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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The word “symbol” has had a long and complex
history since antiquity. Today it may designate very
different sorts of concepts in the most varied contexts.
The use in mathematics or symbolic logic is almost
diametrically opposed to its use in literary criticism,
and even there it vacillates, for “symbol” often can-
not be distinguished from “sign,” “synecdoche” and
“allegory.” In Northrop Frye's influential Anatomy of
(Princeton, 1957) it is defined “as any unit
of any work of literature which can be isolated for
critical attention” (p. 367).


The word comes from the Greek verb symballein,
“to put together,” and the noun symbolon, “sign,”
“token” which originally referred to a half-coin which
the two parties to an agreement carried away as a
pledge for its fulfillment. Late in the seventeenth cen-
tury its use, e.g., in Leibniz, seems to have served often
as a designation for a mathematical sign. Its application
to literature with a clearly defined meaning, contrast-
ing it with allegory, occurred first in Germany late in
the eighteenth century. Symbol, Sinnbild, emblem,
hieroglyph, allegory were used almost interchangeably
by Winckelmann, Lessing, and Herder. Only Kant in
Die Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment; 1790)
gave symbol a more precise meaning in the context
of aesthetics. He expressly rejects “the modern logi-
cians” (i.e., Leibniz and Wolff) who use it in opposition
to “intuitive representation.” “Symbolic representation
is only a kind of intuitive representation,” and symbols
are “indirect representations of the concept through
the medium of analogy.” “Beauty is a symbol of mo-
rality” (paragraph 59). Goethe, who began to use the
term after 1797, drew then the distinction between
symbol and allegory most clearly, particularly in
Maximen und Reflexionen: “True symbolism is where
the particular represents the more general, not as a
dream or a shadow, but as a living momentary revela-
tion of the Inscrutable.” And perhaps most sharply:
“Allegory changes a phenomenon into a concept, a
concept into an image,” while symbolism “changes the
phenomenon into the idea, the idea into the image,
in such a way that the idea remains always infinitely
active and unapproachable in the image, and will
remain inexpressible even though expressed in all lan-
guages” (Nos. 314, 1112, 1113). Schiller, a close student
of Kant, had used the term as early as 1794 in a review
of Matthisson's poems, suggesting that the poet needs
a “symbolic operation” to change inanimate nature
into human nature. Nature should become a “symbol
of the internal harmony of the mind with itself” by
a “symbolism (Symbolik) of the imagination.” In a
letter to Goethe Schiller praises Shakespeare's Richard
for using “symbols where nature cannot be
depicted” (Nov. 28, 1797) and recommends the intro-
duction of “symbolic devices” (Behelfe) to take the
place of an object (Dec. 29, 1797). In the Preface to
Die Braut von Messina (1803) Schiller asserts boldly
that “everything in poetry is only a symbol of the real.”

The proliferation of the term and concept is, how-
ever, due to the German romantics, to the brothers
Schlegel (though in August Wilhelm's writings which
stress the imagery of literature the term Sinnbild pre-
dominates), to F. W. Schelling, Novalis (Friedrich von
Hardenburg), K. W. F. Solger and many others. In
Schelling's Philosophie der Kunst (1802, published in
1859) a distinction between schematism (the general
signifying the particular, as in abstract thought),
allegory (the particular signifying the general), and
symbolism (the union of the general and the particular)
which alone is art, is drawn. Similarly Solger considers
all art symbolic. Solger defines the beautiful in his
Vorlesungen über Ästhetik (1829), as the union of the
general and the particular, of concept and appearance,
of essence (Wesen) and reality. “The symbol is the
existence of the Idea itself. It is really what it signifies.
It is the Idea in its immediate reality. The symbol is
thus always true in itself: not a mere copy of something
true” (p. 129). Hegel, in his Vorlesungen über Ästhetik
(1835; the lectures were delivered in the 1820's) differs
from the majority of his contemporaries by confining
“symbolic” to an early stage of art, to what in their
terminology would be allegorical art. Symbolic art, for
Hegel, is art where there is no concrete togetherness
of meaning and form: it is the first stage exemplified
by the art of ancient India and Egypt. In general,
German authors clung to the romantic formulas.
Heinrich Heine in a passage later to be quoted by
Baudelaire, proclaims himself a “supernaturalist in
art.” “I believe that the artist cannot find all his types
in nature, but that the most significant types, as inborn
symbolism of native ideas, are revealed, as it were, in
the soul.” “Colors, and forms, tones and words, ap-
pearance in general, are only symbols of the Idea”
(Sämtliche Werke, ed. O. Walzel, Leipzig [1912-15],
6, 25, 23). Also Friedrich Hebbel, though highly
Hegelian in his speculations on tragedy, sees “every
genuine work of art as a mysterious, ambiguous, un-
fathomable symbol“ (Tagebücher, 2, 96; February 2,

The German discussion continued throughout the
century, and becomes increasingly suspicious of the
idealist interpretation of symbol. Friedrich Theodor
Vischer's last paper, “Das Symbol” (1887) (in Altes
und Neues,
N. F., 1889) marks a temporary end as
Vischer moves toward a psychological and empirical
aesthetic while still clinging to the essence of the
idealist interpretation. He analyzes the different
meanings of the term sharply distinguishing it from
myth. Symbolism in poetry is animism, anthropo-
morphism, inspired by the truth that the universe,
nature and spirit must be one at their roots. It is an
act of empathy which Vischer analyzes in purely
psychological terms. A third use of symbol, as con-
sciously contrived symbolism, as the poetic repre-
sentation of what is universally significant and typical
seems to Vischer dangerously near to allegory which
with him and all the Germans is simply non-art.

