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SYMBOLISM WITH A SPECIAL REFERECNCE TO MY POETRY

Stephen Gill

 

The accurate representation of the feelings, thoughts, moods, sights, ideas  and a variety of emotions is a serious enigma which poets face. Their representations are about personal  opinions that are in the mind.  Without going into philosophical or logical depth, I call them the god within. Language is inadequate to bring out the god within, because this god is intangible. In addition to a mastery over the language, communicators need special skills and  movements of hands, raising of eyebrows, changing tones, shrugging of shoulders and other gestures.  Still,   communications are not fully accurate and are likely to be misunderstood.  Verbosity does not help either. Communication becomes more difficult in poetry because it is a form of condensed expression. 

       Therefore, poets use symbols to represent the god within at a higher level  and  also to add beauty. They take the help  of metaphors to represent the god within.   Aristotle said that metaphor is the soul of poetry. Metaphor is a figure of speech that is used for implied comparison.  I have used this device freely in my poetry, such as  “sickles of bigotry,”1 ; “pilots of words”2 ; “snakes of personal migraines”3 ;  “the albatross of intolerance”4 ; and “a pyramid of justice”5  to quote a few.

       Symbol,  a higher form of metaphor,  comes from the Greek word sumbolon that means sign, mark and token. In Greek sumballein  means to put together. Synonyms of symbolism include typology, metaphor and analogy. Symbolic poetry  is visible expression of something that is invisible-- a marriage between abstraction and concrete.  This device is used to express  the hidden meaning veiled by the obvious meaning--  to express something that  is abstract  as tangible. This device is also used  to express something that is tangible in another tangible way.

       Poetry is not a set of general statements. It is not verbosity either.  It is a short cut to convey the message.  The poetry that is symbolic may have several layers of meaning that is like peeling off the layers of an onion. It is also  something like music that produces a mood.                  A poet may pick up colors for non-verbal communication that goes  beyond ink.  A skilled    designer of a logo or web site would be careful to select colors because they have impact on the mind and eye. He may keep in view that the impact of colors differs from culture to culture.

       Words and punctuation marks as well as traffic signs, such as red lights that mean to stop, are some examples of obvious symbols.  A red rose, a traditional  symbol,  signifies  love and fidelity. Among other traditional symbols, a cross  signifies a follower of Christ  and  the sunrise, a new beginning.  The picture of scales is often used  to represent justice. Traditionally, a lion represents bravery,  a dove represents  peace and purity,  and the water,  life. The symbol of winter or snow suggests aging and decay.  

       Creative artists also develop  new,  individual or personal symbols, mainly because they  do not want to use cliché or trite expressions. Some of these individual symbols may pose problems for readers. To understand them, a reader may have to go over the poem  more than once with close attention.  

       I have presented several of my poems in this vein. I often use the wind in various forms to symbolize my god within.  Among several, I would like to select  To a Dove”6 that appears on page 132-133 and “Flight of a Dove”7 on pages 134-135 of the Revised Edition of Shrine.  I do not want to dissect them because dissection mars the beauty. Here is one  quote:

 

I am

often greeted by the bursting flutters

of my dove

while rambling the rayless resort

of the fears

from the scamps of my surrounding. 7

 

       Another poem, “Unfair Ophelia”, is from Songs Before Shrine.8  Ophelia is a  character from Hamlet by Shakespeare.  Or take the case of “My Muse” on page 45 of the same collection:

 

Today

the jealous winds outside

smite my windows desperately

like a being insane

while inside I am at peace

with her.9

 

       An example of non-traditional symbols appears in the first canto of The Flame which is the longest poem on modern terrorism in English. In the Preface of The Flame, and also elsewhere, I call my poems robins and explain how I care and nourish them. 10    

       Trees and forests have appeared in different cultures as symbols.  The oak has been used to signify strength, and maple to signify  balance and promise. I have taken the assistance of several objects from nature to use this device. Tree is one of them. When I read my poetry objectively or as a critic after publication, I find that forests and trees have appeared often, such as   “Maple trees of compassion”11 ; and “tree of your amazement”12 . From Shrine,  my collection before The Flame, the notable lines are:  “the dignity of the palm tree”13 ; “the sobriety of the jungles,”14 ; “pineapples of happiness”15 ; “the jungles of thoughts”16 ; “the maple leaf of freedoms”17 ; “gangers grow a jungle of night”18  and the list can go on.

