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…

ANATOLE FRANCE

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.

JEAN MORÉAS

See also: Remembering Jean Moréas and The Symbolist Manifesto.

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:

1. A DETRACTOR OF THE SYMBOLIST SCHOOL

2. THEODORE DE BANVILLE

3. ERATO

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.

JEAN MORÉAS

See also: Remembering Jean Moréas and A Symbolist Correspondence.

Remembering Jean Moréas

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Most English-language readers will have at least a passing familiarity with the French writers who followed Baudelaire: Huysmans, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Barbey d’Aurevilly. Rarely mentioned, however, is the name of Jean Moréas. Except for a few poems he has remained little-translated and little-known in the Anglophone world, despite his important legacy as the founder of the Symbolism movement.

Jean Moréas (1856-1910) was born Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos in Athens, Greece, to a distinguished family with ties to the Greek War of Independence—his grandfather helped raise the Christian flag at Agia Lavra in 1821, triggering the revolt against the Turks, and later died with Lord Byron at Missolonghi. His father served as attorney general to the high court of Athens and other relatives occupied important positions in the military, with one cousin appointed to the king’s honor guard.

Moréas was educated in French by a Parisian governess who had formerly acted with the Comédie-Français, and he spent some of his childhood and adolescence in Marseilles. Precocious in his youth, he acquired a library of more than 2,000 books with an emphasis on Renaissance poetry and French literature. By age ten he had declared his aspiration to become the greatest of French poets.

Moréas reached Paris between 1875 and 1878. He had first been sent to Heidelberg to train as a lawyer. “My father wanted me in Germany,” he would later tell friends. “I wanted to see France. Twice I fled my home and was able to reach Paris. Fate showed me the way—my star guiding me.” At the age of 22 he settled in Paris permanently and began to establish himself as a writer. His first association was with the Hydropathes circle and he published extensively in their newspaper, Le Chat Noir.

In France at the fin de siècle the literary world was dominated by two forces. On the one hand: Emile Zola and the “Naturalists” who sought to render human experience in evolutionary terms—man impelled by “nerves and blood.” On the other: that late-Romantic movement which had begun with Charles Baudelaire and his reading of Edgar Allan Poe, and which was later represented by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Stéphane Mallarmé, insisting cryptically upon higher realms of order and the intrusion of divine or satanic symbols in everyday life.

Moréas belonged resolutely to this latter camp, then known as Decadence. He saw implicit in its doctrine the teaching of the Neoplatonists that earthly forms were derived from heavenly models. Moréas believed that employing symbols from the sensible world, poets could evoke, by reflection, a higher one. Baudelaire had suggested much the same in his poem “Correspondences:”

In Nature’s temple living pillars rise
And words are murmured none have understood
And man passes through a forest of symbols watching him with friendly eyes
Perfumes, colors and sounds correspond to one another
Like long echoes which from afar merge into
A deep and dark whole.

With the publication of Les Syrtes (1884) and Les Cantilènes (1886), his first major collections, Moréas became an apologist for the Decadent movement. Writing in publications like Le Figaro and XIXe Siècle he addressed critics who alleged superficiality, insisting that the movement was dedicated to the pursuit of higher truths. “Those who call themselves Decadents,” he wrote in reply to the critic Paul Bourde, “seek above all in their art the pure Concept and the eternal Symbol.”

Moréas was not interested in the aesthetic of moral despair that permeated Decadent literature. By identifying Baudelaire’s legacy instead with an aspiration toward the divine, Moréas was preparing the way for a rejection of the “Decadent” label altogether. In Le Figaro of 18 September 1886 Moréas published the manifesto of Symbolism, a new movement that would appropriate the Decadents but purify and refocus their imagery. Here he emphasized the esoteric doctrine at its core:

Symbolist poets seek to clothe the Idea in a tangible form, which would 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.

In the wake of Symbolism, Moréas became a literary celebrity and a principal French poet. Among the young writers who followed him, he commanded something akin to adoration. (Oscar Wilde, dining in Paris with Moréas and his acolytes, stormed out of the restaurant in exasperation when they recited nothing but odes to Jean Moréas.) In temperament, he possessed a distance that often made him appear humorless, egotistical, or contemptuous. He could be harsh, but never vindictive or unfair. He was nocturnal, but morally upright, and absolutely restless. He would hold court in the cafés of Les Halles, sometimes passing through half a dozen in one night. The American critic Vance Thompson, who encountered Moréas at the Café François Premiére, described his entrance in “a long, monkish great-coat reaching his heels, a silk hat tipped over his eyebrows. His mustache is twisted up truculently. He has the air of Bobadil, of Drawcansir—of a pirate of the Spanish Main. Across his face runs a sneer like a sabre-cut. He stalks sombrely, a monocle glued in his right eye—which is absurd—and takes a seat in Verlaine’s old corner.”

