The Symbolist Manifesto

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Portrait of Jean Moréas, by Paul Gauguin, 1891

As an addendum to my profile of Jean Moréas, I offer an English-language translation of his essay, “The Symbolist Manifesto,” which was first published in Le Figaro on September 18, 1886.

As with all the arts, literature is constantly evolving: a cyclical process characterised by a pre-established looking back to the past which must also take into account various factors related to the march of time and a changing social structure. It would be unnecessary to note that each new development in the artistic evolutionary process follows directly on from the descent into decrepitude, the inevitable demise of the immediately preceding school of thought. Two examples will suffice: that of Ronsard triumphing over the paltry efforts of Marot’s final imitators, and that of the Romantic school proclaiming its victory over a classicism whose ruins Baour Lormian and Etienne de Jouy had failed to return to its former glory. The truth is that all art carries within itself the seeds of its own fall from grace and ultimate destruction; thus from copy to copy, from imitation to imitation, that which bloomed with the freshness and vigour of youth is destined to wither and shrivel into old age; that which gleamed new and spontaneous cannot help but become clichéd and commonplace.

So it is with the Romantics, who after having set off all the jangling alarm bells of revolt, after their days of glorious battles, lost their strength and their grace, gave up their daring acts of heroism, and fell back into line, more doubting and wiser men. The movement vainly hoped to rise again with the honourable and petty attempt of the Parnassians, then finally conceded defeat, like a king in his dotage, allowing itself to be deposed by Naturalism, to which we cannot seriously attribute any value other than that of legitimate protest, albeit ill-advised, against the dreariness of the few writers in fashion at the time.

Thus the time was ripe for a new form of art. This necessary inevitability, a long time in the bud, has just come into flower. And all the ineffective jokes of our paragons of the press, all those concerns of the serious critics, all the bad temper of a public roused out of their slavish indifference, only serve as a daily reaffirmation of the vitality of the current evolution in French literature, this evolution that hasty judges, through an inexplicable antinomy, termed Decadence. Let us note however that Decadent literature shows itself to be essentially tough and fibrous, timid and servile: all Voltaire’s tragedies for example bear these blemishes of Decadence. And what can be reproached, what can we reproach this new school of? An excess of pomp, the strangeness of the metaphor, a new vocabulary in which harmonies mingle with line and color: these are the characteristics of any Renaissance.

We have already suggested the term Symbolism as being the only one capable of properly representing the current trend of the creative spirit in art.

This term may be adopted.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this article that evolution in art goes in cycles which are greatly complicated by divergence from them; thus, in order to trace the exact ancestry of the new school, it is necessary to go back to certain of Alfred de Vigny’s poems, to Shakepeare, to the mystics, and still further back in time. A vast number of words would be needed to address these considerations; let us merely say that Charles Baudelaire should be regarded as the true father of the current movement; Mr Stéphane Mallarmé imbued it with a sense of mystery and wonder; in its honor Mr Paul Verlaine broke the cruel shackles of verse form that the prestigious pen of Mr Théodore de Banville had previously succeeded in bending. Le Suprême Enchantement has not yet been achieved. Those who have just arrived will be confronted with a stubborn and jealous task.


Enemies of teaching, of declamation, of false sensibility, and of objective description, the Symbolist poets seek to clothe the Idea in a tangible form, which would nonetheless not be an end in itself, but which would remain subject to the Idea, while serving to express it. In its turn, the Idea must in no way allow itself to be deprived of the sumptuous robes of external analogies; for the essential characteristic of Symbolist art resides in never going as far as to reproduce the Idea in itself. So, in this art form, scenes of nature, human actions, all concrete phenomena, will not be depicted as such: they are tangible forms, whose purpose is to represent their concealed affinities with primordial Ideas.

The accusation of obscurity hurled at this aesthetic by desultory readers should not surprise us. But what can be done about it? The Pythians of PindarShakespeare’s Hamlet, Dante’s Vita Nuova, Part Two of Goethe’s Faust, La Tentation de St Antoine of Flaubert—were they not also accused of obscurity?

For the exact synthesis of Symbolism to be rendered accurately, it requires an archetypal, complex style: pure words, one phrase acting as a buttress and alternating with another of undulating decline, meaningful pleonasms, mysterious ellipses, the anacoluthon left in suspense, every trope bold and multifaceted: in short, good French—revitalized and modernized—that good, luxuriant, and spirited French language of before the likes of Vaugelas and Boileau-Despréaux, the language of François Rabelais and Philippe de Commines, of Villon and Rutebeuf, and of so many other writers, who were free and did not flinch from throwing their linguistic barbs, just as the Thracian archers threw their sinuous arrows.

RHYTHM: the ancient meters revived, disorder skilfully transformed into order, incadescent rhyme beaten out like a shield of gold and bronze, taking its place beside rhymes of abstruse fluidity; the alexandrine with its many mobile pauses; the use of certain odd numbers.


Here I crave your indulgence in asking you to pay heed to my little INTERLUDE, drawn from a gem of a book, Le Traité de Poésie Française [the Little Treatise on French Poetry], in which Mr Théodore de Banville re-creates the pitiless judgement of the god at Claros, causing many a Midas to grow a pair of monstrous ass’s ears on their head.

Your attention please!