      In the first line of canto fifteen of  my longest poem, The Flame   “The battered body of the abode/ of my flame /flaring in the dark…”19  builds up a picture of the night that is dark. The night suggests loneliness and symbolizes several aspects associated with darkness. The Flame is presented as a human who has been murdered brutally and its parts severed.  The mention of the battered body is to conjure up horrific emotion in the reader. The whole scene suggests fear, brutality and the darkness in the soul.

       Symbolic devices provide oxygen to poetry. Symbolism becomes also a sort of double talk, not as strutting in a confused way. It is not a talk like that of a drunk person or the distorted vision of a myopic. It is a deliberate attempt to say something other than what it literally means. For illustration,  here is a poem  “The Meechlake Fish”20  from Songs Before Shrine, where words like crocodiles,  fish, bathers, banks, and waters  present a scene of the sea to express another story  associated with the Meech Lake Accord,  an important part of Canadian political history. This Accord was signed by ten premiers and the prime minister in 1987. The Meech Lake Accord divided Canada badly in the eighties.

       To express the inexpressible, the god within, symbolists usually select objects from nature, usually flowers and oceans. These objects become symbols, because they are suggestive of something else. Through this device, a poet makes the god within, tangible.  My poem “The Matchlake Fish”,  is an example.

       Symbolists also refer to a major literary movement of the second half of the 19th century from  France. The movement  has received different labels, including decadence, aesticism, neoromanticism and imaginism.  Its followers  include  Mallarme, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. Their  main aim was to represent ideas and emotions by suggestion rather than description. They  reacted  against the prevailing school of realism and impressionism that expressed emotions or abstractions without comparing them with the visible world. Symbolists influenced painting and music as well  as English writers like Poe,  Swinburn and W.B. Yeats. Symbolists wrote in a highly suggestive way to express the intangible truth or conditions. They became more evocative than descriptive. 

 

Neverthess, the literary experiments of Symbolism cannot be dismissed. Among these, the most important is free verse, which resulted from a long process of dissolution of traditional forms and has now become an important department of poetry. The attacks the Symbolists faced were often undeserved. There existed indeed a “fin de Siecle” or decadent” affectation and a foggy or atmospheric type of art that were identified by some with Symbolism; but at no time since the Renaissance have so many experiments been carried out on the poetic values of words, and no

school of poetry has so much enriched the technical means of poets.”21

 

        Though the Symbolist Movement in literature refers to poets in the later part of the nineteenth century, it has its precursors in several religious scriptures. Symbolic literature is old and easily traceable from the time of Plato in 400 B.C. During these years, the literature of Western Europe was dominated by symbols to understand God and for  proper conduct. Indian epics such as Ramayana and other books are full of symbolic features. Sufi poetry is usually symbolic because it uses worldly terminology to express divinity.

       Although it is hard to pinpoint when the symbolist move­ment started in the history of literature, it was, actually, Jean More'as's article, published on September 18, 1886, in Le Figaro, which made the literary world conscious of a new trend already developing in France. Many attempts by different writers were made to trace the uniform factors in the writings of the symbolists, but they failed.

       In spite of their differences, the Symbolists were unanimous in calling Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), their precursor. His poetry is neither philosophizing nor didactic. The Sym­bolists appreciated Baudelaire's theory of "correspond­ences between the senses." The same theory was applied by Rimbaud in his sonnets. Rimbaud, like Ghil,  showed extraordinary interest in the use of neologism in his poetry. It is Mallarme (1842-1898), who brought sym­bolist poetry to its near perfection. His Divagations (1897) is an important document for the symbolists. His Tuesday gatherings influenced many younger artists who attended them. Mallarme's poetry is an example of elusiveness. A rhythm or tone suggests the whole atmosphere. He prefers to use suggestive language and words in their etymological sense. As a result, his sym­bolism has become more private and obscure. Like Verlaine, he considers  music to be of fundamental import­ance in poetry. His disciples Paul Valery who knew him personally, and Wallace Stevens, carried on his tradi­tion. Wallace Stevens, an American, adapted his mas­ter's technique to the general vein  of his country's atmosphere and temperament. Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), another symbolist and also a lyrical poet, had no theory on art to offer. He scoffed at epithets like symbol­ist and decadent. But regarding technique he had de­finite views which he expressed in "Art Poetique" (1874). Like Mallarme' he believed that poems should be musical. He preferred ambiguity to precision and a language suggestive rather than descriptive.