Goethe's and Schelling's concept won out abroad.
It penetrated to England mainly through S. T. Cole-


ridge and Thomas Carlyle. Coleridge in The States-
man's Manual
(1816) defines symbol “by a translucence
of the special (= generic) in the individual, or of the
general in the special, or of the universal in the general;
above all by the translucence of the eternal through
and in the temporal. It always partakes of the reality
which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates
the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity
of which it is the representative.” While Coleridge
often wavered in his use and sometimes thought of
symbol only as synecdoche (“Here comes a sail” instead
of “a ship”), symbol became the central concept of
the young Thomas Carlyle in life and literature.
Carlyle interpreted Goethe as a symbolist. Goethe has
“an emblematic intellect,” “the figurativeness is in the
very centre of his being” (Essays, Centenary edition,
1, 244; 2, 449). In Sartor Resartus (1831) a whole
chapter called “Symbolism” develops a total view of
art and life as symbolism. Carlyle influenced two great
writers profoundly: Ruskin also developed a theory of
symbolism in art, but tried to combine symbolism with
naturalism. “Symbolic” beauty for him surpasses but
must not suppress “vital” beauty (Modern Painters, in
Works, Library edition, 4, 144). Carlyle's friend and
correspondent Ralph Waldo Emerson was then ex-
pounding a most extreme symbolist theory of poetry.
“The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human
mind.” Analogy is the key to the universe. Still,
Emerson, differing from the tradition of Swedenbor-
gian “correspondences” on which he drew, insists on
the “accidency and fugacity” of the symbol. All sym-
bols are “fluxional.” “In the transmission of the
heavenly waters, every hose fits every hydrant,” says
Emerson strikingly advocating the pervasiveness and
shifting convertibility of symbolism, an “incessant
metamorphosis” (Complete Works, Centenary edition,
1, 32; 3, 20, 34-35).

The symbolist conception also penetrated to France:
there are echoes, in Madame de Staël who knew the
Schlegels, in Alexandre Vinet, in Charles Magnin, and
particularly in Pierre Leroux, an early utopian socialist.
In a series of remarkable articles in the Revue encyclo-
Vol. 52 (1831), Leroux exalted poetry as the
language of symbols, as a system of correspondences,
a network of “vibrations.” Elsewhere Leroux recog-
nizes that in his sense “metaphor, symbol, myth are
but different degrees of allegory” and sees in symbol
“an intermediary form between comparison and
allegory properly speaking. It is truly an emblem, the
metaphor of an idea” (in Oeuvres 1, 330-31). Thus the
term shifts from a rhetorical category to an element
in a mystical view of nature. Oddly enough another
critic, Paulin Limayrac, concludes that “Symbolic po-
etry has no future in France, and socialism, by
monopolizing the term, has dealt symbolism a hard
blow.” (See “La poésie symboliste et socialiste” in
Revue des deux mondes, N.S. 5 [1844], 669-82, trans.
M. Gilman, in The Idea of Poetry in France [1954],
p. 225.) But Limayrac's prophecy proved to be quite
wrong. Baudelaire, in the fifties, espoused a theory of
universal analogy and correspondences best known
through his sonnet “Correspondances.” But this repre-
sented only an early occult stage of his thinking. His
later aesthetics centers rather on creative imagination
than on symbol. Symbol occurs interchangeably with
allegory, cipher, hieroglyphic, and even emblem.
Baudelaire, whatever his practice, thus cannot be
called a symbolist. He died in 1867 almost twenty years
before the movement which appealed to him as a
forerunner. Also Stéphane Mallarmé's aesthetic does
not center on the symbol. He aims rather at the crea-
tion of a special poetic language which would evoke
and suggest as if by magic, the central mystery, the
Idea, Silence, Nothingness. Art is both abstract and
obscure. Art must “evoke, in a deliberate shadow, the
object which is silenced, be allusive, never direct.” The
“symbol,” which Mallarmé uses sparingly, would be
only one device to achieve this effect. Still, one sees
how the whole tendency of aesthetic thinking in France
was preparing for the acceptance of the term as a

The term symbolisme as a designation of a group
of poets was first proposed by Jean Moréas (pseudonym
for Jean Diamantopoulos, 1856-1910). In 1885 he was
disturbed by a journalistic attack on the decadents in
which he was named together with Mallarmé. He
protested: “The so-called decadents seek the pure
Concept and the eternal Symbol in their art, before
anything else.” With some contempt for the mania of
critics for labels, he suggested the term Symbolistes
to replace the inappropriate décadents (Michaud
[1947], 2, 331). In 1886 Moréas started a review Le
which perished after four issues. On Sep-
tember 18, 1886, he published a manifesto of Sym-
in Figaro. Moréas, however, soon deserted his
own brain-child and founded another school he called
école romane. On September 14, 1891, in another
number of Figaro Moréas blandly announced that
symbolisme was dead. Thus symbolisme was only an
ephemeral name for a very small clique of French
poets. The only person still remembered aside from
Moréas is Gustave Kahn. It is easy to collect pro-
nouncements by the main contemporary poets repudi-
ating the term for themselves. Verlaine, in particular,
was vehemently resentful of this Allemandisme and
wrote even a little poem beginning A bas le symbol-
isme mythe/ et termite
(Invectives, 1896).

