symbolists, in literature, a school originating in France toward the end of the 19th cent. in reaction to the naturalism and realism of the period. Designed to convey impressions by suggestion rather than by direct statement, symbolism found its first expression in poetry but was later extended to the other arts. The early symbolists experimented with form, revolting against the rigidity of the Parnassians with a free verse that has outlived the movement itself. The precursors of the school, all influenced by Baudelaire, included Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. They were accused of writing with a decadent morbidity, partly as the result of their utilization of imagination as a reality. The movement was continued in poetry by Laforgue, Moréas, and Régnier; in drama by Maeterlinck; in criticism by Remy de Gourmont; and in music by Debussy. Among the later symbolists were Claudel, Valéry, Jammes, and the critic Camille Mauclair. The influence of the French symbolists not only gave rise to similar schools in England, Germany, and other countries, but also may be traced in the development of the imagists and decadents; it is likewise evident in the work of Arthur Symons, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner, and E. E. Cummings.
See C. M. Bowra, The Heritage of Symbolism (1943); W. K. Cornell, The Symbolist Movement (1970); A. Balakian, The Symbolist Movement (1967, repr. 1977) and ed., The Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages (1982).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.