symbolism in poetry

Symbolism in literature was a complex movement that deliberately extended the evocative power of words to express the feelings, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. The open-ended symbols created by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions, notably smell and sound. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), the high priest of the French movement, theorized that symbols were of two types. One was created by the projection of inner feelings onto the world outside. The other existed as nascent words that slowly permeated the consciousness and expressed a state of mind initially unknown to their originator.

None of this came about without cultivation, and indeed dedication. Poets focused on the inner life. They explored strange cults and countries. They wrote in allusive, enigmatic, musical and ambiguous styles. Rimbaud deranged his senses and declared "Je est un autre". Von Hofmannstahl created his own language. Valéry retired from the world as a private secretary, before returning to a mastery of traditional French verse. Rilke renounced wife and human society to be attentive to the message when it came.

Not all were great theoreticians or technicians, but the two interests tended to go together, in Mallarmé most of all. He painstakingly developed his art of suggestion, what he called his "fictions". Rare words were introduced, syntactical intricacies, private associations and baffling images. Metonymy replaced metaphor as symbol, and was in turn replaced by single words which opened in imagination to multiple levels of signification. Time was suspended, and the usual supports of plot and narrative removed. Even the implied poet faded away, and there were then only objects, enigmatically introduced but somehow made right and necessary by verse skill. Music indeed was the condition to which poetry aspired, and Verlaine, Jimenez and Valéry were among many who concentrated efforts to that end.

So appeared a dichotomy between the inner and outer lives. In actuality, poets led humdrum existences, but what they described was rich and often illicit: the festering beauties of courtesans and dance-hall entertainers; far away countries and their native peoples; a world-weariness that came with drugs, isolation, alcohol and bought sex. Much was mixed up in this movement — decadence, aestheticism, romanticism, and the occult — but its isms had a rational purpose, which is still pertinent. In what way are these poets different from our own sixties generation? Or from the young today: clubbing, experimenting with relationships and drugs, backpacking to distant parts? And was the mixing of sensory perceptions so very novel or irrational? Synaesthesia was used by the Greek poets, and indeed has a properly documented basis in brain physiology.

What of the intellectual bases, which are not commonly presented as matters that should engage the contemporary mind, still less the writing poet? Symbolism was built on nebulous and somewhat dubious notions: it inspired beautiful and historically important work: it is now dead: that might be the blunt summary. But Symbolist poetry was not empty of content, indeed expressed matters of great interest to continental philosophers, then and now. The contents of consciousness were the concern of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and he developed a terminology later employed by Heidegger (1889-1976), the Existentialists and hermeneutics. Current theories on metaphor and brain functioning extend these concepts, and offer a rapprochement between impersonal science and irrational literary theory.

So why has the Symbolism legacy dwindled into its current narrow concepts? Denied influence in the everyday world, poets turned inward, to private thoughts, associations and the unconscious. Like good Marxist intellectuals they policed the area they arrogated to themselves, and sought to correct and purify the language that would evoke its powers. Syntax was rearranged by Mallarmé. Rhythm, rhyme and stanza patterning were loosened or rejected. Words were purged of past associations (Modernism), of non-visual associations (Imagism), of histories of usage (Futurism), of social restraint (Dadaism) and of practical purpose (Surrealism). By a sort of belated Romanticism, poetry was returned to the exploration of the inner lands of the irrational. Even Postmodernism, with its bric-a-brac of received media images and current vulgarisms, ensures that gaps are left for the emerging unconscious to engage our interest.

Symbolism in Literature: France

Where Baudelaire felt life grievously, and developed a style to express that experience, Mallarmé started with words and turned them into beautiful creations that evaded the exterior world. What mattered in Symbolism was the coherence of that inner vision, and the sheer beauty of the verse.

Could the exterior world be evaded altogether, when poetry would refer to nothing but its own abstractions, and so aspire to music, the most creative of the arts? That hope came from Edgar Allan Poe, but was taken up most enthusiastically by French poets, who strove for a poésie pure of unclouded lyric intensity. Ideas of the workaday world, its decencies, passions, or rationale, were unwanted, indeed were detrimental. Only two things counted. There was the language itself: the phonetic properties of words, their connotations, sounds, half-heard melodies, etymologies, etc. And there were symbols: the fire, heaven, ice, lilies, soul, etc. that each poet explored and developed. The symbols were not arbitrary, and were more discovered than created by the poet.

