Symbolism in Poetry

As the turn of the 19th century approached a new style developed in poetry and was picked up and incorporated into music and theatre by two well-known men. Below is a poem written in the symbolist style by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). He creates a metaphor for the end of life. (A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but that helps explain an idea or make a comparison).It is titled The End of The Day. In this case, the metaphor makes one thing, a day, symbolize another, a human lifespan.


{La Fin de la journee)

Beneath a wan and sickly light

Life, impudent and noisy, sways ;

Most meaningless in all her ways.

She dances like a bedlamite,

Until the far horizon grows

Big with sweet night, at last ! whose name

Appeases hunger, soothes the shame

And sorrow that the poet knows.

My very bones seem on the rack ;

My spirit wails aloud; meseems

My heart is thronged with funeral dreams.

I will lie down and round me wrap

The cool, black curtains of the gloom

That night hath woven in her loom.1

Notice how a single day is used to indicate the emotions surrounding the end of an entire life. The symbolist style even presented poems written in formats that symbolized their subject matter. It is not necessary to read French when viewing the poem Il Pleut (It Rains) to see that the words fall like rain down the page. The words themselves are a symbol of the action of rain.

Illustration of Poem that looks like rain, Guillaume Apollinaire, (1880-1819)Il Pleut. (It Rains)
5.1 Guillaume Apollinaire, (1880-1819)Il Pleut. (It Rains).2

Symbolism in Poetic Theatre

One of the clearest examples of Symbolist work is seen in a collaboration between two artists, a playwright and a composer. Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a revolutionary Belgian playwright who wrote in French using rhythmic, repetitive dialogue to create a mesmerizing experience for viewers. His influence on modern drama is vast. The work that we will investigate is called Pelleas and Melisande. Like many of his plays the subject is dark and the primary characters, whose inner lives are revealed, die before the play ends. Maeterlinck developed a style of theatre that he termed, “static drama.”

“Maeterlinck, an avid reader of Arthur Schopenhauer, considered man powerless against the forces of fate. He believed that any actor, due to the hindrance of physical mannerisms and expressions, would inadequately portray the symbolic figures of his plays. He concluded that marionettes were an excellent alternative. Guided by strings operated by a puppeteer, marionettes are an excellent representation of fate’s complete control over man. He wrote IntérieurLa Mort de Tintagiles, and Alladine and Palomides for marionette theater.”3

In the quote above it becomes clear that Maeterlinck considered the style of his work to be a metaphor for the human condition. William Fleming shares a quote from the poet. “Beneath all human thoughts, volitions, passions, actions there lies the vast ocean of the Unconscious, the unknown source of all that is good, true and beautiful. All that we know, think, see and will are the bubbles on the surface of this vast sea.” Fleming adds, “The sea then is the symbol for the absolute toward which all life is reaching, but which can never quite be grasped. What is seen and heard are only the ripples on the surface.”4

Maeterlinck’s play, Pelleas and Melisande, debuted in 1892. In this play, the humans seem to be shadows of people, while the symbolic settings, such as the forest, the fountain and the sea are fully fleshed out. Time seems to be suspended in ambiguity. The shadows seem to float in a sea of time. They belong neither to the future, nor the past but exist in an ongoing present. The plot is subservient to the metaphor.

In it, Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman in the forest. Melisande, the lost girl,is rescued by the prince. He marries her and takes her back to his grandfather’s castle. Tragically she soon becomes enamored with Golaud’shalf-brother, arousing the suspitions of the prince. After the prince goes to great lengths to discover rather or not his wife has been loyal, Peleus, his half-brother, decides to leave the castle. He arranges to meet Melisande one last time. During this meeting, the couple finally announce their love for each other. Golaud, who has eavesdropped on the meeting kills Peleaus. Melisande dies shortly after, having just given birth to Golaud’s son, as Golaud still begs her for the truth.

This tragic plot is interwoven with symbolism. Throughout the play water, symbolic of the unobtainable absolute, appears in its many forms. There is a forest spring, a well, a fountain and stagnant pools in underground caverns. This flowing aspect of the work reminds the viewers of the fleeting nature of experience. Water is unstable. It has no singular form so it is an excellent symbol for the uncontrollable changing nature of life’s experience. Unfortunately, early audiences were not impressed. It was not until music was added to Maeterlinck’s intentional ambiguoity, mesmerizing speech patterns and deep symbolism that his metaphor was able to come fully to fruition.

