All symbolist doctrines seem to rest either upon some kind of idealism or else to deny the dualism of ideality and materialism altogether by considering these opposed concepts to be abstractions out of a prior and deeper reality in which they lie undifferentiated. The main line of succession of the French symbolist movement, it is generally agreed, runs from Baudelaire to Mallarme and thence to Paul Valery.

The symbolist movement may be described as the effort to bring poetry to the condition of music. The theory of the suggestiveness of words comes from a belief that a primitive language, half-forgotten, half-living, exists in each man. Let is language possessing extraordinary affinities with music and dreams.

Words for Mallarme were then much more than signs. Used evocatively and ritualistically, they are the means by which we are inducted into an ideal world. “Poetry is”, as Mallarme defined it in 1886, “the expression by means of human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious sense of the aspects of existence: it endows our sojourn with authenticity and constitutes the sole spiritual task.”

Such also were the interests of the English-speaking poets and critics who were most powerfully influence by the French symbolists, men like T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot and even men like William Butler Yeats, whose attempt to construct a personal myth in A Vision (1925) might seem to argue a different concern.


Any attempt to summarize symbolist doctrine exposes the vagueness of the pronouncements of the various symbolists and critics, not to mention their frequent contradictions. One might be forgiven for coming to doubt whether the term “symbolism” has any specific meaning at all, and to conclude that it is, like the term “romanticism”, simply the name for a bundle of tendencies, not all of them very closely related.