In a way which would need detailed tracing, the


term, however, caught on in the later 1880's and early
1890's as a blanket name for recent developments in
French poetry and its anticipations. Before Moréas'
manifesto, Anatole Baju, in Décadent (April 10, 1886),
spoke of Mallarmé as “the master who was the first
to formulate the symbolic doctrine.” Two critics,
Charles Morice, with La littérature de tout à l'heure
(1889) and Téodor de Wyzéwa, born in Poland, first
in the essay “Le Symbolisme de M. Mallarmé” (1887),
seemed to have been the main agents, though Morice
spoke rather of synthèse than of symbol, and Wyzéwa
thought that “symbol” was only a pretext and ex-
plained Mallarmé's poetry purely by its analogy to
music. As early as 1894 Saint Antoine (pseudonym for
Henri Mazel) prophesied that “undoubtedly, symbol-
ism will be the label under which our period will be
classed in the history of French literature” (L'Ermitage,
June 1894).

It is still a matter of debate in French literary history
when this movement came to an end. It was revived
several times expressly, e.g., in 1905 around a review
Vers et prose. Its main critic, Robert de Souza, in a
series of articles “Où nous en sommes” (also published
separately, 1906) ridiculed the many attempts to bury
symbolism as premature and proudly claimed that
Gustave Kahn, Paul Verhaeren, Francis Viélé-Griffin,
Maurice Maeterlinck, and Henri Régnier were then as
active as ever. Valéry professed so complete an alle-
giance to the ideals of Mallarmé that it is difficult not
to think of him as a continuer of symbolism, though
in 1938, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of
the symbolist manifesto, Valéry doubted the existence
of symbolism and denied that there is a symbolist
aesthetic (“Existence du symbolisme,” in Pléiade ed.,
[1957], I, 686-706). Marcel Proust in the posthumously
published last volume of his great series, Le temps
(1926), formulated an explicitly symbolist aes-
thetic. But his own attitude to symbolist contem-
poraries was often ambiguous or negative. In 1896
Proust had written an essay condemning obscurity in
poetry (in Chroniques). Proust admired Maeterlinck but
disliked Charles Péguy and Paul Claudel. He even
wrote a pastiche of Régnier, a mock-solemn description
of a head cold. When Le temps retrouvé (1926) was
published and when a few years later (1933) Valery
Larbaud proclaimed Proust a symbolist (Preface to
Eméric Figer, L'esthétique de Marcel Proust), symbol-
ism had, at least in French poetry, definitely been
replaced by surrealism.

André Barre's Le symbolisme (1911) and particularly
Guy Michaud's Message poétique du symbolisme (1947)
as well as many other books of French literary scholar-
ship have with the hindsight of literary historians,
traced the different phases of a vast French symbolist
movement: the precursorship of Baudelaire who died
in 1867, the second phase when Verlaine and Mallarmé
were at the height of their power before the 1886
group, the third phase when the name became estab-
lished, and then in the twentieth century what Michaud
calls Néo-symbolisme represented by “La Jeune
Parque” of Valéry and L'annonce faite à la Marie of
Claudel, both dating from 1915. It is a coherent and
convincing conception which needs to be extended to
prose writers and dramatists: to Huysmans after Au
(1884), to the early Gide, to Proust in part and
among dramatists at least to Maeterlinck who with
his plays L'intruse and Les aveugles (1890) and Pelléas
et Mélisande
(1892) assured a limited penetration of
symbolism on the stage.

Knowledge of the French movement and admiration
for it soon spread to the other European countries. We
must, however, distinguish between reporting on
French events (and even the enthusiasm reflected by
translations) and a genuine assimilation of the French
movement by another literature. This process varies
considerably from country to country; and the varia-
tion needs to be explained by the different traditions
which the French importation confronted.

