The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The French Symbolists

BEFORE

1852 Enamels and Cameos, a collection of poems by Théophile Gautier, departs from Romanticism, focusing on form rather than emotion.

AFTER

1865–66 Stéphane Mallarmé, in “The Afternoon of a Faun”, gives a dreamlike account of a faun conversing with two nymphs – one representing the material, one the intellectual.

1873 Arthur Rimbaud, in A Season in Hell, presents two sides to himself – the poet intoxicated by light and childhood and the down-to-earth peasant.

1874 Paul Verlaine brings out Songs without Words, which is inspired by his relationship with Arthur Rimbaud.

The work of the French Symbolist poets of the 19th century focused on sensation and suggestion rather than plain description and rhetorical effects, and made use of symbols, metaphors, and imagery to evoke subjective moods. The leading Symbolists included Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, but the pioneer was Charles Baudelaire (1821–67).

Art from decay

In Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) – the title suggests the flowering of moral decay into art – Baudelaire turns his back on Romantic outpourings in favour of suggestive symbolism and frank expression. Using the traditional alexandrine metre – in which lines of 12 syllables are divided into two parts by a pause, or caesura – he addresses non-traditional new subjects that were shocking at the time, such as prostitution, interracial sex, drink, and drugs.Baudelaire paints a pessimistic portrait of modern man, inflected with his personal concerns – including his ambitions as a poet. At the book’s heart is ennui, the deadening of the soul, as well as an existential dread and fear of death.

A search for meaning

In the opening section, a series of poems explores the role of the artist as visionary, martyr, performer, outcast, and fool. The poet tries to find meaning through sex, but initial excitement is followed by disenchantment – to which art offers some consolation. In the second section, “Parisian Tableaux”, which was added for a new edition of 1861, the poet roams the city as a flâneur (an idle observer), finding only reminders of his own misery. The old Paris is gone, the new street scene alienating.

The following sections describe the poet’s resulting flight to drink, sex, and even satanism. The last poem, “The Voyage”, is a miniature odyssey tracing the travels of the soul to its final adventure, where at last there might be something new to experience.

See also: The Picture of Dorian Gray • A Season in Hell • The Waste Land • The Outsider