Themes

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

The Inner Life of the Individual
The symbolist writers were concerned with expressing various elements of the internal life of the individual. They focused on subjective mental impressions, internal moods, delicate emotional states, and spiritual sentiments in reaction against the nineteenth-century focus on objective, external, concrete realities as perceived through rational scientific methods. Their use of imagery often exemplifies states of mind, the imagination, the human psyche, and dreams. Huysmans’s symbolist novel Against the Grain, for example, concerns a man who isolates himself in a country house, avoiding contact with other people; the focus of the novel is thus on the detailed subjective perceptions of the hypersensitive protagonist within an isolated envi- ronment. Many symbolist poems, particularly those of Rimbaud, evoke the inner world of the child, capturing childhood impressions, perceptions, and flights of imagination.

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The Journey
Many symbolist writers describe various journeys, voyages, or quests as metaphors for internal explorations into the inner consciousness of the individual. Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” (“The Voyage”) describes a journey as a symbol of the quest for meaning and satisfaction in life. Rimbaud, who wrote many of his major poems while traveling with Verlaine, often focuses on symbolic journeys in his poetry, frequently describing travel as a metaphor for a quest into the imagination. For example, “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), one of Rimbaud’s most famous poems, narrates a voyage by boat as a metaphor for an internal voyage into the mind of the individual. Verlaine also wrote a number of poems based on his travels with Rimbaud.

Sensual and Spiritual Love
The major symbolist poets were men, and many of their poems explore the tension in their lives between the sensual love of women and the spiritual idealization of women. These themes are addressed in the first section of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, wherein three cycles of love poetry are associated with three different women with whom Baudelaire was involved during his life. Baudelaire’s poem “The Head of Hair” focuses on the sensuality of a woman’s hair. The symbolist poets also strove for the realization of spiritual ideals through their love poetry. They considered beauty to be an abstract spiritual ideal that can only be hinted at through the presence of physical beauty. Mallarmé described this concept as the ideal flower that does not exist in any real bouquet. Not all symbolist poetry was inspired by heterosexual relationships. The love poetry of both Verlaine and Rimbaud was often inspired by their own homosexual relationship.

Religion and Spirituality
Symbolist literature is often preoccupied with spiritual exploration and religious questions. Symbolist writers developed religious themes in a variety of ways. Much of Baudelaire’s poetry explores the Catholic concept of sin and the figure of Satan. The section of Flowers of Evil entitled “Revolt” focuses on Baudelaire’s struggles with the allure of Satanism. Rimbaud, on the other hand, offers harsh criticism of traditional religious beliefs throughout his writing, while striving to express spiritual ideals. Verlaine, who experienced a religious awakening while in prison, wrote poetry expressing the Catholic faith in his volume Wisdom. Blok is noted for his verse ballad The Twelve, in which the exploits of a band of revolutionary rebels are described as a Christian parable.

Urban Life
Modern urban life is an important element and central theme of symbolist poetry that inaugurated the transition to modern literature in the twentieth century. Baudelaire, in his “Parisian Tableaus,” a section of Flowers of Evil, wrote some of the first poetry to depict nineteenth-century urban landscapes and urban squalor. His famous poem “The Swan” expresses feelings of alienation evoked by life in the modern city.

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