In English, George Moore's Confessions of a Young
(1888) and his Impressions and Opinions (1891)
gave sketchy and often poorly informed accounts of
Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue.
Mallarmé's poetry is dismissed as “aberrations of a
refined mind” and symbolism is oddly defined as “say-
ing the opposite of what you mean.” The three essays
on Mallarmé by Edmund Gosse, all dating from 1893,
are hardly more perceptive. After the poet's death,
Gosse turned sharply against him. “Now that he is no
longer here the truth must be said about Mallarmé.
He was hardly a poet.” Even Arthur Symons, whose
book, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899),
made the decisive breakthrough for England and
Ireland, was very lukewarm at first. While praising
Verlaine (in Academy, 1891) he referred to the “brain-
sick little school of Symbolistes” and “the noisy little
school of Décadents” and in later articles on Mallarmé
he complained of “jargon and meaningless riddles.” But
then he turned around, and produced the entirely
favorable Symbolist Movement. It should not, however,
be overrated as literary criticism or history. It is a
rather lame impressionistic account of Nerval, Villiers
de l'Isle-Adam, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mal-
larmé, Huysmans, and Maeterlinck with emphasis on
Verlaine. There is no chapter on Baudelaire. But most
importantly the book was dedicated to W. B. Yeats
proclaiming him “the chief representative of that
movement in our country.” The edition of Blake, which
Yeats had prepared with Edwin Ellis in 1893, was


introduced by an essay on “The Necessity of Symbol-
ism,” and the essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900)
was Yeats's full statement of his symbolist creed.
Symons' dedication to Yeats shows an awareness of
symbolism as a truly international movement: “In
Germany,” Symons says, exaggerating greatly, “it
seems to be permeating the whole of literature, its
spirit is that which is deepest in Ibsen, it has absorbed
the one new force in Italy, Gabriele D'Annunzio, I
am told of a group of symbolists in Russian literature,
there is another in Dutch literature, in Portugal it has
a little school of its own under Eugenio de Castro. I
even saw some faint stirrings that way in Spain.”

Symons should have added the United States. Or
could he in 1899? There were intelligent and sympa-
thetic reports of the French movement very early.
T. S. Perry wrote on “The Latest Literary Fashion in
France” in The Cosmopolitan (1892), T. Child on
“Literary Paris—The New Poetry” in Harper's (1896),
and Aline Gorren on “The French Symbolists” in
Scribner's (13 [1893], 337-52). The almost forgotten
Vance Thompson, who fresh from Paris, edited the
oddly named review M'lle New York, wrote several
perceptive essays, mainly on Mallarmé in 1895 (re-
printed in French Portraits in 1900) which convey some
accurate information on his theories and even attempt
with some success some explication of his poetry. But
only James Huneker became the main importer of
recent French literature into the United States. In 1896
he defended the French symbolists against the slurs in
Max Nordau's Entartung and began to write a long
series of articles on Maeterlinck, Laforgue, and many
others not bothering to conceal his dependence on his
French master, Remy de Gourmont to whom he dedi-
cated his book of essays, Visionaries (1905). But the
actual impact of French symbolist poetry on American
writing was greatly delayed. René Taupin in his
L'influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie
(1929) traced some echoes in forgotten
American versifiers of the turn of the century but only
two Americans living then in England, Ezra Pound
around 1908 and T. S. Eliot around 1914, reflect the
French influence in significant poetry.

More recently and in retrospect one hears of a
symbolist period in American literature: Hart Crane
and Wallace Stevens are its main poets; Henry James,
Faulkner, and O'Neill, in very different ways and in
different stages of their career, show marked affinities
with its techniques and outlook. Edmund Wilson's
Axel's Castle (1931) was apparently the very first book
which definitely conceived of symbolism as an interna-
tional movement and singled out Yeats, Joyce, Eliot,
Gertrude Stein, Valéry, and Proust as outstanding
examples of a movement which, he believed, had come
to an end at the time of his writing. Wilson's sources
were the writings of Huneker, whom he admired
greatly, and the instruction in French literature he
received at Princeton from Christian Gauss. But the
insight into the unity and continuity of the interna-
tional movement and the selection of the great names
was his own. We might only wonder about the inclu-
sion of Gertrude Stein.

In the United States, Wilson's reasonable and mod-
erate plea for an international movement was soon
displaced by attempts to make the whole of the Amer-
ican literary tradition symbolist. F. O. Matthiessen's
The American Renaissance (1941) is based on the dis-
tinction introduced by Goethe. Allegory appears as
inferior to symbol: Hawthorne inferior to Melville. But
in Charles Feidelson's Symbolism and American Liter-
(1956) the distinction between modern symbo-
lism and the use of symbols by romantic authors is
completely obliterated. Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe,
Melville, and Whitman appear as pure symbolists
Avant la lettre, and their ancestry is traced back to
the Puritans who, paradoxically, appear as incomplete,
frustrated symbolists. It can be objected that the old
Puritans were sharply inimical to images and symbols
and that there is a gulf between the religious concep-
tion of signs of God's Providence and the aesthetic use
of symbols in the novels of Hawthorne and Melville
and even in the Platonizing aesthetics of Emerson.

