A Symbolist Correspondence

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Portrait of Jean Moréas, by Paul Gauguin, 1891

Le Figaro published “The Symbolist Manifesto” by Jean Moréas as part of a debate in the French press over the literary Decadent movement in the 1880s. The debate had begun with the publication of a humorous essay by Paul Bourde in Le Temps, in which Bourde memorably dismissed Decadence as a “final little flower, sickly and strange,” rising up from “the death throes of Romanticism” and “marking the end of an era.” He wrote, “This is certainly Decadence, but merely that of a dying school.” Moréas came to the defense of the Decadent poets in a letter to The XIX Century which began his endeavor to rehabilitate the movement under the name, Symbolism. This was followed by the Manifesto in September of 1886.

The Manifesto drew a response from the formidable novelist and belletrist Anatole France. Moréas and France went back and forth in a spirited public correspondence which I offer below, for the first time in English translation.

France writes in Le Temps of September 26, 1886:

A certain newspaper, which usually receives manifestos only from princes, has just published the creed of the Symbolists, before now more commonly known under the name, Decadents or Deliquescents. But the author of this creed, Mr Jean Moréas, repudiates these names as being incorrect. He states “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.” Moreover, after this, it is easy to see why Mr Moréas does not wish his friends to be called Decadents. It is less easy to see why he calls them Symbolists, and at the present time I would still find myself having difficulty in explaining it.

My difficulty stems essentially from the fact that I do not know exactly what Symbolism is. True, Mr Jean Moréas does explain it. But it is equally true that his explanation is hard to follow…

Mr Théodore de Banville has hardly given Symbolism the help we were waiting for. He remained silent, “He failed in his duty as the eldest and as a lyric poet.” This is unforgivable of him and he shall not be forgiven.

In the past, Mr [Hippolyte] Taine disappointed the hopes of the Naturalists. Mr Zola expected Mr Taine to be his critic and still today he notes with regret that Mr Taine has failed in his mission. So it is with Mr Théodore de Banville. The Symbolists hoped that in his old age that learned and charming poet would herald their arrival with the song of Simeon. And as no prophecy was forthcoming, they declared him to be a false soothsayer and a worthless songster…

Among the French writers whose language you wish to resurrect, you name François Rabelais, Philippe de Commynes (and not Commines as you called him), Villon, and Rutebeuf, “writers who were free and did not flinch from throwing their linguistic barbs, just as the Thracian archers threw their sinuous arrows” as you say. Here again, allow me to point out that these are names that we hardly expected to be uttered in the same breath. I do not speak of Rutebeuf, with whom I have only a slight acquaintance. I think I have a slightly better knowledge of Commynes and Rabelais. They are writers who have nothing in common whatsoever, and if, as you say, they can both be compared to the Thracian archers, the same could be said of a great many writers.

We are acquainted with Rabelais; he has many admirers and even a few readers, of whom, Sir, I am sure you are one. You know how rich and learned Rabelais’s writing is; you know what weight this richness imparts to it; what a prodigious piling up of excellent language structures it presents; what a jumbled store of words and ideas it holds. This is hardly the language of Commynes.

Philippe de Commynes was a statesman. He wrote plainly, without seeking effect, only clarity. Unlike Froissart, who sought to amuse the reader with his charmingly colorful tales, Commynes offered those in government instruction by showing them the chain of events. He was the first in France to see things with a historian’s eye. This is certainly not a meagre ability. He must also be credited with having been the first to show how it was possible to write in a simple and functional style, a style suited to the affairs of state. I have remarked that this style is being used today to great advantage. But it appears to be the province of Mr Thiers or Mr Dufaure rather than the Symbolist writers.

