The four French poets translated here, in comprehensive and extensive selections, were the most important representatives of the Symbolist movement initiated by Charles Baudelaire. Though the term Symbolist was only applied to the movement after 1885, its origins are in Baudelaire’s reaction to the preceding Parnassian and Naturalist schools of French verse. His work signified a re-direction of French poetry towards subjectivity, individualism, personal freedom, and exoticism, involving the implicit critique of contemporary materialist society and culture which initiated Modernism. Symbolism may be seen as a logical successor to, and continuation of, the Romantic Movement, with many elements of European and particularly English Romantic poetry evident in Symbolist works though treated in a more Modernist manner. The combined work of all four poets is both challenging and ultimately rewarding, in both its deepening of modern thought and its widening of the means of literary expression.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is a poet of both nature and the city, employing both contexts in a philosophical and symbolic manner and introducing potent themes of the voyage, intense personal emotion, spiritual fragmentation, decadence, and exoticism in his collection ‘Les Fleurs du mal’. Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) explored the delicate elusiveness of time, relationship, sensation, and emotion in verse of enduring charm and beauty. Verlaine’s younger precocious contemporary Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) further developed Baudelaire’s individualistic critique of the modern world, through an intentional ‘derangement of the senses’, leading towards a wholesale rejection of that world, both in his poetry and his life. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) further enhanced the philosophical credentials of Symbolism, through an exploration of mind, matter and the void expressed in poems combining both concrete detail and literary subtlety. The main thrust of the movement is therefore complete by the turn of the century, justifying the term Fin du Siècle for the movement, with the earlier Baudelaire remaining the key influence throughout.