The symbolist conception of American literature is
still prevalent today. It owes its dominance to the
attempt to exalt the great American writers to myth-
makers and providers of a substitute religion. James
Baird in Ishmael (1956) puts it strikingly: Melville is
“the supreme example of the artistic creator engaged
in the act of making new symbols to replace the 'lost'
symbols of Protestant Christianity.” A very active trend
in American criticism expanded symbolist inter-
pretation to all types and periods of literature. The
impact of ideas from the Cambridge anthropologists
and from Carl Jung is obvious. In the study of medieval
texts, a renewed interest in the fourfold levels of mean-
ing in Dante's “Letter to Can Grande” has persuaded
a whole group of American scholars led by D. W.
Robertson, to interpret Chaucer, the Pearl poet, and
Langland in these terms. The symbolist interpretation
reaches heights of ingenuity in the writing of Northrop
Frye who began with a book on Blake and, in The
Anatomy of Criticism
(1957), conceived of the whole
of literature as a self-enclosed system of symbols and
myths, “existing in its own universe, no longer a
commentary on life or reality, but containing life and
reality in a system of verbal relationships.” In this
grandiose conception all distinctions between periods
and styles are abolished: “the literary universe is a


universe in which everything is potentially identical
with everything else.” The old distinctions between
myth, symbol, and allegory disappear. One of Frye's
followers, Angus Fletcher, in his book on Allegory
(1964), exalts allegory as the central procedure of art,
absorbing symbolism.

The story of the spread of symbolism is very differ-
ent in other countries. The effect in Italy was ostensibly
rather small. Soffici's pamphlet on Rimbaud, in 1911,
is usually considered the beginning of the French
symbolist influence, but there was an early propa-
gandist for Mallarmé, Vittorio Pica, who was heavily
dependent on French sources, particularly Téodor de
Wyzéwa. His articles, in the Gazetta letteraria (1885-
86), on the French poets do not use the term; but in
1896 he replaced “decadent” and “Byzantine” by
“symbolist.” The poets around Ungaretti and Montale
spoke rather of ermetismo. In a book by Mario Luzi,
L'idea simbolista (1959), Pascoli, Dino Campana, and
Arturo Onofri are called symbolist poets.

While symbolism, at least as a definite school or
movement, was absent in Italy, it is central in the
history of Spanish poetry. The Nicaraguan poet Rubén
Darío initiated it after his short stay in Paris in 1892.
He wrote poems under the symbolist influence and
addressed, for instance, a fervent hymn to Verlaine.
The influence of French symbolist poetry changed
completely the oratorical or popular style of Spanish
lyrical poetry. The closeness of Guillén to Mallarmé
and Valéry seems too obvious to deny and the
Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig (1873-1909)
is clearly in the symbolist tradition, often in the most
obscure manner. Still, the Spanish critics favor the term
modernismo which is used sometimes so inclusively that
it covers all modern Spanish poetry and even the
so-called “generation of 1898,” the prose writers
Azorín, Baroja, and Unamuno, whose associations with
symbolism were quite tenuous. “Symbolism” can apply
only to one trend in modern Spanish literature as the
romantic popular tradition was stronger there than
elsewhere. García Lorca's poetry can serve as the best
known example of the peculiar Spanish synthesis of
the folksy and the symbolical, the gypsy song and myth.
Still, the continuity from Darío to Jiménez, Antonio
Machado, Alberti, and then to Guillén seems evident.
Jorge Guillén in his Harvard lectures, Language and
(1961), finds “no label convincing.” “A period
look,” he argues, does not signify a “group style.” In
Spain there were, he thinks, fewer “isms” than else-
where and the break with the past was far less abrupt.
He reflects that “any name seeking to give unity to
a historical period is the invention of posterity” (p.
214). But while eschewing the term “symbolism” he
characterizes himself and his contemporaries well
enough by expounding their common creed: their
belief in the marriage of Idea and music, in short, their
belief in the ideal of Mallarmé. Following a vague
suggestion made by Remy de Gourmont the redis-
covery of Góngora by Ortega y Gasset, Gerardo Diego,
Dámaso Alonso, and Alfonso Reyes around 1927 fits
into the picture: they couple Góngora and Mallarmé
as the two poets who in the history of all poetry have
gone furthest in the search for absolute poetry, for the
quintessence of the poetic.

In Germany, the spread of symbolism was far less
complete than Symons assumed in 1899. Stefan George
had come to Paris in 1889, had visited Mallarmé and
met many poets, but after his return to Germany he
deliberately avoided the term “symbolism” for himself
and his circle. He translated a selection from
Baudelaire (1891) and smaller samples from Mallarmé,
Verlaine, and Régnier in Zeitgenössische Dichter (1905),
but his own poetry does not show very close parallels
to the French masters. Oddly enough, the poems of
Vielé-Griffin seem to have left the most clearly
discernible traces on George's own writings—see B.
Böschenstein in Euphorion, 58 (1964). As early as 1892
one of George's adherents, Carl August Klein, protested
in George's periodical, Blätter für die Kunst, against
the view of George's dependence on the French.
Wagner, Nietzsche, Böcklin, and Klinger, he says, show
that there is an indigenous opposition to naturalism
in Germany as everywhere in the West. George himself
spoke later of the French poets as his “former allies”
and in Gundolf's authoritative book on George (1920),
the French influence is minimized if not completely
denied. Among the theorists of the George circle
Friedrich Gundolf had the strongest symbolist leanings:
Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911) and Goethe
(1916) are based on the distinction of symbol-allegory
with symbol always the higher term. Still, the term
symbolism did not catch on in Germany as a name
for any specific poetic group, though Hofmannsthal,
e.g., in “Das Gespräch über Gedichte” (1903), pro-
claimed the symbol the one element necessary in po-
etry. Later, the influence of Rimbaud—apparently
largely in German translation—on Georg Trakl has
been demonstrated with certainty by H. Lindenberger
in Comparative Literature, 10 (1953), 21-35.