       The Symbolists reacted against the poetry of that time, the Realist theatre and the Naturalist novel in order to express with the aid of symbols the mystery of existence. The movement was started in France and a large part of those who were involved in it were  artists of French origin. Paris, being a centre of art, attracted many young writers from different parts of the globe. When these writers returned to their respective countries they carried with them the symbolists' ideas. This helped in spreading this movement to the rest of the world. Among the followers of the symbolists only Jules Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, Rene Ghil and Albert Samin were French. From England there were Arthur Symons, W. B. Yeats and George Moore; from Germany, Rilke and Hauptmann; from Belgium, Maurice Maeterlinck; from Greece, Jean More'as, who wrote the symbolists' manifesto; from America, Francis Viele' Griffin and Stuart Merrill; from Italy- D'Annunzio; and the Machado brothers from Spain.                                           

       The Symbolists avoided political and public themes in their works. They rejected society and ceased to be the official voices of their country. Therefore, With symbolism, art ceased in truth to be nation­al and assumed the collective premises of Western culture.    Its overwhelming concern was the non-temporal,     non-sectarian,     non-geographic and non-national problem of the human condition.22     

 

       In France, men of   letters   were   often   public figures, and literature, to a great extent, remained a part of public life—just the opposite of the normal practice in England.    One of the chief factors which gave impetus to this new movement of symbolism  was the complete estrangement of certain poets from the tone  and attitude of public  life around them. G.S. Fraser believes In fact the traditional values of much French lite­rature—values of clear, rapid, sometimes superfi­cial reasoning, of incisive generalization, of digni­fied rhetoric, and pointed wit, while real virtues in themselves were, as Baudelaire noted, anti-poetic virtues.23

       The Symbolists gave art the status of religion—it became mysterious with its own distinct language differ­ent from that of prose. The artists became completely isolated from the general public and their art also be­came more vague. They revised their works repeatedly and thoughtfully, and so made them more and more difficult for an average reader to understand. This is the reason why even  years after  its publication, Ulysses, a novel,  is read only by a microsco­pic minority of the intelligentsia. The Symbolists, who attempted to bring art and life together, did not usher in a new simplicity and clarity, but rather a new con­fusion. Their master, Mallarme, himself is a difficult poet. Rimbaud is also obscure. "He speaks in a trance like an inspired drunkard."24

       The symbolists revolted against Parnassian poetry, yet, retained some of its concepts such as 'art for art's sake' and insistence on technical perfection. They scoffed at the scientific view of art as it was preached by Zola and Maupassant. They attempted chiefly to use a language that was suggestive and evocative rather than informa­tive. They emphasized the careful selection of words, colours, tones, rhythms and phrases. Connotations be­came more important than simple denotations. Even denotations in their hands became tangled and vague. In art they became impersonal and believed in control. They employed the techniques of music in their art, for they believed that by its nature music reaches a  deeper level of the unconscious. They learnt a good deal from the musical techniques of Wagnerian drama. Mallarme and Verlaine considered the musical elements in poetry  to be of fundamental importance.

     More'as claims that Symbolism is a reaction of the soul in literature against all those literary move­ments which represent things that only visibly exist, exactly as they exist. It is, he says, a reac­tion against a type of language that says rather than suggests. Symbolism, in practice, would free literature from the bondage of rhetoric, externals, regular beat in poetry, from the cataloguing of nature and the chance accidents of daily life, freeing the literary arts of all elements of mate­rialism, which hitherto have  prevented the dis­engagement of the ultimate essence of soul from its insignificant externals."25

 

       In the theatrical world presentation of symbolism posed problems. But  Antoine's production of Ibsen revealed the possibilities of symbol on stage. Ibsen also influenced directly some English dramatists. Like Ibsen, the English dramatists combined symbolism with naturalism. Apart from Ibsen's plays, Villiers de 1' Isle-Adam's Axel was staged and Maeterlinck wrote wonderful plays suffused with a dream-like atmosphere. Alfred Jarry's highly satirical Ubu Roi (1896) caused an uproar.

