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Symbolism In French Literature

The symbolist movement was formally launched in 1886, when the poet Jean Moréas (1856–1910) published a manifesto in the major Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Moréas described symbolism as the

enemy of teaching, of declamation, of false sensitivity, of objective description, Symbolic poetry seeks to clothe the Idea in a perceptible form that nevertheless will not be the ultimate goal in itself, but, which, even as it serves to express the Idea, remains subject to it. The Idea, for its part, must not allow itself to be deprived of the sumptuous robes of external analogies; for the essential character of symbolic art is never to reach the Idea itself. Accordingly, in this art, the depictions of nature, the actions of human beings, all the concrete phenomena would not manifest themselves; these are but appearances perceptible to the senses destined to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial ideas. (p. 60)

Moréas' version of symbolism rejects all attempts to represent the perceptible world directly or instruct the reader straightforwardly. Instead, Moréas advocates allusive language that will allow the idea to be intuited by readers through a series of analogies. Moréas makes clear that for symbolism the important subject matter lies beyond the perceptible world. In addition, in the manifesto, Moréas advocates new kinds of verse no longer bound by traditional rules of poetic composition.

Moréas' manifesto served many purposes. On one hand, it was a declaration of the direction modern poetry should take and thus part of a wider attempt on the part of young writers to find cultural legitimacy while declaring themselves outside the traditional French academy. This general trend toward establishing an independent literary milieu is perhaps most clearly evidenced in the plethora of literary magazines that emerged in the mid-1880s: Le Symboliste, La vogue, Le scapin, La Décadence, and Le Décadent. Some, such as La vogue, sought legitimacy as serious journals by publishing new work by young poets such as Gustave Kahn, Jean Moréas, Réné Ghil, and Édouard Dujardin alongside the work of already established symbolist heroes such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud. These small journals also published articles further formulating and often arguing the points of symbolist theory. Many journals founded in the 1880s and early 1890s were short-lived, some lasting less than a year. Some journals, however, such as La revue indépendante, La plume, and Les entretiens politiques et littéraires had more successful runs, and one, Le mercure de France, still exists, though its aims have been considerably broadened since the original publication.

While in some sense declaring his independence from tradition, Moréas also wanted to distinguish what he called "Symbolism" from the approach of other nontraditional writers and artists he designated as "Decadent." In 1883, Paul Bourget had expounded a "theory of decadence" when discussing Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) in his Essai de psychologie contemporaine (Essay on contemporary psychology). Baudelaire's figure of the hypersensitive dandy aesthete became the model for the decadent artist, and Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel À rebours (1884; Against nature) became a veritable handbook: The main character, Des Esseintes, became a fictional cult hero and model for aspiring decadent artists and writers.

There is a great deal of overlap between decadence and symbolism. Both reject the value of empirical descriptions of the natural world and look to the artist's heightened sensitivity and imagination for the source of creativity. The aim of decadence, however, more often seems to be the rejection of bourgeois values and everyday morality in favor of detailed explorations of socially marginal and exotic subject matter: the occult, the femme fatale, sexual debauchery, extreme artifice, and aestheticism.

Conversely, symbolism, while sometimes overlapping in subject matter, is more seriously concerned with the search for a new approach to poetic, literary, or artistic form drawing on the experimentations of an older generation of writers such as Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Moréas' description of symbolism refers most directly to Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences" from his volume Les fleurs du mal (1857, expanded 1861; The flowers of evil)—a work that became a touchstone for symbolist artists and writers:

La nature est un temple où de vivants pilliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Nature is a temple whose living pillars
Sometimes emit confusing messages
Man passes through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like extended echoes that blend in the distance
In a shadowy and deep unity,
Vast as the night and as the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds are answered.
(translation author's)

Baudelaire's poem suggests that humans inhabit a world where the mundane can serve as a "forest of symbols" to which the poet is especially attuned. Everyday objects and experiences offer secret correspondences between sounds, scents, and colors in which the poet deciphers a higher meaning. The poem evokes two ideas that will be central to symbolism: first, the role of the artist or poet as a gifted seer capable of identifying connections that point beyond the perceptible world; and second, the importance of formal echoes in sensory data where scents, colors, and sounds "se répondent" (respond to one another) in synesthesia—the connection between different sensory realms.

Baudelaire had been strongly influenced by the work of the U.S. writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), whose prose writings he had translated in the 1850s. Mallarmé and others were especially influenced by Baudelaire's 1859 translation of Poe's essay "Philosophy of Composition." Whereas Mallarmé was influenced by Poe's allusive figures and economy of means, others looked to Poe's status as poète maudit (damned poet), whose subject matter delved into mystery, the occult, and madness. In his work, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) followed this interpretation of Poe, taking on the mantle of damned poet for himself. For Rimbaud poetry was not a controlled process of self-expression in the tradition of romanticism but instead a vehicle for the unraveling and disorganization of self—"a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses "—that allows the exploration of those elements of human subjectivity associated with madness. As Rimbaud famously put it:" I is an other. … I am the spectator at the flowering of my thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I draw a bow across a string: a symphony stirs in the depths, or surges onto the stage" (p. 102). Rimbaud published Un saison en enfer (A season in hell) in 1873 and abandoned writing before the age of twenty. Other volumes of his work, Illuminations (1886) and Poésies complètes (1895), were published at the instigation of others long after they had initially been written.

Whereas Rimbaud's questioning of the boundaries of poetry and of the self ultimately led him to abandon poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) repeatedly wrote poems about the impossibility of embodying the Idea in poetic form. This is most famously thematized in the poetic symbol of l'azur, a term evoking both the color blue and the sky and alluding to the impossible ideal that the poet seeks to grasp and express. In an 1891 response to Jules Huret's Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire (Survey of literary development), Mallarmé, attempting to describe his approach to poetry, expanded on Baudelaire's notion of correspondences and turned it into the modus operandi of creation. According to Mallarmé,

to name an object is to suppress three quarters of the pleasure of the poem which is meant to be deciphered little by little: suggestion, that is the dream. This is the perfect use of mystery which constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of the soul or, conversely, to choose an object and glean from it an emotional state by a series of decipherments. (1891 response to Jules Huret, Enqête sur evolution littéraire)

As this passage suggests, the purpose of a poem is not to put forth a clearly decipherable message about the exterior world or the intentions of the writer, but to set in motion a process of reading. The word on the page always points beyond itself or its obvious referents to an unknown that cannot be fixed. Mallarmé's works place the emphasis on language's material unfolding through the poem, and the reader's unending act of decipherment is not a sign of the poem's failure but of its success.

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