How discovered? There were many views, each spawning a line of poetic development.  Some poets regarded symbols as corresponding to an ultimate reality (Baudelaire) or to supernal beauty (Poe). That was the Neoplatonist tradition, which sees poetry as transcending the world of appearances and apprehending divine truth itself. Plato had used myths, images and symbols to express his ideas, and the Neoplatonists added a good deal of their own, from Roman Egypt and middle eastern mythology, alchemy and astrology. The result could be baffling to the uninitiated, but by using these symbols poets were tapping into what we now call archetypes, and emphasizing the metaphoric nature of language.

All this was far from apparent at the time, and many poets discounted a universe of pure forms existing as the primary heritage of mankind. Nonetheless, poetic language might still be the royal road to understanding, or the medium in which understanding revealed itself, for certainly the society around them provided no such help. The commercial world was crassly materialistic, for all its philanthropy and belief in progress. From such isolation, it was only a short step to the New Criticism doctrine, that a poem is an autonomous object complexly mediated by language, i.e. the poem may or may not refer to real things, but exists only in the form in which it presents itself.

Others were unwilling to grant this exclusive prestige to language. Each art form offered its own vision, as did the compelling power of love or religious experience. In the hermetic tradition, moreover, understanding could not be earned without effort and pain, so that a facile juggling with words would never answer as poetry. Even Wittgenstein believed that philosophy had to be undertaken with the whole being, and not as an intellectual pursuit, and poets faced an equally arduous apprenticeship. Openness to experience was essential, and that experience extended beyond conventional beliefs and behaviour. Yeats and the Italian ermetismo movement were much exercised by magic, and indeed by all those abstruse aspects of learning hidden from the profane majority, an attitude that transferred itself to Modernism.

A few travelled beyond poetry. Valéry became more absorbed in the processes of writing than in the final product, magnificent though that often was. Rimbaud deranged his senses to create a startling poetry without verse, or what most would call verse. His work rose with intense feelings from childhood memories into a sort of muscular lyricism, which was uncompromisingly direct. It was certainly poetry, but one without literary precedents — or descendants, since nothing like it has been written since. Genius is the only explanation, but genius that relied on drugs and alcohol. 'Then I would explain my magic sophistries with the hallucination of words,' said their author. Words were the only truth, as the academic Hegel had insisted, but not words of some tidy philosophical system. The irrational gave access to a larger and more liberated world, and from this belief developed Dadaism and Surrealism.   

The vast majority of poets, however, saw the matter quite differently. Though impressed by the purity of style, and the originator's obvious integrity, they felt that Mallarmé's approach was wrong-headed. Impressions, feelings and thoughts gave any art its first prompting, and these were then developed in whatever form was appropriate. Technique is therefore what most contemporaries learned from Symbolism: the exquisite musicality without the philosophy.

Symbolism in Literature: Spain

Symbolism was to take on board a good deal of twentieth century concerns — alienation, loss of communal and spiritual beliefs — but this freight is more obvious with hindsight. Poetry in the Romance languages was initially rather straightforward. In Spanish, Symbolism was only one of many elements introduced by Rubén Darío, the great innovator, who was born in 1867 in Nicaragua, then a remote country of jungles, lakes and volcanoes where the Spanish were never fully at home. Childhood was predictably unhappy, but also productive. As a child prodigy, Darío went to Managua and San Salvador, and then won great praise for his first serious collection of poems and stories, Azúl, published in 1888. Thereafter, as diplomat, traveller and essayist, he met the most important writers of his day, and was able to fuse traditional Spanish forms with Parnassian and Symbolist elements to produce what he called modernismo. Darío was the most influential Spanish poet of his time, and many still feel that Spanish literature was reborn under his direction.

Darío himself was complex: religious, dissolute, solitary, childlike and cynical. The poetry was equally bewildering, but always accomplished. The most demanding forms were handled with effortless facility, complexities of his own being added that defy translation — dissonance, assonance, internal rhyme, borrowed mannerisms, an exuberance of language that could be deftly erotic but also strikingly fresh and direct. He married three times, returned to Nicaragua in 1906, and produced collections regularly until his death from drink in 1916.

Darío had numerous followers but no real descendants. It was not the formidable technical mastery — which may explain why he is so rarely translated into English — but the eclectic and rootless nature of the achievement. The poems work in and with a style that is distinctive, but do not speak of a larger world which exists independently of their author. Lorca identified with an Andalucian  gypsy culture, and Neruda's communist history of Latin America continues to resonate throughout the continent. Darío 's world is more self-created: take away the astonishing artistry and only the props of poetry remain: swans, centaurs, stars, etc. To a Left wing readership, Darío 's poetry may appear bombastic and over-decorative, perhaps like Swinburne to English readers.  But to Spaniards in the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly those stifled by the conservative attitudes of provincial Spain, Darío's poetry came as liberation. With the measures he introduced, poetry could accomplish anything.

