Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

Critical response to the development of Symbolism was itself an important contribution to the symbolist movement, as many of the literary critics and leading theorists of Symbolism were themselves symbolist writers. These critics contributed to the shaping, definition, and dissemination of the movement. A discussion of critical responses to Symbolism...

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Critical response to the development of Symbolism was itself an important contribution to the symbolist movement, as many of the literary critics and leading theorists of Symbolism were themselves symbolist writers. These critics contributed to the shaping, definition, and dissemination of the movement. A discussion of critical responses to Symbolism is thus also a historical narrative of the development of the movement.

If Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud are the fathers of Symbolism, Baudelaire may be considered the grandfather. Baudelaire’s first major publication was met with public controversy as well as critical acclaim. His poetry volume Flowers of Evil, the seminal text of the symbolist movement, was first published amidst great controversy. Of the one hundred poems in the first edition, thirteen were singled out by a government agency as violations of laws of decency and religious morality. These thirteen poems were judged in a court of law, as a result of which six were found illegal and extracted from the published volume. Baudelaire and his editors were also required to pay a fine. (The ban on publication of these six poems in France was not lifted until 1949.) Despite this public controversy, major critics as well as some of the most important French writers of the day, including Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo, offered high praise for Flowers of Evil, recognizing the value of Baudelaire’s innovative poetry. Baudelaire himself, however, was greatly discouraged by the censorship and public notoriety of his work.

The founders of Symbolism—Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud—developed their literary ideals against the dominance of Realism in nineteenth- century literature. The realist aesthetic in poetry was concentrated in the development of a group of writers known as the “Parnassians.” The Parnassians strove to create accurate, precise, objective descriptions of external objects and events, and to resist the emotional outpouring associated with romantic poetry. Mallarmé and Verlaine were among the Parnassian poets until they broke away from these ideals to write poetry focusing on the subjective, irrational, internal states of mind of the individual that characterizes the symbolist ideal.

Before the term Symbolism was applied to this new development in French poetry, these 1880s poets were termed the “decadents,” a term first applied by critics to poets Verlaine and Jules Laforgue as an insult. The poets took up the epithet with pride, however, founding the literary review Le Decadent (The Decadent) in 1886. The term Symbolism was coined in 1886 in an article by Jean Moreas that laid out the theoretical and aesthetic ideals of this literary movement. Moreas suggested that symbolist was a more apt label for these poets than decadent.

The symbolist novel developed in reaction against the realist fiction of the naturalists. The realists strove to accurately represent objective depictions of external reality in their fiction, based on close, detailed observations of the world. Emile Zola, the famous French novelist, was a leader of the naturalist movement in literature, an extension of Realism. Early in his writing career, Huysmans was associated with Zola’s circle of naturalist writers. However, Huysmans became the foremost symbolist novelist when he broke away from Zola’s circle and wrote Against the Grain, a novel that focuses almost exclusively on the internal states of mind of a hypersensitive protagonist isolated from human society. Because it so sharply broke with his own literary ideals, Zola’s critical response to Huysmans’s novel was predictably negative. Interestingly, although the symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé preceded and inspired Huysmans’s novel, it was Huysmans’s discussion of these poets in Against the Grain that introduced many readers to symbolist poetry. Thus, the popularity of Against the Grain helped expand the readership of symbolist poetry.

Although not all of their major works were published within their lifetimes, many of the major poets of the symbolist movement were, by the time of their deaths, recognized as some of the greatest and most influential writers of the nineteenth century. Writers and literary critics throughout the twentieth century agree that the symbolist movement exerted a profound and widespread influence on modern literature. Symbolism is regarded as the bridge between nineteenth-century Realism and twentieth-century Modernism in literature. Twentieth- century literary movements such as Imagism, Surrealism, and dadaism were directly influenced by Symbolism. In the early twenty first century, Symbolism continues to be widely regarded as one of the most important influences on international literature of the previous two centuries.

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