Symbolist Manifesto – Jean Moréas

As with all arts, literature evolves: a cyclical evolution with strictly determined returns and which become more complicated of various modifications brought by the step of time and the confusion of circles. It would be superfluous to point out that every new progressive stage of art corresponds exactly to senile degeneration, at the ineluctable end of the immediately previous school. Two examples will be enough: Ronsard triumphs over the impotence of the last impressionists of Marot, Romanticism unfurls its royal flag on the classical debris badly kept by Casimir Delavigne and Steven de Jouy. It is because any demonstration of art succeeds inevitably in becoming impoverished, in exhausting itself; then, of copy in copy, simulation in simulation, what was full of sap and freshness becomes dried out and shriveled; what was the new and the unprompted becomes banal and commonplace.


So Romanticism, having sounded all the tumultuous warning bells of uprising, had its days of glory and battle, lost of its force and its favour, abdicated its heroic boldness, became ordered and classified, sceptical and full of common sense; in the honorable and mean-minded attempts of the Parnassians, Romanticism hoped for a false resurgence, only finally, such a monarch had to fall into senile decay, and in the end was only able to be dethroned for the naturalism in which one could grant seriously a value of protest only, legitimate but poorly advised, against the insipidity of some novelists then in fashion.

One waited for a new manifestation of art therefore, necessary, unavoidable. This manifestation, brooded for a long time, has just hatched. And every insignificant practical joke of the cheery-eyed press, all the anxieties of the serious critics, every bad mood of the surprised public in its sheepish carelessness, are only bringing about this actual evolution in french letters more and more every day, this evolution which impatient judges have noted to be, by an incredible antinomy, decadent. However, decadent literature is principally tough, stringy, timorous and servile: all the tragedies of Voltaire, for instance, are marked with these signs of decadence. And for what of these reproaches can be claimed as regards the new school? The abuse of pomp, strangeness of metaphor, a new vocabulary or harmony go together with colours and lines: characteristics of any revival.

We have already offered the name of symbolism as the only one able of indicating reasonably the actual tendencies of the creative mind in art. This name can be supported.

It was said at the beginning of this article that the developments of art offer cyclical extremely complicated differences: for example, to track the exact parentage of the new school we should go back to certain poems of Alfred de Vigny , and on up to Shakespeare, even mystical, even further. These issues would require a volume of reviews, saying that Charles Baudelaire therefore must be considered the true forerunner of the current movement, Mr. Stéphane Mallarmé subdivides the sense of mystery and the ineffable Mr. Paul Verlaine broke his honor in the cruel hindrances to poetry that the prestigious fingers of Mr Theodore de Banville had softened up before him. But the Supreme enchantment is not yet consummated: a persistent and jealous labor invites newcomers.


Enemy of education, declamation, wrong feelings, objective description, symbolist poetry tries to dress the Idea in a sensitive form which, however, would not be its sole purpose, but furthermore that, while serving to express the Idea in itself, would remain subjective. The Idea, in its turn, should not be allowed to be seen deprived of the sumptuous lounge robes of exteranous analogies; because the essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself. So, in this art, the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas.

The accusation of obscurity that has been made as regards such aesthetics by readers with broken staffs is not surprising. But what do we make of this? The Pythian Odes of Pindar, Hamlet of Shakespeare, the Vita Nuova of Dante, the Second Faust of Goethe, the Temptation of Saint-Antoine of Flaubert were not they also taxed by ambiguity?

For the precise translation of its synthesis, it is necessary for symbolism to take on an archetypal and complex style; of unpolluted terms, periods which brace themselves alternating with periods of undulating lapses, significant pleonasms, mysterious ellipses, outstanding anacoluthia, any audacious and multiform surplus; finally the good language – instituted and updated–, good and luxuriant and energetic french language from before Vaugelas and Boileau-Despréaux, the language of François Rabelais and Philippe de Commines, Villon, Ruteboeuf and so many other free writers hurling their acute language in the same manner as the Toxotes of Thrace hurled their snaky arrows.

Rhythm: the ancient metric enlivened; a chaos learnedly ordered; the rhyme illucescente and beaten as a buckler of gold and bronze, to rhymes of unintelligible fluidity; the alexandrine with numerous and mobile stopping; the job of first certain numbers – seven, nine, eleven, thirteen – bold in the various rhythmic combinations of which they are the price.


Jean Moréas (1886)- translated by C. Liszt

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