The Development of the Modern Prose Poem in Symbolist Literature
Symbolism and the Modern Prose Poem One of the many lasting influences of the symbolist movement on international literature can be seen in the development of the modern prose poem during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Prose poetry is written in the form of prose, yet maintains the lyrical language use, suggestive imagery, and thematic sensibilities of poetry. The formal properties of the prose poem are intended to liberate verse from traditional requirements of metrical form and line breaks. The prose poem also liberates prose from traditional requirements of story line and narrative closure. Prose poems are usually short, generally anywhere from one paragraph to several pages in length. One of the enduring literary issues raised by prose poetry is the question of how to define it as a literary form distinct from both poetry and prose. The very notion of prose poetry thus raises questions about the boundary between prose and poetry.
Although the symbolists did not invent prose poetry, they freed it from its traditional tone and themes and developed the form as a modern mode of expression. Baudelaire is credited as the inventor of the modern prose poem, producing the important volume Little Poems in Prose (1869; later published as Paris Spleen). Other important volumes of symbolist prose poetry include Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886) and A Season in Hell (1873). Mallarmé, one of the founders of Symbolism, also wrote a number of important prose poems.
The Prose Poem in the Nineteenth Century
French poets were first introduced to the prose poem, a relatively obscure genre of literature, in the mid-nineteenth century, through the French writer Louis Bertrand (1807–1841; also known as Aloysius Bertrand). Bertrand first began to publish his prose poetry in a newspaper in 1828. However, his collected volume of prose poetry Gaspard de la Nuit (Gaspard of the Night) was not published until 1842, a year after his death. With this publication, Bertrand was the first significant French writer to utilize the form of the prose poem.
The prose poems of Gaspard of the Night are based on Bertrand’s fascination with the medieval history of the city of Dijon, France, and express a romanticized vision of the city’s gothic past. Bertrand’s prose poetry shows the influence of the romantic movement in literature, with which he was peripherally associated. His prose poetry, however, was entirely innovative in developing a French prose form that retains the lyrical qualities of poetry.
Baudelaire can be credited with bringing the prose poetry of Bertrand to the attention of the French literary world in 1869, when he mentioned the volume with high praise in his introduction to Little Poems in Prose. As Baudelaire explains in this introduction, he was first inspired to try his own hand at composing prose poetry through his reading of Bertrand’s Gaspard of the Night. Baudelaire confesses his debt to Bertrand as his inspiration in attempting to expand the possibilities of the prose poem by applying it to expressions of life in the modern city. Baudelaire states that, while reading Gaspard of the Night:
for at least the twentieth time . . . the idea came to me to try something similar, and to apply to the description of modern life, or rather one modern and more abstract life, the procedure [Bertrand] had applied to the depiction of ancient life, so strangely picturesque.
Baudelaire further describes his “dream” of writing in a form that combined elements of poetry and prose:
Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reverie, the jolts of consciousness?
Baudelaire first coined the term “prose poem” in reference to a group of his own poems published in 1861. He also describes his innovative style of prose poetry as “fables of modern life.” Edward K. Kaplan, in an introduction...
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