Symbolism, at its most basic definition, is understood as the “practice of representing things by symbols” or, specifically, the “use of symbols in literature or art” (OED, “Symbolism”). Symbolism as a literary and artistic movement, however, began most prominently when French poets “adopted [Charles] Baudelaire’s concept of the correspondances between the senses,” which can be seen in Baudelaire’s poems in Les Fleurs du mal from 1857 (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Symbolism”). For Arthur Symons, the roots of Symbolism predate this. He, instead, suggests that “Symbolism began with the first words uttered by the first man…” (Symons, 5). Words themselves are symbols, “almost as arbitrary as the letters which compose them, mere sounds of the voice to which we have agreed to give certain significations” (Symons, 5). As such, Symons posits that the only difference between Symbolism in the past and in modernity is that “it has now become conscious of itself” (Symons, 6).
We can also contextualize Symbolism as a revolt against the rigidity of realism. The use of symbols in art and literature starkly contrasts the regulations that were needed in realist works. Symbolism is thus associated with liberty. The artist, poet, or writer is freed from the harsh constraints of realism. For Symons, this allows us to “come closer to humanity” because it revolts “against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition” in order to attain this “liberty, and… authentic speech” (Symons, 8).
“symbolism, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/196207. Accessed 21 September 2020.
Symons, Arthur. (1958). The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York, NY: Dutton. (pp. 5-8).
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Symbolism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 May 2013, www.britannica.com/art/Symbolism-literary-and-artistic-movement.