Historical Context

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Although the subject matter of symbolist poetry was focused on the individual and was generally apolitical, several of the symbolist poets themselves were involved in major political events that took place in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. These events included the Revolution of 1848, the Second Empire, the Franco- German War, and the Paris Commune.

The Revolution of 1848 in France was a uprising of citizens that resulted in the overthrow of the existing constitutional monarchy under King Luis-Philippe. The revolution consisted of three days of rioting during the month of February, in which the army engaged in a violent clash with a crowd of demonstrators. As a result of this public unrest, the king chose to abdicate the throne and named his nine-year-old grandson as his successor. Thus began the period of French government known as the Second Republic, which included a new constitution providing for a variety of social reforms. Four months after the formation of the Second Republic, civil unrest again erupted in Paris in a four-day-long civil war known as the June Days. The June Days were sparked when workers, supported by students and artisans, protested against government budget cuts that denied welfare to thousands of unemployed people. This rebellion ended after the army shot and killed 1,500 demonstrators and arrested 12,000 of them. The symbolist poet Baudelaire, at that time still unpublished, is known to have participated in both the February and the June uprisings of 1848.

In the first presidential election of the Second Republic, voters chose Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. According to the constitution of the Second Republic, no president could serve more than one four-year term. Thus, after serving several years as president, Louis- Napoleon Bonaparte, who wished to maintain his position as leader of France, staged a coup of his own government in 1851. After some seventy politicians were arrested, Napoleon presented a new constitution and formulated a new government. The citizens of France immediately responded to Napoleon’s actions by staging mass protests throughout Paris and the outlying provinces. In the course of several days of demonstrations, the police and military killed hundreds of protestors and arrested some 27,000 people. Although he was not harmed or arrested, Baudelaire is known to have participated in these demonstrations. After these events, Baudelaire gave up on political activism and focused his attentions on writing. In 1852, Louis- Napoleon had himself named Emperor Napoleon III of France, beginning an era of French government known as the Second Empire.

The advent of the Franco-German War (also known as the Franco-Prussian War), brought an end to the Second Empire of France. In 1870, France declared war on Germany, after which time German troops invaded France. When war broke out, Huysmans, not yet a published author, was called to military duty. However, he almost immediately contracted dysentery and spent most of the war in various military hospitals without seeing battle. Huysmans was eventually granted sick leave from the military, and returned home to Paris. Arriving home, he found himself in a Paris besieged by Prussian forces. Huysmans diligently kept notes on his experiences of the siege that he intended to use for a later novel (a project which he continued to work on after the war but never completed).

In the Battle of Sedan, French military forces, headed by the Emperor Napoleon, were surrounded and defeated by the Germans in 1870. The French surrendered and Napoleon, along with thousands of French troops, was taken as a prisoner of war. On the home front in Paris, citizens disillusioned by the capture of...

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Napoleon took to the streets to demand a new government. Thus, in 1870 a new government in France, known as the Third Republic, was formed without violent conflict. Early in 1871, France signed an armistice with Prussia. The Third Republic lasted until the German occupation of France during World War II.

Although the Third Republic endured until World War II, it was not without opposition. In 1871, a rebellion in France known as the Paris Commune lasted some two-and-a-half months. The Paris Commune began when a coalition of political activists in Paris, opposing a variety of Third Republic initiatives, organized an insurrection against the newly formed government. Soon, a municipal government, known as the Commune of Paris, was formed by the revolutionaries, who were known as the communards. Similar communes were formed in outlying cities, but were quickly put down by the French government. Huysmans, who held a low-level government post during and after the Franco-German war, fled with the French government to Versailles for the duration of the Paris Commune. Rimbaud, still a teenager and not yet published, ran away from home to participate in the Paris Commune. After three weeks, Rimbaud returned home, narrowly missing the bloody conflict that was to follow, when government troops violently crushed the rebellion during what became known as the “Bloody Week.” The communards responded by executing hostages, among whom was the archbishop of Paris, and setting fire to major municipal buildings. Some 20,000 rebels and 750 government troops were killed during the “Bloody Week,” and some 45,000 insurrectionists were arrested or deported. The defeat of the Paris Commune effectively squelched political resistance in France for years afterward. Rimbaud, disillusioned by this defeat, turned his focus from political activism to the pursuit of writing. Huysmans returned to Paris with other government officials after the insurrection was put down.

