Symbolism (Literary movement)
A term specifically applied to the work of late-19th-century French writers who reacted against the descriptive precision and objectivity of realism and the scientific determinism of naturalism. It was first used in this sense by Jean Moréas in Le Figaro in 1886. Baudelaire's sonnet ‘Correspondances’ and the work of Edgar Allan Poe were important precursors of the movement, which emerged with Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874) and Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un faune (1876). Other Symbolist writers included the poets Rimbaud and Laforgue, the novelists Joris-Karl Huysmans (A Rebours, 1884) and Edouard Dujardin, the dramatists Maurice Maeterlinck and Villiers de l'Isle Adam (Axël, 1890) and the critics Rémy de Gourmont and Marcel Schwob. Its influence on the other arts can be seen in the music of Debussy (who wrote many settings of Mallarmé's poems, notably ‘Prélude àl'après-midi d'un faune’) and the paintings of Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Symbolism emphasized the primary importance of suggestion and evocation in the expression of a private mood or reverie. The symbol was held to evoke subtle relations and affinities, especially between sound, sense and colour, and between the material and spiritual worlds (although in the works themselves these were often antagonistic). The notion of affinities led to an interest in esoteric and occult writings (notably Swedenborg and the cabbala) and to ideas about the ‘musicality’ of poetry which, combined with the Wagner cult, stressed the possibility of orchestrating the theme of a poem through the evocative power of words.
Outside France T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens were all variously interested in Symbolism. The most significant work was Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), an introduction to the French literature which Eliot found ‘a revelation’. It characterized Symbolism as a reaction against naturalism and realism, and as an ‘attempt to spiritualise literature’. It was to be a reflection, not merely a sign, of spiritual reality: ‘a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual’. Yeats, the dedicatee of the book and himself a poet using symbols of the occult, agreed that Symbolism was ‘the recoil from scientific materialism’. His essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, emphasized the importance of rhythm. In their poetry, however, both Yeats and Eliot returned to what the latter called the ‘music latent in the common speech of its time’.
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