What measures? Take a simple poem of Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958). No Era Nadie in Jardines lejanos (1904) opens: — No era nadie. El agua — Nadie? / Que no es nadie el agua? No / hay nadie. Es la flor. — No hay nadie? / Pero no Es nadie la flor? What does it mean? Not very much at first blush. It was no one. Water. No one. / Is the water no one? There / is no one. It is the flower. There is no one / But is the flower no one? But this is not mindless riddling: the rhythmical effects create colour and music. More importantly, they cause us to look at the world afresh. Edmund Husserl stressed the contents of consciousness, and here, quite independently, was one way of bracketing off experience from traditional or mundane concerns.

Frederico Garcia Lorca (1899-1936) went further to introduce Surrealist elements. The opening lines of Romance Sonambulo (Romancero gitano, 1928) run: Verde que te queiro verde. / Verde viento. Verde ramas.  A literal translation conveys very little: Green, I want/love you green. Green wind. Green branches. But the Spanish ear surrenders to the incantation, entranced by the repetition of vowels and the v, r and que sounds. Green evokes leaves and water, moreover, if somewhat garishly in this nightmare setting of a very Spanish story of blood and honour, and that association is important. Trees at night only show their true colour when illuminated, and this mysterious green of the wind and branches utters a warning: the scenes depicted are not real and should not be happening. Later in the poem, when the dead girl is discovered floating in the pool, the greenness is given a sharper twist: Verde carne, pelo Verde / con ojos de fría plata  Green flesh, green hair / with eyes of chilly silver. A simple device, but one permeating and giving depth to the poem.

What is the point of creating such an unreal world? The freedom to explore issues that were difficult or forbidden — in Lorca's case, his homosexuality and Republican sympathies. Lorca was also markedly self-aggrandizing, so that the poetry was one way of ensuring that the artist remained spot-lit on his rostrum. No doubt the two went together, the Symbolist legacy being developed as much for personal needs as other considerations.

Symbolism in Literature: Germany

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 of German parents in Prague. He was dressed as a girl by his mother and sent to a military academy by his father, and from these confusions and resentments developed a character that became increasingly fastidious, hypersensitive and retiring. Rilke found solace in his own thoughts, but the resulting restrictions and inner discipline that eventually made him one of the greatest of European lyric poets came through a personal reworking of Nietzschean philosophy.

Rilke advanced rapidly. His early work was facile and openly sentimental, winning a wide readership but not critical acclaim. Thereafter he acquired the virtuosos handling of words from the Symbolist poet Stephan George, and from the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen learned to find sensuous equivalents in nature for personal feelings that were vague and unformed. The experiences of two visits to Russia in the company of Nietzsche's friend Lou Andreas-Salomé were profoundly moving, and from them he developed a sense of the brotherhood between men and inanimate objects. In April 1901 Rilke married the artist Clara Westhoff, but could not support the family, and left after 18 months to pursue a life free of commitments. In Paris he acted as unpaid secretary to Rodin, and was brought to see that an artist cannot rely on inspiration but must work continually to realize his skills and his sensations before nature. The influence of Russia appeared in the collection the Book of Hours (1905), and of Rodin in New Poems (1907-8).  The short novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) was something of a retreat — it records a sensitive poet recoiling from (and developing inner resources to meet) the loneliness and poverty of Paris life — and the next years were passed in travel to Spain and North Africa, and in translating French, Italian and English poetry into German. In staying at the Schloss Duino in 1912, however, Rilke was overwhelmed by a flood of inspiration, composing the first of what would be published as the Duino Elegies in 1923. With their eventual completion came a sonnet cycle, Sonnets to Orpheus, and then occasional poems in simpler forms until Rilke's death from leukemia in 1926.

By his early thirties, Rilke had acquired a virtuosity to turn anything to poetry, and no translations adequately express the beauty of work in The Book of Hours or New Poems. But it was the Duino Elegies that opened up new realms for European poetry. The Symbolist movement gave Rilke a language for the as-yet unsayable, and his verse mastery shaped it to a persuasive view. Nonetheless, Rilke's thought is not orthodox, and its pantheism, mysticism and seeking after God may only appeal to those who experience Rilke's own marginal sense of existence. Lines like wenn der Wind voller Weltraum / uns am Angesicht zehrt (when the wind-fuller space erodes our faces) may be wonderfully apt to those oppressed by the insubstantiality and brevity of human existence, but enigmatic to most. Likewise the rarefied music of the late verse: it adumbrates what sometimes seems close to abstruse nonsense.