But if we examine German books on twentieth-
century literature “symbolism” seems rarely used. A
section so called in Willi Duwe's Die Dichtung des
20. Jahrhunderts,
published in 1936, lists Hofmannsthal,
Dauthendey, Calé, Rilke, and George, while E. H.
Lüth's Literatur als Geschichte (Deutsche Dichtung von
1885 bis 1947
), published in 1947, treats the same poets
under the label “Neuromantik und Impressionismus.”
A later section “Parasymbolismus” deals with Musil


and Broch. German literary scholarship has not been
converted to the term, though Wolfgang Kayser's arti-
cle “Der europäische Symbolismus” (1953; included in
Die Vortragsreise, Bern, 1958), had pleaded for a wide
concept in which he included D'Annunzio, Yeats, Val
éry, Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner besides the
French poets.

In Russia we find the strongest self-styled “symbolist”
group of poets. The close links with Paris at that time
may help to explain their appearance, or possibly also
the strong consciousness of a tradition of symbolism
in the Russian Church and in some of the orthodox
thinkers of the immediate past. Vladimir Solovëv was
regarded as a precursor. In 1892 Zinaida Vengerova
wrote a sympathetic account of the French symbolists
for Vestnik Evropy while in the following year Max
Nordau's Entartung caused a sensation for its satirical
account of recent French poetry which had repercus-
sions on Tolstoy's What is Art? (1898). Valery Bryusov
emerged as the leading symbolist poet: he translated
Maeterlinck's L'intruse and wrote a poem “Iz
Rimbaud” as early as 1892. In 1894 he published two
little volumes entitled Russkie simvolisty. That year
Bryusov wrote poems with titles such as “In the man-
ner of Stéphane Mallarmé” (though these were not
published till 1935) and brought out a translation of
Verlaine's Romances sans paroles. Bryusov had later
contacts with René Ghil, Mallarmé's pupil, and derived
from him the idea of “instrumentation” or “orchestra-
tion” in poetry which was to play a great role in the
theories of the Russian formalists (Lettres de René Ghil,
Paris, 1935). In the meantime Dimitri Merezhkovsky
had, in 1893, published a manifesto: “On the causes
of the decline and the new trends of contemporary
Russian literature,” which recommended symbolism,
though Merezhkovsky appealed to the Germans as
models, to Goethe and the romantics rather than to
the French. Merezhkovsky's pamphlet foreshadows the
split in the Russian symbolist movement. The younger
men, Alexander Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov as well
as Bely, drew apart from Bryusov and Balmont. Blok
in an early diary (1901-02) condemned Bryusov as
decadent and opposed his Parisian symbolism with his
own Russian variety, rooted in the poetry of Tyutchev,
Fet, Polonsky, and Solovëv (Literaturnoe Nasledstvo,
27-28 [1937], 302). Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910, shared
Blok's view. The French influence seemed to him
“unreasonable in an adolescent way and, in fact, not
very fertile,” while his own symbolism appealed to
Russian nationalism and to the general mystical tradi-
tion (Apollon, 8 [1910], 13). Later Bely was to add
occultism, Rudolf Steiner and his “anthroposophy.”
The group of poets who called themselves “Acmeists”
(Gumilëv, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam) was a
direct outgrowth of symbolism. The mere fact that they
appealed to the early symbolist Innokenty Annensky
shows the continuity with symbolism in spite of their
distaste for the occult and their emphasis on what they
thought of as classical clarity. Symbolism dominates
Russian poetry between about 1892 and 1914. Then
futurism emerged as a slogan and the Russian formalists
attacked the whole concept of poetry as imagery.

If we glance at the other Slavic countries we are
struck by the diversity of their reactions. Poland was
early informed about the French movement, and Polish
poetry was influenced by the French symbolist move-
ment but the term Mlada Polska (“Young Poland”) was
preferred. In Wilhelm Feldmann's Wspólczesna litera-
tura polska
(“Contemporary Polish Literature,” 1905)
contemporary poetry is discussed as “decadentism” but
Wyspiański (a symbolist if ever there was one) appears
under the chapter heading: “On the heights of roman-
ticism.” All the histories of Polish literature speak of
“Modernism,” “Decadentism,” “Idealism,” and “Neo-
romanticism” and occasionally call a poet such as
Miriam (Zenon Przesmycki) a symbolist but they never
seem to use the term as a general name for a period
in Polish literature.

In Czech literature the situation was more like that
in Russia: Březina. Sova, and Hlaváček were called
symbolists and the idea of a school or at least a group
of Czech symbolist poets is firmly established. The term
Moderna (possibly because of the periodical, Moderní
founded in 1894) is definitely associated with
decadentism, fin de siècle, a group represented by
Arnošt Procházka. A hymnical, optimistic, and even
chiliastic poet such as Otokar Březina cannot and could
not be classed with them. The great critic F. X. Šalda
wrote of the “school of symbolists” as early as 1891,
calling Verlaine, Villiers, and Mallarmé its masters, but
denied that there is a school of symbolists with dogmas,
codices, and manifestoes. His very first important arti-
cle “Synthetism in the new art” (Literární Listy, 1892)
expounded the aesthetics of Morice and Hennequin for
the benefit of the Czechs, then still mainly dependent
on German models.

