is symbolism? Does the philosophy of the mystics become
symbolistic when it attempts to find expression in art?
"Symbolism" is a very common phrase among
us today. But doubtless it is no new thing. We should
all be very glad to know exactly what it is. At least
I should, for my part.
or three years ago I clipped this advertisement from
the London Athenĉum:
young Danish author will give lessons about Symbols
(in English). It will not only admit to understand the
creatures, but to understand the great authors better
who only speak through symbols. Ten shillings per hour."
or not this gentleman's lectures have ever been given
to the world in a book I do not know. If they have it
must be a wonderful production. But still, I do not
feel that it would afford us much help in an inquiry
into the nature of symbolism. I fear we shall have to
go about that business for ourselves as best we can.
if we first consider some of the qualities of poetry
and its characteristics, as distinguished from prose,
we may be able to infer the characteristics of symbolism
as distinguished from average poetry. For symbolism
in literature is, perhaps, only a higher sort of poetry;
just as poetry is a higher sort of prose.
in poetry, we may as well admit, not every line is poetry.
Some of it is very matter-of-fact prose. Shakspeare,
in his plays, constantly makes use of prose when his
subject demands it for any reason. He may use prose
because the story has run into a comic vein, or because
it has become realistic, or because he wishes to make
it seem familiar. And again, as his subject demands
it, he returns to the greater dignity, significance
and power of verse; he returns to poetry.
sometimes he compromises between prose and poetry, and
uses verse without making it poetic: he is content to
make it a plain statement of fact. This is done by all
poets, and is a necessary part of their art. Without
an occasional appeal to our sober senses, in words of
commonest use and meaning, they would be above our heads;
they would become wearisome, ill-balanced and ineffectual.
Poetry, the essence of poetry, is a very delicate and
indefinable thing, and yet it is something that has
for us all a very powerful and humanizing influence.
All that is best and most beautiful in our civilization,
all that makes life worth while, is due to either directly
or indirectly to the free play of the mind through the
medium of art. And it follows that poetry, so fine and
so subtle a thing is it, must be brought close home
to our understanding. When Keats said:
thing of beauty is a joy forever,"
was not uttering an extremely poetical sentiment, nor
was he using an extremely heightened and poetical mode
of speech. He was making an epigram, a pithy conclusion,
a perfectly self-evident maxim. The sentence might perfectly
well occur in a prose work. He has only lifted it to
the height of verse, he has not lifted it to the highest
reach of poetry.
so when Wordsworth says, "Plain living and high
thinking are no more," to quote from a beautiful
sonnet, or when Pope says,
proper study of mankind is man,"
are not writing poetry of the highest order. Although
these lines occur in poems, they are in themselves hardly
poetry at all. They are not models of good prose, because
they have been given something of the modulation of
poetry; they have been given the form of verse. Yet
they are nearer prose than poetry, because they appeal
to us through those channels which are the proper sphere
of prose, through our reason and common sense. They
require nothing but the most literal interpretation.
in the same way, when we read,
women have no characters at all,"
little learning is a dangerous thing,"
honest man's the noblest work of God,"
perceive at once we are still in the same sphere, the
sphere of prose. These admirable household words have
passed current for years, and have been honored as poetry;
but, in truth, save for their metre, they have no quality
of poetry at all. That each is an integral and necessary
part of a poem, we readily admit; but that any of them
has the character and habit of poetry, beyond the mere
versification, surely no one will contend.
now, still choosing our quotations from the commonest
English metre, blank verse, let us turn to work of a
different character; let us turn to Shelley's
like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,"
voices prophesying war,"
we find ourselves at once in a very different region
of expression. The writer is no longer appealing to
our reason and common sense alone. To tell one that
life is like a dome of many-colored glass, is to insult
my common sense and violate my reason. How can eternity
have a radiance, and how can that radiance be stained
these are lines of acknowledged beauty. Evidently I
am in a field of psychical experience, where reason
and common sense are not paramount; I must bring other
faculties to bear, if I would not miss the full enjoyment
of poetry. Here the matter to be expressed has been
given not only the modulation of poetry, in that it
has been put into verse; it has been given the elation,
the heightened effect, of poetry as well. And perhaps
the pith and germ of poetry, as we most generally understand
it, is a metaphor.
one were to say, "I warmed both hands before the
fire," one would be using the commonest prose expression.
