The Development of the Modern Prose Poem in Symbolist Literature

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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...

(This entire section contains 1577 words.)

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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 to his 1989 volume of translations of Little Poems in Prose, observes that one of the modern elements of Baudelaire’s fables is the fact that, unlike traditional fables that end with a clear moral prescription, they “undermine any reassuring interpretations.” Kaplan further describes this modern element of moral ambiguity in Baudelaire’s prose poetry:

Dismantling all forms of complacency and idealism, the Baudelarian “prose poem” amalgamates, in a dialogically open-ended literary unit, ambiguity and judgment, kindness and cruelty, anger and generosity, reveries and analysis. There are no definitive lessons—only responses.

Baudelaire’s fifty prose poems were published posthumously in the 1869 volume Little Poems in Prose. Although Baudelaire did not invent the prose poem, the works in this volume represent his revolutionizing impact on the genre. Baudelaire modernized prose poetry and profoundly influenced the symbolist poets, many of whose greatest works are prose poems.

The prose poems of Little Poems in Prose treat the subject of modern urban life in Paris, a topic Baudelaire thought to be especially suited to the form of the prose poem. Baudelaire focused on the ugliness of urban existence, but regarded his subject with hopefulness and compassion. While the poems of Flowers of Evil, traditional in form, express the beauty of Paris, the prose poems of Little Poems in Prose focus on the urban squalor and human suffering of the modern city.

Following in Baudelaire’s footsteps, Rimbaud published two major volumes of prose poetry. As in Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose, Rimbaud in his volume Illuminations explored the cityscapes of Paris through the form of the prose poem. Unlike Baudelaire’s Paris, Rimbaud’s visions of the urban landscape are imbued with a sense of mystery beneath the squalid surface of modern city life. A Season in Hell, Rimbaud’s second volume of prose poetry, represents an intensely personal delving into the poet’s spiritual and artistic inner-anguish.

Prose Poetry in the Twentieth Century During the early twentieth century many writers, influenced by the French symbolists, tried their hands at prose poetry. Following the lead of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, the later French symbolist writers Paul Valéry, Paul Fort, and Paul Claudel composed notable prose poems. Important writers outside of France, such as Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Sherwood Anderson, are also recognized for their outstanding prose poetry.

However, the prose poem throughout most of the twentieth century remained a relatively unpopular form among most readers and critics, as well as most writers. Thus, while the free verse poem, invented by the symbolists, became the dominant form of poetry throughout the twentieth century, the modern prose poem, also developed by the symbolists, was, until recently, relegated to a relatively obscure place in twentieth-century literature. The very form of the prose poem was not taken seriously by the majority of literary critics and many writers. As C. W. Truesdale observes in a preface to The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (1996), the prose poem “has never received its critical due despite the excitement the form has generated among poets themselves.” Truesdale describes a general “critical neglect—even hostility” to the prose poem among literary critics throughout most of the twentieth century. Truesdale goes on to assert that the dominance of free verse “has forced the prose poem . . . to the sidelines, has marginalized it as a genre.”

Beginning in the 1960s, however, prose poetry gained a renewed interest among writers, and small literary magazines began to publish prose poetry with increasing frequency. Influential American writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly contributed to this renewed interest in the prose poem in the 1960s and 1970s. The volume The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (1976), edited by Michael Benedikt, helped to introduce English language readers to a broad range of prose poetry. The 1980s and 1990s saw increased interest in the prose poem among English-language writers and editors of small literary journals. During these final decades of the twentieth century, a number of anthologies of prose poetry, as well as volumes of literary criticism focused on the prose poem, saw publication. In the 1990s, journals devoted entirely to prose poetry, such as The Prose Poem: An International Journal, sprang up to accommodate this growing interest.

In the late twentieth century, a variety of terms came to designate prose poetry. Because of the brevity of the prose poem, its boundaries have also come to overlap with the emergence of a new form of very short fiction. Thus, the following terms have been applied to the prose poem form: “sudden fiction,” “flash fiction,” the “modern parable,” the “modern fable,” the “short short story,” and “micro-fiction,” among others.

In a 1996 essay entitled “The Poetry of Village Idiots,” Charles Simic defines the prose poem as “an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose.” However, the very definition of prose poetry remains a central topic of debate, and nearly all English-language anthologies of prose poetry during this period begin with an overview of the ongoing debate as to the question of whether or not the prose poem exists as a distinct literary form, and, if so, how it might be defined and distinguished from both poetry and prose. Nonetheless, nearly all critics and writers acknowledge the debt of modern prose poetry to the innovations of the French symbolist poets in elevating the prose poem to the status of a high art particularly suited to expressions of modern life.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Symbolism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History

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The term and concept of symbolism (and symbol) is so vast a topic that it cannot even be sketched within the limits of this paper. The word goes back to ancient Greece and, there, had a complex history which has not, I suspect, been traced adequately in the only history of the term, Max Schlesinger’sGeschichte des Symbols, published in 1912.

What I want to discuss is something much more specific: not even symbol and symbolism in literature but the term and concept of symbolism as a period in literary history. It can, I suggest, be conveniently used as a general term for the literature in all Western countries following the decline of nineteenth-century realism and naturalism and preceding the rise of the new avant-garde movements: futurism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism, or whatever else. How has it come about? Can such a use be justified?