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Portrait of Jean Moréas, by Paul Gauguin, 1891

Within a few years, Symbolism had become a broad, multi-disciplined school, encompassing visual art and music as well as literature. But increasingly, it was fueled by ideologies quite divergent from that of its founder. What frustrated Moréas about many of the new poets who flocked to Symbolism was their adoption of free verse, a technique that he had ironically championed himself in the manifesto. It is likely that as Moréas became more concerned with metaphysics, he came to see the undisciplined style at odds with the Platonic notion of a correct—or ideal—structure for which the artist should strive. There was a political dimension here as well. The faction that embraced free verse was increasingly tied to the political Left. The poet Adolphe Retté would declare this affinity in an article for La Plume in which he wrote, “two ideas have continued their evolution upward and have affirmed their vitality: in literature, free verse, in philosophy, the anarchist doctrine.”

This trend was unacceptable to Moréas, who was a man of the Right. Although he remained publicly aloof from French politics, in private he was an ardent monarchist who felt even the Orleanist model of a “Citizen King” did not go far enough. One of his earliest supporters and friends was the classical critic Charles Maurras who founded the monarchist political faction, Action Française.

By 1890, Moréas had announced the demise of Symbolism—or, rather, its need of further clarification. This he provided with a new book of poetry, Le Pèlerin Passionné, and a new manifesto in Le Figaro. Aided by Maurras, Raymond de la Tailhède, Maurice du Plessis, and Ernest Raynaud, Moréas founded the École Romane. Their aim was to re-establish a traditional French poetry based on Medieval verse structure and Greco-Roman symbolism—a fitting synthesis for the Greek émigré, but one also rooted in traditional French mythology. (Whereas the Romans were said to descend from the Trojan Aeneas, the French claimed the Trojan Francus as their founding father.)

Charles Maurras probably deserves more credit for the doctrine of Romanism than he is given. Much is made of the influence of Moréas and the École Romane—with its enchanted Medievalism—on Maurras and Action Française. But the influence went both ways. Maurras had long been a supporter of the félibrige writers in his native Provence—Frédéric Mistral and others—who promoted Occitan, the ancient vernacular form of Latin still spoken in the region. René Wellek, in Yale French Studies, writes that Maurras was “convinced of the possibility of a Provençal Renaissance, linguistic and poetic. Provence provided him with the symbolic center of Latinity: the crossroads of the Greek, Latin, and French traditions.” A similar spirit animated the École Romane.

To many at the time, the rejection of Symbolism by its founder was jarring. The critic Max Nordau wrote that, “Moréas is one of the inventors of the word ‘Symbolism.’ For some few years he was the high-priest of this secret doctrine, and administered the duties of his service with requisite seriousness. One day he suddenly abjured his self-founded faith, and declared that ‘Symbolism’ had always been meant only as a joke, to lead fools by the nose withal; and that the true salvation of poetry was in Romanism.”

The shift was nothing so dramatic. If anything, the École Romane presented a sharpening of the Symbolist philosophy. In his earlier manifesto, Moréas advocated a classical conception of symbol; now he was going a step further, advocating a return to actual classical symbols and structure. Indeed, the two major collections Moréas published under the aegis of the Roman school—Le Pèlerin Passionné (1891) and Les Stances (1893)—come across as natural developments of his work to date.

Moréas would no doubt have been pleased to know that these latter volumes, his greatest successes at the time, remain the ones for which he is best remembered. And yet, as biographer John Davis Butler laments, even in France Moréas is “received by the public, le public vulgaire, with a casualness akin to apathy.”

An earlier version of this article was published in the Quarterly Review in 2011.

See also: The Symbolist Manifesto and A Symbolist Correspondence.

Sources:

Butler, John Davis. (1967) Jean Moréas: A Critique of his Poetry and Philosophy. The Hague: Mouton.

Moréas, Jean. (1889) Les Premières armes du Symbolisme. Paris: Léon Vanier.

Thompson, Vance. (1913) French Portraits. New York: Mitchell Kennerley.

Shryock, Richard. (March, 1998) “Reaction Within Symbolism: The Ecole Romane.” The French Review. Vol. 71, No. 4.

Wellek, René. (1967) “‘Classical’ Criticism in The Twentieth Century.” Yale French Studies. No. 38.

Nordau, Max Simon. (1895) Degeneration. New York: D. Appleton and Company.