The characters of the play are as follows:




Scene I

THE DETRACTOR: Oh! These Decadents! What pomposity! What gibberish! How true the words of our great Molière when he wrote:

“That figurative style where all is vanity / Taking no account of good nature or truth.”

THEODORE DE BANVILLE: Our great Molière may here be blamed for penning a bad couplet which itself takes as little account as possible of good nature. Of what good nature? Of what truth? An apparent disorder, a flamboyant madness, an impassioned pomposity; these are the very essence of lyric poetry. To go to the extremes of figure and color is not such a bad thing and this is not what will cause our literature to perish. In its darkest hour, when it expires absolutely, as during the First French Empire for example, it is not pomposity or an excess of ornament that sounds its death knell, it is dullness. Excellent as good taste and naturalness may be, they are assuredly less useful to poetry than we may believe. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is written from beginning to end in a style as affected as that of the Marquis of Mascarill; while the most felicitous and natural simplicity shines through Ducis’s adaptation of it.

THE DETRACTOR: But the caesura, the caesura! They are violating the caesura!!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE: In his remarkable prosody published in 1844, Mr Wilhem Tenint established that the alexandrine recognises twelve different combinations, starting with the line which has its caesura after the first syllable and ending with that which has its caesura after the eleventh syllable. In other words, the truth is that the caesura may be placed after any syllable in alexandrine verse. Similarly, he established that lines of six, seven, eight, nine, or ten syllables recognize variable and differently placed caesurae. Let us go further; let us dare to declare complete freedom and say that it is by ear alone that these complex considerations can be judged. We have always perished through lack of courage, not by its excess.

THE DETRACTOR: Unspeakable! Not to respect the alternance of rhymes! Sir, are you not aware that the Decadents dare to take liberties with the hiatus! I say even the hi-a-tus!!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE: The hiatus, the syllabic diphthong in a line of verse, all the rest of those forbidden things, and especially the optional use of masculine or feminine rhymes, gave the poet of genius an immense and inexhaustible supply of delicate effects, ever varied and unexpected. But one had to be a poet of genius, as well as possessing a musical ear, to be able to handle this complex and scholarly verse form, whereas fixed rules, if followed to the letter, alas, allow the most mediocre writers to write passable poetry! Who therefore has benefited from the regulation of poetry? Mediocre poets only!

THE DETRACTOR: But what of the Romantic revolution?

THEODORE DE BANVILLE: The Romantic revolution was left unfinished. What a tragedy that Victor Hugo, that victorious Hercules with hands dripping with blood, lacked complete revolutionary fervor and so spared some of the monsters he had been charged to exterminate with flaming arrows!

THE DETRACTOR: All reform is foolishness! Emulation of Victor Hugo: that is where the salvation of French poetry lies!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE; When Hugo unfettered verse form, it may have been believed that those poets who followed him, taking example from him, would aspire to be free and only accountable to themselves. But such is our love of servitude that the new poets vied with each other in copying and imitating Hugo’s most used forms, combinations and rhythms, instead of searching for new ones. Thus, bred for the yoke, we went from one form of slavery to another and after the Classical platitudes, we were given the Romantic platitudes: hackneyed in rhythm, in words and in rhyme; and these platitudes, that is to say the commonplace made chronic, toll the death knell in poetry as in all else. On the contrary, let us dare to be alive! And being alive signifies breathing the fresh air rather than our neighbor’s breath, even if our neighbor be God Himself!

Scene II

ERATO (invisible): Your LittleTreatise on French Poetry is a delightful work, Master Banville. But young poets are up to their eyes in blood, battling against those monsters nourished by Nicolas Boileau; Master Banville, pray be quiet, you are being summoned to the battlefield!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE (dreamily): Curses! Could it be that I have failed in my duty as the eldest and as a lyric poet?

(The author of Les Exilées breathes a dreadful sigh signifying the end of the interlude).


PROSE: novels, short stories, tales, fantasies,—evolve in a similar way to poetry. Elements which appear unrelated converge therein. Stendhal brings to it his translucent psychology, Balzac his keen observation of detail, Flaubert the rhythm of his vast soaring sentences, Mr Edmond de Goncourt his modern suggestive impressionism.

The concept of the Symbolist novel is polymorphous: sometimes a unique character moves around in surroundings distorted by his own hallucinations, by his own disposition: in this distortion lies the only reality. Shadowy figures with mechanical gestures flit around this unique character: they are merely a pretext for expressing his sensations and for conjecture. The character himself is a tragic mask or a buffoon, albeit perfectly human, while being doted with rationality. Sometimes the throng, superficially affected by what is going on around it, moves inexorably on, now jostling, now stagnant, towards acts which remain unfinished. Sometimes individual wills manifest themselves; they are drawn to each other, cohere, and spread out towards a goal which, whether reached or thwarted, breaks them apart into their original elements. And at yet other times mythical fantasms, from the primordial Demogorgon to Belial, from the mystic poems of Kabir to the Nigromans, appear sumptuously adorned on Caliban’s rock or in Titania’s forest in the mixolydian mode of barbitons and octocordes.

As for Mr Zola, thus disdainful of the puerile Method of Naturalism, he was saved by a marvelous writer’s instinct—the symbolic novel was built on the foundations of subjective distortion, based on the axiom: let art have no aim other than that of a simple, extremely succinct, point of departure.


See also: Remembering Jean Moréas and A Symbolist Correspondence.

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