A NOTE ON
simple way of looking at symbolism is to compare it with allegory.
An allegory like William Langland’s Piers Plowman
contains arbitrary persons or objects that represent abstract ideas.
A personified abstraction like Lady Meed represents unwholesome
reward, bribery. In contrast, a symbol is a sign which has a real existence,
such as the scales of justice or the images of disease in Hamlet,
symbolising ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’.
Symbols are endlessly suggestive.
They are often images which gradually reveal a special mood, or
even an intimation of something deeper than life normally reveals.
Often the whole work symbolises an emotionally charged mood or
a feeling of otherness, detachment.
Baudelaire thought that reality could be transcended, that
contact with the ‘deeper world’ could be attained through poetry.
He and his many followers saw the poet as a seer who could create
an experience of essences, of some permanent reality beyond mere
‘The attainment, in transcendental
symbolism, of the vision of
the essential Idea, was to be achieved by a kind of deliberate
obfuscation or blurring of reality so that the ideal becomes clearer.
This, according to symbolist theory, could be best conveyed by
the fusion of images and the musical quality of the verse; by, in short,
a form of so-called ‘pure poetry’.1
David Lodge2 calls Paul Valéry’s
lecture Poetry and abstract thought: dancing and walking (1939)3
‘a classic, eloquent statement of the Romantic-Symbolist tradition of
thought about literature which underlies so much modern poetry and
criticism of it.’
I’ve put the nub of Valéry’s essay into a form I
can understand. He holds
that poetry ‘does something’ to our notion of the world.
Our symbols (words) become connected to the world differently,
and are also ‘harmonically related’ to one another, ‘musicalised,
The creative poetic state has analogies with the
dream world. In reverie,
the structure of our ideas and words represents our general
awareness uncontrolled by our specialised sense organs.
Although out of control, the dream state fits in amidst the
structure of our other reveries.
At this stage I assume that we should not ignore the
subconscious, those reveries (in the broadest sense) which are primitive
(due to our animal reflexes), or infantile (gained in infancy), or
otherwise buried (in both the Freudian and the Jungian senses4). Any mental
structures, in reverie or in waking, musicalised or not, are probably
afloat on or entangled with these ‘lower’ regions.
The pre-writing state is like a ‘musicalising’ of
an experience such as walking, gazing at a scene, a loved one, etc.
The writing stage I call the production.
One aspect of this, I am all too ready to concede, is much as Valéry
describes it, a transforming one, a somnambulistic oracalising, as
though from someone else to someone else (the poet ‘absent’).
A weird business this but one which only artists perhaps
understand. Others have
described this afflatus stage with words like ‘it feels as if one is
being used, that some “other” is doing the work’.
Nevertheless, I guess that more or less concurrent
with this must be a pondering of sorts.
I wouldn’t separate these two strands of the
creative process (the transforming and the pondering) from an important
third one: the editing, the struggle with words, when one brings all
one’s sharpest reasoning, associative imagination, feelings and
craftsmanship to bear on the process.
Sometimes this is a postproduction, cutting-room stage.
Valéry says that a poet’s function is to create
(his own) ‘poetic state’ in others.
Strictly, this is impossible.
People can’t transfer their feelings and thoughts completely
intact into the minds of others. But
I see what he means. One
tries. If readers are
sufficiently prepared, they will receive something akin to the poet’s
To fit Valéry’s scheme a symbolist poem (for that
is what we are describing) must avoid the clear outlines of Classical
and Parnassian Realism. Symbolism
continues the Romantic programme: a work is not complete unless it is
incomplete, unless it mystifies somewhat.
Valéry recounts a story about once having been
gripped, while out walking, by a rhythm which gave an impression of some
force outside himself. It
was as though someone else were making use of his body and mind (his
another rhythm combined with the first, and certain ‘strange
transverse relations were set up between these two principles’.