Literary Style

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Free Verse Free verse or Vers libre was developed by the symbolist poets as a form of verse liberated from the traditional formal requirements of French poetry, such as meter and rhyme. The symbolists felt the formal qualities of a poem should emerge from its content, rather than being imposed upon it by the rules of tradition. Free verse poetry thus tends to be structured according to the rhythms of everyday speech. French symbolist poets Jules Laforgue (1860–1887) and Gustave Kahn (1859–1936) were the first to develop free verse, which they began to use in the 1880s. Because of the influence of symbolist poetry, free verse came to characterize modern poetry in the twentieth century. Early English-language poets who used free verse include T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Musicality of Language Symbolist writers were particularly interested in bringing out the musical qualities of language. They developed works of lyrical beauty in which language was orchestrated with image to create a symphony of mood and suggestion. Verlaine and Mallarmé are particularly revered for the musical qualities of their poetry. Blok brought musicality to Russian verse in his ballad The Twelve. In drama, the plays of Maeterlinck are notable for the musical qualities of the dialogue.

Mood The symbolists focused on evoking a strong sense of mood through the use of language. Moods such as longing, regret, a sense of loss, and reverie are often expressed in symbolist literature. The poets strove to evoke specific moods through the expression of subtle internal states of mind. In symbolist fiction and drama, plot is less important than the overall mood or atmosphere that is created.

The Fairy Tale A number of symbolist writers drew from traditional folktales and fairytales in their works of poetry, fiction, and drama. Maeterlinck, for example, in his plays The Princess Maleine and Pelleas and Melisande, drew from a variety of popular folktales to create dramas set in traditional fairytale settings and featuring characters from folk literature. Rimbaud drew extensively on the fairytale in experimental narrative poems that transform this traditional genre.

Movement Variations

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International Influence The symbolist movement, though begun in France, had a profound influence on international literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Inspired by the reading of French symbolist poetry in translation, the poets of the Russian symbolist movement emerged during the 1890s. Russian Symbolism is one of the early literary movements that characterized the “Silver Age” in Russia, a period of great intellectual and literary achievement. The development of Russian symbolist literature was inspired by the writings of the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), in conjunction with French symbolist literature. The Russian symbolist movement is dated from the 1893 publication of the essay “On the Reasons for the De- cline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature,” written by Dmitry Merezhkovsky.

Russian symbolist literature developed in two waves. The first wave included the poet Valery Bryusov (1873–1924), who translated French symbolist poetry into Russian and was regarded as the leader of Russian Symbolism; the poet Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945); and the poet and novelist Fyodor Sologub. The second wave of Russian Symbolism is associated with three major literary figures: Aleksandr Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, and Andrey Bely. Blok, considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, is celebrated for his symbolist verse ballad The Twelve, a religious parable that takes place during the Russian Revolution. Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949) is known as a symbolist poet and a major theoretical influence on Russian Symbolism. Andrey Bely (1880–1934) is best known for his symbolist novel Petersburg.

While other national cultures did not necessarily develop their own unique symbolist movements, the modernist literature of many nations did develop out of symbolist influence. English literature in particular was influenced by Symbolism, including the works of poet T. S. Eliot and poet and playwright W. B. Yeats, as well as novelists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The imagist movement in American and English poetry, developed by Ezra Pound and others, was also inspired by Symbolism. German writers, particularly poet Rainer Maria Rilke and novelist Thomas Mann, were affected by Symbolism, which also exerted influence on Japanese and Turkish literature.

Theatre Symbolist theatre developed in France in conjunction with the works of symbolist playwrights. In 1890, Paul Fort founded the Theatre d’Art in Paris, which produced works of symbolist drama. In 1892, upon the death of Fort, Aurelien Lugne- Poe founded the Theatre de l’Oeuvre from the Theatre d’Art. Symbolist theatre was particularly influenced by the literary ideals of Mallarmé. The theatrical productions were a reaction against realist drama in staging, costumes, and performance style. The influence of symbolist painting affected the use of backdrops and stage sets to embody the symbolist ideals of recreating specific moods and internal states of mind, rather than reproducing realistic settings or scenarios. Maeterlinck is the most celebrated symbolist playwright. Other major symbolist playwrights include the French writers Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838–1889) and Paul Claudel (1868–1955).

Painting Symbolist painting was as important to the development of modern art as symbolist poetry was to the development of modern literature. Symbolist painting was inspired by symbolist poetry and was a reaction against Realism and Impressionism. Symbolist painters focused on depicting the world of dream, myth, fantasy, and the imagination, and on creating visual expressions of internal moods and subjective states of mind. The most important symbolist painters were Odilon Redon (1840– 1916), who was a close friend of Mallarmé; Gustave Moreau (1826–1898); and Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898).

Music Symbolism exerted a significant influence on musical composition of the twentieth century. Most notably, French composers Claude Debussy (1862–1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) applied symbolist ideals to their music. Like Baudelaire and other symbolist poets, Debussy was strongly influenced by the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy’s famous composition Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) is based on Mallarmé’s The Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy also adapted Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande as an operatic composition with a libretto by Maeterlinck himself, first performed in 1902. Ravel adapted the poetry of Mallarmé to music in his 1913 vocal composition Trois poèmes de Stephane Mallarmé (Three Poems by Stephane Mallarmé).

