French Symbolism

Despite the evident influence of English and Irish aestheticism on modernist poetry, Eliot, Hulme and Pound would all make much of their belief that, in Eliot's words, 'the kind of poetry that I needed to teach me the use of my own voice did not exist in English at all'. Though the three were, to varying degrees, acquainted with the literature of several other languages and cultures, the kind of poetry they needed, Eliot said, 'was only to be found in French' (1969b: 252). The French poetry he meant was that of the group known as the symbolists.

It was at Harvard in 1908 that Eliot came across one of the most influential books for modernist poetry, a book he credited with affecting 'the whole course of my life' : The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) by the English aesthete poet and critic, Arthur Symons (1865— 1945) (1996: 402). Symons's book consisted of eight essays on the French writers Gérard de Nerval (1808—1855), Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-1889), Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), Stéphane Mallarmé (18421898), Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) and (the Belgian) Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), together with his own introduction and conclusion. According to Symons, symbolism in literature is 'a form of expression, at the best but approximate, essentially but arbitrary [. . .], for an unseen reality apprehended by the consciousness'. Like Yeats, Symons defines symbolism very broadly, and the correspondence between their definitions is no accident. Symons dedicated The Symbolist Movement in Literature to Yeats (his erstwhile flatmate) as 'the chief representative' of symbolism in England, and Yeats's essay on 'The Symbolism of Poetry' begins with a very positive review of the book (Symons 1958: 1, xix).

The title of Symons's book and its definitions of symbolism attribute a coherence to the movement that is somewhat misleading. The manifesto that named the symbolist movement was published by a minor French poet, Jean Moréas (1856-1910), in 1886, but several of the most important symbolist writers had already produced their major works by 1880, and most critics would cite symbolism's origin as far back as Charles Baudelaire's volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Similarly, though Moréas announced symbolism's death in 1891, it is usually understood to stretch into the twentieth century, in the poetry of Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry (Porter 1990: 14-16; Balakian 1982:

67). We should therefore think of symbolism as consisting of several overlapping groupings of poets (including Belgian, Swiss, Polish and American poets writing in French, as well as French poets), and different stages from the middle of the nineteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth century.

Given the span of time covered by symbolism and the number of poets who have been described as symbolists, it is not surprising that critics have found it difficult to agree on the movement's characteristics. Typically, however, symbolist poetry has been associated with musicality, obscurity, mystery, the use of free verse, and of course the use of symbols. Perhaps it is more useful, though, to adopt the definition provided by a recent critic, who has argued that the one unifying symbolist characteristic is a sense of a crisis in the effectiveness of language (Porter 1990: 20). This is where the particular importance of the symbol to this group of poets becomes clear: if language cannot adequately describe a thing or feeling or thought, a symbol may be able to evoke it obliquely. If you look back at the quotation from Yeats in the previous section, you'll see that 'evocation' is the key word in his definition of symbolism.

The symbolist sense of crisis was influentially explored by Stéphane Mallarmé in his essay 'Crisis in Poetry' (1886), which argues that language's inability to capture what Mallarmé variously refers to as 'the soul', 'the essence' of things, or 'Truth', has produced 'a fundamental and fascinating crisis in literature' (1956: 34, 37—38, 40). He explains that it is in order to resolve this crisis that symbolists have rejected

Free verse (also often referred to using the French term, ^ers libre). Term used to describe verse that departs from regular patterns of rhythm and rhyme. Although the French symbolist poet Gustave Kahn claimed to have invented free verse, it is not a modern invention: varieties exist in Latin, Greek and medieval verse. The beginning of its contemporary popularity is usually traced to the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) (in the United States), the symbolists (in France) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) (in England). Modernist poets, who wanted to abandon the artificial and ornamental in verse, argued that free verse enabled them to write poetry whose rhythms were closer to the patterns of speech.

traditional patterns of rhyme and metre in favour of free verse, and that their poems refuse description, in favour of evocation, allusion and suggestion. For Mallarmé, the very diversity of human languages indicates the shortcomings of all of them: the 'supreme language', the language that could fully represent Truth 'is missing' (1956: 38). But this pessimistic view of language is accompanied by a much more optimistic sense of the opportunity this presents to poetry. It is precisely because language is imperfect that poetry is important, Mallarmé argues, because poetry 'atones for the sins of languages, comes nobly to their aid' by supplying a representation of that which language itself cannot describe (1956: 38). It is in this sense that Mallarmé's symbolist precursor, Charles Baudelaire (1821—1867), remarking that 'everything is hieroglyphic', called the poet 'a translator, a decipherer' (1964: 239). The poet deciphers the hieroglyphics of 'Truth', to use Mallarmé's (somewhat problematic) word, and translates them into poetry.

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