Symbolism: From the Greek symballein, meaning “to throw together,” the relatively sustained use of symbols to represent or suggest other things or ideas. The term may refer to an author’s explicit use of a particular symbol in a literary work (“Joseph Conrad uses snake symbolism in Heart of Darkness” ); the presence, in a work or body of works, of suggestive associations giving rise to incremental, implied meaning (“I enjoyed the symbolism in George Lucas’s Star Wars movies” [1977— ]); or the creation of subjective, or “private,” symbol systems unique to a given author (such as William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Butler Yeats).
When spelled with a capital S, Symbolism refers to a literary movement that flourished in late-nineteenth-century France. Rebelling against realism and the strict forms and conventions of French poetry, Symbolists (often referred to specifically as the French Symbolists) emphasized the expression of personal emotional experiences and reactions through subjective symbolism. In their quest to convey inner experience, they embraced free verse and the prose poem; privileged suggestion over denotative meaning; and experimented with poetic language, often employing synaesthesia and seeking musicality in words, a fusion of sense and sound. The movement, which was heavily influenced by Poe, a mid-nineteenth-century American poet, arose in poetry, then spread to other areas, such as the novel, theater, and visual arts. Noted works include Charles Baudelaire’s pioneering collection Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) (1857); Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) (1873), also a collection of poetry; and J. K. Huysmans’s novel À rebours (Against Nature) (1884). Symbolist theoretical writings include Paul Verlaine’s Les poètes maudits (The Accursed Poets) (1884); Jean Moréas’s “Manifeste du symbolisme” (1886), the movement’s manifesto; and Stéphane Mallarmé’s Divagations (1897), on the aesthetics of the movement.
Although literary historians tend to limit the use of Symbolism to the French Symbolists, the movement arguably had its greatest impact and influence beyond French borders. Twentieth-century European and American writing owes a particular debt to Symbolism, with authors ranging from the German Rainer Maria Rilke to the English Arthur Symons to the Irish Yeats and James Joyce to the Americans Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot drawing on but also extending the work of the French Symbolists.