The Development of the Modern Prose Poem in Symbolist Literature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

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 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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7874

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’s
Geschichte 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
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’s
Axel’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
(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
(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 (in
Academy, 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” in
Harper’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

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 on
Allegory (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 the
Gazetta 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

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 his
Novalis 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
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
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
was performed in the same year (1892) as
Blätter 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.

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Critical Overview