UNHAPPY GHOSTS: Poetry’s Symbolists


In Axel’s Castle, Wilson explains to us one of the most important literary movements of the 20th century: Symbolism. He does this by analyzing the works of six, then-contemporary writers. I must admit, I was surprised to see grouped together the six writers he chose, and to see missing certain names we associate today with Symbolism. Says Wilson of his spotlighted choices: “It is not usually recognized that writers such as W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, and Paul Valery represent the culmination of a self-conscious and very important literary movement” — that movement, being Symbolism. Wilson, writing circa mid-20th century, predicted that the second half of the century would witness the continued development of Symbolism as it worked in “fusion or conflict with Naturalism.”

The Symbolist poet, according to Wilson, considers it his task “to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings.” Those poets adopting the Symbolist approach believe that such a language must make use of symbols, for ordinary language fails to convey the artist’s feelings or experience adequately. The best a poet can do is to choose symbols which will “suggest” the moment or emotion the artist is attempting to convey. Because “every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other,” ordinary words with their ordinary and limited meanings cannot truly capture the poet’s idiosyncratic experience by the conventional method of layering descriptive adjectives and adverbs. “Each poet has a unique personality,” explains Wilson, and “each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements.”

Symbolism at its best uses “a literary shorthand which makes complex ideas more easily manageable.” Whereas a prose writer or speech giver may attempt to convince via logical argument, a Symbolist poet utilizes images to lead the audience forward, providing the literary equivalent of a jagged trail of stepping stones leading one across the water.

Wilson tells us that one of his subjects, the great W.B. Yeats, described a poet as someone who “has felt something in the depth of his mind and he wants to make it as visible and powerful to our senses as possible.” In order to do this, he looks to the shared outerworld for “metaphors and examples.”

The problem– and this is me, not Wilson, speaking– is that Symbolists tend to retain the symbols but lose the meaning. Wilson speaks of the Symbolists using “metaphors detached from their subjects.” Reading Symbolist poetry, one often finds stanzas full of wonderful or unusual images set in juxtaposition, but not united with a clear meaning or intention. As Wilson laments, “one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake.”

Some Symbolists add to the mix their own, idiosyncratic reading history, and seem to expect the reader to have read the same books the poet has read and to be ever-ready to catch even the most subtle allusion. Wilson, who greatly admired T.S. Eliot for successfully bringing “a new personal rhythm into the language,” writes that, nevertheless, “there is a good deal in T.S. Eliot of this pedantry and sterility of his age.”  Eliot makes so many allusions in his collections of poems to so many other books that… “we should have to read the whole of literature in order to appreciate a single book.”

Wilson observes that “Symbolists, themselves, full of the idea of producing poetry-effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes or chords.” In other words, one should no more demand an exact and unchanging meaning for a literary phrase than one would demand from a musical phrase.

Wilson considers Symbolism an outgrowth of Romanticism, “a second flood of the same tide.” Both Symbolism and Romanticism extol the value of the INDIVIDUAL. “The Romantic,” says Wilson, “is nearly always a rebel.” This is because he is struggling to “vindicate the rights of the individual the claims of society as a whole– against government, morals, conventions, academy, or church.” Romanticism was a revolution– a “revolt of the individual” against Classicism, which was concerned with the objective, the political, and the moral. Contrarily, a Romantic pits “his own turbulent insubordinate soul” against the mechanical universe.

According to Wilson, where Symbolism differs from Romanticism is that, whereas Romantics rebel against Society, the Symbolist withdraws from the fight, detaching himself from Society and becoming indifferent to its failures and injustices. And whereas Romantics are frequently explorers attempting “to try the possibilities of life,” individuals who love to travel and proselytize, the Symbolists “explore only the possibilities of imagination and thought.” Summarily, Romantics are outwardly engaged, Symbolists are inwardly focused.

Yeats described the difference between the outwardly and the inwardly focused this way… We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel without ourselves, poetry.”

Wilson quotes Andre Gide as remarking… “One’s great objection to the Symbolist school is its lack of curiosity about life.” Gide contends that most Symbolists are “pessimists, renunciants, resignationists,” and poetry is for them “a refuge, the only escape from the hideous realities.”

