Rise of the Symbolist Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Symbolism, a revolutionary literary and artistic movement, stressed the creative importance of constructing an abstract reality as opposed to relying on the direct observation of the physical world for inspiration.

Summary of Event

The Symbolist aesthetic was born out of a revolt against the conventions of the day. Whether through poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, or painting, the Symbolists wished to liberate themselves from the norm, from common, everyday reality. Out of this grandiose approach to creativity, Symbolists expressed themselves in very personal ways. The inner life of the mind and the spirit guided them in each of their creative endeavors. For them, reality could not be quantified or neatly unraveled. Furthermore, the late nineteenth century saw a general intellectual trend away from materialism and scientific rationalism. Symbolist movement Art;Symbolist movement Literature;Symbolist movement France;Symbolist movement Philosophy;Symbolist movement France;literature [kw]Rise of the Symbolist Movement (1886) [kw]Symbolist Movement, Rise of the (1886) [kw]Movement, Rise of the Symbolist (1886) Symbolist movement Art;Symbolist movement Literature;Symbolist movement France;Symbolist movement Philosophy;Symbolist movement France;literature [g]Europe;1886: Rise of the Symbolist Movement[5455] [c]Literature;1886: Rise of the Symbolist Movement[5455] [c]Art;1886: Rise of the Symbolist Movement[5455] [c]Theater;1886: Rise of the Symbolist Movement[5455] Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] Schopenhauer, Arthur [p]Schopenhauer, Arthur;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] Moréas, Jean Huysmans, Joris-Karl Maeterlinck, Maurice

Taking inspiration from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Arthur [p]Schopenhauer, Arthur;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] Schopenhauer, the Symbolists saw art as a refuge from the torment of the world. Schopenhauer was a pessimist, and he envisioned art to be one of the few legitimate escapes from the everyday world. In 1886, poet Jean Moréas Moréas, Jean would write what would become the manifesto for the Symbolist movement. In the manifesto, he stated that Romanticism had indeed “tolled the bell of rebellion,” but that it had since become “replete with common sense.” Common sense was considered by the Symbolists a negative state of affairs.

Moréas wrote that the Symbolists frowned on “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description.” For him, a Symbolist strives “to clothe the idea in sensuous form.” He openly criticized Parnassian poetry, the drama of realism, and the novels of naturalism for being too descriptive, too oriented toward the surfaces of life, and not directed enough to the life of inner experience. Moréas also had suggested that to use the term “symbolist” instead of the term “decadent” to describe the movement held more validity.

Poet Charles Baudelaire’s Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] “Manifeste du symbolisme” (pb. September 18, 1886, in Le Figaro) would be identified as an important document of Symbolism as well. Already in 1857, however, Baudelaire had published the first edition of his controversial Les Fleurs du mal (rev. 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). Because of erotic themes in his work, Baudelaire is often described as a decadent poet. The French government, who had found parts of Flowers of Evil to be obscene, suppressed six of the poems from the collection and prosecuted Baudelaire for offending public morals.

Employing a language that was rich in dark and erotic metaphors, some of the Symbolist authors became linked with the Decadent movement. Sensation was central to the creative process. The various sensory impulses that became cornerstones of the movement also had been central to poets such as Paul Verlaine Verlaine, Paul (1844-1896) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) Rimbaud, Arthur . Symbolist poets broke out of the formal constraints of verse writing and found the writing of prose poems and vers libre (free verse) to be liberating. The concept of mere precision was jettisoned, and the ideas that came from the inner life of the poet became paramount. First and foremost, Symbolism valued individualism and everything exotic that flowed from the mind. For the poets, the very sound of words became of prime importance. The mystical, the bizarre, and almost anything else that would lead to a more intense experience were cherished.

Because Symbolists were strong individuals, the movement was no more than a loose organization. Symbolists, however, collectively turned their backs on naturalism or anything that claimed to directly represent the world. Symbolists employed nuance and suggestion in their work. Although the movement started with the French poets of the late nineteenth century, the Symbolist influence spread to the theater and to painting. The visual artists of Symbolism wished their works to evoke an emotional response, but they hoped to do so without presuming to capture a visual “reality.” Some of the most powerful visual art of the movement was created by artists such as Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) Gauguin, Paul [p]Gauguin, Paul;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] , Edvard Munch Munch, Edvard (1863-1944), Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) Moreau, Gustave , and Odilon Redon Redon, Odilon (1840-1916).

