What is Symbolism: Definition & Explanation

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      Symbol is anything that stands for something else. Language, which is made up of words, is a system of symbols. They signify things and ideas. Words themselves are not things or objects. They are sound symbols standing for objects and ideas. They are arbitrary symbols at that. There is no reason why ‘mountain’ should have been called ‘mountain’ and ‘river’ ‘river’, in the English language that particular sound cluster came to stand for that particular object, that is all. The object is the referent and the sound-cluster, the symbol. If the relationship of word and meaning (Symbol and referent) were not arbitrary to begin with, and if the relationship were a logical one, then the name for the referent should have been one and the same in all the languages. But, whereas the English came to name it as ‘mountain’, other languages had their own different names to symbolize it: eg., parbat.

      We are all familiar with election symbols, which come and go or change form and persist from election to election. Then there are traffic symbols. Red signal means ‘stop’; Green signal means ‘you can proceed’. There are other symbols - these are picture symbols - alerting the motorist about a bend in the road or a railway track and level-crossing ahead. An arrow points in the direction of a specified building-hospital, school or motel named on the sign-board.

      Certain objects have, in the popular mind, been associated with certain obvious qualities or attributes: for example, a dove signifies ‘peace’. The colour ‘white’ stands for purity, and ‘black’ for evil. Black dress, among the Western society, has a suggestion of mourning, whereas a black edge to a letter suggests sad tidings,. Certain symbols have culture­specific associations, like the ‘cow’ (it is ‘holy cow’ to the Indian psyche).

      Coming to the use of symbols in poetry, we may instance the most obvious example, viz. Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, where the knight-at-arms, haggard and woe-begone, is palely loitering. ‘I see a lily on thy brow,’ says the poet to the love-lorn knight, ‘And on thy cheeks a fading rose’. The flowers are obviously used as symbols of the knight’s passionate yearning for the fairy lady who had ensnared him, and his blanched condition.

      However, there are images which take a symbolic richness and significance from their roots in history of mythological association or the contexts in which they have been used again and again so that they acquire a significance. So symbols may therefore be classified as public symbols and private symbols. There is a more or less shared universal response to, and understanding about, public symbols, whereas private symbols have a relevance and emotional significance to the individual poet alone, who reverts to it in poem after poem. Yeats uses Helen as a symbol to stand for the paragon of beauty that he loved, viz. Maud Gonne. Identifying Maud with that most beautiful woman of antiquity (whose face had launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium, (to quote Marlowe), Yeats wrote an audaciously imaginative sonnet, ‘Leda and the swan’, celebrating the semi-divine birth of Helen, when Zeus-the god of gods-ravished Leda in the form of a swan. In another poem, he regretted that there was no second Troy to burn for this Helen. Indeed, Yeats sings her praise in many a mused rhyme - now she is ‘the Secret Rose’, now again the ‘Rose upon the Rood: of Time’, yet again a ‘phoenix’. Ilium: Troy

      Yeats used again some private symbols - like the Tower, Byzantine, the island of Innisfree. When an image recurs again and again in a poet’s writings, and works like a fixation, it comes to acquire a richness of connotation and significance of its own. Naturally, the readers too come to see it as such.

      Robert Frost was one poet who did not have to labor hard at investing his images with symbolic overtones - it came naturally to him. He quite casually suggests these and leaves them to be gathered by the readers as he does, for example, in his poem ‘After Apple - picking’:

My long twin-pointed ladder is sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still
And here’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Besides it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

      The apple tree here is at one level a real tree, at another, it is symbolic. What does the poet suggest after all? That his life’s endeavor had been to gather spiritual goods too, as much as gathering worldly ones? Can one always say that all of one’s dreams and aspirations found fulfilment, and none of them went ‘unpicked’, for want of opportunity? Life is a matter of something done, and something left undone - isn’t it? How simply, effortlessly, yet with what art, does the poet suggest the unstrenuous way the poet took through the orchard of life and has no regrets for the untapped opportunities, or possibly, dreams gone sour!

      Frost's ‘The Road Not Taken’ has to do with not just the forking of a road or the parting of ways. At the symbolic level, it speaks of the options of career, choice of mate etc., etc., that he open before us at one time, but once we choose a certain course, all other options are shut out, and we never know what we lost or gained thereby. The mystery and speculative fascination of the road not taken remain forever.