We must distinguish among different problems: the history of the word need not be identical with the history of the concept as we might today formulate it. We must ask, on the one hand, what the contemporaries meant by it, who called himself a “symbolist,” or who wanted to be included in a movement called “symbolism,” and on the other hand, what modern scholarship might decide about who is to be included and what characteristics of the period seem decisive. In speaking of “symbolism” as a period-term located in history we must also think of its situation in space. Literary terms most frequently radiate from one center but do so unevenly; they seem to stop at the frontiers of some countries or cross them and languish there or, surprisingly, flourish more vigorously on a new soil. A geography of literary terms is needed which might attempt to account for the spread and distribution of terms by examining rival terms or accidents of biography or simply the total situation of a literature.

There seems to be a widespread agreement that the literary history of the centuries since the end of the Middle Ages can be divided into five successive periods: Renaissance, baroque, classicism, romanticism, and realism. Among these terms baroque is a comparative newcomer which has not been accepted everywhere, though there seems a clear need of a name for the style that reacted against the Renaissance but preceded classicism. There is, however, far less agreement as to what term should be applied to the literature that followed the end of the dominance of realism in the 1880s and 90s. The term “modernism” and its variants, such as the German “Die Moderne,” have been used but have the obvious disadvantage that they can be applied to any contemporary art. Particularly in English, the term “modern” has preserved its early meaning of a contrast to classical antiquity or is used for everything that occurred since the Middle Ages. The Cambridge Modern History is an obvious example. The attempts to discriminate between the “modern” period now belonging to the past and the “contemporaneous” seem forced, at least terminologically. “Modo,” after all, means “now.” “Modernism” used so broadly as to include all avant-garde art obscures the break between the symbolist period and all post-symbolist movements such as futurism, surrealism, existentialism, etc. In the East it is used as a catchall for everything disapproved as decadent, formalistic, and alienated: it has become a pejorative term set against the glories of socialist realism.

The older terms were appealed to at the turn of the century by many theorists and slogan writers, who either believed that these terms are applicable to all literature or consciously thought of themselves as reviving the style of an older period. Some spoke of a new “classicism,” particularly in France, assuming that all good art must be classical. Croce shares this view. Those who felt a kinship with the romantic age, mainly in Germany, spoke of “Neuromantik,” appealing to Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum that all poetry is romantic. Realism also asserted its claim, mainly in Marxist contexts, in which all art is considered “realistic” or at least “a reflection of reality.” I need only allude to Georg Lukács’ recent Aesthetik, in which this thesis is repeated with obsessive urgency. I have counted the phrase “Widerspiegelung der Wirklichkeit” in the first volume; it appears 1,032 times. I was too lazy or bored to count it in Volume Two. All these monisms endanger meaningful schemes of literary periodization. Nor can one be satisfied with a dichotomy such as Fritz Strich’s “Klassik und Romantik,” which leads away from period concepts into a universal typology, a simple division of the world into sheep and goats. For many years I have argued the advantage of a multiple scheme of periods, since it allows a variety of criteria. The one criterion “realism” would divide all art into realistic and nonrealistic art and thus would allow only one approving adjective: “real” or some variant such as “true” or “lifelike.” A multiple scheme comes much closer to the actual variety of the process of history. Period must be conceived neither as some essence which has to be intuited as a Platonic idea nor as a mere arbitrary linguistic label. It should be understood as a “regulative idea,” as a system of norms, conventions, and values which can be traced in its rise, spread, and decline, in competition with preceding and following norms, conventions, and values.

“Symbolism” seems the obvious term for the dominant style which followed nineteenth-century realism. It was propounded in Edmund Wilson’sAxel’s Castle (1931) and is asumed as a matter of course in Maurice Bowra’s Heritage of Symbolism (1943). We must beware, of course, of confusing this historical form with age-old symbolism or with the view that all art is symbolic, as language is a system of symbols. Symbolism in the sense of a use of symbols in literature is clearly omnipresent in literature of many styles, periods, and civilizations. Symbols are all-pervasive in medieval literature and even the classics of realism—Tolstoy and Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens—use symbols, often prominently. I myself am guilty of arguing for the crucial role of symbol in any definition of romanticism, and I have written at length on the long German debate from Goethe to Friedrich Theodor Vischer about the meaning of the term “symbol” and its contrast to the term “allegory.”

For our purposes I want to focus on the fortunes of the concept as a term, first for a school, then as a movement, and finally as a period. The term “symbolisme” as the designation for a group of poets was first proposed by Jean Moréas, the French poet of Greek extraction. In 1885 he was disturbed by a journalistic attack on the decadents in which he was named together with Mallarmé. He protested: “the so-called decadents seek the pure Concept and the eternal Symbol in their art, before anything else.” With some contempt for the mania of critics for labels, he suggested the term “Symbolistes” to replace the inappropriate “décadents.” In 1886 Moréas started a review Le Symboliste, which perished after four issues. On September 18, 1886, he published a manifesto of “Symbolisme” Loaded gun carriages during the time of the Paris Commune in the Figaro. Moréas, however, soon deserted his own brainchild and founded another school he called the “école romane.” On September 14, 1891, in another number of the Figaro Moréas blandly announced that “symbolisme” was dead. Thus “symbolisme” was an ephemeral name for a very small clique of French poets. The only name still remembered besides Moréas’ is Gustave Kahn. It is easy to collect pronouncements by the main contemporary poets repudiating the term for themselves. Verlaine, in particular, was vehemently resentful of this “Allemandisme” and even wrote a little poem beginning “À bas le symbolisme mythe/ et termite.”

