they have left. In the next stanza, Baudelaire shifts from this description of everyday travel to the experiences of travelers who, like balloons, take flight for unknown sensations and pleasures beyond earthly human knowledge. Their voyage transports them away from the everyday material reality and into the ethereal other existence.

In his poems about cats, Baudelaire celebrates...

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Acquisto, Joseph. French Symbolist Poetry and the Idea of Music. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006. Excellent investigation of the role of music in the development of Symbolism. Studies the approaches of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé to the function of lyric and the use of memory in Symbolist poetry.

Lloyd, Rosemary. Baudelaire’s World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Excellent study of Charles Baudelaire’s life, theory, and poetry, and of how his work reflects mid-nineteenth century Paris. Also examines the problems of translating poetry.

_______. Mallarmé: The Poet and His...

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