      Understood in this sense, symbolism (the use of an object to evoke its associations in the public mind or in the mind of the poet so as to convey, in short-hand, an emotional complex which it is not possible to express through ordinary language) does not seem, at first glance, to have more than a nominal connection with what is known as the Symbolist Movement or the Symbolist School in French poetry. The French movement had more to do with the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ school in England than is generally supposed.

      The poetry written in Europe after 1890 marked a change, compared with that written before that date. The exponents of this movement, known as Symbolism, were Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarme. Despite their differences, these poets had a common view of life and art.

      Seen in retrospect, says CM Bowra (The Heritage of symbolism), the Symbolist Movement of the 19th century in France was fundamentally mystical. It was against the stark, clinical realism of novelists like Zola that the Symbolists recoiled. Their protest was mystical in that it was made on behalf of an ideal world which, according to them, was more real than that of the senses. It was a religion of Ideal Beauty.

      Symbolism, then, pronounces Bowra, was a mystical form of Aestheticism. Its counterpart in England was the Aesthetic movement whose apostles were Rosetti, Pater and Wilde. They too were in a sense religious in that they were of the persuasion that the principle of the Beautiful unified life and gave meaning to it.

      Bowra explains that Mallarme and his followers were rightly called Symbolists, because they attempted to convey a supernatural experience in the language of visible things, and therefore almost every word is a symbol and is used not for its common purpose but for the associations which it evokes of a reality beyond the senses. The essence of Symbolism is its insistence on a world of ideal beauty, and its conviction that this is realized through art.

      Besides, the Symbolists had a special regard for the musical element in poetry. Wagner’s music they found to be a great revelation.

      It was something which they themselves wished to convey through their own poetry. When Pater said, “ All art constantly aspires to the condition of music” he was echoing what Mallarme often said. Mallarme’s theory, put briefly, is that poetry should not inform but suggest and evoke, not name things but create their atmosphere. To add mystery to poetry by suggestion was the ideal he put before himself. The unheard music, the silent word, were his symbols for the ecstasy and delight which meant much to him. He sought to symbolize his vision of absolute beauty in many forms -the azure sky, the dawn, glaciers and so on.

      Charles Chadwick, in his book Symbolism: outlining the theory of Symbolism, states that the word has an extremely wide meaning and that its meaning needs to be narrowed down if, as a critical term, it is to have any significance.

      One way is to agree that it is not the mere substitution of one object for another, but that it is the use of concrete imagery to express abstract ideas and emotions. But this still leaves a wide leeway, comments Chadwick.

      He quotes Mallarme, who defined symbolism as the art of evoking an object, little by little, so as to reveal a mood. (Elsewhere he makes it clear that the mood should only be hinted at and not revealed openly and clearly.) He came very near to what Eliot meant when he said that the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art was by finding not a symbol but an ‘objective correlative’.

      One illustration from a Baudelaire poem (The Harmony of Evening’): He speaks of each flower being scented like an incense bowl, a violin being like a broken heart etc., before he comes to end the poem with these lines.

The sun has sunk in its own congealing blood;
My memory of you gleams like a sacred shrine.

      The final line, remarks Chadwick, provides the clue indicating that these repeated images are objective correlatives of something beautiful that has passed away.

      In yet another poem, ‘The Swan’, while walking through the dense forest of memories, the poet remembers the thin consumptive negress, trudging through the mud, looking for the long-lost palm trees of proud Africa. The poet then is reminded of all those who have lost something forever and forever

And are suckled by sorrow as their foster mother.
I think of sailors lost on desert islands,
Of captives, of prisoners and of many more.

      The plus points of the symbolists were: their avoidance of life among the crowds and in the streets, which ensured a gain on the aesthetic side: an exquisite sensibility. Then there was their fascination for music which they sought to restore to poetry.

      But behind the golden facade there lurked defects, too. ‘‘Live?” asks Axel of Villiers’ novel. Axel, and answers, ‘‘ Our servants will do that for us.” Hence, cut oil” as they were from the public, their voice became the voice of a coterie. As for neglecting their own times, the symbolists defended themselves by saying they looked to posterity.

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