Terms of Art: Symbol and Symbolism

“Symbol and Symbolism: The word symbol derives from the Greek verb symballien “to throw together”, and its noun symbolon “mark”, “emblem”, “token” or “sign.” It is an object, animate or inanimate, which represents or “stands for” something else. As Coleridge put it, a symbol “is characterized by a translucence of the special [i.e. the species] in the individual.” A symbol differs from an allegorical (see ALLEGORY) sign in that it has a real existence, whereas an allegorical sign is arbitrary.

Scales, for example, symbolize justice; the orb and scepter, monarchy and rule; a dove, peace; a goat, lust; the lion, strength and courage; the bulldog, tenacity; the rose, beauty; the lily, purity; the Stars and Stripes, America and its States; the Cross, Christianity; the swastika (or crooked cross) Nazi Germany and Fascism; the gold, red and black hat of the Montenegrin symbolizes glory, blood and mourning. The scales of justice may also be allegorical; as might, for instance, a dove, a goat or a lion.

Actions and gestures are also symbolic. The clenched fist symbolizes aggression. Beating of the breast signifies remorse. Arms raised denote surrender. Hands clasped and raised suggest suppliance. A slow upward movement of the head accompanied by a closing of the eyes means, in Turkish, “no”. Moreover, most religious and fertility rites are rich with symbolic movements and gestures, especially the Roman Mass.

A literary symbol combines an image with a concept (words themselves are a kind of symbol). It may be public or private, universal or local. They exist, so to speak. As Baudelaire expressed in his sonnet Correspondances:

La Nature est un temple ou de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L’homme y passé a travers des forets de symboles…

In literature an example of a public or universal symbol is a journey into the underworld (as in the work of Virgil, Dante and James Joyce) and return from it. Such a journey may be an interpretation of a spiritual experience, a dark night of the soul and a kind of redemptive odyssey. Examples of private symbols are those that recur in the work of W.B. Yeats: the sun and moon, a tower, a mask, a tree, a winding stair and a hawk.

Dante’s Divina Commedia is structurally symbolic, In Macbeth there is a recurrence of the blood image symbolizing guilt and violence. In Hamlet weeds and disease symbolize corruption and decay. In King Lear clothes symbolize appearances and authority; and the storm scene in this play may be taken as symbolic of cosmic and domestic chaos to which “unaccomodated man” is exposed. The poetry of Blake and Shelley is heavily marked with symbols. The shooting of the albatross in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is symbolic of all sin and stands for lack of respect for life and a proper humility towards the natural order. In his Four Quartets T.S. Eliot makes frequent use of the symbols of Fire and the Rose. To a lesser extent symbolism is an essential part of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (especially Part III) and The Waste Land.

In prose works the great white whale of Melville’s Moby Dick (the “grand-god”) is a kind of symbolic creature—a carcass which symbol hunters have been dissecting for years. Much of the fiction of William Golding (especially Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and The Spire) depends upon powerful symbolism capable of more interpretations than one. To these examples should be added the novels and short stories of Kafka, and the plays of Maeterlinck, Andreyev, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Synge and O’Neill.

In these works we find instances of the use of a concrete image to express an emotion or an abstract idea; or as Eliot put it when explaining his term “objective correlative” (q.v.), finding “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.”

There is plentiful symbolism in much 19th century French poetry. In Oeuvres completes (1891) Mallarme explained symbolism as the art of evoking an object “little by little so as to reveal a mood” of, conversely, “the art of choosing an object and extracting from it an etat d’ame’. This “mood” he contended, was to be extracted by “a series of deciphering.”

Mallarme’s follower Henri Regnier made the additional point that a symbol is a kind of comparison between the abstract and the concrete in which one of the terms of the comparison is only suggested. Thus it is implicit, oblique, not spelt out.

As far as particular objects are concerned, this kind of symbolism is often private and personal. Another kind of symbolism is known as the “transcendental”. In this kind, concrete images are used as symbols to represent a general or universal ideal world of which the real world is a shadow. Sir Thomas Browne, long before theories of symbolism were abundant, suggested the nature of this in his magnificent neo-Platonic phrase: “The sun itself is the dark simulacrum, and light is the shadow of God.”