In a way which would need detailed tracing, the term, however, caught on in the later 80s and early 90s as a blanket name for recent developments in French poetry and its anticipations. Before Moréas’ manifesto, Anatole Baju, in Décadent, April 10, 1886, spoke of Mallarmé as “the master who was the first to formulate the symbolic doctrine.” Two critics, Charles Morice, with La Littérature de tout à l’heure (1889) and Téodore de Wyzéwa, born in Poland, first in the essay “Le Symbolisme de M. Mallarmé” (1887), seemed to have been the main agents, though Morice spoke rather of “synthèse” than of symbol, and Wyzéwa thought that “symbol” was only a pretext and explained Mallarmé’s poetry purely by its analogy to music. As early as 1894 Saint Antoine (pseudonym for Henri Mazel) prophesied that “undoubtedly, symbolism will be the label under which our period will be classed in the history of French literature.”

It is still a matter of debate in French literary history when this movement came to an end. It was revived several times expressly—e.g. in 1905 around a review, Vers et prose. Its main critic, Robert de Souza, in a series of articles, “Où Nous en sommes” (also published separately, 1906), ridiculed the many attempts to bury symbolism as premature and proudly claimed that Gustave Kahn, Verhaeren, Vielé-Griffin, Maeterlinck, and Régnier were then as active as ever. Valéry professed so complete an allegiance to the ideals of Mallarmé that it is difficult not to think of him as a continuator of symbolism, though in 1938, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the symbolist manifesto, Valéry doubted the existence of symbolism and denied that there is a symbolist aesthetic. Marcel Proust, in the posthumously published last volume of his great series Le Temps retrouvé (1926), formulated an explicitly symbolist aesthetics. But his own attitude to symbolist contemporaries was often ambiguous or negative. In 1896 Proust had written an essay condemning obscurity in poetry. Proust admired Maeterlinck but disliked Péguy and Claudel. He even wrote a pastiche of Régnier, a mock-solemn description of a head cold. When Le Temps retrouvé (1926) was published and when a few years later (1933) Valery Larbaud proclaimed Proust a symbolist, symbolism had, at least in French poetry, definitely been replaced by surrealism.

André Barre’s book on symbolism (1911) and particularly Guy Michaud’s Message poétique du symbolisme (1947), as well as many other books of French literary scholarship, have, with the hindsight of literary historians, traced the different phases of a vast French symbolist movement: the first phase, with Baudelaire (who died in 1867) as the precursor; the second, when Verlaine and Mallarmé were at the height of their powers, before the 1886 group; the third, when the name became established; and then, in the twentieth century, what Michaud calls “Néo-symbolisme,” represented by “La Jeune Parque” of Valéry and L’Annonce faite à Marie of Claudel, both dating from 1915. It seems a coherent and convincing conception which needs to be extended to prose writers and dramatists: to Huysmans after A Rebours (1884), to the early Gide, to Proust in part, and among dramatists, at least to Maeterlinck, who, with his plays L’Intruse and Les Aveugles (1890) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), assured a limited penetration of symbolism on the stage.

Knowledge of the French movement and admiration for it soon spread to the other European countries. We must, however, distinguish between reporting on French events and even admiration shown by translations, and a genuine transfer and assimilation of the French movement in another literature. This process varies considerably from country to country; and the variation needs to be explained by the different traditions which the French importation confronted.

In English, George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and his Impressions and Opinions (1891) gave sketchy and often poorly informed accounts of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Laforgue. Mallarmé’s poetry is dismissed as “aberrations of a refined mind,” and symbolism is oddly defined as “saying the opposite of what you mean.” The three essays on Mallarmé by Edmund Gosse, all dating from 1893, are hardly more perceptive. After the poet’s death Gosse turned sharply against him. “Now that he is no longer here the truth must be said about Mallarmé. He was hardly a poet.” Even Arthur Symons, whose book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) made the decisive breakthrough for England and Ireland, was very lukewarm at first. While praising Verlaine (inAcademy, 1891) he referred to the “brain-sick little school of Symbolistes” and “the noisy little school of Décadents,” and even in later articles on Mallarmé he complained of “jargon and meaningless riddles.” But then he turned around and produced the entirely favorable Symbolist Movement. It should not, however, be overrated as literary criticism or history. It is a rather lame impressionistic account of Nerval, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Maeterlinck, with emphasis on Verlaine. There is no chapter on Baudelaire. But most importantly, the book was dedicated to W. B. Yeats, proclaiming him “the chief representative of that movement in our country.” Symons had made his first trip to Paris in 1889; he had visited Mallarmé, met Huysmans and Maeterlinck, and a year later met Verlaine, who in 1893 became his guest on his ill-fated visit to London. Symons knew Yeats vaguely since 1891, but they became close friends in 1895 only after Yeats had completed his study of Blake and had elaborated his own system of symbols from other sources: occultism, Blake, and Irish folklore. The edition of Blake Yeats had prepared with Edwin Ellis in 1893 was introduced by an essay on “The Necessity of Symbolism.” In 1894 Yeats visited Paris in the company of Symons and there saw a performance of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël. The essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900) is then Yeats’ first full statement of his symbolist creed. Symons’ dedication to Yeats shows an awareness of symbolism as an international movement. “In Germany,” he says, exaggerating greatly, “it seems to be permeating the whole of literature, its spirit is that which is deepest in Ibsen, it has absorbed the one new force in Italy, Gabriele D’Annunzio. I am told of a group of symbolists in Russian literature, there is another in Dutch literature, in Portugal it has a little school of its own under Eugenio de Castro. I even saw some faint stirrings that way in Spain.”

