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symbolism, T.S. Eliot, symbolist movement.

There is no knowledge without symbolism. Words represent things and therefore become symbols. Symbolism began with the first words spoken by man.. Through this we can see that symbolism in literature is an essential but arbitrary form of expression for reality.

Definition of a symbol:

A symbol might be defined as a representation which does not aim at being a reproduction. Representation of idea by form, or of the unseen by the visible; this is the concept of a ‘symbol’.

Symbolism can be used to describe any mode of expression, which refers to something indirectly through the medium of something else. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the poets used subjective symbols that were related to the individual self and they opposed the realism of the previous years. The symbolist movement spread to drama, music and to the other artistic spheres also. The chief symbolists were all French poets. Then it spread to English. The Russian poets absorbed symbolism to a large extent and many other writers like Aleksander Blosk and Valery Bryusou were influenced by symbolism and T.S. Eliot was drawn to symbolist imagery.

Symbolism used to suggest ideas or thought directly. The writers depicted reality through the symbols and they expressed atmosphere effects, suggestions of feeling etc., the creation and use of symbols is a way of expressing abstractions in symbolist literature. The symbolist wanted to create another poetic world derived from a philosophical position. Swinburne exhibits some of the symbolist qualities like negation of dogma, pantheistic leaping, love of senses, beauty and a frank reflection of passion in art.

Among English poets and writers Yeats showed an affinity to the idealist side of symbolism. In symbolism, he saw that though the symbol was valuable one, one had still to live in the ordinary world of time and feeling. His poem “Sailing to Byzantium” abounds with images.

T. S. Eliot also uses symbols in his poems like ‘Ash Wednesday’. He elevates an image so powerfully that he evokes the emotion behind it or the mood behind it. Symbols have widely been used for different purposes, in logic, semantics, theology, fine arts and letters.

Symbol has much common with metaphor, simile and allegory. It goes beyond likeness to include the process of association. Generally a texture of rich philosophic connotation is woven around symbol. The great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.

Symbol is applied only to a word or set of words that signify an object or event which itself signifies something else. Some symbols are conventional or public, thus, “the cross”, “the red, white and blue”, “the good shepherds”, are the terms that signify symbolic significance objects of which the further significance is fixed and traditional in a particular culture.

Some poets use conventional symbols, many poets also use ‘private’ or ‘personal’ symbols which they develop themselves. For example, the general tendency to associate ‘a peacock’ with ‘pride’ and ‘an eagle’ with ‘heroic endeavor’ or to associate’ the rising sun’ with birth and ‘the setting sun’ with death. Some poets, however, often use symbols whose significance they mainly generate for themselves, and these pose a reader a more difficult problem in interpretation.

Various romantic poets have used symbols in their poetry. Shelley has repeatedly made symbolic use of objects such as the morning and evening star, a boat moving upstream, the conflict between a serpent and an eagle.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” the letter ‘A’ that hangs about Hester’s neck, the red stigma over Arthur Dimmesdale’s heart and pearl in scarlet dress are obviously symbolic.

Yeats became familiar with symbolism he was impressed with the capacity of sound, colour, light to evoke strange and powerful sensations of reality. Swinburne exhibits some of the symbolist qualities in his works. T. S. Eliot was not overtly a symbolist he took much from Tales Lalforgur by way of themes, rhythms, language level, mood etc.

The symbolist movement had its influence on German literature as much as on English literature. A number of writers in the 1890s and in the early years of the 20th century adopted the symbolism of the French writers. Symbolism spread to Belgian, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Finnish and many other European literatures. Symbolism also spread to other arts like painting, music, etc.,


The chief influence of the symbolists lay in their complex emotion, idea and mood. Symbolist literature had given to all subsequent literature a literary aesthetic that uses the doctrine of mysticism to convey the shadows of reality, and this in a sense, is its best contribution.
Published: 2009-01-02

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