Symbolism, an aesthetic movement devoted primarily to discovering the true nature of poetry, originated in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, the central figures in the theory and practice of symbolism in France, developed Edgar Allan Poe ‘s major premise about the poetic principle—that poetry is an evocation of eternal states through the discrete image or symbol— into a program for purifying poetry of the nonpoetic. The artists we classify as Symbolists aimed at purifying their art of all that was nonessential (some, such as Villiers de Lisle Adam, were dramatists; a few, such as J. K. Huysmans, were novelists). Symbolist poets such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, for example, rejected both the superficial rhetoric of argument and discussion and the dense notation of description and narration, all things that had obscured the true nature of poetry, in favor of the severe purity of a symbolic lyricism. The Symbolist poem was necessarily short, evocative, and mysterious.
Symbolism was introduced into the English-speaking world by Verlaine’s friend Arthur Symons (1865-1945). In The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) Symons argues that symbolism is the essence of language and literature: our first words were symbolic, and all truly imaginative writers have been symbolists. Symbolism became a conscious movement in the late nineteenth century as a necessary reaction against the dense, descriptive method of the naturalistic school of Émile Zola and others. The Symbolists restored purity to the arts, Symons maintains, by suggesting rather than saying, by evoking through symbols rather than submitting to the “old bondage of rhetoric, the old bondage of exteriority” (5) and describing through the logic of argument or the record of details. Symbols both reveal and conceal: they blend the visible and the invisible, the particular and the universal, the finite and the infinite. Symbols communicate indirectly: concrete images, such as the rose or the cross, summon up emotional and intellectual associations that cannot be precisely numbered or named.
The Symbolist method focuses on these internal associations and frees poetic language from the restraints of logical sequence or referential accuracy. This “liberty,” as Symons calls it, from the governing principles of common discourse restores the “authentic speech” of mystery to literature. “Start with an enigma, and then withdraw the key to the enigma” (72), Symons counsels those who would approach the Symbolist method. Often this insistence on mystery leads to a dark obscurity of language, especially with a symbol system in which the correspondences between the concrete term and its multiple associations seem private to the artist. Many of the writers Symons discusses, however, draw their symbols from traditional sources of hermetic or occult doctrine, like the Rosicrucian symbol system Villiers weaves into the fabric of his Axel. The true sources of Symbolism, Symons concludes, lie in ancient systems of mysticism, and the true purpose of the movement was to evoke the presence of the infinite and confirm the possibility of immortality through the associative network of symbols, ancient and modern.
Symons’s presentation of the method and mysteries of the French Symbolists exerted a profound influenc
e on the new generation of writers in English. T. S. Eliot acknowledged this influence when he said in 1930: “I myself owe Mr. Symons a great debt: but for having read his book I should not .. . have begun to read Verlaine; and but for reading Verlaine, I should not have heard of Corbière” (Symons xv). Symons himself was influenced and directed in his understanding of Symbolism by the poet he described as the “chief representative of that movement in our country” (xix) and to whom he dedicated his book, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). Although Yeats was deeply impressed by Villiers’s Axel, which he saw in 1894, he derived his Symbolist principles from his studies in magic and Irish mythology and from his pioneering study (with Edwin Ellis, 1891) of the prophetic books of William Blake, a poet he regarded as the preeminent Symbolist. Yeats made his major theoretical statements on the method of Symbolism in a series of essays written from 1896 to 1903 collected under the title Ideas of Good and Evil (a title borrowed from Blake).
In an essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley, another of his Symbolist precursors, Yeats argues that “there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images” (Essays 95). If the man or woman is a true poet, then his or her particular image (for Shelley a boat drifting down a river between towered hills and toward a distant star) blends into a universal and invisible order. “An image that has transcended particular time and place becomes,” Yeats writes, “a symbol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul” (80). Although he maintains that “it is only by ancient symbols … that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of Nature” (87), he finally makes no distinction between what he calls “inherent symbols and arbitrary symbols” in his essay “Magic” (49). Both species of symbol, traditional and private, evoke the presence of the infinite, or what Yeats calls the Great Mind and Great Memory. The borders of our field of awareness, Yeats declares, are not closed, and our individual mind can become part of this larger consciousness only through the network of symbols. Neither metaphor nor allegory can fulfill this poetic principle: Symbolism alone evokes the richness of the Great Mind and Memory.
This Memory, which transcends and connects each individual mind, provided Symbolism with a theory or explanation of both the process of writing and the experience of reading. The Memory was evoked through the medium of certain conditions of consciousness, moments of trance, contemplation, or “the moment when we are both asleep and awake” (Essays 159), moments prolonged in the rapt attention of reading. “So I think,” Yeats argued in “The Symbolism of Poetry,” a crucial essay from Ideas of Good and Evil, “that in the making and in the understanding of a work of art, and the more easily if it is full of patterns and symbols and music, we are lured to the threshold of sleep” (160). In this threshold or medial state, produced by a rapt attention to the rhythm of the work, the reader joins the artist in the work of evocative creation. “The purpose of rhythm,” Yeats maintains, “is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation” (159). In this prolonged moment, making and understanding, the production and reception of the text, are joined and created through the intersubjective Memory.
In his poetry, in his making, Yeats was, as Paul de Man has noted (153-62), a Symbolist from the beginning. Before he had any experience of the French writers, he worked in the Symbolist method, evoking in his early poetry (The Rose, 1893) the rose and cross of the Rosicrucian symbol system he afterwards saw enacted in Villiers’s Axel. Later he sought for a more arbitrary symbolism, for a system of images available in his direct experience of contemporary Ireland that could become the symbolic vehicle of the Great Memory. The violence and meanness as well as the heroism and extravagance of Irish life provided him occasionally with symbols that balanced his lifelong interest in the esoteric symbols of the occult. With his purchase of a ruined tower in the west of Ireland, he finally found a symbol both arbitrary and inherent, both particular to his secret life and universal within the ancient occult traditions. This tower, an image of hermetic wisdom made a symbol through long usage in Milton, Shelley, and others, inspired much of Yeats’s best poetry in The Tower (1928) and later volumes. The occult disciplines, which were, in Yeats’s view, ancient systems for evoking the Great Memory through the manipulation of symbols, remained his deepest inspiration and exerted a profound influence on Per Arnica Silentia Lunae, his mystical-poetic statement of 1917 (now in Mythologies), and on A Vision, his cosmological system completed first in 1925 and then in 1937. For Yeats, as for Symons, the true meaning of Symbolism lay in the mystical evocation of infinitude.
Although Symbolism influenced other major writers of the twentieth century in very different ways—Wallace Stevens, for example, discovered there a precursor to his secular and euphonic metapoetry—the Symbolist image of the poet pursuing the essence of poetry into mystic solitude remained dominant. This image informed the two most influential critical studies of Symbolism in English: Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931), a study centered on the consequences of Yeats’s fascination with Villiers’s drama, and Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image (1957), an analysis of several of Yeats’s key symbols (the dancer and the tree).
Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899, rev. ed., 1908,1919, intro. Richard Ellmann, 1958); Philippe Auguste Villiers de 1 ‘Isle Adam, Axel (trans. June Guicharnaud, 1970); W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (1961), Mythologies (1959), A Vision (1925, rev. ed., 1937). Paul De Man, “Image and Emblem in Yeats,” The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984); Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957); Giorgio Melchiori, The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work ofW. B. Yeats (i960); David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (1976); Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of1870-1930 (1931)·
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.