Symons should have added the United States. Or could he in 1899? There were intelligent and sympathetic reports of the French movement very early. T. S. Perry wrote on “The Latest Literary Fashion in France” in The Cosmopolitan (1892), T. Child on “Literary Paris—The New Poetry” inHarper’s (1896), and Aline Gorren on “The French Symbolists” in Scribner’s (1893). The almost forgotten Vance Thompson, who, fresh from Paris, edited the oddly named review M’lle New York, wrote several perceptive essays, mainly on Mallarmé in 1895 (reprinted in French Portraits, 1900) which convey some accurate information on his theories and even attempt an explication of his poetry with some success. But only James Huneker became the main importer of recent French literature into the United States. In 1896 he defended the French symbolists against the slurs in Max Nordau’s silly Entartung and began to write a long series of articles on Maeterlinck, Laforgue, and many others, not bothering to conceal his dependence on his French master, Remy de Gourmont, to whom he dedicated his book of essays Visionaries (1905). But the actual impact of French symbolist poetry on American writing was greatly delayed. René Taupin, in his L’Influence du symoblisme français sur la poésie américaine (1929), traced some echoes in forgotten American versifiers of the turn of the century, but only two Americans living then in England, Ezra Pound around 1908 and T. S. Eliot around 1914, reflect the French influence in significant poetry.

More recently and in retrospect one hears of a symbolist period in American literature: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are its main poets; Henry James, Faulkner, and O’Neill, in very different ways and in different stages of their career, show marked affinities with its techniques and outlook. Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931) was apparently the very first book which definitely conceived of symbolism as an international movement and singled out Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Valéry, Proust, and Thomas Mann as examples of a movement which, he believed, had come to an end at the time of his writing. Here we find the conception formulated which, very generally, is the thesis of this paper and the assumption of many historians since Wilson’s sketch. Wilson’s sources were the writings of Huneker, whom he admired greatly, and the instruction in French literature he received in Princeton from Christian Gauss. But the insight into the unity and continuity of the international movement and the selection of the great names was his own. We might only deplore the inclusion of Gertrude Stein. But I find it difficult to believe that Wilson’s book could have had any influence outside the English-speaking world.

In the United States Wilson’s reasonable and moderate plea for an international movement was soon displaced by attempts to make the whole of the American literary tradition symbolist. F. O. Matthiessen’s The American Renaissance (1941) is based on a distinction between symbol and allegory very much in the terms of the distinction introduced by Goethe. Allegory appears as inferior to symbol: Hawthorne inferior to Melville. But in Charles Feidelson’s Symbolism and American Literature (1956) the distinction between modern symbolism and the use of symbols by romantic authors is completely obliterated. Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Whitman appear as pure symbolists avant la lettre, and their ancestry is traced back to the Puritans, who paradoxically appear as incomplete, frustrated symbolists. It can be rightly objected that the old Puritans were sharply inimical to images and symbols and that there is a gulf between the religious conception of signs of God’s Providence and the aesthetic use of symbols in the novels of Hawthorne and Melville and even in the Platonizing aesthetics of Emerson.

The symbolist conception of American literature is still prevalent today. It owes its dominance to the attempt to exalt the great American writers to myth-makers and providers of a substitute religion. James Baird, in Ishmael (1956), puts it unabashedly. Melville is “the supreme example of the artistic creator engaged in the act of making new symbols to replace the ‘lost’ symbols of Protestant Christianity.” A very active trend in American criticism expanded symbolist interpretation to all types and periods of literature, imposing it on writings which have no such meaning or have to be twisted to assume it. Harry Levin rightly complained in an address, “ Symbolism and Fiction” (1956), that “every hero may seem to have a thousand faces; every heroine may be a white goddess incognita; every fishing trip turns out to be another quest for the Holy Grail.” The impact of ideas from the Cambridge anthropologists and from Carl Jung is obvious. In the study of medieval texts a renewed interest in the fourfold levels of meaning in Dante’s letter to Can Grande has persuaded a whole group of American scholars, mainly under the influence of D. W. Robertson, to interpret or misinterpret Chaucer, the Pearl poet, and Langland in these terms. They should bear in mind that Thomas Aquinas recognized only a literal sense in a work invented by human industry and that he reserved the other three senses for Scripture. The symbolist interpretation reaches heights of ingenuity in the writing of Northrop Frye, who began with a book on Blake and, in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), conceived of the whole of literature as a selfenclosed system of symbols and myths, “existing in its own universe, no longer a commentary on life or reality, but containing life and reality in a system of verbal relationships.” In this grandiose conception all distinctions between periods and styles are abolished: “the literary universe is a universe in which everything is potentially identical with everything else.” Hence the old distinctions between myth, symbol, and allegory disappear. One of Frye’s followers, Angus Fletcher, in his book onAllegory (1964), exalts allegory as the central procedure of art, while Frye still holds fast to symbolism, recognizing that “the critics are often prejudiced against allegory without knowing the real reason, which is that continuous allegory prescribes the direction of his commentary, and so restricts his freedom.”

The story of the spread of symbolism is very different in other countries. The effect in Italy was ostensibly rather small. Soffici’s pamphlet on Rimbaud in 1911 is usually considered the beginning of the French symbolist influence, but there was an early propagandist for Mallarmé, Vittorio Pica, who was heavily dependent on French sources, particularly Téodor de Wyzéwa. His articles, in theGazetta letteraria (1885–86), on the French poets do not use the term; but in 1896 he replaced “decadent” and “Byzantine” by “symbolist.” D’Annunzio, who knew and used some French symbolists, would be classed as “decadent” today, and the poets around Ungaretti and Montale as “hermetic.” In a recent book by Mario Luzi, L’Idea simbolista (1959), Pascoli, Dino Campana, and Arturo Onofri are called symbolist poets, but Luzi uses the term so widely that he begins his anthology of symbolism with Hölderlin and Novalis, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and can include Poe, Browning, Pat- more, Swinburne, Hopkins, and Francis Thompson among its precursors. Still, his list of symbolist poets, French, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and Greek, is, on the whole, reasonable. Onofri was certainly strongly influenced by Mallarmé and later by Rudolf Steiner; Pascoli, however, seems to me no symbolist in his poetry, though he gave extremely symbolist interpretations of Dante. It might be wiser to think of “ermetismo” as the Italian name for symbolism: Montale and possibly Dino Campana are genuine symbolists.

