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Symbolism can have an extremely wide meaning....
To make it more clear, T....
Symbolism, hence can be defined as the art of expressing ideas and emotions not by describing them directly, nor by defining them through comparisions with concrete images, but by suggesting what these ideas and emotions are by recreating them in the mind of the reader through the use of unexplained symbols or images....
The second aspect of symbolism is described as ‘Transcendental Symbolism’....
- the WritersSoftware team



Symbolism can have an extremely wide meaning. It can be used to describe any mode of expression to refer to something indirectly through the medium of another. But this doesn’t mean that a mere substitution of one object for another can be considered as this process. In fact symbolism can be considered as the process to express to express abstract ideas and emotions through the use of concrete images, as Milton does in his Paradise Regained, where he compares Satan’s defeated legions to ‘the autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa’.

To make it more clear, T.S.Eliot puts it as “the only way of expressing emotions in the form of art ” [‘Hamlet’ by T.S.Eliot, Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot.]. But it should be noted that this expression mode is not done by just using a ‘symbol’, but an ‘objective corellative’ which means a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be formula of that particular emotion. Heneri de Re’gnier, a French poet and a disiple of Mallarme’ [Full name Ste’phane Mallarme’] defined ‘symbol’ as being a comparision between the abstract and the concrete with one of the terms of the comparision being merely suggested. Thus the symbol stands alone with the reader being given little or no indication as to what is being symbolized.

Symbolism, hence can be defined as the art of expressing ideas and emotions not by describing them directly, nor by defining them through comparisions with concrete images, but by suggesting what these ideas and emotions are by recreating them in the mind of the reader through the use of unexplained symbols or images. This is only one aspect of Symbolism which he called ‘Personal Aspect’ or ‘Human Aspect’ of symbolism.

The second aspect of symbolism is described as ‘Transcendental Symbolism’. In such type, concrete images are used as symbols, not of particular thoughts and feelings with in the poet, but of vast and general ideal world of which the real world is merely an imperfect representation. This concept of the existence of an ideal world lying beyond reality has its root sprinkled by Plato, which was popularized in 18th century by Swedenberg, and played a vital role in Christianity. In 19th century with the decline of Christian beliefs, a search for other ways to escape from the harsh reality was started. The religion was discarded for this purpose and poetry took its place. The purpose of poetry became to create for readers, a world outside reality. Stephen Mallerme’ claimed that he created in his poetry not real flower but “I’absente de tous bouquets”, the essential flower which is not to be found among any of the flowers of the world. The soul purpose of his poetry, he says was to create a pure essence, un hindered (un-disturbed) by any echo of the concrete reality which surrounds us.

Although the aim of ‘Transcendental Symbolism’ is to go beyond reality, the starting point is the ‘reality’ of this world. It is so, because this helps in transition from real world to the imaginary one. As the poem proceeds, the reality begins to be blurred and it gradually dissolves into the imaginary one.As Mallerme’ does in one of his poetry where he confuses the two images of rose and lily into one imaginary flower, to create an ideal flower. Here the essence of both is perceived in one.


Symbolism is in fact a developed form of Allegory. In this sense we can trace the root of Symbolism in English literary field from William Langland’s Piers the Plowman, where Piers sees the seven deadly sins in allegorical forms. Then it can be traced in chaucer’s Romance of the Rose which was in fact the English version of original French work Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Again in Milton’s Paradise Regained, the concept of symbolism grew more. But during all these period, poets weren’t themselves aware of this new form and therefore this form remained in its curdest form. But towards the early 18th century, the Christian beliefs began to decline. Hence people began to search for new means other than religion to escape from new means other than religion to escape from harsh reality of the world and ‘poetry’ became their favourite for this purpose. In France this escapism forced the poets to develop a new form and what discovered was the new developed version of allegory --- “Symbolism”.

In early part of 19th century, Baudelaire, a French poet created sensations by his sonnets named ‘Correspondances’. It was capable of conveying thoughts and feelings of corruption, wealth and triumph to its readers and in it the objects were not just objects, but were the symbols of Ideal Forms lying concealed behind them.

In 1857, Baudelaire published his volume of poems named Les Fleurs du Mal. In this was a poem ‘Harmonie du Sur’, which was a milestone for the literary career of symbolism. In the first reading of this poem, it might appear as a simple description of landscape, but while reading it again, one can find the clue in the last line, indicating that the repeated images of the poem such as ----- the setting sun, the fading perfume of the flowers, the dying note of a violine ----- all possessing a common factor ---- the notion of something beautiful that has passed away, are in fact object correlatives whose purpose is to re-create in the reader the emotion experienced by the poet at the memory of a past love affair.

In Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ a different kind of emotion is created by the same process. It is a sad and mournful scene. It may be regarded as depicting a scene from hell, ( a kind of hell that holds in some degree Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’ ) as well as conveying a mood of black despair. While the recreation of emotions of ‘ Harmonie du Sur’ and ‘Spleen’ points to Human Symbolism, the existence of ideal image of the emotions points to the presence of Transcendental Symbolism.

Baudelaire’s paradise symbol was a revolutionary step and it later attracted many English and French poets to use it in theirs. In his ‘ L’Invitation au Voyage’, time is objective correlative of an immaterial world (some believed that the landscape resembles to a Dutch landscape of Holland). At the end of Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire is o longer sure exactly what is the nature of the world lying beyond reality. The probability of each possible thing awaits him ---- good or bad. But this helps him to rise his poems theme to some what we can call ‘Infinity’. This style was later developed by Paul Vale’ry. But irregularity in the structure of poem was revised by another one named Paul Verlaine.

