1 minute read


The Symbolist Movement in Literature, Axel's Castle, The Symbolist Aesthetic in France

is present wherever an object or gesture stands for or suggests something beyond itself, and in this sense is littered about ordinary life, something we engage in all the time. In literature it refers to the technique of relying heavily on master images, as in the drama of Ibsen or Maeterlinck, and more importantly, to a movement in poetry and aesthetics in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The leading Symbolist poet was Stéphane Mallarmé (18421898), whose poems and theories had a very strong influence on certain developments in English and American literature, notably the work of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens. For Mallarmé it was the business of the poet to ‘paint not the thing but the effect it produces’, a form of Impressionism. What words evoked was not what they named but what they could not name, the implied, always absent perfection being supplied by the mind of the reader. Mallarmé also believed that the poet should disappear from his verse as a person, ‘yielding the initiative to the words’. His own work was delicate, difficult, and highly formal, although it included experiments with typography and in prose. His precursor was Charles Baudelaire (18211867); he shared a number of poetic preoccupations with Arthur Rimbaud (18541891) and Paul Verlaine (18441896); Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated, was also important to him. His chief successor was Paul Valéry (18711945), who saw poetry as a form of dance of the intelligence. Symbolism was introduced into Britain by Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), widely read by poets and critics; a good early account of Symbolism as a European movement, more or less identical with what was later to be called Modernism, is Axel's Castle (1931), by Edmund Wilson. A. G. Lehmann's The Symbolist Aesthetic in France (1950) is an excellent analysis of the intricacies of Symbolist thought.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: St Juliot Cornwall to Rabindranath Tagore Biography