While symbolism, at least as a definite school or movement, was absent in Italy, it is central in the history of Spanish poetry. The Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío initiated it after his short stay in Paris in 1892. He wrote poems under the symbolist influence and addressed, for instance, a fervent hymn to Verlaine. The influence of French symbolist poetry changed completely the oratorical or popular style of Spanish lyrical poetry. The closeness of Guillén to Mallarmé and Valéry seems too obvious to deny, and the Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig (1873–1909) is clearly in the symbolist tradition, often of the obscurest manner. Still, the Spanish critics favor the term “Modernismo,” which is used sometimes so inclusively that it covers all modern Spanish poetry and even the socalled “generation of 1898,” the prose writers Azorín, Baroja, and Unamuno, whose associations with symbolism were quite tenuous. “Symbolism” can apply only to one trend in modern Spanish literature, as the romantic popular tradition was stronger there than elsewhere. García Lorca’s poetry can serve as the best known example of the peculiar Spanish synthesis of the folksy and the symbolical, the gypsy song and the myth. Still, the continuity from Darío to Jiménez, Antonio Machado, Alberti, and then to Guillén seems to me evident. Jorge Guillén in his Harvard lectures,Language and Poetry (1961), finds “no label convincing.” “A period look,” he argues, does not signify a “group style.” In Spain there were, he thinks, fewer “isms” than elsewhere and the break with the past was far less abrupt. He reflects that “any name seeking to give unity to a historical period is the invention of posterity.” But while eschewing the term “symbolism,” he characterizes himself and his contemporaries well enough by expounding their common creed: their belief in the marriage of Idea and music—in short, their belief in the ideal of Mallarmé. Following a vague suggestion made by Remy de Gourmont, the rediscovery of Góngora by Ortega y Gasset, Gerardo Diego, Dámaso Alonso, and Alfonso Reyes around 1927 fits into the picture: they couple Góngora and Mallarmé as the two poets who in the history of all poetry have gone furthest in the search for absolute poetry, for the quintessence of the poetic.

In Germany the spread of symbolism was far less complete than Symons assumed in 1899. Stefan George had come to Paris in 1889, had visited Mallarmé and met many poets, but after his return to Germany he avoided, I assume deliberately, the term “symbolism” for himself and his circle. He translated a selection from Baudelaire (1891) and smaller samples from Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Régnier (in Zeitgenössische Dichter, 1905), but his own poetry does not, I think, show very close parallels to the French masters. Oddly enough, the poems of Vielé-Griffin seem to have left the most clearly discernible traces on George’s own writings. As early as 1892 one of George’s adherents, Carl August Klein, protested in George’s periodical, Blätter für die Kunst, against the view of George’s dependence on the French. Wagner, Nietzsche, Böcklin, and Klinger, he says, show that there is an indigenous opposition to naturalism in Germany as everywhere in the West. George himself spoke later of the French poets as his “former allies,” and in Gundolf’s authoritative book on George the French influence is minimized, if not completely denied. Among the theorists of the George circle Friedrich Gundolf had the strongest symbolist leanings: Shakspeare und der deutsche Geist (1911) and Goethe (1916) are based on the distinction of symbolallegory, with symbol always the higher term. Still, the term symbolism did not catch on in Germany as a name for any specific group, though Hofmannsthal— e.g. in “Das Gespräch über Gedichte” of 1903—proclaimed the symbol the one element necessary in poetry. Later, the influence of Rimbaud— apparently largely in German translation—Iron Georg Trakl has been demonstrated with certainty. But if we examine German books on twentiethcentury literature, symbolism seems rarely used. I found a section so called in Willi Duwe’s Die Dichtung des 20. Jahrhunderts (1936) which includes Hofmannsthal, Dauthendey, Calé, Rilke, and George, while E. H. Lüth’s Literatur als Geschichte (Deutsche Dichtung von 1885 bis 1947), published in 1947, treats the same poets under the label “Neuromantik und Impressionismus.” Later, however, we find a section, “Parasymbolismus,” which deals with Musil and Broch. Hugo Friedrich, in his Struktur der modernen Lyrik (1956), avoids the terms and argues that the quick succession of modernist styles—dadaism, surrealism, futurism, expressionism, unanimism hermetism, and so on—creates an optical illusion which hides the fact of a direct continuity through Mallarmé, Valéry, Guillén, Ungaretti, and Eliot. The little anthology in the back of the book adds St. John Perse, Jiménez, García Lorca, Alberti, and Montale to these names. Friedrich’s list seems to me the list of the main symbolist poets, even though Friedrich objects to the name. Clearly, German literary scholarship has not been converted to the term, though Wolfgang Kayser’s article “Der europäische Symbolismus” (1953) had pleaded for a wide concept in which he included, in addition to the French poets, D’Annunzio, Yeats, Valéry, Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner.