       The Symbolists did not make much contribution to fiction. Eduard Dujardin, a minor writer, influenced James Joyce. George Moore was friendly with Joyce. On his return to England, Joyce talked of Dujardin's technique which prompted him  to read  We'll to the Woods No More. He learnt from this novel Dujardin's technique of the stream-of-consciousness which he employed very successfully in Ulysses. Moore himself, who had started his literary career in the naturalistic tradition, gave it up in favour of symbolist techniques.

       Whereas the previous writers deliberately em­phasized their symbols, the modern symbolists simply give the symbols and leave the rest to the imagination of the readers. They want the symbols themselves to speak. Also, their symbols form part of the whole struc­ture of their work. To understand a novel, a play or a poem, it is very important to realize first the signific­ance of the symbols used in it. Karl and Magalaner elaborate the difference between the traditional and the modern use of symbols:

 

The difference between the two is one of em­phasis, and in that area we have, perhaps, the chief difference between the traditional use of the symbol and the twentieth-century application. In that area, we can ascertain one of the difficul­ties the modern reader has when he comes to A Portrait, or Ulysses, Mrs. Dolloway, The Waves, Women in Love, Nostromo, etc., without any awareness that these novels will proceed differently from the ones he is probably accustomed to. More carefully arranged novels, he comes to  realize, need more careful readers. The modern nove­list often merely gives the materials and lets his symbols and other devices suggest whatever the reader can make of them. Furthermore, his symbols themselves will not always be clear—they may be in many different forms: short incidents, casual images, broken conversations, minor characters, peripheral scenes. And as the now list gains in imaginative power and maturity, he refines his symbols and makes their importance more subtly provoking. For the novelist realizes that as new areas of knowledge open, new sym­bols are needed for expression; so the reader must be on close guard or a major theme or motif may be lost; and in novels like Nostromo, A Portrait, Ulysses, Point Counter Point, and A Passage to India, which proceed by motifs and recurrent themes, one loses entire sequences if he is not completely alert to what the novelist is doing.26

       Often a distinction is made between allegorical and symbolist writings. Freud's analysis shows that no symbol can be interpreted in one way. The liter­ary figures  agree with Freud on the point that symbols cannot be tied down to a single meaning.  On the other hand, an allegory has only single possible interpretation.  

                                                                                                                                               

      To use Mr. Lain Fletcher's distinction between allegorical and symbolical poetry, if a poem is allegorical, 'it works out the details of something already given, something which has received prior justification as theology or political theory, an organization of intuitions and judgments. Valuation of this will depend on the structure of the poem, its music, its detail. With the poetry of symbol none of these things is of the first im­portance. A symbol has been defined as the expression of some otherwise inexpressible truth; and it is not on the verbal music, or on the in­cidental illustrations of the theme, that judgment will depend, but on the insight which the poem accords into the life of the soul.27

 

       Arthur Symons, a poet-critic and also a prominent member of the Rhymers Club, holds an important position in the realm of modern English Literature. During his stay in France he regularly attended Mallarme's Tuesday gatherings. On coming back to Eng­land he put down what he had heard at those meetings in the form of criticism, evaluation and translation, in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), dedicated to W. B. Yeats. The same year another book connected with symbolism, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, appeared in Vienna.

Although unlike in method, both recorded the search for a psychic reality which had little to do with exterior reality. Symons' book, like Freud's, gave a name to the preoccupation with modes of half-uttered or half-glimpsed meaning which, as we can see clearly enough now sixty years have passed, was a principal direction in modern thought.28

 

       Symons' book acquainted the English people with new literary developments in France. His essays on Mallarme', Rimbaud, Verlaine, Huysman, Villiers de PIsle-Adam and Laforgue are better than the sketchy work of George Moore. For Yeats, a new vista of imagi­nation was opened through the writings of these French writers. Villiers de 1'Isle Adam's "Axel became Yeats's guide and beacon in his theory and practice of a dramatic art where symbol replaces characters, events are allegories and words keep more than half their secrets to themselves."29  Yeats employed symbolism, as it is generally believed, for the same purpose for which Baude­laire put on the mask of a dandy. About Yeats as well as Baudelaire and his  successors, it would be better "to speak of a Philistine City with the poets moving about it as spies, wearing a disguise, and communicating by a code that made their presence unsuspected.30                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

 

Yet it should be remembered that Yeats was not being freshly introduced to the nature and func­tion of the  literary symbol of his new contacts; his study of magic, his  work on  Blake, and his natural  literary   inclination had  already brought symbols  into his  early   works.    The  Wanderings  of  Oisin   is   sufficient   evidence. In   a   letter   to Katherine   Tynan,   written   toward   the end  of 1888,   he spoke of the poem as saying  several things under disguise of Symbolism.31