Critics often admire the poetry while rejecting the thought, raising the problem of truth in poetry. Rilke very much believed in what he wrote, and his poetry was a way of divining what he did indeed think and feel. His technical mastery was such that he did not betray beliefs for the felicitous phrase, but could oblige the German language to say beautifully what it had not said before. "The essential function of art is to think and feel existence to that conclusion which convinces us of its perfection — to affirm, bless and deify existence." The words are Nietzsche's, but express the aims of much of Rilke's poetry.

It is an odd objective. Nietzsche hated the restrictions of bourgeois German society, and imagined a Greek aristocracy in the sunburnt splendour of its powers. Yet there is something suspect about this view, just as there is in Lorca's gypsies or Neruda's communism. Greece is the foundation of European civilization, but many aspects would be repellent today: slavery, phallic cults, treatment of women, great savagery in war. The German Professor of Philology, sedentary and riddled with syphilis, would not have been at home in Periclean Athens, let alone pre-Socratic Greece. Rilke is an even less heroic figure, and was concerned with refining emotions that would have speedily undone the common purpose of Greek city life. Yet the spiritual sickness of the age, which so many nineteenth century artists complained of, and attempted to overcome through their work, was what Modernism would explore and take develop from.

The Duino Elegies

Below is the First of the Duino Elegies, the opening 26 lines of this famous 94-line section.

Die Erste Elegie

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich den aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, Es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne is nichts
als Des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern Es so, weil Es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel is schreklich.

Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf
dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen?  Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken Es schon,
dass wir nicht sehr verlässlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgendein Baum an dem Abhang, dass wir ihn täglich
wiedersahen; Es bliebt uns die Strasse von gestern
und DAs verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der Es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt -, wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,
sanft enttäusschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen
mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden leuchter?
Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.

Weisst du's noch nicht? Wirf aus den Armen die Leere
zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atman; vielleicht dass die Vödie
die erweiterte Luft fühlen MIT innigerm Flug…

The First Elegy

Who, if I cried, could hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them impulsively
took me to his heart, I should perish
in his stronger existence. For the beautiful is nothing
but the feared beginning of what we at length endure
and that which we admire is its calm disdain
to destroy us. Each and every angel is fearful,

And so I repress myself, and swallow the call-note
of the dark sobbing. Ah, who is there that we are able
to make use of? Not angels, not men,
and even the sensing animals know
that we are not securely at home
in our interpreted world. There remains to us perhaps
some tree or other on the hillside to be daily
met with again; there is yesterday's street
and the spoilt devotion of a habit
that liked us and stayed and never gave notice.

Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind-fuller space
erodes our faces — for whom would she not remain, the yearned for,
the gently disappointing one, whom the single heart
arduously is approaching? Is she the truth for lovers?
Alas, they only obscure in each other their destiny.

Don't you know that yet? Fling out of your arms the emptiness;
add it to the spaces we breathe; maybe the birds
will feel the enlarged air with more ardent flight.

(trans. C. John Holcombe)

Symbolism in Literature: America

Even the New York Times seemed nonplussed. Wallace Stevens, Noted Poet, Dead, the obituary began. Yes, noted by connoisseurs of Modernist poetry, but never a well-known figure, nor one assiduous of reputation. The thoughts and imagery were foreign, French very probably, and the tone was detached and often cerebral. For all their gaudy celebration of the senses, the poems fought shy of actually saying anything, just as Wallace Stevens himself was cautious of bohemian impropriety. He was a respected officer of a large insurance company who happened to write poetry — very accomplished poetry, but poetry devoid of passion, biography or social comment. Even now, after the excesses of speculative literary theory, to which poetry so empty of obvious content proved irresistible, the question remains: what does the poetry signify?

Wallace Stevens was born in 1879 in comfortable circumstances, became president of the Harvard literary magazine, tried his hand at journalism for nine months in New York, but then opted for the safety of a dull aspect of the legal profession. He married his long-suffering sweetheart in 1909, delayed having a child for fifteen years, and finally left New York in 1919 with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he reached the position of vice-president in 1934. But for odd trips to collect the honours that accumulated in the last years, Stevens stayed in Hartford for the remainder of his life as a safe company man.