Some kind of song was being murmured through him, but he could
make no use of the gift. His
movements in walking became in his consciousness a very subtle system of
rhythms; but his movements had not instigated ‘those images,
interior words, and potential actions which one calls ideas’.
The story is about a poetic state prior to writing.
He goes on to say that he felt he could not handle these rhythms.
They should have been given to a musician, not to him. They exceeded his gifts.
‘A rhythmical intuition had developed in the consciousness of a
person who knows that he does not know music.’
Now a poet’s medium is words.
And a poet must expect that inspiration may come to him as ‘a
rhythmical intuition’ in one ‘who knows that he does not know
music’. But it’s no use
trying to turn this intuition into ideas.
As Mallarmé had said to Degas: ‘My dear Degas, one does not
make poetry out of ideas, but with words.’
So there is a transformation which must intervene between
the rhythm that produces intuitions and the discourse which is
Once finished, these poetic words are ‘curiously
ordered’. A poem
‘answers no need unless it be the need it must itself create,
which never speaks but of absent things or of things profoundly and
secretly felt.’ Once invented, ‘a phrase creates the need to be heard
again’. Ordinary speech
between people, once understood, can be thrown away and replaced by the
recipient’s own images. On
the other hand, poetry (Romantic and Symbolist poetry) takes on such
importance that it makes itself respected, desired, demanding to be
repeated. Something new
happens. Receptive readers
are ready to surrender to laws ‘not of the practical order.’
They don’t expect any thirst for complete understanding to be
The poet is forced to use ordinary, imperfect
language: ‘Nothing pure; but a mixture of completely incoherent
auditive and psychic stimuli. Each
word is a . . . coupling of a sound and a sense
that have no connection with each other.’
That is to say, the word ‘dog’ and the animal itself,
particular or generic, are related by convention.
In another language the word for dog is different.
What Valéry says about dancing is apt about poetry,
too: it ‘admits of an infinite number of creations and variations of figures.’
A child discovers that much can be done with speech.
‘He will grasp the power of reasoning; he will invent stories
to amuse himself when he is alone; he will repeat to himself words that
he loves for their strangeness and mystery.’
Valéry distinguishes between prose, which is like walking (‘to
get somewhere’) and poetry, which is like dancing (‘the end of which
is in itself. It pursues no
It’s easy to see, from what I’ve summarised, why,
almost a hundred and fifty years after Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du
mal (1857), it’s still a given in modern poetry, good and
indifferent, that some kinds of verse must inevitably be hermetic,
difficult, oblique. Valéry’s
argument was not new. The means
exploited by Symbolism, which I shall come to soon, are used even when
the writers profess no desire to strive for meanings which mystically
The two poets who gave symbolism its new life were
Rimbaud and Mallarmé. It
was a paradox in them and Romanticism in general that they tried to
transcend reality by being intensely, radically subjective.
Arthur Rimbaud, who quit poetry at 19, explored the self by
reordering perceptions as if a visionary.
In the poem Le bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat) his
images are dreamlike, surreal. His
prose poems Illuminations (1872) and Une Saison en enfer (A
Season in Hell, 1873) show even fiercer moods of destruction and
liberation, and his visions have even less logical structure.
But while he lasted, Rimbaud, like Whitman, celebrated life.
A taste, from Le Bateau Ivre:
J’ai vu le soleil bas
taché d’horreurs mystiques
Illuminant de longs
Pareil à des acteurs
de drames très antiques
Les flots roulant au loin
leurs frissons de volets.
I’ve seen the sun low
stained with mystic horrors
Lighting up the long
Like theatrical casts
of very ancient dramas
The waves rolling afar
their quakes from paddle-boats.
Mallarmé gave up trying to pick the lock of ultimate reality and dwelt
on death more, impelled by a spiritual crisis in 1867.
A meaning for life could only be found in art.