       Among  Indian poets, Gitanjali of Tagore stands out in the gallery of symbolists. The name of  W.B. Yeats  conjures up with Tagore.  W.B. Yeats, an aristocrat by birth, was  a good friend of Rabindanath Tagore, another aristocrat by birth.  Yeats blue-pencilled  Tagore’s  Gitanjali and also nominated him for the Nobel Prize.  Yeats was already a Nobel Laureate when he nominated Tagore.  Yeats was a great admirer of  Charles Baudelaire as a symbolist. The poems that greatly mirror the influence of the Symbolists, include Yeats’s two Byzantium poems and the second coming. He used the devices of symbolism most favorably to make his poetry rich, elegant and communicative at a higher level.                                                                                                                                                                    

       Whereas  W.B. Yeats wrote partly under the influence of  the French Symbolist Movement, Rabindranath Tagore wrote Gitanjali under the influence of the centuries-old tradition of India.  He makes use of the images of the flute, harp,  flowers, fire, empty vessel and journey  in the Indian tradition to represent his  inexpressible devotion.                                                                                                                                       

      I believe that  personalities are shaped by the hands of the environment as pots are shaped by the hands of potters  Yeats was shaped to a great extent by the French symbolists and Tagore by the early religious poetry of India. It is difficult for me to trace  one single hand that shaped the art of my poetry. I can say that I cannot get away from the New Delhi of my early days, though I left India decades ago. In one way or the other, the well of New Delhi  keeps providing water of creativity to my pen. I can also say that my poetry does not emerge  at the annual festivals of poets. It does not emerge either at the  releases  of  collections by publishers and celebrities nor  does it emerge  at the podiums.  My poetry emerges gracefully  when I trim off fat from the body of my muse, and knock off the wretched redundancies, freeing her from  the pollutants of overused expressions. I feel better off after my faithful experimentations with imageries in the laboratory of linguistic surgery. This  brings my poetry closer to the school of the symbolists than to any other school.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1 Gill, Stephen. Shrine. India: Cyberwit.net, 2008, ISBN: 978-81-8253-128-4, p. 78

2-----------------. Songs Before Shrine. India: authorspress, New Delhi, 2007, ISBN: 81-7273-384-4, p. 77

3Gill. op.cit,  p.114

4Gill, Stephen. The Flame. Canada: Vesta Publicaitons, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-919301-21-3, p. 106

5--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.98

6----------------. Shrine. India: Cyberwit.net, 2008, ISBN: 978-81-8253-128-4, pages 132-133

7----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------134-135

8Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. India: authorspress, New Delhi, 2007, ISBN: 81-7273-384-4, pages           29-30

9---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.45

10 ---------------. The Flame. Canada: Vesta Publicaitons, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-919301-21-3, p. 7

11------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.41

12 ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.48

13 Gill, Stephen. Shrine. India: Cyberwit.net, 2008, ISBN: 978-81-8253-128-4, p. 41

14 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.41

15 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.44

16---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.46

17--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p.55

18--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, 93

19 ---------------. The Flame. Canada: Vesta Publicaitons, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-919301-21-3, p. 59

20 Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. India: authorspress, New Delhi, 2007, ISBN: 81-7273-384-4, p. 22

21 Collier’s Encyclopedia, Toronto, Canada, vol. 21

22 Balakian, Anna. The Symbolist Movement. USA: Random House, New York,  1967, p. 10

23 Fraser, G.S. The Modern Writer and His World. England: Pelican Books, 1967, p. 35

24 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, p. 42

25 Karl, Frederick R. & Magalaner, Marvin.  A Readers Guide to Great Twentieth-Century                                                                                            

  English Novels. USA ( New York): The Noonday Press,  1964, p. 18

26 Hone, Joseph. W.B. Yeats. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1942, p.156

27 Fraser, G.S. The Modern Writer and His World. England: Pelican Books, 1967, p. 37

28 Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1958, p. vii

29 Hone, Joseph. W.B. Yeats. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1942, p.106

30 Fraser, G.S. The Modern Writer and His World. England: Pelican Books, 1967, p. 36

31 Nathan, Leonard E. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats. New York & London: Columbia University Press,  1965, p.51

 

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