The unevenness of the penetration of both the influ-
ence of the French movement and notably of the
acceptance of the term raises the question whether we
can account for these differences in causal terms. It
sounds heretical or obscurantist in this age of scientific
explanation to ascribe much to chance, to chance con-
tacts, and personal predilections. Why was the term
so immensely successful in France, in the United States
and in Russia, less so in England and Spain and hardly
at all in Italy and Germany? In Germany there was
even the tradition from Goethe and Schelling to F. T.
Vischer of the continuous debate about symbol. One


can think of all kinds of explanations: a deliberate
decision by the poets to move away from the French
developments, or the success of the terms Die Moderne
and Neuromantik. Still, the very number of such ex-
planations suggests that the variables are so great in
number that we cannot account for these divergencies
in any systematic manner.

Finally, if we discuss the exact contents of the term
“symbolism” in literary history, we must distinguish
among four concentric circles defining its scope. At
its narrowest “symbolism” refers to the French group
which called itself so in 1886. Its theory was rather
rudimentary. These poets mainly wanted poetry to be
nonrhetorical, i.e., they asked for a break with the
tradition of Hugo and the Parnassiens. They wanted
words not merely to state but to suggest; they wanted
to use metaphors, allegories, and symbols not only as
decorations but as organizing principles of their poems;
they wanted their verse to be “musical,” in practice
to stop using the oratorical cadences of the French
alexandrine and, in some cases, to break completely
with rhyme. Free verse—whose invention is usually
ascribed to Gustave Kahn—was possibly the most
enduring achievement which has survived all vicissi-
tudes of style. Kahn himself summed up the doctrine
simply as “antinaturalism, antiprosaism in poetry, a
search for freedom in the efforts in art, in reaction
against the regimentation of the Parnasse and the
naturalists” (La société nouvelle, April 1894).

“Symbolism” in a wider sense refers to the broad
movement in France from Nerval and Baudelaire to
Claudel and Valéry. We can characterize it by saying
that in symbolist poetry the image becomes “thing.”
The relation of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor is
reversed. The utterance is divorced from the situation:
time and place, history and society are played down.
The inner world, la durée, in the Bergsonian sense, is
represented or often merely hinted at as “it,” the thing
or the person hidden. The grammatical predicate has
become the subject. Clearly such poetry can easily be
justified by an occult view of the world. But this is
not necessary: it might simply imply a feeling for
analogy, for a web of correspondences, a rhetoric of
metamorphoses in which everything reflects everything
else. Hence the great role of synaesthesia, which,
though rooted in physiological facts, and found all over
the history of poetry, became at that time merely a
stylistic device, a mannerism to be easily imitated and

On the third wider circle of abstraction the term
can be applied to the whole period roughly between
1885 and 1914. “Symbolism” can be seen as an inter-
national movement which radiated originally from
France but produced great writers and great poetry
also elsewhere. In English, Yeats and Eliot; in the
United States, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; in
Germany, George, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal; in Russia,
Blok, Ivanov, and Bely; in Spain and South America,
Darío, Machado, and Guillén. If we, as we should,
extend the meaning of symbolism to prose, we can see
it clearly in the late Henry James, in Joyce, the later
Thomas Mann, in Proust, in the early Gide, in Faulkner
and D. H. Lawrence, and if we add the drama we
recognize it in the later stages of Ibsen, and in Strind-
berg, Hauptmann, and O'Neill. There is symbolist
criticism of distinction: an aesthetics in Mallarmé and
Valéry, a looser creed in Remy de Gourmont, in Eliot,
and in Yeats and there is a flourishing school of
symbolist interpretation particularly in the United

Much of the French “new criticism” is frankly
symbolist. Roland Barthes' pamphlet, Critique et vérité
(1966), pleads for a complete liberty of symbolist in-
terpretation. Symbolism in this sense can be defended
as rooted in the concepts of the period, as distinct in
meaning and as clearly setting off the period from that
preceding it, realism or naturalism. The difference
between symbolism and romanticism is less certainly
implied. Obviously there is a continuity with romanti-
cism, and particularly German romanticism; also in
France, as has been recently argued again by Werner
Vordtriede in his Novalis und die französischen
(1963). The direct contact of the French
with the German romantics, however, came late and
should not be overrated. Jean Thorel's “Les roman-
tiques allemandes et les symbolistes français” seems to
have been the first to point out the relation (in
Entretiens politiques et littéraires, 1891). Maeterlinck's
article on Novalis (1894) and his little anthology (1896)
came late in the movement. But Wagner of course
mediated between the symbolists and German mythol-
ogy though Mallarmé's attitude, while admiring the
music, was tinged with irony for Wagner's subject-
matter (Oeuvres, Pléiade ed., pp. 541-45). Early in the
century, Heine, a romantique défroqué as he called
himself, played the role of an intermediary (cf. Kurt
Weinberg's Henri Heine: héraut du symbolisme
1954). E. T. A. Hoffmann was widely trans-
lated into French and could supply occult motifs, a
transcendental view of music, and the theory and
practice of synaesthesia.