Compare and Contrast

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1850–1900: France experiences several internal rebellions and major changes of government. The Second Republic, a constitutional democracy ruled by a president, lasts from the Revolution of 1848 until 1852. The Second Empire, under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III, remains relatively stable from 1852 until 1870. The Third Republic, a constitutional democracy with a president, remains relatively stable from 1871 until the German occupation of France in 1940.

Today: The current French government, known as the Fifth Republic, is a constitutional democracy ruled by a president. The Fifth Republic was formulated in 1959 and has remained relatively stable for over forty years.

1850–1900: France engages in warfare as well as alliances with several European nations. In the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, France, in alliance with England and Turkey, is at war with Russia. In the Franco-German War of 1870 to 1871, France is invaded and defeated by Germany. In 1894 France enters a pact with Russia known as the dual alliance. According to the dual alliance, the two nations would aid one another in case of aggression by the triple alliance (1882) of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

Today: France—along with Germany, England, Austria, and Italy among others—is a member of the European Union, an organization of some fifteen independent European nations united by various social, political, economic, and legal interests to maintain peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with one another.

1850–1900: After the Revolution of 1848, universal manhood suffrage is established in France, giving all adult males the right to vote in political elections and referenda. Today: Since 1945, women in France, as well as men, have been granted the right to vote.

1850–1900: One of the few European nations that did not experience a revolution in 1848, Russia remains a vast empire ruled by an autocratic csar until the revolution of 1917. A major social reform is enacted in 1861, when the serfs in Russia, essentially peasant slaves, are emancipated and granted the right to own land.

Today: After some seventy years of communist rule (since 1917), the U.S.S.R. is dismantled in 1991 and divided into some twelve independent nation-states, of which Russia is the largest and most powerful. The nations of the former Soviet Union remain strongly associated with one another through the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991.

Representative Works

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The Afternoon of a Faun The Afternoon of a Faun, published by Mallarmé in 1876, is one of the greatest works of symbolist verse. It explores the relationship between the real world and an idealized spiritual world of perfection and beauty. It also deals with sensuality, passion, and physical sensation and how they attain significance through meditation and introspection.

Against the Grain The novel Against the Grain, by Huysmans, was published in 1884 and is considered the greatest work of symbolist fiction. The story concerns a wealthy, privileged, and hypersensitive man who leaves Paris to isolate himself from human society. He does so by shutting himself in a luxurious country home where he sees no one. Even his servants are made to stay out of his sight. Huysmans is less concerned with plot than with the state of mind of his protagonist. Like the symbolist poets, Huysmans wished to explore the inner spiritual and psychological state of the individual through his writing. He employs prose that borders on the poetic, using language in experimental ways that embody symbolist ideals. With Against the Grain, Huysmans made a daring break from the Realism and Naturalism of his literary mentor, the famous French novelist Emile Zola. Huysmans’s admiration of the symbolist poets is expressed within the story when the protagonist reads the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Verlaine.

Flowers of EvilFlowers of Evil, by Baudelaire, was the primary literary inspiration for the symbolist poets, and remains one of the most celebrated works of nineteenth- century French verse. The poems embody the central ideals of Symbolism. Although Baudelaire himself was a precursor to the symbolist movement, Flowers of Evil is considered a major work of symbolist poetry. The first edition of 100 poems was published in 1857. A second edition in 1861 was expanded to include 126 poems. This 1861 edition is divided into six sections: “Spleen et Ideal” (“Spleen and the Ideal”), “Tableaux Parisians” (“Parisian Tableaus”), “Le Vin” (“Wine”), “Fleurs du mal” (“Flowers of Evil”), “Révolte” (“Revolt”), and “La Mort” (“Death”). In Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire maintains traditional formal elements of verse in poems that are highly innovative in theme and imagery. The poems address themes of original sin, beauty, love, death, and the tension between sensuality and spirituality. The subjects of the poems include the spiritual and sensual love of women, the powers of Satan, and the spiritual struggles inherent to the human condition. The section “Parisian Tableaus” was added to the 1861 edition and contains poems about the city of Paris, noted as the first modern urban poetry. Flowers of Evil includes Baudelaire’s most famous poem, “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”), in which the memory of a swan, escaped from the zoo and stranded near the Louvre in Paris symbolizes the human plight of alienation and loss that are commonly addressed in modern literature. Other major poems in this volume include “La Chevelure” (“The Head of Hair”) and “Correspondences.”