The “transcendental” concept is Platonic in origin, was elaborated by the neo-Platonists in the 3rd century and was given considerable vogue in the 18th century by Swedenborg. In the 19th century there developed the idea that this “other world” was attainable, not through religious faith or mysticism, but, as Baudelaire expressed it in Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, “a travers la poesie”. Through poetry the soul perceives “les splendeurs situees derriere le tombeau”.

Baudelaire and his followers created the image of the poet as a kind of seer (q.v.) or voyant, who could see through and beyond the real world to the world of ideal forms and essences. Thus the task of the poet was to create this “other world” by suggestion and symbolism; by transforming reality into a greater and more permanent reality.

The attainment, in transcendental symbolism, of the vision of the essential Idea was to be achieved by a kind of deliberate obfuscation of blurring of reality so that the ideal becomes clearer. This, according to symbolist theory, could be best conveyed by the fusion of images and by the musical quality of the verse; by, in short, a form of so-called pure poetry (q.v.). The music of the words provided the requisite element of suggestiveness, Verlaine, in his poem Art poetique (1874), for instance, says that verse must possess this musical quality “avant toute chose”. Such a point of view was also expressed, in other words, by Mallarme, Valery and Rimbaud.

Theory and practice led the French symbolist poets to believe that the evocativness and suggestiveness could best be obtained by verse forms that were not too rigid. Hence verse liberes and vers libres (qq.v). Rimbaud and Mallarme were the main experimenters in these forms; Rimbaud the chief practitioner of the “prose poem” (q.v.). Such verse enable the poet to achieve what Valery described as  “cette hesitation prolongee entre le son et le sens.”

The definitive manifesto of symbolism was published in September 1886 in an article in Le Figaro by Jean Moreas, contending that romanticism, naturalism and the movement of les Parnassiens were over and that henceforth symbolic poetry ‘cherche a vetir l’idee d’une forme sensible.” Moreas founded the Symbolist School whose progenitors were Baudelaire, Mallarme, Verlaine and Rimbaud; and whose disciples were, among others, Rene Ghil, Stuart Merrill, Francis Viele-Griffin and Gustave Khan.

Some of the major symbolists poems by Baudelaire are Les Correspondences, Harmonie du Soir Spleen, La Chevelure, L’Invitation un voyage, Benediction, Au lecteur, Moesta et Errabunda, Elevation, Les Sept Viellards, Le Voyage, Le Cygne. His main work is the collection known as Le Fleurs du mal (1857).

From Verlaine’s work one should mention Poemes saturniens (1866), Fetes galantes (1869), La Bonne Chanson (1872), Romances sans paroles (1874) and Sagesse (1881). From Rimbaud Le Bateau (1871), Une saison en enfer (1873) and Les Illuminations (1886). From Mallarme, these poems particularly: Apparition, Les Fenetres, Sonnet allegorique de lui-meme, Se spurs ongles, Un coup de des, Grand oeuvre. His main collection is Poesies (1887).

These poets were later to influence the work of Valery very considerably, as can be seen for a study of Le Cimetiere marin, L’Abeille, Le Rameur, Palme, Les Grenades, Le Jeune Parque and in various poems in the collection Charmes (1922).

Other influences of symbolist theory and practice are discernible in Lautreamont’s prose poem Chants de Maldoror (1868-1869), in several works by Laforgue, in a number of plays by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Maurice Maeterlinck and Claudel, in J-K Huysmans’s novel A rebours (1884), and, most of all, in Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (1913-1927).

The main “heirs” of the symbolist movements outside France are W.B. Yeats, the Imagist group of English and American poets (especially T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound), and T.S. Eliot; and, in Germany, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George. The ideas of the French symbolists were also adopted by Russian writers in the 1870s and the early years of the 20th century; notably by Bryusov, Volynsky and Bely. See also ALLEGORY; CORRESPONDENCE OF THE ARTS; IMAGERY; IMAGISTS; IMPRESSIONISM; METONYMY; PARNASSIANS; PRIMITIVISM; SUGGESTION; SYMBOLIC ACTION; SYNECDOCHE; TROPE.”

Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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