Wilson conjectures that one of the principal causes behind the Symbolist’s withdrawal from life was that… “in the utilitarian society which had been produced by the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, the poet seemed to have no place,” and the fact that by the end of the century, “the bourgeois world was going so strong that, from the point of view of the poet, it had come to seem hopeless to oppose it.”  But instead of setting off for other lands in hopes of finding freedom, beauty, and adventure, most Symbolists remained in their own societies, settling into their rooms and “excreting, like patient mollusks, iridescent shells of literature.”

But, Wilson warns, there is a price to be paid “by the man of imagination who, while remaining in the modern world, declines to participate in its activities and tries to keep his mind off its plight.” Almost inevitably, he will “succumb to some monstrosity or absurdity,” like Proust who displays through his works, according to Wilson, “a state of mind which combines a complacent egoism with a plaintive malaise at feeling itself shut off from the world.” Wilson makes no secret that he grows tired of Proust, of “his self-coddling, his chronic complaining, his perversity, his overcultivated sensibility.

Proust, states Wilson, makes his characters so exceedingly unhappy that “we realize that the atrocious cruelty which dominates Proust’s world, in the behavior of the people in the social scenes no less than in the relations of the lovers, is the hysterical sadistic complement to the hero’s hysterical masochistic passivity.”

Proust has never been my cup of tea either, so I laughed out loud when I read an exasperated Wilson finally cry-out, “What, we ask, is the matter with Proust?”

Valery, another– and perhaps the truest “Symbolist” spotlighted by Wilson– went twenty years without writing poetry. Then, we he returned to it, he came to the (perhaps overly self-critical) realization that the younger Valery had not known how to write poetry at all, and “that the little poems one had written long ago had evaded all the difficulties, suppressed what they did not know how to express; made use of an infantile language.”

If Yeats, who often made clear sense and conveyed situations and emotions through perfectly attuned images, can indeed be labeled a Symbolist, than he is on the other side of the spectrum for Valery, who I find frequently obscure, and thus to me personally, often worthless. Valery claimed to be writing poetry for himself anyway, so I doubt he would care what I think of his work. He said that he composed poetry out of “the desire to trace clearly for myself the nature of my own existence.” Almost bragging of his obscurity and self-centeredness, he stated that merely the form of the poem was enough to convey his meaning… “He who knows how to read me will read an autobiography in the form. The [subject] matter is of small importance.”

Valery, writes Wilson, contended that an artist, contrary to one common view, is actually not usually creating in a heightened state of revery, but is, similar to workers in others fields, honing his craft day-by-day in a quite mundane fashion. “Enthusiasm is not an artist’s state of mind,” Valery states. “Genius is a habit which certain people acquire.”

Wilson describes Valery’s approach to a poem-in-progess as “an intricate intellectual problem, a struggle with self-imposed conditions– that it is, above all, something constructed.” In one of my favorite descriptions of the poet’s art, Wilson writes that Valery considered that a poem is similar to a heavy weight which the poet has carried to the roof bit by bit– the reader is the passer-by upon whom the entirety of combined weight is dropped all at once and who consequently receives from the poem –in a moment– an overwhelming impression, a complete aesthetic effect, “such as the poet has never known in composing it.

This last part is especially intriguing to me. The poet is constructing his work brick by brick, as it were. He works diligently to seek out and cement the proper word in its proper place, and one caught him in the act, one would find him covered in sweat and grime.

A few Symbolist poets do not fit the morose and withdrawn stereotype, who are not, as Wilson calls them, “unhappy ghosts.” I call these the Engage Symbolists. Yeats, who was at various times active in Irish theater and state politics, is one. Another is Rimbaud– a young man whom no one can accuse of not engaging with life– though one could equally well state that he engaged with death.

Wilson, writing of Yeats, remarks that he “applies to poetry all the vigor of his intellect and all the energy of his passion,” producing works from a relatively plain language which somehow manages to become luminous and noble, as if pale pebbles smoothed by the sea were to take on some mysterious value and become more precious than jewels or gold.”

Lastly, Wilson says that the contemplation of Rimbaud’s doomed life “leaves us feeling that we have watched the human spirit, strained to its most resolute sincerity and in possession of its highest faculties, breaking itself in the effort to escape, first from humiliating compromise, and then from chaos equally humiliating.”


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