Illuminations Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations is considered a masterwork of symbolist prose poetry. It consists of forty-two prose poems first composed in 1873. The collection was not published until 1886, at a time when Rimbaud was traveling the world. Paul Verlaine, to whom Rimbaud had given the manuscript, was unable to contact Rimbaud and published the volume without Rimbaud’s knowledge. Rimbaud himself may never have seen this publication. In Illuminations, Rimbaud developed the prose poem in accordance with the symbolist aesthetic. His unique use of language, punctuation, and informal structure is extremely experimental, leaving many readers baffled about the poems’ meanings and many critics at odds over how to interpret the work. Rimbaud’s themes include the importance of childhood perceptions, the journey as metaphor, the spirit of rebellion, and the mysteries of nature. He frequently ends his poems with a single, powerful line that is both striking and enigmatic.

Pelleas and MelisandePelleas and Melisande, by Maeterlinck, is considered the greatest work of symbolist drama. This five-act play was first produced in 1893. It uses a fairytale setting and revolves around the Princess Melisande, whose passionate love for her husband’s brother leads to doom and destruction. While the plot and characterization are relatively simple, the play expresses a powerful mood of longing in language notable for its musical qualities.

Songs without Words Verlaine’s Songs without Words was published in 1874 and is a collection of poems that captures the musicality of the French language. The volume includes twenty-one poems and is divided into four sections: “Ariettes oubliées” (“Forgotten Ariettas”), “Paysages belges” (“Belgian Landscapes”), “Birds in the Night” (titled in English in the original version), and “Arquarelles” (“Watercolors”). The tone of the poems is highly personal, expressing feelings of passion, guilt, regret, and nostalgia. These poems were written during Verlaine’s travels with Rimbaud to Belgium and England and express his mixed feelings about the wife he abandoned as well as his feelings for Rimbaud. The first edition of Songs without Words was published while Verlaine was imprisoned after having shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a lover’s quarrel. Verlaine originally dedicated the volume to Rimbaud, but the dedication was removed from the published edition because of the scandalous nature of Verlaine’s relationship to Rimbaud.

The Twelve The verse ballad The Twelve, by Blok, was published in 1918 and is a masterpiece of Russian symbolist poetry. It concerns twelve brutal Red Guards on a rampage during the St. Petersburg uprising of 1917 and 1918. Stylistically, The Twelve is celebrated for Blok’s use of language that is both vernacular and musical, expressing harsh vulgarities as well as delicate moods.

Media Adaptations

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Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande was adapted as an opera by Claude Debussy, with a libretto by Maeterlinck, in 1902.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Baudelaire, Charles, The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits poèmes en prose, translated by Edward K. Kaplan, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 129–30.

Kaplan, Edward K., ed., Preface, in The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits poèmes en prose, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. x–xi.

Simic, Charles, “The Poetry of Village Idiots,” in Verse, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996, pp. 7–8, quoted in The Best of “The Prose Poem: An International Journal,” edited by Peter Johnson, White Pine Press, 2000, p. 13.

Truesdale, C. W., Preface, in The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, edited by Robert Alexander, Mark Vinz, and C. W. Truesdale, New Rivers Press, 1996, p. xix.

Further Reading Carter, A. E., Paul Verlaine, Twayne, 1971. Carter provides an authoritative biography of Paul Verlaine, one of the founders of the French symbolist movement in poetry.

Eisenman, Stephen, The Temptations of Saint Redon: Biography, Ideology, and Style in the Noirs of Odilon Redon, University of Chicago Press, 1992. Eisenman provides discussion of thematic and stylistic elements of the symbolist works of Odilon Redon, a major French symbolist artist.

Fowlie, Wallace, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, Duke University Press, 1993. Fowlie offers a comparison of the nineteenth-century French symbolist poet Rimbaud and the 1960s American rock star Jim Morrison. Fowlie asserts that both Rimbaud and Morrison expressed a similar sense of rebellion in their art and that both figures stand as modern antiheroes.

Kolakowski, Leszek, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, Doubleday, 1968. Kolakowski provides a historical overview of the development of positivist thinking. The symbolist movement arose in part as a reaction against the positivist ideals of rational, objective reasoning and scientific method that dominated nineteenth-century thought.

Lacambre, Geneviève, Gustave Moreau: Magic and Symbols, Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Lacambre provides discussion of the life and work of Gustave Moreau, a major French symbolist painter.

Millan, Gordon, A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stephen Mallarmé, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994. Millan provides a biography of the French symbolist poet Mallarmé.

Peyre, Henri, Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962. Peyre offers critical discussion of the poetry of Baudelaire, a major French poet often noted as the grandfather of Symbolism.

Robb, Graham, Rimbaud, W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. Robb provides a biography of Rimbaud, a major French symbolist poet.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide