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Symbolism: A Movement in Modern English Poetry

Updated on October 8, 2011

Symbolism is one of the most important trends in modern english poetry.

Symbolism as a literary movement was first expressly announced and named by Jean Moreas in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886. Symbolism was a reaction against the rigidity imposed on French poetry by that neo-classic school, the Parnassians. This movement, contemporary with Impressionism in painting and in music and with the philosophy of the subconscious culminating in Bergson, coincides with the idealism of the late 19th century. The younger symbolists, following Veriaine, Laforgue, Rimbaud and Mallarme, abolished the separation between subject and object, the internal and external worlds. In their mode of expression words are used to suggest states of mind rather than for their objective, representational or intellectual content. Mallarme, for example, wished to make every term “a plastic image, the expression of thought, the stir of a feeling, and the symbol of a philosophy.”

To be more precise the symbolists were not primarily interested in the ideas of the mind, but in the expression of the whole personality- particularly in two ways. Firstly, in mingling the perceptions of one sense (a sight touch or smell) with those of another, it was a theory of the apprehension of reality through all the senses and its communication in an art which should mingle the perceptions of sight, sound, taste, perfume and dream. In English Edith Sitwell, from Façade onwards, is our most brilliant exponent. Secondly in releasing and giving symbolic expression to our subconscious impulses; at its extreme this leads to Surrealist poetry never very successful in England, but at its best in the early work of the David Gascoyne. When these subconscious impulses end the resultant images are organized and combined with ordinary, rationalized experience, we get a composite and very attractive type of poetry in which one moves without logical links from the realms of objectively shared common experience into the private domain of the poet’s mind and its arbitrary symbols, without being always certain, at any given moment, in which one is. This is the type of poetry which we find in Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and most predominantly in T.S. Eliot. It was the appearance of Eliot’s The Wasteland in 1922 which signaled the emergence of symbolist poetry in England into the full light of the day.

A symbol has been defined by C.S. Fraser as the “expression of some otherwise inexpressible truth’. It is of the very nature of symbolist poetry that it cannot be tied down to any single and simple interpretation. It involves such a deep mysterious suggestiveness that the interpretation of these poems is almost as tricky, and full of traps, as the interpretation of dreams. This obscurity, however, is deliberate, since it leaves a freer play to the imagination of both reader and poet and makes possible the suggestion of associations and half shades which a more explicit technique could not render. The obscurity may be partial and relieved as in the Wasteland, by notes explaining the erudite allusions; or it may be a total eclipse, as in some of the poetry of E.E. Cummings or Gertrude Stein.

Symbolist poetry contains also a strong element of incantation, due partly to an attempt to imitate music, which of all the arts is least representational. Repetition is an ancient device, normally used either for emphasis or for the pleasure derived from the sound pattern. But the repetitive rhythms of the symbolists have in them a hypnotic quality as well, and they recall the texture of dreams and of subconscious states of mind and may be accompanied by patterns of onomatopoeic sound.

Symbolism is thus one of the strongest forces in art and literature today, having affected not only poetry and drama but also Expressionism, Surrealism and other subjective trends of the time.


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    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 6 years ago from Canada

      This is great, thank you very much vansh121. Just a note, I think it's Verlaine (sp) you mentioned here? Maybe a typo?