symbolist movement

The Symbolist Movement in Literature

Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, first published in 1899, and with additional material in 1919, is largely credited with bringing French Symbolism to the attention of Anglo-American literary circles. Its first two editions were vital influences on W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot--a note that, for nothing else, would assure its historical place with the most important early Modernist criticism. Richard Ellmann has contributed an Introduction to most modern editions.


Symons's book is a collection of short essays on various authors. A list of contents is useful, among other reasons, for determining the time and trace of its influence. Eliot, for instance, would not have read about Baudelaire in his 1908 edition. Essays on English authors were added for Symons's 1924 Collected Works

1899 and 1908

  1. Gérard de Nerval
  2. Villiers de L'Isle-Adam
  3. Arthur Rimbaud
  4. Paul Verlaine
  5. Jules Laforgue
  6. Stéphane Mallarmé
  7. The Later Huysmans
  8. Maeterlinck as a Mystic

Additions in 1919

  1. Balzac
  2. Prosper Mérimée
  3. Théophile Gautier
  4. Gustave Flaubert
  5. Charles Baudelaire
  6. Edmund and Jules de Goncourt
  7. Léon Cladel
  8. A Note on Zola's Method


Arthur Symons was a close friend of Yeats, and the mutual influence was probably just as much one of conversation as of letters. Its dedicatory note (to Yeats) opens:

May I dedicate to you this book on the Symbolist movement in literature, both as an expression of a deep personal friendship and because you, more than any one else, will sympathise with what I say in it, being yourself the chief representative of that movement in our country? France is the country of movements, and it is naturally in France that I have studied the development of a principle which is spreading throughout other countries, perhaps not less effectually, if with less definite outlines....

T. S. Eliot, whose relationship with the book was significantly less dialectical--he discovered its second edition in bookshop while at Harvard, though he did eventually write to Symons--was perhaps even more influenced by it:

I owe Mr. Symons a great debt. But for having read his book I should not, in the year 1908, have heard of Laforgue and Rimbaud; I should probably not have begun to read Verlaine; but for reading Verlaine, I should not have heard of Corbière . So the Symons book is one of those which have affected the course of my life.

Its importance for other contemporary writers was also, of course, profound. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce's most preeminent biographer, argues that Symons was a major influence for Joyce's decision to emigrate to Paris. In a later generation Symons' book was responsible, for example, for alerting the young British poet David Gascoyne (1916-2001) to the appeal of French poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, some of whom he was memorably to translate.


(Unless otherwise noted, all quotations taken from the 1958 ed.)

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