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Abstract This article aims at emphasizing the reasons why symbolistic poetry can be regarded as the beginning of modern poetry. First, the stress is laid on a few definitions given to symbolism. Second, there is a presentation of this movement in France. Further, the paper focuses on describing the symbolistic poetical language and in the last part, symbolism is seen in relation to Romanian criticism.

Academic research paper on topic "Symbolism, the Beginning of Modern Poetry"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 180 (2015) 593 - 599

The 6th International Conference Edu World 2014 "Education Facing Contemporary World

Issues", 7th - 9th November 2014

Symbolism, the beginning of modern poetry

Elena Gagiu Pedersen *

University of Pitesti, Faculty of Education Sciences, Romania


This article aims at emphasizing the reasons why symbolistic poetry can be regarded as the beginning of modern poetry. First, the stress is laid on a few definitions given to symbolism. Second, there is a presentation of this movement in France. Further, the paper focuses on describing the symbolistic poetical language and in the last part, symbolism is seen in relation to Romanian criticism.

© 2015PublishedbyElsevier Ltd. Thisisanopenaccess article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The Association "Education for tomorrow" / [Asociatia "Educatie pentru maine"]. Keywords: symbolism; poetical language; musicality; correspondences; symbol; suggestion; ambiguity.

1. Introduction

Symbolism is the first manifestation of modernism, appeared as a poetical deviation from romanticism. The metaphysical justification consolidates a genuine religion of art, which is manifested by aestheticism, by the cult of artificiality. Thus, the poem becomes the prototype of art in symbolism. Psychically, symbolism is seen as a state of crisis. For many symbolists, sensitivity means a taste of the bizarre, anxiety, decadence, apathy, lifelessness, disorder of senses.

Symbolism imposes a new rhetoric, whose fundamental principles are: pure poetry, vagueness, ambiguity, irony, various prosodic innovations, the symbol, the suggestion, the discursive character, the principle of musicality, the principle of correspondences. The main themes and motives introduced by symbolists are: urban nature, solitude, evasion, chromatics, some protesting attitude, the city, the sense of death, everything that is difficult to define:

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +0721942000 E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2015 Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of The Association "Education for tomorrow" / [Asociatia "Educatie pentru maine"]. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.02.165

mystery, silence, wandering, melancholy, vices, the eulogy of logos.

For symbolistic poetry, it is also the relationship with time which is important, mainly the historical time, as symbolism is in relation to the end of the nineteenth century atmosphere. It is interesting to observe that symbolists polemize with the myth of progress, rediscover ancient mythologies, invoke the world of timeless ideas and at the same time, they live the idea of modernism.

2. Definitions of Symbolism

"Symbolistic poetry is based on the revelations of the subconscious, on the deepening in the dream and on the crepuscular psychic states. Symbolism rejects the direct expression and the accurate description and at the same time, it wants to exclude pathos and eloquence from poetry" (Philippide, 1966: 164). "Symbolism is the deepening of lyricism in the subconscious, by expressing the musical background of the human soul by means of suggestion" (Lovinescu, 1973: 550).

"Symbolism is based on the theory of symbols and sensorial correspondences; it cultivates more refined sensitivity and emotions; it creates the blank verse; it is characterized by inner musicality, by the musical perception of the world; it relies on the force of suggestion; it cultivates solitude, without enthusiasm (as romanticists do) but discreetly and silently; it cultivates mysticism and intimacy, neuroses and mystery; the preference for autumnal settings and landscapes (rainy, foggy, with ravens in the light); there comes the poetry of towns, either large or provincial fairs: sad, melancholic, annihilating, overwhelmed by spleen, there comes the conscience of the void and internal confusion, of moral isolation, of the artist's damnation in society; it paves the way for groups and proper modernist trends." (Mihut, 1976: 87).

"Symbolism depicts the first systematic attempt of hermetism, which consists in talking about the terrestrial order, simultaneously conceiving the cosmic one." (Câlinescu, 1982: 687 ).

"Symbolism in the strict sense means, in the current specialized language, rare, strange sensations, morbid air, languorous musicality, elegiac tonality in a modern style, allusive speech, vaporous images, vagueness, inaccuracy, misty reverie, atmosphere" (Micu, 1984: 122).