But if it were changed slightly, and I should say,
warmed both hands before the fire of life,"
exclamation becomes at once a line of poetry, and very
simple and beautiful poetry it is, too. I am speaking
of life and the conduct of life, matters perfectly well
apprehended by all men; and I make use of a metaphor
which all men understands quite as perfectly and readily;
I use the simile of a comfortable fire.
again when Shakespeare says,
the last syllable of recorded time,"
is perfectly clear what he means; only his expression
of it, by an apt metaphor, is far more felicitous and
forceful than we should have thought of.
all these examples of poetry, both the object to be
expressed and the similar object to which it is compared
are known. We have a clear enough idea of what we mean
by time, and we have a perfectly clear idea of the last
syllable by a record. So that the whole poetical phrase
wakes an instant response in us. So, too, we have an
instant comprehension when we read,
is a tide in the affairs of men."
affairs of men" are easily comparable to the tides
of the sea. But suppose I wished to go beyond the limits
of rational sense and logic altogether; suppose I wished
to invade the domain of mysticism, to atempt the expression,
moods and feelings, rather than thoughts and conclusions.
For there are intimations and convictions of the soul
of man too vague to reach up into mental consciousness,
too elemental and orbic, perhaps, to be confined in
the strict logic of speech, and yet of a constant and
powerful influence on our daily actions. And we have
no means ready at hand for expressing these things.
They are phenomena from a world so little observed that
no language has been framed to fit it. The daily life
of the human soul, no doubt, bears part in every moment
of our conduct; yet so shrinking and elusive is it,
that for the most part it has gone about is business
unobserved, and no man can name its desires, its resources,
it methods, its features, or its habit.
blind man who could form no idea of scarlet color, unless
it might be something like the sound of a trumpet, was
precisely in our own case in regard to the phenomena
of the soul-life of humanity. When called on to express
himself about color, he was dealing with a series of
phenomena beyond his senses, with things which he had
no means whatever of judging, and he was forced to resort
to imperfect metaphor. He became a symbolist.
we may say that symbolism is poetic quality of the finest
sort, which is foolishness to the mind, but wisdom to
greatest store-house of symbolism, of course, is the
Bible. That treasury of the world's best literature
was written by very great poets. And most of our sorry
mishaps in faith come from interpreting their poems
literally. They were talking of affairs of the spirit;
naturally their words could have no exact applicability
to conduct or thought.
say that the stars in their courses fought against Sisera,
or that the sun stood still in the Valley of Ajalon,
is to make use of the most beautiful poetry. And we
owe enduring reverence to the genius that could compass
such expression. But to interpret it literally-what
could be more stultifying and degrading to the soul?
do not wish to be cheaply iconoclastic. If you can believe
that the sun actually stood still for some hours once
in the world's history, or that the morning stars actually
sang together, and if you derive the unction of reverence
from such a conviction, possibly it may do you more
good than harm to cling to such a rendering of those
poetic phrases. But you must, also, permit others to
derive their spiritual consolation from that high poetry
by interpreting it in a different fashion. The Eternal
Goodness, as I conceive of him, would seem to me more
wanton than any child, if he permitted such a catastrophe
as the stoppage of the earth's revolution. And as for
the singing stars-that is simply ridiculous. And yet
both these beautiful scraps of symbolistic poetry are
full of the gist of religion, and I believe their profound
significance. I have no exact idea what the writer meant
who declared that the sun turned back in the Valley
of Ajalon, indeed, I am perfectly sure that the sun
did nothing of the sort; but I have a fine sense of
spiritual elation and freedom when I read those words;
I partake of the poet's own rapture; I feel the same
nobility of soul which he must have felt, when no more
statement of fact could suffice him, when he could only
resort to symbolism as a means of expressing his emotional
ancient Jews were an extraordinary people, with many
revolting savage customs and barbarous religious rites
(to which we persist in giving a mystic significance
and essential value), but also with a wonderful poetic
imagination (whose beautiful products we persist in
interpreting with stupid literalness). Their poetry
was the poetry of spiritual experience, it must needs
utter itself in symbolism; the exact simile and metaphor,
so sufficient for a matter of fact mind, were quite
inadequate for its imagination and scope. And so when
the modern genius of humanity again seeks a vent for
itself, when the mortal soul arouses to a renewed consciousness
of its own life and possibilities, what more natural
than that it should revert to symbolism as a method
least we may be very sure that the study of art, the
study of poetry and letters, is no mere pastime. It
would seem at first sight a supremely trivial question,
whether Mr. Maeterlinck is or is not a symbolistic poet.
But a moment's consideration shows the greater significance
of the inquiry, and its bearing on all our modern thought.
In America we are not in the habit of setting much store
by the intellectual life after our twenties are passed,
and we are prone to view the fine arts with a superior
look of indulgence; but in truth they are matters of
far greater moment than we realize; they concern every
one of us, no matter how busy we may be, and we shall
make a mistake if we treat them with too little seriousness.