Symbolism/Symbolist Poetry

Main Purpose: As a rebellion against realism and naturalism, Symbolism sought to use the most basic elements of art (such as musical rhythm or textured language) to portray the world in a less straightforward, more artistic way.

Landmark Texts:

Arthur Symons – The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899)

Symons would canonize many of the great 19th century French poets in this work, greatly influencing contemporary English and American literature in the process. The book also outlined many of the elements of the genre, which include mood and music creation through specific poetic rhythms, as well as a revived obsession in both mystical and morbid elements.

Charles Baudelaire – Les Fleurs du Mal (1857)

A book at the time so “obscene” that it actually got him convicted by French courts, the book would shock Parisian audiences but raise his notoriety as one of the most daring and original poets of the era. His poems forgo conventional reason and eagerly seek beauty in the many grotesqueries of life–his narrators find pleasure in cruelty, life in corpses, indulgence in simple perfumes. His pleasures are not necessarily pleasant, per se, but he relies on the allure of his cryptic and melodic language to draw the reader in. 

Arthur Rimbaud – The Drunken Boat (1871)

Composed when he was only 16, Rimbaud’s hypnotic poem written from the perspective of a crazed ship would remain his masterpiece until his early and untimely death at the age of 37. As a response to an earlier poem by Baudelaire, it suspended any notion of morality and instead sought to define the breadth of adventure and experience through emotion alone. This may not seem like such an accomplishment today, but this went against the rigidity of French poetry at the time. Consider how its fifth stanza includes all the beauty and ugliness of experience all at once:

Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children,
The green water penetrated my pinewood hull
And washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains and the splashes of vomit,
Carrying away both rudder and anchor.

Symbolism did not revolutionize literature the world over, but Rimbaud’s work preempted the eventual shift from literature as an observational experience to literature as a wholly psychological one.

August Strindberg – A Dream Play (1901)

Symbolism would also emerge in dramatic circles for a brief time in the late 19th century, though a reliance on the audience’s raw emotional faculties would not be attainable until well into the 20th century. Strindberg’s Dream Play depicts the the relationship between the mythical daughter of the Hindu goddess Indra and a lawyer attempting to help society’s downtrodden. One could read the play as an argument for the importance of dreams–perhaps they are not just a secondary experience, but rather an equally important part of our lives.


  1. “To assess the damage caused European colonial rule in nations all around the world while also reinvigorating these regions with a sense of linguistic and artistic identity”

    Then why are 3 out of the 5 books written by white Europeans?

  2. Second full day of my second visit to Cape Breton. I know being a vitosir gives one a perspective different from a full-time resident, but even so I trust (hope?) that Capers realize the great beauty you all have around you. This is an amazing place. Just sayin’.

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