"By symbolism, one can understand a European literary trend that aims at rediscovering the essence of poetry, approaching more music than painting, lyricism must not express, but suggest, through the symbol and various euphonic lexical values, the plastic equivalences of reality and of the most subtle nuances of the thought, impressions and soul feelings"(Balu, Iancu, 2006: 5).

"Symbolism represents the beginning of modern poetry, as it offers it the status of supreme art and the obligation to look for novelty all the time, but also as it develops the awareness of using its own language" (Zafiu, 1996: 10).

3. French Symbolism

In august 1886, René Ghil published The Treaty of the Verb with a foreword by Mallarmé. On September 18, 1886, Jean Morèas published The Manifesto of Symbolism in the literary supplement of the newspaper Le Figaro. The texts signed by René Ghil, Mallarmé and Jean Morèas represent the birth of symbolism.

The development center of the symbolistic movement was represented by France, especially Paris, but many of its reprezentatives were foreigners: the Greek Jean Moréas, a pseudonym for Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos, the Americans of a French origin Stuart Merrill, Francis Vielé-Griffin. A secondary center was the French-speaking Belgium, by Georges Rodenbach, Emile Verhaeren, Albert Mockel.

Symbolism developed intensely within the years 1885-1895. The symbolistic group named Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), as the first precursor of the trend. As masters, he chose already known contemporaries : Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Artur Rimbaud (1854-1891), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).

Charles Baudelaire is the one who created the system of symbolistic correspondences between the spiritual and material world, through the symbol. Stéphane Mallarmé showed interest in the sonorous effects, in the imitative harmonies. Mallarmé's theoretical thinking was accompanied by a theory of the poetical language: "To name an object is to take away three quarters of the charm of the poem, which is so constructed as to reveal itself little by little; to suggest it, here is the dream" (Mallarmé, 1970: 869). To write poetry means to renew the original act of the creation of the language to such an extent, so that the expression should always be an expression of the unexpressed (Friederich, 1969: 121).

Arthur Rimbaud laid accent on the colour of vowels. His work is the intention of achieving the inexpressible, of changing the world by word. The alchemy of the verb determines the hallucination of words. Paul Verlaine gave importance to music in poetry, considering that just like music, lyricism tends to the imprecision of the suggestion. Thus, the poet resorts to a new rhythm, using the odd verse of 9, 11 and 13 syllables. This rhythm was meant to render the voice inflexions and had to be the confidant of the human soul.

René Ghil is the initiator of instrumentalism, a phenomenon which proposed a real technique of transposing music in poetry, by using the musical suggestions produced by the sounds of the language. Maurice Rollinat was the partisan of the macabre vocabulary, Gustave Kahn is the creator of the blank verse, and Henri Bergson, through his philosophy, substantiated the concept of intuition. According to the principles of symbolism and Bergson's, intuition can reveal the mysteries of life, as its purpose is to achieve some interior research of the organic, of the spirit.

The poetry of Tristan Corbière, Maurice Rollinat, Charles Cros, Jules Laforgue embodies what the French literary historians call the decadent spirit. They were captivated by Baudelaire's confessions in The Artificial Paradises, which exalted "the frenetic human taste for all healthy or dangerous substances that enhance its personality, proves his greatness" (Baudelaire, 1938: 29). In order to demonstrate that literature can be considered an experience, they disarticulated the verse, introduced the game of words, the expressions of the standard language, the folk refrain, the dream generated by drugs.

Many poems, articles of literary criticism and theory, which contribute to the crystallization of the symbolistic trend are published in numerous magazines: The Independant Revue, The Wagner Revue, The Scapin, Decadence, Vogue, The Pleiade, Wallonia.

