THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SYMBOLISM
BRERETON By GEOFFREY
QUIETLY, but with conviction, lettered France has celebrated this year the cinquantenaire of the Symbolist movement. It is fifty years, not since Symbolism began, but since Jean Moreas first coined the word as an alternative to decadent.
• Life and Letters of Sir Edmund posse. By. the Hon. Evan Charteris, K.C. (Heinemann. 1931.) Some would interpret the celebrations as meaning that Symbolism is dead. There is a certain force in the con- tention. Once we have begun to mark off our distance from a movement or an author, to notice when they began or ended, we have surely consigned them to the past. They have become the museum specimens of literature—interesting no doubt, great possibly in their own way, but not, we suspect, .in our way. Otherwise how could we ticket them so accurately, how examine them so dispassionately with a manual of literature in our hands ?
In one sense the first Symbolists have indeed entered the museum. The Parisian 'eighties and 'nineties have become a " period," charming but distant, in much the same way as the English 'nineties. They have an atmo- sphere as definable for us as the era of Jane Austen or of Dr. Johnson. Sir Edmund Gosse, writing to Hamo Thornycroft in 1893, captures that atmosphere as though in a vignette :* " Coming home early this morning after a very noisy party in the Latin Quarter, I found your delightful letter. I have been drinking absinthe with poets and their loves. Bobbinette—isn't that a lovely name ?—is a lovely creature, as delicate and innocent- looking and playful as if no such thing as the marriage-bond existed, and as if Latin Quarter manners set the code of morals for the world.
. . . To-day I have a breakfast-party at St. Germain. My guests will be arriving—poets in straw hats and pink shirts."
It is all there—the Latin Quarter, the green absinthe, the cocottes, the queerly-dressed poets. We are back in the days when Verlaine, the Prince of Poets, declaimed and wept in the Cafe de la Vachette ; when Mallarme received his disciples in the heavily furnished salon of the Rue de Rome ; when Debussy was struggling up to fame, and when Wagner and Dostoievsky, sweeping into France, were inspiring men of letters to be somehow different.' The names of small advanced reviews—the Decadent, the Revue Independante, the Plume—surge tip and disappear. Cafes, now dead or entirely changed, star the period with their evocative titles, the Chat Noir, the D'Harcourt, the Soufflot, the Closerie des Lilas. And the whole scene, with its top-hats and whiskered fringes, its opera cloaks and lavalliere cravats, its blue gas-lamps and victorias, is almost ready to be put on the music-hall stage.
But there is another side to Symbolism. Because of it, this year's jubilee is neither a pious wreath-laying nor a ruse of publishers and critics to stimulate interest in the illustrious departed. Only the material trappings of the Symbolists have gone into the property-chest ; their spiritual heritage lives on. What they did, broadly, was to conquer a new province for literature—the province of the subconscious.
They were out to give expression to the Whole Man, and most of man, they argued, lies beneath the surface. He is a creature of changing moods and fugitive im- pressions, endowed with a dual awareness that is never either purely subjective or purely objective, but an intricate blend of the two. The old categories of Classic and Romantic, of realistic and idealistic literature, were based, for the Symbolists, on a false distinction. They were attempts to divide what was essentially complex. Previous writers who had dealt on the one hand in terms of " I," and on the other in terms of the external world, had gone against the reality of human nature—for the dividing line is entirely arbitrary. The Symbolists were subjective in that they wrote chiefly of themselves, but not by the method of analysis. This could only produce a kind of Catalogue of the Main Features of the Author's Soul. Their concern was with the subconscious, which it is neither desirable nor possible to define.
" One is always complicated for one's self, one is always obscure for one's self, and the simplifications and clarifications of conscious- ness are the work of genius. Personal art—which is the only art— is always more or less incomprehensible. Once understood, it ceases to be pure art." (Remy de Goncourt).
Such a doctrine sounds unimpeachable. Yet they were bold men who first formulated it. At first sight it puts an end to literature, if literature be the art of coherent expression. It leaves us with no resource but inarticulate mumblings, or the expressive but wordless language of music. One word desperately repeated, Lear's
" Never, never, never, never, never,"
or Mallarme's " Je Inds haute. L'Azur Azur I rAzur I l'Azur I " seems the most that can be permitted.
Happily none of the Symboliits carried their doctrine to this extreme. They were enabled to go on writing, very brilliantly, by the use, not of definition or com- parison, but of suggestion, through symbols. Such a line as
" IZ pleure dance mon roar comme it pima cur la Mlle"
meets all the requirements by being sufficiently clear and yet unelarified.
Verlaine and his successors proceed, often by means of telescoped similes, never. stopping to explain, but taking it for granted that. the reader will be quick enough to seize the association of ideas. In a simple and famous example, Rimbaud makes his derelict ship say : . Sweeter than to children the flesh of firm apples
The green water seeped through my pima-wood hull."
More obscurely Mallarme writes :
" This closed white winging which you place Against the fire of a bracelet,"
which, translated into explicit and laboured terms, means : " This closed white fan suggesting living wings, which you hold against your sparkling bracelet." In Mallarme the method comes dangerously near to a series of enigmas, and the game of guessing the answers has given rise to some aesthetic snobbery, besides much genuine enjoyment.
Symbolist verse, however, in the hands of less recondite poets than Mallarme, is a lovely, a spontaneous, and above all a satisfying thing. It captures the imagination where a more direct technique would fail, and gives the reader the illusion of sharing the birth of an experience with the writer, rather than of being told about it after- wards. (It is worth noting that the elliptic verse of the later Shakespearean plays comes very near to the Sym- bolist ideal.) Because of these qualities, and because of our increasing awareness of the subconscious, it has provided the accepted technique of the twentieth century.
Half our poets—in England as much as in France— work by hint and suggestion rather than by explicit statement. Equally important is the influence of Symbolism on contemporary prose. The proof is to compare the best of the post-War novels with the heavy self-analysis of the early nineteenth century, or with the realistic writing of a Dickens, a Flaubert, or a Hardy. Thus, though 1886 marked the emergence of Symbolism, 1936 is far.froth marking its close.