Symbolism in Music and Opera

Maeterlinck’s plays drew much attention from other poets and composers of his time, the most famous of which was Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy was a French composer who had been searching for a play that would allow him to transform it into a symbolist Opera. His previous attempts had left him frustrated that traditional plays were ill suited to his image of flowing changing experience. When Debussy finally discovered Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, he began to write. It took ten years to complete this project.

Debussy‘s opera drew on Maeterlinck’s play for the libretto (words to the songs in a musical or opera). In his own time Debussy was often considered to be an impressionist but he considered himself to be a symbolist. “Debussy protested his label as ‘Father of Impressionism in music,’ and academic circles too believe that the term might be a misnomer. In a letter dated from 1908, the composer wrote “I am trying to do ‘something different’—in a way realities—what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.”5 In truth, depending on which of his works one listens to, elements of both styles appear. This opera is clearly more symbolic than impressionistic.

In many ways Debussy threw out the traditional conventions of opera. He did not begin with an overture. Debussy does borrow the idea of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) leitmotifs, little melodies that symbolize the character they introduce. Rather than merely announcing a character’s entrance, as Wagner’s do, Debussy alters the themes of the leitmotifs to reflect the emotional state of the character at the time that the theme is played.

Symbolism is seen in Debussy’s approach to this work. While his protagonists hide their feelings, they are revealed through the music. His use of melody is revolutionary in that he is disinterested in accompanied melodies and instead a melody may be freely woven into the patterns of the work. Sounds are often employed for their symbolic connotations rather than for their harmonic aspects. In B. Pomeroy’s essay, he concludes that in many cases Debussy’s ‘chordal successions are better understood as textural thickenings of the melodic line than as harmonic progressions in the traditional accepted sense.6

Debussy stressed the importance of timbre (color or tonal quality) and rhythm rather than using formal or harmonic structure. This is seen in Debussy’s preferencing the quality of individual instruments over orchestral sound. His methods of dealing with harmony are based on the use of modal, pentatonic, whole-tone and other exotic scales, defeating any attempt to classify his pieces as standard. He used whatever he could to achieve the emotional content that he sought to create.

Poster for the premiere of Pelleas and Melisande.
5.2 Poster for the premiere of Pelleas and Melisande.7

It is unfortunate that Maeterlinck did not approve of Debussy’s opera. Maeterlinck made no claims to understanding music but he was offended that his mistress was not given a lead role, which Debussy had apparently promised her. Due to this frustration, it would be forty years before he finally heard the opera that was based on his own work. The rest of Debussy’s audience, particularly the art crowd were delighted.


1 Gautier, Theophile. Charles Baudelaire; His Life. “The End of the Day.”HYPERLINK “https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Baudelaire;_his_life,_by_Theophile_Gautier_(IA_charlesbaudelair00gautrich).pdf”Gautier, Theophile, 1811–1872 Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867 Gull, Cyril Arthur Edward Ranger, 1876-, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commonshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e2/Charles_Baudelaire%3B_his_life%2C_by_Theophile_Gautier_%28IA_charlesbaudelair00gautrich%29.pdf
2 Guillaume Apollinaire, Il Pleut. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Ilpleut.png
3 “Maurice Maeterlinck.” New World Encyclopedia, . 4 Sep 2018, 15:46 UTC. 1 Sep 2022, 17:08 <https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Maurice_Maeterlinck&oldid=1014350>.CC-by-sa
4 Fleming, William. Arts and Ideas. 8th edition. Holt Rinehart and Winston. 1991, pp.515.
5 “Claude Debussy.” New World Encyclopedia, . 2 Jun 2021, 20:09 UTC. 1 Sep 2022, 17:32 <https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Claude_Debussy&oldid=1053424>.
6 Pomeroy, B. “Debussy’s Tonality: aFormal Perspective.” In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. 2003. Trezise, S. Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 155- 178.
7 Poster for the premiere of Pelleus and Melisande. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/88/Georges_Rochegrosse_-_Poster_for_the_pr%C3%A8miere_of_Claude_Debussy_and_Maurice_Maeterlinck%27s_Pell%C3%A9as_et_M%C3%A9lisande_-_Original.jpg Georges Rochegrosse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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