Defining French symbolism, Guy Michaud emphasizes several fundamental features of the symbolistic poetical creations: "Mallarmé's subtlety and hermetism, Régnier's melancholic distinction, Samain's golden dreams, Verhaeren's hymns of joy, Claudel's religious odes (...) In each work, a unique accent is thought to be perceived. (...) Maeterlinck just like Verlaine scrutinizes his most subtle emotions, explores the unconscious and the depths of the soul; Mallarmé precedes Valéry in the density, in the at least apparent obscurity, in a certain taste of preciosity and arabesque; the languor of Mikhaël, Régnier, Samain answers one another; after Rimbaud, René Ghil and Saint-Pol-Roux adopt the verbal instrumentation and the poetry of images; Gustave Kahn looks for a liberated verse, a revolutionary form; Vielé-Griffin, Stuart Merril, Verhaeren finally turn to life and sing, before Claudel and the countess of Noailles, their love for things and beings" (Michaud, 1999: 11).

4. The Symbolistic Poetical Language

Seen as a formal revolution, the symbolistic poetical language is a deviation from the academic language, diverging from its function as a communication instrument. "The language is both a sound and a sign: as a sign, it is the figurative representation of the Idea. As a sound, it is likely to be musically ordered, and up to a point assimilable to the sound which is not articulated. But its quality of a sign or a symbol indicates that it is primarily ideally that it can be considered as music, and that it can not be dissolved, as an unarticulated sound, in a combination of harmonious notes expressing emotion only by vibrating accords"(Delaroche, Mockel, Saint-Paul, 1889, G. Michaud, 1994: 463).

Symbolism offers modern poetry "the consciousness of developing its own language" (Zafiu, 1996: 10). Symbolism managed to erode "in the most efficient way the apparently invulnerable solid edifice, of the traditional poetical convention" (Scarlat, 1984: 355). The novelty occurs first at the level of the signifier and then at the level of the signified.

Symbolists are no longer obliged to comply with certain rules, on the contrary, they have some considerable freedom in manipulating the elements of language. Thus, approaching a new poetical language, they achieve major changes in lyricism.

In the symbolistic poetical language, a high frequency is registered by tropes: the epithet, the symbol, the metaphor, the comparison. The symbolistic universe is very well outlined by the use of epithets. The innovative element is the synesthesic epithet, which achieves associations between various areas of the senses: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustative. Within the synesthesic epithet, the highest frequency is held by the chromatic epithet which is part of many types of semantic deviations.

In the symbolistic poetical language, the suggestion of musicality is given by using various metaboles, out of which, the most frequent being the following: the apheresis, the apocope, the syncope, the epenthesis, the alliteration, the assonance, the rhyme, the repetition, certain onomatopoeic creations.

The symbolistic poetical language allows poets to deviate from the rules of syntax, and the success of this approach is guaranteed by employing various metataxes, such as: the ellipsis, the zeugma, the engambament, the sylepsis, the tmesis, the syntactic parallelism, the chiasm, the inversion.

In lexical terms, the symbolistic language abounds in neologisms, as the new trend provides some poetry which is meant for the scholars, able to decipher its unusally refined language.

Another aspect of the symbolistic language is represented by the elements of versification. Regarding the measure of the verse, poets use both the short verse: monosyllabic, disyllabic, trisyllabic, and the long one of 17, 19, 21 syllables, suggesting fluidity. As for the rhyme, it can be said that within this language, symbolists resort to all kinds of rhyme contributing to the musicality of the poems.

To achieve correspondences, within the symbolistic poetical language, different types of analogies are resorted to. It is interesting to see how some semantic incompatibilities between the semantic substance of the verb and its arguments generate expressiveness. A special situation occurs when intransitive verbs are used transitively, reflexive verbs are utilized actively and impersonal verbs are employed personally, as the poetical effects generated this way are outstanding.

The synthetic nominal groups which contain a genitive and the analytic ones built with the preposition "of" can be related to a particular type of metaphor, where the analogy between the two terms, both present, is achieved through grammatical relations which concentrate the expression. The genitive, which implies an analogy, has none of the well-known values: the possession, the subject, the quality, the superlative, the denomination. A deep predicative structure is converted into a nominal genitival group at the surface, on the one hand, because of a need to shorten the expression and, on the other hand, because of a need to move the direction of the tensional forces of the analogy from the first term to the second, thus producing a strong sensorial suggestion.

