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The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

Chris Baldick


An important group of French poets who, between the 1870s and the 1890s, founded the modern tradition in Western poetry. The leading Symbolists—Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarmé—wrote in reaction against realism and naturalism, and against the objectivity and technical conservatism of the Parnassians. Among the minor Symbolist poets were Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbière. The Symbolists aimed for a poetry of suggestion rather than of direct statement, evoking subjective moods through the use of private symbols, while avoiding the description of external reality or the expression of opinion. They wanted to bring poetry closer to music, believing that sound had mysterious affinities with other senses (see synaesthesia). Among their influential innovations were free verse and the prose poem. Their chief inspiration was the work of the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), especially his theory of the ‘correspondences’ between physical and spiritual realms and between the different senses; Baudelaire had also promoted Edgar Allan Poe’s doctrine of ‘pure’ poetry, which the Symbolists attempted to put into practice.

As a self-conscious movement, French symbolism declared itself under that name only in 1886, forming part of the so-called decadence of that period. It appeared in drama too, notably in the works of the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck in the 1890s; and some of its concerns were reflected in novels by J.-K. Huysmans and Édouard Dujardin. The influence of symbolism on European and American literature of the early 20th century was extensive: Paul Valéry in French, Rainer Maria Rilke in German, and W. B. Yeats in English carried the tradition into the 20th century, and hardly any major figure of modernism was unaffected by it. See also hermeticism, impressionism, poète maudit.

Further reading:

Charles Chadwick, Symbolism (1971).Find this resource: