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. 

COVER Symbolisme‘Music above anything’ and ‘Take back from music what is ours’: such are the two rallying cries – the first being formulated by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and the second by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) – which preside over symbolist poetics as regards the musicality which it now wanted to envelop every poem. Not that it was a question of imitating one instrument or another, but instead one of setting in place a formal system drawing together the elements of language in such a way as to hatch out a genuinely musical language.

With such a stated objective we thus find ourselves in the presence of a graceful in-betweeness, that of a garden between nature and artifice, for example, or a dusk between brightness and the dark, or a panoply of tender emotions wreathed with sadness, all situations into which nuance filters and fugitive beauty slips. Charles Van Lerberghe (1861-1907), the author of Entrevisions (1898), summed up this concept very well, a concept closely related to Impressionism, both in the field of painting as much as that of music: ‘My whole of vision of art: a stuttering, a murmuring of ecstasy before a beauty glimpsed in a sudden light – and then lost.’ Verlaine, an enthusiast of ‘the wise song,’ moreover wrote in his Art Poétique (1874): ‘Nothing’s dearer than shadowy verse / Where Precision weds Indecision.’ (2) Whilst for Mallarmé, closer to an ‘orchestral’ vision inherited from Richard Wagner (1813-1883), all music merges with poetry and even borders on silence.

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? »
(2) The translations of extracts of Verlaine’s poetry, here and elsewhere in the article, were found on

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