Home >> Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 26 >> Swordfish to Tanning >> Symbolists


french, ib, versification and themes

SYMBOLISTS, the name of a group of French writers and their imitators in other countries whose school arose in the eighties and at first was supposed to indicate a reaction against Parnassianism and realism. The school or rather style was inaugurated by Philippe Auguste Mathias Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-89) whose play 'Axel) remains the typ ical drama of the Symbolists. The Symbolists are so called from their habit of introducing an object or being merely as an expression of an idea. Dreams, mythology, music, are their favorite subjects, which they commonly inter pret in lyric verse. Form and expression count more with them than substance. Their charac ters are often degenerate, their themes repul sive, their wit redolent of the gutter and their notions of art rather subversive of morality than otherwise. They were frequently called Decadents, especially the earlier followers of Baudelaire. Jean Moreas (1856-1910) was at first one of the defenders of the principles of the Symbolists, defending them from the appel lation of decadent and justifying their innova tions as the natural development of the prosody of Baudelaire, Mallarrne and Verlaine. Later he returned to the older forms of versification and to the classical tradition. Other prominent

figures among the Symbolists were Gustave Kahn, Catulle Mendes, De Regnier, the Bel gians Mwterlinck and Rodenbach, the Amer icans Viele-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, the Irishmen John M. Synge and William Butler Yeats and the Englishman Aubrey Beardsley, whose unwholesome pictorial productions cer tainly classify him with the Symbolists. The most beneficial innovation of the Symbolists lay in their attempts to break away from the for mality and stiffness of French versification in their attempts at rhymed prose or vers brises. They abandoned rhyme and the fixed tradi tional forms and reveled in assonance, repeti tion and generally attempted to make their lines the visible counterpart of their themes. (See FRENCH LITERATURE). Consult Barre, Andre, 'Le Symbolisme' (Paris 1911); Gourmont, Remy de, 'Le livre des masques: portraits sym bohstes, gloses et documents sur les ecrivains d'hier et d'aujourd'hui) (2 vols., ib. 1914); Kahn, Gustave, 'Symbolistes et decadents) (ib. 1902) ; Pellissier, G., 'Etudes de litterature con temporaine' (ib. 1898); Symons, Arthur, 'The Symbolist Movement in Literature) (London 1899).