The Symbolism and Realism movements were two of the most important literary movements of the 19th century. Symbolism was a reaction against the realism that had dominated French literature in the previous decades, while Realism was a response to the excesses of Symbolism.
While both movements had their own distinct styles and aesthetics, they shared a common goal: to capture reality in all its complexities and contradictions. Symbolists and Realists both believed that art should be expressive and accessible to as many people as possible.
One of the most important Symbolist poets was Charles Baudelaire, who is best known for his collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). Baudelaire’s work was often dark and pessimistic, exploring themes of death, decay, and the human condition.
Keats, on the other hand, was a leading figure of the Romantic movement. His poetry is characterized by its use of imagination and emotion, rather than reason and intellect. Keats believed that art should be about beauty and truth, not just about realism.
Yeats was one of the most important Irish poets of the 20th century. His work often explored Irish mythology and folklore, as well as themes of love, loss, and national identity. Like Keats, Yeats believed that art should be beautiful and enlightening, not just realistic.
Precursor of Symbolism and offshoot of Romanticism, Charles Pierre Baudelaire is said to have contributed to the development of literary movements in the early twentieth century. In Correspondances (Correspondences), an example of synaethesia which emphasizes concepts behind each image, Baudelaire showcases his talent forwordplay and provoke readers’ imaginations.
John Keats, on the other hand, was an English Romantic poet who was known for his works such as Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. While Symbolism sought to break away from reality, Keats anchored his poems in the real world. He believed that beauty and truth were one and the same, and that art should be enjoyed for its own sake – an idea which is reflected in his famous quote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” from Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Finally, William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright who was also strongly influenced by Romanticism. Like Keats, he also believed that art should be enjoyed for its own sake. However, unlike Keats, Yeats was heavily influenced by Symbolism and theosophy – a belief system which holds that there is a fundamental unity between all things in the universe. This is reflected in his poem The Second Coming, in which he writes about the “slouching” of the world towards chaos.
Symbolism and Realism are two literary movements that have had a lasting impact on literature and continue to be studied by scholars today. What sets these two movements apart is their focus – Symbolism focuses on the imagination while Realism focuses on the real world. John Keats, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, and William Butler Yeats are three poets who exemplify these two different approaches to poetry. Symbolism and Realism may be two different movements, but they both share a common goal: to create beautiful and timeless art.
The two dominant forces in this movement are most often reflected at the beginning and end of a poem. The Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats is an attempt to express inner conflicts of love and pain.
William Butler Yeats was among the other famous early Modernists – making use of Symbolism, Romanticism and Realism. Each contributes to its allusiveness, irrationality and separation from tradition, respectively.
The Symbolist movement began in France in the late 1800s. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé were united by their dissatisfaction with the values of the materialistic bourgeois world and a shared interest in mysticism, spiritualism and the occult sciences. Symbolism was partly a reaction against Naturalism and Positivism, movements that downplayed or rejected the value of imagination in favour of scientific observation.
For the Symbolists, art should operate on two levels: first, as a immediate object of pleasure; second, as an instrument for accessing metaphysical truths. Symbolists believed that art should convey emotions rather than describe reality. As such, they sought to dissolve rather than categorize objects and ideas into fixed identities.
Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé were all poets, but Symbolism was also manifested in other art forms, including painting (Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon), drama (Maurice Maeterlinck) and music (Claude Debussy). Symbolist ideas were also popularized in the English-speaking world by a new generation of poets, including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Symbolism reached its peak in the late 1880s and early 1890s, before dissipating as a coherent movement around 1900. However, Symbolist ideas continued to exert a significant influence on artists and writers well into the 20th century.
The three poems I have selected show an escape from reality, or the difference between fantasy and truth. In “Correspondances,” Baudelaire talks about synaesthesia – a communication among the senses. He would receive images that he processed into symbols using his different senses. This poem addresses how some things in Heaven may seem more appealing than objects on Earth because they are intangible (Dorra, 1994).
“The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats is another poem that uses Symbolism to create an image of an escape from reality. In this poem, Keats uses the Symbol of a cold winter’s night to represent the harshness and emptiness of real life. The cold winter’s night is contrasted with the warmth and richness of the Symbol of the feast day, which represents the ideal world that can be found in our imaginations (Dolch, 1948).
Yeats’ “The Second Coming” also uses Symbolism to create an image of an escape from reality. In this poem, Yeats uses the Symbol of a falcon to represent man’s search for meaning in a chaotic and empty world. The Symbol of the falcon is contrasted with the Symbol of the rock, which represents the stability and certainty that can be found in God (Yeats, 1920).
Symbolism, therefore, allows for the expression of an escape from reality into a world of fantasy and imagination. Realism, on the other hand, is a literary movement that focuses on representing real life accurately and realistically. Realism emerged in the mid-19th century in response to the idealized portrayals of life that were common in Romantic literature. Realists sought to depict life as it actually is, warts and all.
This meant that they often wrote about controversial subjects like poverty, crime, and violence. John Keats was a Romantic poet who later became a leading voice of the Realist movement. In his poem “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” Keats criticizes those who view the marbles as perfect works of art. Instead, he argues that they should be seen as flawed and imperfect like all human beings (Keats, 1817).
Yeats is another poet who began his career as a Romantic but later embraced Realism. In his poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats uses Symbolism to depict a world that is in chaos and lacks meaning. However, he also uses Realist techniques to ground this Symbolism in actual reality. For example, he uses concrete images of animals like lions and birds to represent the chaotic state of the world. This makes the Symbolism more effective because it is rooted in reality (Yeats, 1920)