that Symbolist quality

If someone today wrote a rhyming poem about oblique moods of ecstatic melancholy, that someone would be looked at askance. Yet somehow, those wonders written by the Symbolists are as poetically fresh and profound as the day they were written. Those poems of subtle aesthetic irony retain their quality. That power of poetic imagining, which transmuted the mundane into extraordinary substances and which opened regions of symbolic eternity, still casts a spell on the sensitive reader.

What a riddle!

How is it that those old poems have such a deathless quality? How is it that we read those poems today and don’t look at them askance, like we do at Victorian poems of rhyme and excess? And if we don’t look at them askance, why do we reject their form of poetic consciousness as a mode of making our own poems? Because the times are so different? Time has nothing to do with poetry, other than for its distillation into allures and echoes of old memory. Why is most poetry today not going to last?

I have a hypothesis: the Symbolists took poetry far more seriously than did Victorian poets and most poets today. Symbolist poets were serious enough about poetry to indulge in metaphysical imagining. Their poems thrive and survive as tangent worlds. Those lush langoreuses of the Symbolists are depth poems, art poems. Why write poems that don’t vibrate with aesthetic seriousness?

Today’s poets should drink some Rimbaud-brand red wine. There’s just no reason in the world for a poem to be too sober, too much dull report, too lacking in trances that create quality. No, we can’t today write rhyming poems of lush langoreuses. But we can adopt the example of writing with dark depth and strange wonder.

When I read the Verlaine poem below, I feel like my skull is floating through mist toward someone with a heightened artistic attitude.




Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life’s largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming–
Slender jet-fountains–sob their ecstasies.


~ Paul Verlaine


1844 – 1896








Posted by Tim Buck



One thought on “that Symbolist quality

  1. Please forgive this lengthy comment. The song, Claire de Lune is sung so beautifully by Gens, I decided, (between gasps), to post the original French for my own benefit:

    Claire de Lune

    Votre âme est un paysage choisi
    Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
    Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
    Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

    Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
    L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
    Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
    Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

    Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
    Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
    Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
    Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres

    “Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?” — Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    I wonder–how an artist who makes use of symbols, who dons a Bergomask as a Pierrot or Pierrette while on stage within his/her own commedia, might communicate, through this guise, on a level not accessible to those who ignore them. Why is this? Is it because we humans are wired, as Jung suggests, to descend and ascend, via the languages and modes of symbol and archetype, while we enter and pass through this fleeting existence?

    Or shall we merely let a velvet curtain fall, and let Rimbaud have the last word:

    “Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.” –Arthur Rimbaud


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