This leads me again into a tight spot from which all the Thracian archers could not extricate me. And I must tell you, my dear Mr Jean Moréas, that if I find myself in this spot, you are in some way to blame. For you, everything comes back to Symbolism. You believe that through the ages and throughout all countries, literature has only existed to pave the way for the birth of Symbolism. This is a point of view I find difficult to come to terms with. If you remember, Mr Zola has made a point of showing that from time immemorial, literature has always inclined towards Naturalism, which is its logical conclusion, and that all progress in the art of writing has inevitably been leading up to his cycle of French social history, Rougon-Macquart. In this, he has not completely succeeded, for several reasons: the first being that perhaps it is not true. It is certainly not you who will contradict me in this, Mr Moréas. There are still other reasons. Throughout his hard-working and respectable career, Mr Zola has written more than he has read. I make no complaint, for his books are most interesting. But in the end he has little notion of the history of the human spirit, and when he has attempted to initiate prolegomena about Naturalism in the novel and in the theater, he has been on very unsure ground. Even his adversaries have been tempted to come to his help and to quote at him Les Milésiennes [“The Milesian Legends”], Céléstine, the Picaresques, Sorel, Furestière, Scaron, Caylus, Restif de la Bretonne, and a hundred others that he had forgotten. Even a return to Boileau’s dialogue on heroes in the novel would have been most helpful to him. For in their way and unbeknown to him, Boileau and the classical writers are Mr Zola’s helpmates. Zola’s not altogether unfounded criticism of Victor Hugo mirrors Boileau’s criticism of Scudéry.

As for you, sir, I would if I dared, refer you to one of those precursors whom you neglect, by the name of Lycophron. He seems to me to be as esoteric as is possible and sufficiently complex. I would be curious to know what you think of him. As for myself, I regard him as the first of the Symbolists. Doubtless you will take no account of the opinion of a barbarian.

The example of Mr Zola should be of greater concern to you. If a literary philosophy whose only conclusion is Naturalism is false, so too must be that whose sole conclusion is Symbolism. Herein lies the danger of any system: let me remind you of an illustrious example. Around 1835 the great Augustin Thierry established that all that had taken place in France since Roman times had merely been preparation for the July revolution and thus the history of France was flawless from then on. This system was overturned in 1848 and it has not risen up again since.

In your manifesto, Sir, you make a point of mentioning those bad French writers who have held back the Symbolist movement, as well as those that have paved the way for it. Among the former you cite Vaugelas and Boileau. Like you, I believe Boileau could never have imagined either the “pure words,” or “one phrase acting as a buttress and alternating with another of undulating decline,” or “the mysterious ellipses,” or “the bold and multifaceted trope” that you advocate. Mr Renan assures us that Nicolas Boileau has only become a Romantic since his death. I believe nothing of it: he was stubborn and obstinate. I would be willing to bet that neither you nor Mr Victor Hugo believe it either. As for Vaugelas, I truly do not know why you consider him to be your enemy. He is no-one’s enemy. He was not a grammarian in today’s sense. He was in fact just the opposite. The only rule he recognized was that of use. His time spent in the court of Gaston of Orléans had taught him the turns of phrase in usage. These became the subject of one of his volumes of Remarques (Commentaries). No one was ever less tyrannical on the subject of the French language. In his work, he limits himself to remarking that such a term is correct to use while such another is not. What can be taken amiss? Would it not be better, Sir, to leave this gentleman, this lover of excellent speeches, to rest in peace and for both of us to direct our anger towards those pedants, Noël and Chapsal, our common enemies? They claimed to set up rules for writing, as if there could be any other possible rules than use and good taste…

I will surprise you further. I find that Voltaire’s plays are not so badly written as you claim. I do not see as many blemishes in them as you do. I admit the verse sometimes drags. In the words of Pascal, Voltaire did not have time to be brief. But still, if a good style of tragic philosophy does exist, it is here exemplified. In some places I can sense the heart and the soul of the eighteenth century. Marchionesses and philosophers recognized themselves in Zaïre and Alzire. They were reduced to tears by them. Let me see once more their kindly shades slip between the yellowing pages. You cannot deny there is poetry in those lines. Do you call them outdated? Well, a little patience if you please! They will be called outdated tomorrow. It is today, Sir, that I am taking you up on a point which you are not alone in defending. Mr Emile Deschanel will only partly support me. You have many people on your side, especially Mr Francisque Sarcey. In parliamentary terms it is what is known as a coalition majority. For Mr Sarcey is certainly no Symbolist. You probably put him together with Nicolas Boileau. So do I. Yes, in this very place, Mr Sarcey has said many unkind things about the verse used in Mahomet. He was particularly shocked by the following line:

You will see of the camels a coarse driver.
True, it has no beauty in it. But today we would have no fear to write:
You will see a coarse camel-driver.
And I am not certain it is better. To my mind it is six of one and half a dozen of the other…

If I understand you correctly, my dear Mr Jean Moréas, you believe you will win. You would argue that neither camels nor drivers would suit your purpose, nor would anything that indicates man or beast. You would merely suggest the idea. And if I were to ask you how you would suggest the idea, you would tell me that it would be through far-off and secret analogies of tone and form, by allusion and a return to who-knows-what primordial notions, in short by means of some of Symbolism’s most wonderful secrets! Yes indeed, my dear Mr Jean Moréas, you do have some wonderful secrets, your poetry will be prodigious. But it will be incomprehensible. You will write a work of art that will remain unknown.

And by God, in looking for your predecessors I had forgotten this one: the old artist whose touching and cruel story was related by Balzac. This artist wanted to excel himself. Pride comes before a fall, my dear sir. We know that in art it is dangerous to imitate. Our talent as well as our vanity warns us of its dangers. We are tempted to exaggerate them if at all possible. Greek sculpture, an art form with which you are very familiar, as it is the glory of that adorable country which is your birthplace, has not suffered too much from this principle of imitation which inspired its schools. Most of the Greek statues we admire are replicas. Greek sculptors repeated the same motifs ad infinitum. Greek poetry drew its nourishment from imitation. This is noticeable in the Anthology…


Moréas responded a couple of weeks later. His letter to France was published in Symboliste on October 7, 1886. He writes:

Dear Sir and Colleague,

It is with the greatest interest that I have read your immensely learned dissertation concerning my article on Symbolism published in Le Figaro; and the cultured style of your criticism came as an agreeable surprise after all the insults that the monsters of the Press have been hurling at me for some time. That said, I hope you will allow me to attempt to reply to certain points on which you comment:

You would like me to write Commynes instead of Commines. Why? Both forms of spelling are used: Littré, Michelet, and many other savants write Commines. Further on, you compare the style of this advisor of Louis Xl to that of Mr Thiers. I will accept this ingenious paradox insofar as it serves my purpose, that is to offer yet more proof of the staggering decadence that has been besetting the French language since the fifteenth century. As for Rutebeuf, allow me some surprise at your indifference: “I do not speak of Rutebeuf, with whom I have only a slight acquaintance,” you declare. It seems to me however that the “gentle troubadour” was worthy of the esteem of all good poets.

It is certain, Sir, that you have very skilfully defended Vaugelas, “this gentleman, this lover of excellent speeches,” against my attack. I was only yesterday leafing through his Commentaries, and I am afraid I must stand by my judgement: I find this gentleman of the Academy pernicious and very “tyrannical,” say what you will.

You express the desire to know my views on Lycophron whom you judge to be as esoteric as is possible and sufficiently complex. I am entirely of your opinion, and I even find his poem Alexandra most delightful. But I must beg to contradict you when you say that “Greek poetry drew its nourishment from imitation.” I think that Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes for example have nothing in common as poets; they were also all quite revolutionary in their time. As for most of the Anthology poets, I admit to having no great admiration for them.

Must I now protest about what you conclude from my comments concerning Mr Théodore de Banville in my article? I do not believe I have any “quarrel” with this master. On the contrary, I feel certain that my extracts have sufficiently proven that in Mr de Banville’s admirable Treatise on Poetry he advocates all the reforms of rhythm that my friends and I are audaciously putting into effect at the moment.

So, Sir, this is all I wished to say to you: for as far as everything else is concerned, the most wordy controversy would be fruitless. I believe you admire Lamartine as much as you hold Baudelaire in esteem; as for myself, I admire Baudelaire while holding Lamartine in esteem. Perhaps this is where the ultimate explanation of our difference of opinion lies.

May I conclude, my dear sir and colleague, by saying I remain most sincerely yours.


See also: Remembering Jean Moréas and The Symbolist Manifesto.

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