La mort du fossoyeur ("The death of the gravedigger") by is a visual compendium of Symbolist motifs. and , pristine , and the dramatic poses of the characters all express Symbolist longings for transfiguration "anywhere, out of the world."
Symbolism was a late of and origin in and other arts.
Precursors and origins
French Symbolism was in large part a reaction against and , movements which attempted to capture reality in its particularity. These movements invited a reaction in favour of , the , and ; the path to Symbolism begins with that reaction. Some writers, such as , began as naturalists before moving in the direction of Symbolism; for Huysmans, this change reflected his awakening interest in religion and spirituality.
The Symbolist movement in literature has its roots in (The Flowers of Evil) by . The esthetic was developed by and during the 1860s and 70s. During the 1880s, the esthetic was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. The works of , which Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock and images.
Distinct from the Symbolist movement in literature, Symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the more and darker sides of ; but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, Symbolist art was static and hieratic.
The Symbolist Manifesto
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 (‘Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, 18 Sept 1886) was published in by . Morйas 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.
The Symbolist poets wished to liberate techniques of versification in order to allow greater room for "fluidity", and as such were aligned with the movement towards , a direction very much in evidence in the poems of . Symbolist poems sought to evoke, rather than to describe; symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet's . was a prized experience; poets sought to identify and confound the separate senses of scent, sound, and colour. In Baudelaire's poem Correspondences which also speaks tellingly of forкts de symboles — forests of symbols —
Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,
Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.
(There are perfumes that are fresh like babies' skins,
sweet like oboes, green like meadows
— And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
having the expansiveness of infinite things,
like amber, musc, benjamin, and incense,
which sing of the raptures of the mind and senses.)
and 's poem Voyelles:
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleuvoyelles. . .
(A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels. . .) —
both poets seek to identify one sense experience with another, although it seems that neither of them actually experienced synesthesia (see ).
Paul Verlaine and the poиtes maudits
But perhaps of the several attempts at defining the essence of Symbolism, none was more influential than 's publication of a series of essays on , , and , each of whom Verl aine numbered among the poиtes maudits, "accursed poets.