Symbolism, word by word
Few cultural movements resist being got to grips with as does that of Symbolism. There nevertheless was a literary movement, going by this name, which developed at the end of the nineteenth century in France. But this ‘school’, drawn towards suggestion, dream and states of mind, was not restricted solely to literature, and even less to just the French mainland. Its sensibility, stubbornly resistant to any form of paralysing structuration, rapidly spread to the other arts, with music and painting being privileged, whilst its artistic products spread internationally. Through 100 key concepts, the work by Paul Aron (a Professor at the ULB) and Jean-Pierre Bertrand (a Professor at the University of Liège) ranges over its aesthetic and technical choices, whilst at the same time bringing out its territories and themes.
A radical break
These positional standpoints mark a radical break, not only with Naturalism but also and above all with Parnasse (Parnassus), a school of poetry whose figurehead was Charles Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894), flourishing in the second half of the 19th century and which, in splitting away from the lyricism specific to Romantic culture, proclaimed ‘impassiveness’ as an artistic position and the ‘regeneration of forms’ as its ultimate goal. Symbolism, on the contrary, distanced itself resolutely from this aesthetic. It meant to explore the resources of the dream and the unconscious, an idealist reaction which ipso facto took it far from the concrete and the rational. Foregrounded were the vague, suggestion, correspondences, allegory, and symbol. All reference points which were expressed, one again through Verlaine’s pen, in formulae which hit the mark and can today be read in the collection Jadis et naguère (1884): ‘For we always desire Nuance / Not Colour, nuance evermore!’; ‘Take elegance, wring its neck!’; ‘Music once more and forever!’ etc. Or in couplets of subtle musicality, such as this one found in Sagesse (1881): ‘Hear the sweetest song / That weeps for your sole delight. / It is discreet and so light: / A water-drop trembling on glass!’
(1) Les 100 mots du Symbolisme. Paul Aron et Jean-Pierre Bertrand, PUF, 2011, Collection « Que sais-je? »