Possibly even more important were the indirect
contacts through the English writers discussed: through
Carlyle's chapter on symbolism in Sartor Resartus, and
his essay on Novalis; through Colerdige from whom,
through another intermediary, Mrs. Crowe, Baudelaire
drew his definition of “constructive imagination”; and
through Emerson, who was translated by Edgar Quinet.


There was also Edgar Allan Poe who drew on Cole-
ridge and A. W. Schlegel, and seemed so closely to
anticipate Baudelaire's views that Baudelaire quoted
him as if he were Poe himself, sometimes dropping
all quotation marks.

The enormous influence of Poe on the French dem-
onstrates, however, most clearly the difference between
romanticism and symbolism. Poe is far from being a
representative of the romantic world view or of its
romantic aesthetics in which imagination is conceived
as transforming nature. Poe has been aptly described
as an “angel in a machine”: he combines a faith in
technique and even technology, a distrust of inspira-
tion, a rationalistic eighteenth-century mind with a
vague occult belief in “supernal” beauty. The distrust
of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point
which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire,
Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it; while Rilke, a
symbolist in many of his procedures and views, appears
as highly romantic in his reliance on moments of
inspiration. For this reason the attempt to make
Mallarmé a spiritual descendant of Novalis, as
Vordtriede tried to do, must fail. Mallarmé, one might
grant, aims at transcendence but it is an empty
transcendence, whereas Novalis rapturously adores the
unity of the mysterious universe. In short, the romantics
were Rousseauists; the symbolists, beginning with
Baudelaire, believe in the fall of man or, if they do
not use the religious phraseology, know that man is
limited and is not, as Novalis believed, the Messiah
of nature. The end of the romantic period is clearly
marked by the victory of positivism and scientism,
which soon led to disillusionment and pessimism. Most
symbolists were non-Christians, even atheists, although
they tried to find a new religion in occultism or flirted
with Oriental religions. They were pessimists who need
not have read Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hart-
mann, as Laforgue did, to succumb to the mood of
decadence, fin de siècle, Götterdämmerung, or the
death of God prophesied by Nietzsche.

Symbolism is also clearly set off from the new avant-
garde movements after 1914, i.e., futurism, cubism,
surrealism, expressionism, etc. There the faith in lan-
guage has crumbled completely, while in Mallarmé and
Valéry language preserves its cognitive and even magic
power; Valéry's collection of poems is rightly called
Charmes. Orpheus is the mythological hero of the poet:
charming the animals, trees, and even stones. With
more recent art the view of analogy disappears: Kafka
has nothing of it. Post-symbolist art is abstract and
allegorical rather than symbolic. The image, in sur-
realism, has no beyond: it wells, at most, from the
subconscious of the individual.

Finally, there is the highest abstraction, the largest
circle, the use of “symbolism” in all literature, of all
ages. Here the term, broken loose from its historical
moorings, lacks concrete content and remains merely
the name for a phenomenon which is almost universal
in all art.


Max Schlesinger, Geschichte des Symbols (Berlin, 1912);
still useful.

On early history much in R. Wellek, History of Modern
Criticism, 1750-1950,
4 vols. (New Haven, 1955-65). On
Goethe's predecessors: Curt Müller, Die geschichtlichen
Voraussetzungen des Symbolbegriffes in Goethes Kunstan-
(Berlin, 1937). On Goethe see Maurice Marache,
Le symbole dans la pensée et l'œuvre de Goethe (Paris, 1960).

On French developments before 1886: Margaret Gilman,
The Idea of Poetry in France (Cambridge, Mass., 1958).
Angelo P. Bertocci, From Symbolism to Baudelaire (Carbon-
dale, Ill., 1964).

On the French movement: André Barre, Le symbolisme:
essai historique
(Paris, 1911). E. Raynaud, La mêlée poétique
du symbolisme,
3 vols. (Paris, 1920-23). G. Michaud, Mes-
sage poétique du symbolisme,
3 vols. (Paris, 1947). A. G.
Lehmann, The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895
(Oxford, 1950). K. Cornell, The Symbolist Movement (New
Haven, 1952). M. Décaudin, La crise des valeurs symbolistes
(Toulouse, 1960).

On the international movement: Edmund Wilson, Axel's
(New York, 1931). Maurice Bowra, The Heritage of
(London, 1943). Anna Balakian, The Symbolist
Movement: A Critical Appraisal
(New York, 1967); a good
sketch. Georgette Donchin, The Influence of French
Symbolism on Russian Poetry
(The Hague, 1958). René
Taupin, L'influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie
américaine de 1910 à 1920
(Paris, 1929). Enid L. Duthie,
L'influence du symbolisme français dans le renouveau
poétique de l'Allemagne
(Paris, 1933). Ruth Z. Temple, The
Critic's Alchemy: A Study of the Introduction of French
Symbolism into England
(New York, 1953).


[See also Allegory; Expressionism; Impressionism; Natural-
ism in Art; Romanticism; Style.]