The idea of capturing reality, as was attempted by the realists and naturalists, was not crucial for the Symbolists. In fact, the Symbolists detested realism and naturalism. Symbolist thought can be considered a darker, more gothic, outgrowth of Romanticism. Baudelaire Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] first introduced the “dark” work of the American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe Poe, Edgar Allan to the French with his brilliant translations. From the Symbolist perspective, because truth lurks in the shadows and can be hinted atonly through suggestion, metaphor added weight to meaning. Sentimentality and directness were loathed.

While the Symbolist movement first took root in France, it spread to other parts of Europe, with Maurice Maeterlinck, Maurice Maeterlinck of Belgium, Munch Munch, Edvard of Norway, and Aleksander Blok (1880-1921) Blok, Aleksander of Russia. The true Symbolist made a personal statement with each of his or her artistic endeavors. While there are a number of important Symbolist poets, there are only a select few novelists and dramatists who wrote memorable Symbolist works. Joris-Karl Huysmans Huysmans, Joris-Karl wrote the most important Symbolist novel in À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922). In this character study, also claimed as a decadent work, Huysmans describes various aesthetic experiments that are carried out by a rather bored aristocrat.

Belgian Symbolist dramatist Maeterlinck successfully avoided employing any traditional dramatic constructions. For the Symbolist dramatist, characterization was supposed to be less focused, and any action that does take place primarily should be expressed through symbols. Symbolism does not rely on external action. Suggestive language would serve as the link between the spiritual realm and the natural world.


With the death of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) Mallarmé, Stéphane in 1898, the French Symbolist movement lost one of its most brilliant practitioners. By the early twentieth century, Symbolism as a movement was in decline, but its influence reached far into the future. Such literary giants as William Butler Yeats Yeats, William Butler , T. S. Eliot Eliot, T. S. [p]Eliot, T. S.;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] , Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene , James Joyce Joyce, James [p]Joyce, James;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] , and Anton Chekhov Chekhov, Anton [p]Chekhov, Anton;and Symbolist movement[Symbolist movement] took inspiration from the work of the Symbolists.

Symbolism’s rise marked what would become the ultimate break with the classical humanism that began during the Renaissance in Europe. Instead of the tradition of narrative and obviousness, the Symbolists would evoke imagery and imagination, but they would do so in a way that legitimated, and liberated, the symbolic realm of the writer and artist. The Symbolist author and philosopher Rémy de Gourmont Gourmont, Rémy de (1858-1915) wrote that for the Symbolist, life is one of “individualism in literature, liberty in art.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balakian, Anna. The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal. New York: Random House, 1967. A critical guide that comes close to being the definitive statement on the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betz, Anna. “The Symbolist Movement in France.” Romance Quarterly 45 (Summer, 1998): 131-132. A concise, informative overview of the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Block, Haskell M. Mallarmé and the Symbolist Drama. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963. A critical look at one of the major Symbolist poets and how he influenced the world of theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kearns, James. Symbolist Landscapes: The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and His Circle. London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1989. An examination of how crucial a role the visual realm played for the Symbolist poets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathews, Patricia. Passionate Discontent: Creativity, Gender, and French Symbolist Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. An important study of the various components that make up the Symbolist aesthetic, including spirituality, sexuality, and madness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. The Symbolist Generation, 1870-1910. Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. An extraordinary examination of the artists associated with the Symbolist movement. Includes many illustrations as well as a general bibliography and a bio-bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peyre, Henri. What Is Symbolism? Translated by Emmett Parker. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980. A focused study of the Symbolist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Laurence M. “Decadence and the Fin-de-Siècle Novel.” In The French Novel from 1800 to the Present, edited by Timothy Unwin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. An overview of the Decadent movement in France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1980. A landmark study of the Symbolist movement, still considered the most critical work on Symbolism. Originally published in 1899.

Emergence of the Primitives

Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy Tales

Schopenhauer Publishes The World as Will and Idea

Transcendental Movement Arises in New England

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Naturalist Movement Begins

Aesthetic Movement Arises

Decadent Movement Flourishes

Munch Paints The Scream

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Charles Baudelaire; Paul Gauguin; Edgar Allan Poe; Odilon Redon; Arthur Rimbaud; Arthur Schopenhauer. Symbolist movement Art;Symbolist movement Literature;Symbolist movement France;Symbolist movement Philosophy;Symbolist movement France;literature

Categories: History