In Russia we find the strongest symbolist group of poets who called themselves that. The close links with Paris at that time may help to explain this, or possibly also the strong consciousness of a tradition of symbolism in the Russian Church and in some of the Orthodox thinkers of the immediate past. Vladimir Solovëv was regarded as a precursor. In 1892 Zinaida Vengerova wrote a sympathetic account of the French symbolists for Vestnik Evropy, while in the following year Max Nordau’s Entartung caused a sensation by its satirical account of recent French poetry which had repercussions on Tolstoy’s What is Art?, as late as 1898. Bryusov emerged as the leading symbolist poet: he translated Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and wrote a poem “Iz Rimbaud” as early as 1892. In 1894 he published two little volumes under the title Russkie simvolisty. That year Bryusov wrote poems with titles such as “In the Spirit of the French Symbolists” and “In the Manner of Stéphane Mallarmé” (though these were not published till 1935) and brought out a translation of Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles. Bryusov had later contacts with René Ghil, Mallarmé’s pupil, and derived from him the idea of “instrumentation” in poetry which was to play such a great role in the theories of the Russian Formalists. In the meantime Dimitri Merezhkovsky had, in 1893, published a manifesto: On the Causes of the Decline and the New Trends of Contemporary Russian Literature, which recommended symbolism, though Merezhkovsky appealed to the Germans: to Goethe and the romantics rather than to the French. Merezhkovsky’s pamphlet foreshadows the split in the Russian symbolist movement. The younger men, Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov as well as Bely, distanced themselves from Bryusov and Balmont. Blok, in an early diary (1901–02), condemned Bryusov as decadent and opposed to his Parisian symbolism his own, Russian, rooted in the poetry of Tyutchev, Fet, Polonsky, and Solovëv. Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910 shared Blok’s view. The French influence seemed to him “adolescently unreasonable and, in fact, not very fertile,” while his own symbolism appealed to Russian nationalism and to the general mystical tradition. Later Bely was to add occultism and Rudolf Steiner and his “anthroposophy.” The group of poets who called themselves “Acmeists” (Gulmilëv, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam) was a direct outgrowth of symbolism. The mere fact that they appealed to the early symbolist Innokenty Annensky shows the continuity with symbolism in spite of their distaste for the occult and their emphasis on what they thought of as classical clarity. Symbolism dominates Russian poetry between about 1892 and 1914, when Futurism emerged as a slogan and the Russian Formalists attacked the whole concept of poetry as imagery.

If we glance at the other Slavic countries we are struck by the diversity of their reactions. Poland was informed early on about the French movement, and Polish poetry was influenced by the French symbolist movement, but the term “Ml⁄asoda Polska” was preferred. In Wilhelm Feldmann’s Wspól⁄- czesna literatura polska (1905) contemporary poetry is discussed as “decadentism,” but Wyspian´- ski (a symbolist if ever there was one) appears under the chapter heading: “On the Heights of Romanticism.” All the histories of Polish literature I have seen speak of “Modernism,” “Decadentism,” “Idealism,” “Neo-romanticism,” and occasionally call a poet such as Miriam (Zenon Przesmycki) a symbolist, but they never seem to use the term as a general name for a period in Polish literature.

In Czech literature the situation was more like that in Russia: Brˇezina, Sova, and Hlavácˇek were called symbolists, and the idea of a school or at least a group of Czech symbolist poets is firmly established. The term “Moderna” (possibly because of the periodical Moderní Revue, founded in 1894) is definitely associated with decadentism, fin de siècle, a group represented by Arnosˇt Procházka. A hymnical, optimistic, even chiliastic poet such as Brˇezina cannot and could not be classed with them. The great critic F. X. Sˇalda wrote of the “school of symbolists” as early as 1891, calling Verlaine, Villiers, and Mallarmé its masters but denied that there is a school of symbolists with dogmas, codices, and manifestoes. His very first important article, “Synthetism in the New Art” (1892), expounded the aesthetics of Morice and Hennequin for the benefit of the Czechs, then still mainly dependent on German models.

The unevenness of the penetration of both the influence of the French movement and very strikingly of the acceptance of the term raises the question whether we can account for these differences in causal terms. It sounds heretical or obscurantist in this age of scientific explanation to ascribe much to chance, to casual contacts, and to personal predilections. Why was the term so immensely successful in France, in the United States, and in Russia, less so in England and Spain, and hardly at all in Italy and Germany? In Germany there was even the tradition of the continuous debate about symbol since Goethe and Schelling; before the French movement Friedrich Theodor Vischer discussed the symbol elaborately and still the term did not catch on. One can think of all kinds of explanations: a deliberate decision by the poets to distance themselves from the French developments; or the success of the terms “Die Moderne” and “Neuromantik.” Still, the very number of such explanations suggests that the variables are so great that we cannot account for these divergencies in any systematic manner.

If we, at long last, turn to the central question of what the exact content of the term is, we must obviously distinguish among the four concentric circles defining its scope. At its narrowest, “symbolism” refers to the French group which called itself “symbolist” in 1886. Its theory was rather rudimentary. These poets mainly wanted poetry to be non-rhetorical—i.e. they asked for a break with the tradition of Hugo and the Parnassiens. They wanted words not merely to state but to suggest; they wanted to use metaphors, allegories, and symbols not only as decorations but as organizing principles of their poems; they wanted their verse to be “musical,” in practice to stop using the oratorical cadences of the French alexandrines, and in some cases to break completely with rhyme. Free verse— whose invention is usually ascribed to Gustave Kahn—was possibly the most enduring achievement which has survived all vicissitudes of style. Kahn himself in 1894 summed up the doctrine simply as “antinaturalism, antiprosaism in poetry, a search for freedom in the efforts in art, in reaction against the regimentation of the Parnasse and the naturalists.” This sounds very meager today: freedom from restrictions has been, after all, the slogan of a great many movements in art.

