French Symbolist Poetry

Late 19th Century Poetic Movement, predominant in France and Belgium.

"an enigma for the vulgar, chamber-music for the initiated."

The Symbolist poetic movement originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century. It spread to painting and the theater, and influenced Russian, European, and American literature of the 20th century to varying degrees. The movement reached its peak around 1890, and its popularity declined at the beginning of the next century. The influence of Symbolism on later movements however is vast. The experimental techniques devised by these poets enriched the technical repetoire of modernism, particularly the works of W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. Free verse, the creation of the symbolists, is now the dominant form of contemporary poetry. 

Symbolist artists sought to express the immediate sensations of human experience and the inner life, through the subtle and suggestive use of highly metaphorical language, in the form of symbols. The underlying philosophy of the symbolists was a conviction that the transient objective world is not true reality, but a reflection of the invisible Absolute. The movement was a revolt against the realistic and naturalistic poetic styles of the day, which were designed to capture the transient. The symbolists believed that the inner eternal reality could only be suggested: "to name is to destroy, to suggest is to create" (Mallarmé). The resulting poetry of this philosophy was intense and complex, full of condensed syntax and symbolic imagery. Their poetry also emphasized the importance of the sound of the verse, creating music through words. Because of their interest in the bizarre and the artificial and in themes of decay and ruin, many of the Symbolist poets were identified with the Decadent movement of the same period. The Symbolist manifesto, published by Moréas, appeared in Le Figaro on September 18, 1886. Mallarmé's Divagations (1897) remains the most valuable statement of the movement's aesthetics.