Stevens was in his late twenties when he started writing modernist poetry, and forty-four when his first book, Harmonium (1923), was published. Thereafter, the volumes appeared with increasing if not pressing frequency: A Primitive Like an Orb (1948), Transport to Summer (1949), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), The Collected Poems (1950) and Opus Posthumous (1957). The subjects developed variously, but the themes did not fundamentally change. Harmonium is the most original collection, and contains many of his most anthologized poems — The Emperor of Ice Cream, Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier, Anecdote of the Jar, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Sunday Morning was an impressively sustained hedonistic reverie, but the others — were they anything but elaborate entertainments in poetic skill? The New York Times critic couldn't believe so: "From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not one word that can arouse emotions. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead." That was overstating matters, but the criticism was just, from a certain point of view.

But Stevens was not writing in the old tradition. As the critic had shrewdly realized, Stevens was creating something exotic: a poesie pure, a Symbolist poetry without the usual symbols, a poetry indeed where rhythms, vowels and consonants substituted for musical notes. And that, for the good Percy Hutchinson, was simply not enough. "Poetry," he wrote "is founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion."

But Stevens' ideas did affect the mind, at least his own mind, and he went on developing his themes at great length. True, some of the more enigmatic lines: The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one's desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair. would have exasperated the moral philosopher. (How are desire and despair being used in this instance, and what is the situation they are describing?) Stevens provides information on neither, which raises spectres of intellectual frivolity, of playing fast and loose with concepts. Poetry is not philosophy, but are his poems — except perhaps Sunday Morning — in any way what even Postmodernists call an experience? Perhaps Stevens did see things more intensely than most. Perhaps his reality was crucially that of the imagination. Perhaps the Symbolism he espoused was too rarefied an import for isolationist America, and one that needed café society to thrive. Whatever. Stevens made few converts and founded no movements.

Recognition came belatedly. To the narrower strains of New Criticism, however, his work was living proof that poetry is composed of words used in new and subtle relationships. Postmodernists in their turn found his work a paradigm of true poetry, of artwork entirely sealed from reference to the outside world. Academia found him useful teaching material: students most certainly had to work hard at his poetry: the content was rarefied, the diction unexpected, and the allusions obscure indeed.

The general public was less enthusiastic. Some poems were as fresh and playful as Edith Sitwell's.

Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

(Bantans in Pine Woods)

Others could be tiresomely clever:

The prince of proverbs of pure poetry,
(Esthètique du Mal)

And much was simply baffling. What, exactly, did this mean:

Call him the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds

(The Emperor of Ice-Cream)


We make, although inside an egg
Variations on the words spread sail.

(Things of August)

Was Stevens truly a Symbolist? Certainly he wrote in an allusive, enigmatic, and musical style. He developed the art of suggestion, and employed rare words, private associations and syntactical intricacies. But Symbolism attempted to extend the evocative power of words to express feeling, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. Scattered jottings suggest that Stevens did indeed identify with these aims, and he certainly read Bergson, Santayana and contemporary art magazines. His later work in fact attempts a more public role, which is rather what Symbolism was designed not to do. Of the great mass of people he wrote The men have no shadows / And the women have only one side. The note is elegiac, but perhaps a little patronising in:

...that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate with life
That is sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze

Below is a stanza of Wallace Stevens's celebrated Sunday Morning. The poem has a Keatsian-like dwelling on sensation — though not the sustained hush of a too-obvious craftsmanship — but is interesting for another reason. Keats was certainly aware that brevity gives relish to life, but he would not have said Death is the mother of beauty. Keats was a Romantic, a child of his time, and those times embraced political change. He was not the sickly idealist sometimes envisaged, but a practical man brought up against the realities of life by his medical training. Dreams and imagination may have been the raw materials of art, but Keats gives them the warmth and individuality that Stevens does not usually attempt. Perhaps only this beautiful poem — of which copyright restrictions allow us to quote only a stanza — shows what Stevens might have written if he not been a Modernist and a cautious man.

