Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1465
Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)
The poetry of Charles Baudelaire was the chief inspiration for the development of Symbolism. His masterpiece, Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), and his important collection of prose poetry Petits poèmes en prose (1868; Little Prose Poems), embody the central ideals of the symbolist movement. Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris, France. As a young man he established himself as a popular critic of art and literature. When he first encountered the short fiction of American writer Edgar Allen Poe in 1847, Baudelaire immediately felt that Poe’s literary sensibilities resonated strongly with his own. Thenceforth, he devoted much of his life to translating the works of Poe into French. Through these translations, Poe became an important influence on the later French symbolist poets. In 1848, Baudelaire participated in two major political events in France, the Revolution of 1848 and the June Days rebellion. In 1855, eighteen of his poems were published in a literary journal as a collection entitled Flowers of Evil. Flowers of Evil was eventually expanded to include over one hundred poems and published as a single volume. In the 1860s, Baudelaire began to compose the prose poems that were posthumously collected in the volume Little Prose Poems (later republished as Le spleen de Paris, or Paris Spleen). Baudelaire died of complications resulting from syphilis on August 31, 1867, in Paris, in financial ruin and with many of his poems still unpublished. However, the young generation of writers who developed the symbolist movement regarded him as their literary father, and Baudelaire soon came to be widely viewed as one of the greatest French poets of the nineteenth century.
Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921)
Aleksandr (Aleksandrovich) Blok is considered the greatest poet of the Russian symbolist movement. Blok’s symbolist masterpiece is the epic poem, Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve). His literary ideals developed from a synthesis of the influences of Russian poets Aleksandr Pushkin and Vladimir Solovyov. Blok was born on November 16, 1880, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and died on August 7, 1921, in Petrograd (the postrevolutionary name given to St. Petersburg).
Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907)
Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain) is considered the greatest novel to emerge from the symbolist movement. Huysmans was born Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, February 5, 1848, in Paris, France. Huysmans took up a lifelong career as a civil servant for the French government. He became associated with the naturalist school of fiction headed by the great French novelist Emile Zola. The publication of Against the Grain, however, signaled his break with Naturalism, as the novel embodies the ideals of the symbolist poets. His novel Là-bas (1891; Down There) is based on a real-life historical figure who was executed in 1440 for murdering children. Huysmans died of cancer May 12, 1907, in Paris.
Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949)
Maurice Maeterlinck was the foremost playwright of the symbolist movement and the greatest Belgian playwright of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maeterlinck was born on August 29, 1862, in Ghent, Belgium. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1886. Maeterlinck worked as a lawyer until 1889, when he decided to devote himself to writing. In 1897, Maeterlinck went to Paris, where he met many of the leading symbolist writers of the day. He sent his first play, La Princesse Maleine (1890; The Princess Maleine), to Mallarmé, who sent it on to an important French dramatist and critic of the day. The Princess Maleine was an immediate success and many plays followed, including L’Intruse (1890; The Intruder) and Les aveugles (1890; The Blind). Maeterlinck’s masterpiece and the greatest work of symbolist theatre, Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelleas and Melisande), was produced at the Théatre de l’Oeuvre in 1892. His book La vie des abeilles (The Life of the Bee), published in 1901, compares his observations of the behavior of bees to human society. His play L’Oiseau bleu (1909; The Blue Bird) was an international success and has been adapted several times as a children’s book and a major motion picture. The phrase “the bluebird of happiness” derives from this enormously popular and enduring story. Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. He died of a heart attack on May 6, 1949, in Nice, France.
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898)
Stéphane Mallarmé was one of the founders of the symbolist movement and a major influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. Mallarmé was profoundly influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire, from which he developed the literary ideals of Symbolism. Mallarmé was born on March 18, 1842, in Paris, France. His mother died when he was only five years old. By the time he was twenty-one, his sister and father had also died. These early experiences with death may have contributed to the deep sense of loss expressed in his later work. Mallarmé made his living as a teacher, editor, and translator while working on his poetry. His L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876; The Afternoon of a Faun) is a major work of symbolist poetry. Mallarmé also held a weekly, Tuesday-evening literary, artistic, and musical salon in his apartment in Paris. He thus was an important intellectual influence on the symbolist movement in that he devoted himself to developing and communicating the theoretical basis for Symbolism. In his poetry, Mallarmé was interested in exploring the relationship between everyday reality and an ideal world of perfection and beauty that transcends reality, what he described as the ideal flower that is absent from all bouquets. Mallarmé died September 9, 1898, in the French village of Valvins. His major works of poetry are collected in the volumes Vers et prose (1893) and Poésies (1899). His essays on literature are collected in the volume Divagations (1897; Wanderings).
Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891)
Arthur Rimbaud was one of the founding poets of the symbolist movement and a major influence on modern poetry. Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville, France. As a teenager he ran away from home to go to Paris on three separate occasions. During one of these ventures, he participated in the 1871 rebellion of the Paris Commune. However, disillusioned by the violent suppression of the Paris Commune, Rimbaud chose to devote his life to poetry rather than political action. Rimbaud, like Mallarmé and Verlaine, was influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire. In 1871, Rimbaud sent some of his poems to Verlaine, who was so impressed that he paid for Rimbaud to come to Paris and stay several months in his home. In Paris, Rimbaud met many important literary figures but alienated most of them with his vulgar behavior. However, Rimbaud and Verlaine (who was married at the time) developed an openly acknowledged homosexual relationship. The two men engaged in a tumultuous, passionate, intermittent love affair for several years. Rimbaud traveled with Verlaine to London and Brussels in the early 1870s, during which time Rimbaud composed the prose poetry later collected in Les illuminations (Illuminations). In 1873, the volatile nature of their relationship reached a peak when Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. Soon after this incident, Rimbaud returned to his family home in France, where he completed his volume of prose poetry, Une saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell). In 1875, Rimbaud saw Verlaine for the last time. He left Verlaine with the manuscript of the volume Illuminations, which Verlaine saw to publication in 1886. Rimbaud spent most of the remainder of his life traveling the world, largely cut off from the literary world of Paris. His period of poetry writing lasted from about age sixteen to twenty-one. In February 1891, Rimbaud returned to France for cancer treatments. He died on November 10, at the age of thirty-seven.
Paul Verlaine (1844–1896)
Paul Verlaine was one of the principal founders of the symbolist movement. Verlaine was born on March 30, 1844, in Metz, France. In 1862, he began his association with many of the literary figures of the day, including Mallarmé, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and Anatole France. He married in 1870, but his marriage was disrupted by the arrival of Rimbaud in 1871, with whom Verlaine carried on a passionate and tumultuous love affair over a period of years. In 1872, Verlaine abandoned his wife to travel with Rimbaud to London and Brussels and to work on his poetry. In 1873, in Brussels, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a quarrel and was sentenced to two years in prison. His masterpiece, the poetry volume Romances sans parole (Songs without Words), was published in 1874, while Verlaine was still in prison. His volume Sagesse (1880; Wisdom), published in 1880, has come to be regarded as one of his major works. In the early 1880s, Verlaine was recognized as a leading symbolist poet, particularly with his poem “Art poétique.” His volume Les poètes maudits (1884; The Accursed Poets), includes short biographical essays on six poets, including Mallarmé and Rimbaud. In 1886, Verlaine oversaw the publication of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. When Verlaine died of pulmonary congestion on January 8, 1896, in Paris, he was widely recognized as a major French poet of the nineteenth century and one of the founders of the symbolist movement.
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