It is better to think of “symbolism” in a wider sense: as the broad movement in France from Nerval and Baudelaire to Claudel and Valéry. We can restate the theories propounded and will be confronted by an enormous variety. We can characterize it more concretely and say, for example, that in symbolist poetry the image becomes “thing.” The relation of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor is reversed. The utterance is divorced, we may add, from the situation: time and place, history and society, are played down. The inner world, the durée, in the Bergsonian sense, is represented or often merely hinted at as “it,” the thing or the person hidden. One could say that the grammatical predicate has become the subject. Clearly such poetry can easily be justified by an occult view of the world. But this is not necessary: it might imply a feeling for analogy, for a web of correspondences, a rhetoric of metamorphoses in which everything reflects everything else. Hence the great role of synesthesia, which, though rooted in physiological facts and found all over the history of poetry, became at that time merely a stylistic device, a mannerism easily imitated and transmitted. This characterization could be elaborated considerably if we bear in mind that style and world view go together and only together can define the character of a period or even of a single poet.

Let me try to show, at least, how diverse and even incompatible were the theories of two such related poets as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Baudelaire’s aesthetic is mainly “romantic,” not in the sense of emotionalism, nature worship, and exaltation of the ego, central in French romanticism, but rather in the English and German tradition of a glorification of creative imagination, a rhetoric of metamorphoses and universal analogy. Though there are subsidiary strands in Baudelaire’s aesthetics, at his finest he grasps the role of imagination, “constructive imagination,” as he calls it in a term ultimately derived from Coleridge. It gives a metaphysical meaning, “a positive relation with the infinite.” Art is another cosmos which transforms and hence humanizes nature. By his creation the artist abolishes the gulf between subject and object, man and nature. Art is “to create a suggestive magic containing at one and the same time the object and the subject, the external world and the artist himself.”

Mallarmé says almost the opposite in spite of some superficial resemblances and the common attachment to Poe and Wagner. Mallarmé was the first poet radically discontent with the ordinary language of communication; he attempted to construe an entirely separate language of poetry far more consistently than older cultivators of “poetic diction” such as the practitioners of trobar clus, or Góngora, or Mallarmé’s contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His aim of transforming language was, no doubt, in part negative: to exclude society, nature, and the person of the poet himself.

But it was also positive: language was again to become “real,” language was to be magic, words were to become things. But this is not, I think, sufficient reason to call Mallarmé a mystic. Even the depersonalization he requires is not mystical. Impersonality is rather objectivity, Truth. Art reaches for the Idea, which is ultimately inexpressible, because so abstract and general as to be devoid of any concrete traits. The term “flower” seems to him poetic because it suggests the “one, absent from all bouquets.” Art thus can only hint and suggest, not transform as it should in Baudelaire. The “symbol” is only one device to achieve this effect. The so-called “negative” aesthetics of Mallarmé is thus nothing obscure. It had its psychological basis in a feeling of sterility, impotence, and final silence. He was a perfectionist who proposed something impossible of fulfillment: the book to end all books. “Everything on earth exists to be contained in a book.” Like many poets before him, Mallarmé wants to express the mystery of the universe but feels that this mystery is not only insoluble and immensely dark but also hollow, empty, silent, Nothingness itself. There seems no need to appeal to Buddhism, Hegel, Schopenhauer, or Wagner to account for this. The atmosphere of nineteenth-century pessimism and the general Neoplatonic tradition in aesthetics suffice. Art searches for the Absolute but despairs of ever reaching it. The essence of the world is Nothingness, and the poet can only speak of this Nothingness. Art alone survives in the universe. Man’s main vocation is to be an artist, a poet, who can save something from the general wreckage of time. The work or, in Mallarmé’s terms, the Book is suspended over the Void, the silent godless Nothingness. Poetry is resolutely cut off from concrete reality, from the expression of the personality of the poet, from any rhetoric or emotion, and becomes only a Sign, signifying Nothing. In Baudelaire, on the other hand, poetry transforms nature, extracts flowers from evil, creates a new myth, reconciles man and nature.

But if we examine the actual verse of the symbolists of this period, we cannot be content with formulas either of creative imagination, of suggestion, or of pure or absolute poetry.

On the third wider circle of abstraction we can apply the term to the whole period on an international scale. Every such term is arbitrary, but symbolism can be defended as rooted in the concepts of the period, as distinct in meaning, and as clearly setting off the period from that preceding it: realism or naturalism. The difference from romanticism may be less certainly implied. Obviously there is a continuity with romanticism, and particularly German romanticism, also in France, as has been recently argued again by Werner Vordtriede in hisNovalis und die französischen Symbolisten (1963). The direct contact of the French with the German romantics came late and should not be overrated. Jean Thorel, in “Les Romantiques allemandes et les symbolistes français,” seems to have been the first to point out the relation. Maeterlinck’s article on Novalis (1894) and his little anthology (1896) came late in the movement. But Wagner of course mediated between the symbolists and German mythology, though Mallarmé’s attitude, admiring toward the music, was tinged with irony for Wagner’s subject matter. Early in the century Heine, a romantique défroqué as he called himself, played the role of an intermediary which, to my mind, has been exaggerated in Kurt Weinberg’s study, Henri Heine: Héraut du symbolisme français (1954). E. T. A. Hoffmann, we should not forget, was widely translated into French and could supply occult motifs, a transcendental view of music, and the theory and practice of synesthesia.

Possibly even more important were the indirect contacts through English writers: through Carlyle’s chapter on symbolism in Sartor Resartus and his essay on Novalis; through Coleridge, from whom, through another intermediary, Mrs. Crowe, Baudelaire drew his definition of creative imagination; and through Emerson, who was translated by Edgar Quinet.

