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, Symbolism was first used in this sense by Jean Moreas in Le Figaro in 1886. Baudelaire‘s sonnet Correspondences and the work of Edgar Allan Poe were important precursors of the movement. Other symbolist writers included Verlaine, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Lafourge, novelists Joris Karl Huysmans and Eduard Dujardin and so on. Baudelaire based the symbolic mode of his poems partly in the example of Poe, and especially on the ancient belief in correspondences — the doctrine that there exist inherent and systematic analogies between the human mind and the spiritual worlds.
Symbolism emphasised the primary importance of suggestion and evocation in the expression of a private mood or reverie, as employed by Romantic poets like Shelley and Blake in England and Novalis and Friedrich Hölderlin in Germany. The symbol was held to evoke subtle relations and affinities, especially between sound, sense and colour, and between the material and the spiritual worlds. The notion of affinities led to an interest in esoteric and occult writings and to ideas about the “musicality” of poetry, which combined with the Richard Wagner cult, stressed the possibility of orchestrating the theme of a poem through the evocative power of words. The techniques of the French Symbolists, who exploited an order of private symbols in a poetry of rich suggestiveness rather than explicit signification had an immense influence throughout Europe and America on writers like TS Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Dowson, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, ee cummings and so on.
The most significant work is Arthur Symons‘ The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), which characterised the movement 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, emphasised 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.”
The Modern period, in the decades after the World War I, was a notable era of Symbolism in literature. Many of the major writers of the period exploit symbolism which are in part drawn from religious and esoteric traditions and in part invented. Some of the works are symbolist in their settings, agents, actions, as well as in objects they refer to, as can be seen in Yeats’ Byzantium, Dylan Thomas sonnet series Altarwise by Owl-light, Hart Crane‘s The Bridge, TS Eliot‘s The Waste Land, Wallace Stevens‘ The Comedian as Letter C, James Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake, William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury and so on. Symbolism’s influence on other arts can be seen in the music of Debussy and the paintings of Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin