'Symbolism' refers generally to the systematic use of symbols in order to represent or allude to something. In the most literal sense, all language is symbolic. Generally, symbolism refers to the use of iconic figures with particular conventional meanings. Symbolism is an important element of most religions and the arts. Many cultures have complex symbolic systems which assign certain attributes to specific things, such as types of animals, plants or weather. Reading symbols also plays an important role in psychoanalysis, especially as envisioned by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Many writers, in fact most or all fiction authors of any merit, use symbolism as a rhetorical device central to the meaning of their works. Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, for example, used symbolism extensively.

Symbolism also refers to a late-19th-century French and Belgian movement in poetry and other arts.

Precursors and origins:

French Symbolism was in large part a reaction against Naturalism and Realism, movements which attempted to capture reality in its particularity. Symbolist movement poetry has been said by some to begin with the influential series of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, although work by poets such as Gérard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud were also highly significant in this respect. Symbolism represents an outgrowth of the more gothic and darker sides of Romanticism; but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, Symbolism was static and hieratic. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Baudelaire translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images.

Symbolism as a movement:

Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths which could only be accessed by indirect methods. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. The Symbolist manifesto was published in 1886 by Jean Moréas. Moréas announced that Symbolism was hostile to "plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description," and that its goal instead was to "clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form" whose: "goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal:"

In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.

But perhaps of the several attempts at defining the essence of Symbolism, none was more influential than Paul Verlaine's 1884 publication of a series of essays on Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarmé, each of whom Verlaine numbered among the poètes maudits, "accursed poets."

Verlaine argued that in their individual and very different ways, each of these hitherto neglected poets found genius a curse; it isolated them from their contemporaries, and as a result these poets were not at all concerned to avoid hermeticism and idiosyncratic writing styles. In this conception of genius and the role of the poet, Verlaine referred obliquely to the aesthetics of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, who held that the purpose of art was to provide a temporary refuge from the world of blind strife of the will. Schopenhauer's thought gave Symbolist writers their recurring themes of shelter, purity, and otherworldliness; he also gave them themes of death as liberation, and a sense of the terrible and malign power of sexuality. Given these themes, it is little wonder that many considered Symbolist literature decadent.


In the English speaking world, the closest counterpart to Symbolism was Aestheticism; the Pre-Raphaelites, also, were contemporaries of the earlier Symbolists, and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on Modernism and its traces can be seen in a number of modernist artists, including T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats in the anglophone tradition and Ruben Dario in Hispanic letters.

The Symbolist painters were an important influence on expressionism and surrealism in painting, two movements which descend directly from Symbolism proper. The work of some Symbolist visual artists directly impacted the curvilinear forms of art nouveau. Many early motion pictures, also, contain a good deal of Symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging and set designs.

Important Symbolist authors include:

English language authors that influenced, or were influenced by Symbolism include:

See also: Symbolist painters

External link

Le Manifeste du Symbolisme by Jean Moréas (in French)