Also, French thinkers of the early nineteenth century knew the theory of symbolism at least, from the wide application to all the religions of the world made by Creuzer, whose Symbolik was translated into French in 1825. Pierre Leroux used the idea of “symbolic poetry” prominently in the early thirties. There was Edgar Allan Poe, who drew on Coleridge and A. W. Schlegel and seemed so closely to anticipate Baudelaire’s views that Baudelaire quoted him as if he were Poe himself, sometimes dropping all quotations marks.

The enormous influence of Poe on the French demonstrates, however, most clearly the difference between romanticism and symbolism. Poe is far from being a representative of the romantic worldview or of the romantic aesthetic, in which the imagination is conceived as transforming nature. Poe has been aptly described as an “angel in a machine”: he combines a faith in technique and even technology, a distrust of inspiration, a rationalistic eighteenth-century mind with a vague occult belief in “supernal” beauty. The distrust of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it; while Rilke, a symbolist in many of his procedures and views, appears as highly romantic in his reliance on moments of inspiration. This is why Hugo Friedrich excludes him from his book on the modern lyric and even disparages him in a harsh passage. This is why the attempt to make Mallarmé a spiritual descendant of Novalis, as Vordtriede tried, must fail. Mallarmé, one might grant, aims at transcendence, but it is an empty transcendence, while Novalis rapturously adores the unity of the mysterious universe. In short, the romantics were Rousseauists; the symbolists, beginning with Baudelaire, believe in the fall of man or, if they do not use the religious phraseology, know that man is limited and is not, as Novalis believed, the Messiah of nature. The end of the romantic period is clearly marked by the victory of positivism and scientism, which soon led to disillusionment and pessimism. Most symbolists were non-Christians and even atheists, even if they tried to find a new religion in occultism or flirted with Oriental religions. They were pessimists who need not have read Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, as Laforgue did, to succumb to the mood of decadence, fin de siècle, Götterdämmerung, or the death of God prophesied by Nietzsche.

Symbolism is also clearly set off from the new avant-garde movements after 1914: futurism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, and so on. There the faith in language has crumbled completely, while in Mallarmé and Valéry language preserves its cognitive and even magic power: Valéry’s collection of poems is rightly called Charmes. Orpheus is the mythological hero of the poet, charming the animals, trees, and even stones. With more recent art the view of analogy disappears: Kafka has nothing of it. Postsymbolist art is abstract and allegorical rather than symbolic. The image, in surrealism, has no beyond: it wells, at most, from the subconscious of the individual.

Finally, there is the highest abstraction, the wide largest circle: the use of “symbolism” in all literature, of all ages. But then the term, broken loose from its historical moorings, lacks concrete content and remains merely the name for a phenomenon almost universal in all art.

These reflections must lead to what only can be a recommendation, to use the third sense of our term, to call the period of European literature roughly between 1885 and 1914 “symbolism,” to see it as an international movement which radiated originally from France but produced great writers and great poetry also elsewhere. In Ireland and England: Yeats and Eliot; in the United States: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; in Germany: George, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal; in Russia: Blok, Ivanov, and Bely; in Spain and South America: Darío, Machado, and Guillén. If we, as we should, extend the meaning of symbolism to prose, we can see it clearly in the late Henry James, in Joyce, in the later Thomas Mann, in Proust, in the early Gide and Faulkner, in D. H. Lawrence; and if we add the drama, we recognize it in the later stages of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hauptmann, and in O’Neill. There is symbolist criticism of distinction: an aesthetics in Mallarmé and Valéry, a looser creed in Remy de Gourmont, in Eliot, and in Yeats, and a flourishing school of symbolist interpretation, particularly in the United States. Much of the French “new criticism” is frankly symbolist. Roland Barthes’ new pamphlet, Critique et vérité (1966), pleads for a complete liberty of symbolist interpretation.

Still, we must not forget our initial reminder. A period concept can never exhaust its meaning. It is not a class concept of which the individual works are cases. It is a regulative idea: it struggles with preceding and following ideals of art. In the time under consideration the strength of the survivals was particularly great: Hauptmann’s Die Weber was performed in the same year (1892) asBlätter für die Kunst began to appear; Blok’s Poems on the Beautiful Lady were written in the same year (1901) as Gorky’s Lower Depths. Within the same author and even within the same work of art the struggle was waged at times. Edmond Jaloux called Joyce “at the same time a realist and a symbolist.” The same is true of Proust and Mann. Ulysses combines symbolism and naturalism, as no other book of the time, into a synthesis of grand proportion and strong tension. In Trieste Joyce lectured on two English writers and on two English writers alone: they were characteristically Defoe and Blake.

As agreement on the main periods of European literature grows, so agreement to add the period term “symbolism” to the five periods now accepted should increase. But even were a different term to be victorious (though none I can think of seems to me even remotely preferable), we should always recognize that such a term has fulfilled its function as a tool of historiography if it has made us think not only about individual works and authors but about schools, trends, and movements and their international expansion. Symbolism is at least a literary term which will help us to counteract the dependence of much literary history on periodization derived from political and social history (such as the term “ Imperialism” used in Marxist literary histories, which is perfectly meaningless applied to poetry at that time). Symbolism is a term (and I am quoting the words I applied to baroque in 1945) “which prepares for synthesis, draws our minds away from the mere accumulation of observations and facts, and paves the way for a future history of literature as a fine art.”

Source: Rene Wellek, “The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History,” in Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 90–121.


Critical Overview