Mallarmé developed techniques of evocation to escape
the limitations of appearances. As early as L’Après-midi d’un
faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, 1876) he was working on
multiplicities of meaning. The later poems use methods analogous to
music, with recurrent images and fugal forms communicating on an emotive
level. In Un Coup de dés
(A Throw of the Dice 1897) he experiments with typography to
reflect the theme. He was led by his theories to expressing totally private
states: by association, not open and logical reference. A sample, from L’Après-midi (see Set 98, Portsmouth
Ô bords siciliens
d’un calme marécage
l’envi de soleils
ma vanité saccage,
sous les fleurs
je coupais ici
les creux roseaux domptés
le talent; quand, sur
l’or glauque de lointaines
leur vigne à des fontaines,
animale au repos:
qu’au prélude lent
où naissent les pipeaux
vol de cygnes, non!
de naïades se sauve
I vandalise the
shores of Sicily.
rival in my vanity.
you shores, beneath
night’s flowers, unfold
cut the reeds controlled
talent. On glaucous
golds of a far haze
vines to fountain sprays,
ripples and is gone.
at the prelude,
where the pipes were born
flight of swans,
do not refer to the Symbolism of
the 1890s Decadence, but to that river
of poetry which runs from Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, though
Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Valéry, to Rilke, Yeats, T.S.Eliot, Montale,
Wallace Stevens, Ted Hughes and so on in the 20th century.
It is still important in the beginning of the second millennium.
There have been many revolts against it, but its adversaries have
not made poetry more accessible to the common reader. I shall return to the question of the audience.
following phrases describe the characteristics of Symbolism.
For the poet, the approach is:
Highly emotional: frustrated or elated, it does not matter which,
so long as it is energetic and communicates on an emotive, not rational,
Subjective: exploring the inner self; liberating.
Radical: destructive, rebellious.
Visionary: dreamlike, surreal.
means chosen are those that:
Reorder perceptions: (one escapes from the limitation of surface
Experimental: dislocated in style, with no logical coherence,
like music, using recurrent images, antithetical patterns, eccentric
Evocative: containing a multiplicity of meanings, allusive,
Oracular: hermetic, esoteric, intelligible only to the initiated,
can see how vigorously all this opposes the easy realism of prose.
This sort of poetry is like science and mathematics.
If those great means of dissecting reality and the soul are so
arcane, poetry was not to be left behind.
The methods produce allusive, atmospheric poems (such as I write
myself sometimes; and examples are to be found in most poetry magazines
and in all anthologies, even of the post-1950s).
I daresay some very good poems are now written without the
poet’s knowledge of all this antecedent practice and theorising.
That doesn’t matter. I’m
adding this to what I’ve already written about obliquity.
Poetry is now (and has been for almost a century) the
least accessible of the arts, even when performed or released on audio
tape, even if it’s rap. It’s
written for other poets to read, and many of them will have studied
poetry to graduate level. I’ve
found that people who are not poets, and not even regular readers of
poetry, do quite like a bit of background chat, which is why nowadays I
add commentaries. I have
recently bought the collected poems of Mallarmé5
and Montale6. Both books provide the original poems and facing verse
translations and copious end-notes, which add to the enjoyment of
even well-known favourites. To
purists who think poems should stand alone and without props of this
kind, I say: ‘Try it.’ What
is a translation, anyway, if not a prop?
And commentaries help translate the poem on the page into the
mind of the reader. If a
footnote or end-note is overstated, annoying, misleading, one can always
J.A.Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin 1977).
Printed in The Art of
Poetry (1958), translated by Denise Folliot, Vol. 7 of Valéry’s
Collected Works. (back)
One need not apologise to science for believing that early experiences
create mental structures which are not expressible in words.
For a Jungian folk memory I would replace that complex of myth
and symbol, superstition and awe, which is learnt from experience but
not strongly conscious or organised. (back)
Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-1954, bilingual edition,
translated and annotated by Jonathan Galasse (NY, Farrar, 1997). (back)