French poet named Paul Verlaine, began his career at the time Baudelaire was at the height of his fame. He was influenced by Les Fleurs du Mal. He was impressed by Baudelaire’s shift from optimism to pessimism in it. But this transition was irregular. So Verlaine used a new type of melodies to solve this problem. His melody was much more subtle and intimate kind where as the melody of Baudelaire tend to be splendidly out stretched with the different senses called in to play their parts carefully chosen moments, images amply developed. Verlaine’s work differ from Baudelaire’s in another respect that his attitude remains an emotional one without the use of ‘Trancendental symbolism’. He lacked Baudelaiure’s imagination to create a picture of the paradise awaiting.

In the early part of 19th century, the versification of poetry was popular because music was considered to be the equation between poetry and any other forms of art ( say Scupture or Painting ). The reason for this belief was due to the thinking that ‘all art aspires towards the condition of music’. Music possessed the quality of suggestiveness, but with out the element of precision which words necessarily posses and which the symbolists wished to suppress. Hence it was what symbolists were loking for. Baudelaire and Verlaine were using this versification method, but Verlaine towards the later part of his career began to use free verse which inspired Rimbaud to revolt against traditional versification. He gave poetry a new kind of strength and directness that made it more fitting vehicle for the evocation of feelings and ideas.

In Rembaud’s ‘Le Bateau’, the most celebrated poem, one can find how ideal paradise concept varies from that of Baudelaire’s. his ideal world is not quite peaceful refuge that Baudelaire longs for, but it is a world of violence and tumult and above all of total freedom. The function of image of boat plunging rudderless through countless seas, dancing like a cork on the waves, is to make the reader feel the intense excitement and almost delirious happiness that Rimbaud experienced in 1871 (when he ran away from home thrice).

Patient is what Rimbaud lacked, and for this reason a critic described him as ‘ the impatient genius’. But there was another poet who was considered to be ‘the genius of stubborn patience’ and he was Mallarme’.

The patience of Mallarme’ helped him to develop his images slowly into infinite. The previous symbolists experienced a dissatisfaction, which led them to create an ideal world, with the use of ‘Transcendental Symbolism’. Specially Baudelaire’s shift from certain reality to uncertainity in his poem Les Fleurs du Mal, provided a new clue for Mallarme’. He found an answer to the longings of the symbolists’ intellectual minds. While searching for the nature of the ideal world, he reached the conclusion that ‘ beyond this real world there is nothing but an empty void’. German philosopher, Hegel also has published his ideas, which supported his conclusion saying that ‘the ideal world lies hidden in this empty void’. In his Allegorical Sonnets about Himself, Mallarme’ described an empty room, which was symbolic of poet’s mind. Apart from the flickering candle flame there is only one thing in the room ---- a mirror, which has no existence of its own, without the objects to reflect. In the very last line there is a sudden magical change as it faces north through the open window, with the ‘Great Bear’ in the sky. But the word ‘star’ is not used, instead seven mysterious points of lights are described with the use of French transcription ‘X’, which symbolizes the unknown.

Mallarme’s ideas indeed have an effect on symbolists, but there were few who were not completely satisfied with him. One of them was Paul Vale’ry. He was fascinated by philosophy, mathmatics and physics and along with it he shared a common sense of dissatisfaction with the symbolist poets. He began to search for the hidden relationship between the knowladges. He believed that Mallerme’ had gone far in search of ideal world. Vale’ry believed that the ideal world is in reality, not beyond it. This return to reality was supported by his gained knowledge.

In 1894, Valle’ry created a character named M.Teste in his ‘ La Soire’e avec M. Teste’. M.Teste was a character who succeeds in discovering new laws that govern the working of the human mind and who is totally divorced from the realites of everyday life. Both M.Teste and his creator, Vale’ry found that this emotion of life, the contact with reality and with the world of the sense could not be presently abandoned or suppressed.

As regarding versification of Vale’ry, this can be said that, he was a conventional poet who made less attempt to break its ‘Cruel bonds’ than any of his predecessors. Vale’ry may be said despite the suggestive rather descriptive nature of his poetry with its extraordinary musicality, to mark the end of symbolism in France.

In England the true symbolism started with Yeats. In his poem ‘Sailing to Byzentium’, Yeats creates an image of ideal world in the mind of its readers. In his concept of paradise he can be considered as the ‘English baudelaire’ as it is the eternal peaceful refuge, he longs for. He dreams to be in the world far from reality. ‘Golden Bird’ term of the poem suggests how the abstract ideal art is referred through a concrete. In the very last line, he magically shifts to infinite like Mallrme’, where time is objective correlative as the lines says : “ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

In Yeats’ ‘The Lake isle of Innisfree’ also there is longing for a chance to escape from reality. The clue to this Transcendental symbolism can be found from the last line, “While I stand on the road way or the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core”

There is a deep sense of missing the paradise that has been created in readers’ mind. The image of “peace comes dropping slow”, “evening full of the linnet’s wings” creates the vision of the poet. This marvelous blending of Human Symbolism to that of Transcendental one proves the richness of the poem. Readers of Eliot also found him as a Symbolist. His transcendental Symbolism can be traced in his ‘The Waste land’, where there is the pessimistic view on life, seen as a waste land.

Among other English poets, who used symbolism were T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, who invented the term in 1912 and this group was later grew with Eliot as one of its member. Later symbolism found its place officially as a trend in Common Wealth Literature and also in the other parts of the world.

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