What is symbolism?
Symbolism is the name given to an artistic movement born in the second half of the 19th century in France. This movement had an echo especially in the literary field, where in general, artists see art as a form of expression possible through the use of language symbolized in a subtle way. Thus, this movement is characterized by the artists’ view of the world as a mystery to be deciphered, which is why the poets figure the relationship of hidden correspondences that can unite sensitive objects.
In other words, we are talking about a literary movement that observes in poetry an ideal space to use symbols as a way to reach a hidden reality.
Origin of symbolism
This movement, as we mentioned, took place in the 19th century, a time when, in addition to an important series of social and political changes, intellectuals began to question positivism. Thus, some of them began to demonstrate against the customs related to the bourgeois class, leading the artist to lean towards a more bohemian way of life that allows him to see art as a form of freedom.
The approach of the literary movement would be in the hands of the poet Jean Moreás, who stated in an article that poetry should be sought in its symbolic character, and not in the decadent tone that it could have at first glance. Thus began a series of artistic productions, especially disseminated in magazines in which the new form proposed for the development of poetry is supported.
Another key factor that determines the emergence of symbolism is located in the work The Flowers of Evil, by Charles Baudelaire, which has become an emblematic work of the author. Baudelaire, who admired Edgar Allan Poe with great enthusiasm, influences the moment from the literary figures and images that he will take inspiration from Poe. This, while, simultaneously, many young writers joined the movement exhausted of the forms of realist movements.
Development of symbolism in literature
It is important to start from the fact that the poetry of this movement was in search of a form of greater sensitivity that used literary language as a cognitive element, which is why mysticism will be one of its most recurrent tints. The style of symbolist poetry was based on an attempt to find the ideal musicality within the rhymes, where the beauty of the verses took second place. The theory of correspondences, as Baudelaire called it, consisted precisely in this search for affinities within the sensitive and spiritual world, for which the use of synesthesia was key.
On the other hand, narrative in the symbolist movement did not undergo such important alterations as it did in poetry. However, this did not deprive the literary creation in prose and theater, where important works such as A contrapelo written by Joris-Karl Huysmans with themes related to the aesthetics of the movement would emerge.
It consisted mainly of a work called The Damned Poets, which became one of the most important literary criticisms that emerged within the movement. In this criticism, the essential elements of symbolism were also exposed, gathered from a series of essays written by authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Villiers de L’lse-Adam, Tristan Corbiére, Arthur Rimbaud, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and “Poor Lelian”, who were characterized as cursed.
Verlaine states that each of the geniuses present has, at the same time, a curse. He used this as a way to bring them closer to hermeticism and idiosyncrasy within the resources for writing. Their tragic lives, the inclination to self-destructive tendencies of the authors, among other aspects, were key factors by which they are portrayed as cursed poets and as a consequence of their gifts in literature. In theater, in particular, one of the works that stands out the most was Axel de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, where the tinge of symbolism will be represented in his own tragedy.
Important characteristics of symbolism
Let us now review the most important characteristic features of this literary movement which developed mainly in poetry, but which consolidated another series of aspirations for the literary field in general. These characteristics are:
Renewal of poetry
As we have said, one of the essential aspects of symbolism is related to the poetic form, given that it proposes a renewal of this in which, in addition, the freedom of creation plays a fundamental role in its creation. This will be its renovating aspect as opposed to a series of established norms for the creation of poetry to which poets were subjected in previous moments.
In this sense, each of the symbols of the works, has its own concreteness of each poet, as well as a subjective vision emerges by the viewer, so that it is not possible a unique interpretation in each of the works. Thus, we speak of a movement in which the content is more important than the technique itself.
Evocation of interpretation
Symbolism will be characterized, among other things, by the evocation of impressions, but also to facilitate the allusion to the interpretations closer to reality as an exercise not only of the poet himself, but also makes the viewer participant.
Breaking with realism and naturalism
One of the main axes on which symbolism rests in its development, has to do precisely with the break it makes or implies for the forms of other movements such as naturalism and realism, which were based on a faithful portrayal of reality and its forms.
Use of language
An essential aspect that we must emphasize in symbolism has to do with the use given to language. The poet, in his search for freedom, establishes a poetic language that is taken, at the same time, as a cognitive element. In this sense, the use of rhetorical figures will be key to his task, in addition to assigning him the awakening of sensations through synesthesia and metaphor.
In this movement of literature, the poetry that is performed evokes music, so that musicality becomes a primary element within the literality of the language that is developed.
Authors of symbolism
Among the main authors of this literary movement are Charles Baudelaire, one of its main precursors, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rumbaud, Paul Verlaine, Jean Moréas, Germain Nouveau, Albert Samain, Paul Valéry, Villiers de L’lsle-Adam, Marceline Desbordes Valmore.
Other Spanish-speaking authors were also influenced by symbolism in their works, including Salvador Rueda, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, José Martí, José Asunción Silva, Julián del Casal, Manuel Gutiérrez, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Francisco Villaespesa, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Julio Herrera y Reissig, Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, Salvador Díaz Mirón, José María Eguren, Amado Nervo, among others.
Key works of this movement include La siesta de un fauno by Stéphane Mallarmé, Una temporada en el infierno and Iluminaciones by Arthur Rimbaud, Poemas saturnianos and Fiestas galantes by Paul Verlaine, Las flores del mal by Charles Baudelaire, A contrapelo by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Axel de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, among others.
If you want to know more about other literary movements, as well as genres, types of literature and in general, other manifestations of this art, we invite you to review our section dedicated to this field to learn much more.