French Symbolism:

French Symbolism (approx. 1840-1920) was a literary movement in the 19th century, which eventually made its way into art and theater. French Symbolism is what bridged the gap between Romanticism and Modernism.  Basically, the goal was to represent each emotional experience with a complex symbol(s: The “symbols” for which they are named are emblems of the actual world – as opposed to the purely emotional world which dominates their work – that accumulate supernatural significance in the absence of a clear narrative or location (AAP).


Symbolists focused on specific moments of experience and perception; searching for their significance and a way to organize them (i.e. juxtaposition/collage). What’s important to consider is that to these poets, a symbol was not a specific object or idea with a concrete meaning. Instead, it was the “interconnectedness of an image with a whole range of things or even the more cosmic interconnectedness of everything else” (Anthology). Instead of clarifying, Symbolists create more overtones. They used tone to try and approach an indescribable condition. There is a correspondence between art and the senses, reached through synesthesia.


Other notable symbolists include Stephane Mellarme, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Tristan Corbiere, Jules Laforgue, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Paul Valery.


Charles Baudelaire:

Baudelaire, (1821-1867), was a French poet most known for his involvement with French Symbolism. In addition to his poetic works, Baudelaire was also an essayist, art critic, and translator. Most important to our studies in this class is Baudelaire’s influence on modernity in literature. He is sometimes credited with coining modernity.


Baudelaire’s early life was fraught with the potential for developing problematic neuroses. Most of what we now know of Baudelaire’s life comes from his correspondences with his mother. Their relationship later become rockier as Baudelaire’s debts increased. Baudelaire’s life was filled with financial instability, alienation, and highly complex emotions, which sparked most of his poetry. His earlier career is defined mostly by his non-poetic work, written when he was attempting to fit himself into a certain lifestyle that he wanted. His love life was equally complex, which changed how he wrote about women. He shifted out of a sensualist description into a more multidimensional one.


“By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable… This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the time the first woman before the fall of man” (Baudelaire- “ The Painter of Modern Life).


Baudelaire’s poems were well rounded in the Symbolist sense. Baudelaire includes the tones, and retains a commitment to the primacy of the aesthetic experience. However, he is even more invested in the harsh, revolting realities of the human experience, which is clearly evidenced just by his poems’ titles. These poets were investigating not the high and low parts of life, rather taking on the conflict in between the two and how that dualism affects art. This took a moral turn for Baudelaire, who very strongly believed in the reality of sin.


Shock Experience:

The shock experience comes from Freud and literary psychoanalysis. Freud ascertained that memory was not actually in the conscious, rather in other systems of the body. The conscious is instead a shield against stimuli. This shield is self-powered, and its energy is threatened by shocks. A person could train to receive these shocks regularly without traumatic effect, and eventually receiving a shock could be narrowed into an isolated experience. If remembered, it can become a poetic experience.


Baudelaire places a great deal of emphasis on the shock experience in his work. To achieve an isolated experience, the consciousness is long trained in receiving shock. It would only grow if it was reflected upon, causing a small shock which is usually unpleasant. Baudelaire incorporates this process into his perception of the experience of the artist. Shock was vital to his personality, and is reflected in his work.


Fear, Revulsion, and Horror:

These feelings were a common response for someone encountering the crowd of a big city for the first time. These areas are savage and isolating. There is an overwhelming amount of external stimuli and the potential for shock. Traffic represents a giant flow of energy, which Baudelaire has specifically referenced. This kind of revulsion of the big city overflows into other kinds of horror in his poems, which can be very graphic or gory.



There is a very defined presence of Satan in Baudelaire’s poetry. This arose out of his moral struggles and a pronounced awareness of the reality of sin. Baudelaire is trapped within his perceptions and cries out for help. His perception of women were that they were demonic or of a more somber, angelic nature. Baudelaire is struggling to define evil for himself, leading to this increased interaction with it and Satan.



Correspondence is a vital motif in a great deal of Baudelaire’s work. Baudelaire was somewhat disassociated from time, and therefore only significant events really stood out to him (isolated experiences). Correspondence, especially in this period, was greatly ritualized, and Baudelaire used them as a method to examine the breakdown of the modern man.


 The correspondence is a crisis free experience if within a ritual, allowing it the potential to be beautiful. A correspondence is a data of recollection and prehistory. Baudelaire, with his correspondences, influenced later Symbolists who would use simultaneous correspondences. Correspondence is not referring to simply letter writing, it is any kind of exchange.


French Symbolism & Conrad:

In Heart of Darkness, there is a combination of the symbolists and impressionism. He uses some polyvalent symbols, but he also writes with a haziness that is more impressionistic.  The use of the darkness symbolism is part of what makes Heart of Darkness more symbolist. The darkness is polyvalent, meaning pre-colonization Africa and negativity, and its opposite representing the purity of the Europeans. According to Ian Watts, Conrad uses delayed decoding, revealing things piece by piece without explaining or naming anything.


The kernel metaphor (Marlow isn’t a typical seaman, and the whole life and meaning of a typical one can be within a cracked nut) is symbolist. The meaning of the story, with the haze around the glow, is larger than the narrative, or the shell. However, the actual haziness is again more impressionistic (Lewis).




Debussy’s Musical Adaptations “Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire”


“The Painter of Modern Life”


Website Dedicated to Baudelaire’s Collection Fleurs du Mal