Regarding the analytic nominal groups formed with the preposition "of", there are two different situations. The first occurs when the first term of the analogy takes the second place within the nominal group, the depth structure being the same as in the case of the genitive. The second appears when the first term of the analogy is the first in the collocation. Suggestions are often amplified through the association of the analogy with a transfer of determinations, from one term to the other. There are situations when the determinant fits both terms outside the mechanism of the analogy.

The way of associating the meanings of words is one of the poetical difficulties experienced by the average reader. What at first sight seems a mismatch, after a series of operations and reconstructions of the context, will prove to be a mechanism for producing a change in the meaning of words and then of the whole nominal group, as a whole, as an expression of a new poetical substance. It is actually a manifestation of the semantic code, consisting in not complying with the selective restrictions. This usage of the code involves the most surprising figures of speech. Two types of deviation towards the semantic code are related to the associations: physical object - human feature, abstraction - human feature. From the different types of synestheses, the most unusual effects are generated by the combination: visual - auditory and by various chromatic fusions.

For the development of ambiguity, which is one of the important features of this type of language, symbolists use adverbs and indefinite pronouns, nouns without articles or nouns with definite articles, ellipses metaphors, synecdoches, metonymies, oxymorons, epithets, symbols and the musicality of the rhythm.

The adjective and the adverb, due to the interferences of the nominal and verbal features which can be transferred from one class to another, have properties that are used as a source of ambiguity in the symbolistic poetical language. The situation where the adjective determines both the noun and the verb is quite common. The adjective is placed close to the verb and far from the noun it determines. In some cases, between the adjective and the noun, besides the verb, there are other determinants of the noun, verb or adjective, even subordinate clauses. The adverb itself can get adjectival values. There are situations where the relation of determination goes from a noun to another noun.

5. Symbolism and Romanian Criticism

"Symbolism cannot find among the old critics either the great interpreter or the great monographic analytical spirit, interested in studying it from all dimensions and in detail. Therefore, the real definition of synthesis, the only one which can set symbolism in the history of Romanian literature, could not be given yet" (Bote, 1966: 10).

It is important to note that the positions of the old critics are almost always taken in opposition to the traditionalist, puritanical, Philistine ideology. For example, the magazine Literary Talks was impermeable to the

new literature, showing countless prejudices related to symbolism.

In 1907, M. Dragomirescu takes up an attitude against the obscurantism of this magazine and issues his own magazine, Critical Talks, which includes the first critical appreciations towards symbolistic poetry, beyond any nationalist and traditionalist criteria, the sole interest being the literary art. The critic admits symbolism along with the other trends as long as it is translated by artistic achievements (Dragomirescu, 1907: 7). Later, influenced and perhaps intimidated by traditionalists, Dragomirescu states that "symbolism lives an artificial life, it is not rooted in people's lives" (Cruceanu, 1912).

Later, Ion Trivale shows interest in defining the program and the basic aesthetics of symbolism. The critic agrees that symbolism tends to turn the reader into the poet's collaborator by suggestion and transposition, by stimulating the activity of the spirit. As well, he accepts the fusion between nature and the human soul, but detects two failures of the trend: formalism and confusion. Being a traditionalist critic, Ion Trivale polemizes with some theorists of symbolism, doubting that our life could provide organically with some "new" poetry (Trivale, 1915: 193).

The critic G. Ibraileanu does not seem to be very interested in the program of the new poetry, instead, what interests him is the value of the realization. E. Lovinescu sees symbolism as a simple product of imitation, saying that "in essence, symbolism is not Romanian, but human, by technique, it is the real production of French imitation" (Lovinescu, 1924: 25-27).

For E. Lovinescu, symbolism is reduced to the expression of some musical sensitivity: "Symbolism is of a purely musical essence, not in the meaning of the musical quality of the expression, but in terms of the musical quality of the primary, vague, unorganized spiritual moods which it translates; it is some hypertrophy of lyricism in terms of deepening the sources of inspiration beyond the threshold of consciousness in the elements of the animal life" (Lovinescu, 1927: 38).

