The roots of “Symbolism” can be found in Baudelaire, but this style of French poetry found its apogee in later poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolist poets rejected plain meanings and matter-of-fact descriptions, and commonly used dream-like images in order to express the spiritual or the Ideal. These writers were often “Decadent” poets too, or poètes maudits — cursed, lonely, self-destructive, and obsessed with death and decay.
As well as poetry, music also was undergoing radical changes. It may seem difficult to believe now, but Claude Debussy‘s impressionistic compositions were completely revolutionary at the end of the nineteenth century. (Incidentally, his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by one of Mallarmé‘s poems, and his piece Clair De Lune by one of Verlaine‘s.) Music and poetry — and indeed painting — were very much interlinked in the salons of the Symbolists.
Another Symbolist preoccupation was with synesthesia, or the intertwining and deliberate confusion of the senses — a process no doubt aided by drinking copious amounts of absinthe, that deadly and mind-altering alcoholic bomb widely available at the time. Baudelaire‘s poem Correspondences drips with synesthesia: “Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies…” (“There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh, / Sweet like oboes, green like meadows…”)
However, the wildest and most original poet of them all, who led the most extraordinary life and wrote two of the most startling poems to emerge from that time — Le Bâteau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) and Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) — was Arthur Rimbaud. But more of Rimbaud in the next post…