Stanza V of Sunday Morning

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our path,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willows shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Though still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who can thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit, what struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah happy, happy boughs that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu,
Ah, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! More happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little river by town or sea-shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou are desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape, Fair attitude!
With brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought;
With forest branches and trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou halt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Sunday Morning concerns itself with the impermanence of sensuous happiness, and somewhat contrasts the Christian with Greek views of life. The first sees our life on the earth as a preparation for the next. The second regards present existence as the all important, and one that should be lived to the full. What is meant by Death is the mother of beauty? Sensuous matter has beauty because it or we have no extended existence: we prize it more because it is so fleeting? That beauty is conferred on objects by considerations that lie beyond the veil of Death, i.e. Platonic Ideas? Both can be read into the poem, but may only make sense when we realize that Sunday Morning is modelled on George Santayana's philosophy, {23} notably his Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) {24} Even the stanzas broadly follow the chapters in Santayana's book: stanza I relates to chapter 1, II to 2, III to 3, IV to 4, V to 5, VI to 6, VII to 7 and 8, and VIII to chapters 9 and 10. In our stanza V, the speaker is looking beyond the permanent but cold Platonic Idea to reunion after death — or possibly so, as the stanza returns to the attractions of the present.

I have only touched on Sidney Fleshback's article, which draws together themes of death in other poems by Stevens, notes the attitudes of Whitman, Browning, and Emerson in the poem, and discusses the conflicting images and their possibly satiric intent. But one point is worth stressing. Wallace Stevens wrote his most beautiful, if to my mind only partly successful, poem when he stopped chasing his own evanescent musings and reworked the established themes of European civilization. Sidney Fleshback calls Stevens' handling of the themes idiosyncratic, but a blunter term might be muddled. While we stay on the surface of the poem we can admire its treatment of the numinous quality of sensuous life, its underlying mysteries and unfathomable nature. Look deeper, and we begin to wonder whether the poet was not simply toying with concepts and intellectual possibilities: excellent material for academic studies but baffling to the common reader. Symbols — the hermetic with Mallarmé, jewelled with Darío, portentous with Rilke and obscure in much of Stevens's work — do not succeed unless they call on the great commonplaces of life. Poetry may or may not create ideas, but it must give them contemporary identity, a local habitation and a name.

  A much fuller account of Wallace Stevens' work and influence can be found on Ocaso Press.


Bibliography and Internet Resources

1. Symbolism. Jul. 2004. Extended Wikipedia entry listing aims and key figures.
2. Symbolism. 2004. Brief encyclopedia entry with good listing of representatives and figures influenced. NNA
3. The Symbolist Movement — An Introduction. Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Jeffery Howe. Spring 2001.
. Part of course on Symbolism and Art Nouveau.
4. Symbolism. Jan Geerinck. Somewhat populist/psychiatric view.
5. A Brief Guide to the Symbolists. Brief introduction. Link to Poetry Portal is now to this page.
6. British Theory and Criticism: Symbolism. Murray McArthur. 1997.
. Brief article with short bibliography: mentions Symons, Yeats and Stevens.
7. Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement by Simon Morrison. 2002. NNA. Extended book description.
8. Robert Goldwater, Symbolism (Westview Press, 1998). Q
9. A. G. Lehmann, The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1950). Q
10. Symbolists and Symbolism by Robert L. Delevoy. Skira. 1978.
11. David Michael Hertz, Angels of Reality: Emersonian Unfoldings in Wright, Stevens, and Ives (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993). Q
12. On Symbolism. José Ángel García Landa. 2004. 19th-c.crit/Symbolism/z.On.Symbolism.doc NNA. Select bibliography.
13. Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. 2004. With original poems, translations by various hands, listings and bibliography.
14. Susan Blood, Baudelaire and the Aesthetics of Bad Faith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1997). Q
15. Paul Verlaine. Brief introduction and good selection of work (in French).
16. Squaring the circle: Stéphane Mallarmé. John Simon Stephan. Jan. 1995. NNA. The New Criterion article on his life, work and difficulty to translators.
17. Lawrence, and Elisabeth Hanson, Verlaine: Fool of God (New York: Random House, 1957). Q
18. Rubén Darío. C. J. Holcombe. 2002. NNA. Introduction and extensive listings.
19. Rainer Maria Rilke. C. J. Holcombe. 2003. NNA. Introduction and extensive listings.
20. Federico García Lorca. Robert Pring-Mill. 1983. Brief summary of life and work, and five good translations.
21. Wallace Stevens. Alan Filreis. Excellent listings by a Stevens scholar: a more appreciative view.
22. Douglas Mao, The Genius of the Sea: Coleridge's Ancient Mariner at Stevens's Key West, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36, no. 1 (1994). Q
23. Sidney Feshback, A Pretext for Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 23, 1999. Q Detailed argument, with references.
24. George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, eds. W. Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr.; introduction, Joel Porte ( 1900 ; MIT Press, 1989)
25. George Santayana. Herman Saatkamp. Feb. 2002. A sympathetic entry, with good references, though little online.


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