In E. Lovinescu's opinion, symbolism has doctrinal significance, an appropriate vision about art, which is not wrong (Lovinescu, 1926: 133,134, 136,137). The critics after E. Lovinescu pay non-systematic attention to symbolism, as they do not generally have essayistic and retrospective preoccupations. For example, for B. Fundoianu, symbolistic poetry existed in Romania "only as a flag and pretext of rebellion" (Fundoianu, 1930: 13). Perpessicius tends to eliminate the significance of this trend (Perpessicius, 1928: 206).

From Vladimir Streinu's perspective, Romanian symbolism is of pure French influence, without any connection with our society. Instead, Streinu's research proves to be important regarding the origin, the history and the technique of the Romanian blank verse (Streinu, 1947: 618, 619).

After the thorough study carried out by E. Lovinescu, the only truly critical research on Romanian symbolism is the chapter of literary history of G. Calinescu. He vehemently rejects the imitative character of the trend. Regarding the symbolistic aesthetics, the critic says: "The fundamental point of symbolism was the removal of the painting, of the pictorial, that is of the objective universe and therefore relative. Following the musical, symbolism tended, in the footsteps of Baudelaire, to come into the metaphysical, in the occult structure of the ineffable, that is to create poetry of knowledge"(Calinescu, 1941: 605).

As well, Tudor Vianu had his own research on the symbolistic aesthetics and technique (Vianu, 1939, 113131, 1947: 6-23, 1957). After a period of appreciations, either cautious, or of rejection, Ov. S. Crohmalniceanu takes attitude, with a firm position: "With dogmatic obstinacy, symbolists are still seen in their totality as a group of decadent poets, from whose experience world literature would have nothing to remember. But this picture is absolutely false" (Crohmalniceanu, 1956: 130,). Subsequently, the negativist spirit returns with the interventions of G.C. Nicolescu (Nicolescu, 1960: 259-270) and Zoe Dumitrescu-Bu^ulenga (Dumitrescu-Bu^ulenga, 1961), both rejecting symbolism in its totality, accusing it of antirealism.

The present critics take attitude against that prejudice, denying the possibilities of an original creation of Romanian symbolistic poetry. For example D. Micu (Micu, 1963) and Matei Calinescu (Calinescu, 1961) show how symbolistic themes become authentic in Bacovia's work.

Dumitru Micu asserts with his own arguments: "Without denying preliminary Romanian poetry, symbolism -with all its contradictions - exceeds it in certain respects. It creates a new technique, an innovative poetical style, gives expression to some new sensitivity. The themes of the poetry are enlarged on the one hand, by attaching less explored aspects of the external world (the urban environment, the sea, etc.), on the other hand, by deeper incursions into soul territories, by the fixation of emotion " (Micu, 1964: 303,304).


The main approach of this paper was to highlight those aspects of language which enable us to see symbolism as the beginning of modern poetry. After the trend had been defined, the emphasis was laid on a presentation of French symbolism, as the development center of this movement was France. Further on, the stress was laid on the symbolistic poetical language, seen as a revolution of the form, the novelty occurring first at the level of the signifier and then at the level of the signified, new meanings being produced by various innovative combinations.

The article continued by emphasizing the fact that many changes in lyricism were achieved by symbolists by manipulating freely the elements of language. Therefore, in order to create many types of semantic deviations, they do not stick to the rules of syntax, employing different metataxes, such as: the ellipsis, the zeugma, the engambament, the sylepsis, the tmesis, the syntactic parallelism, the chiasm, the inversion.

Another idea which was brought into relief in this article was that within the symbolistic poetical language, the suggestion of musicality is given by using various metaboles, such as: the apheresis, the apocope, the syncope, the epenthesis, the alliteration, the assonance, the rhyme, the syntactic parallelism, the chiasm, the repetition, certain onomatopoeic creations.

This paper pointed out that to achieve correspondences, a lot of synestheses are made use of. It is about musical, chromatic, olfactory, gustative, tactile synestheses and they are mainly achieved by employing epithets, symbols, metaphors, comparisons.

Further, the paper emphasized the stands taken by the old Romanian critics, who showed countless prejudices against symbolism and in the end, it was the attitude of the current Romanian critics which was stressed, their positions towards the movement being either favourable or depreciatory.


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