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What Is the Function of Symbolism in Poetry?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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Symbolism in poetry is a sort of literary shorthand, used to convey deeper meanings than the words themselves would otherwise. The metrical verse of poetry is chosen specifically because of the larger context and connections they can convey to the reader, who must make individual associations based on his or her own personal experiences. Symbolism allows this to take place in poetry by avoiding directly mentioning intent. The poet attempts to evoke unique and strong feelings in the reader through symbolism in poetry, instead of direct statements that would limit its scope and the diverse reactions it could have on various audiences.

A primary reason for poetry's ability to stimulate reactions in the reader is due to its use of symbolism, using far fewer words than prose. This trait of poetry led to a widespread movement known as the Symbolism movement in France, Russia, and Belgium during the mid-19th century. It was a popular transitional period that bridged the earlier Romantic period of the mid-18th century, with Modernism and Surrealism movements in the arts of the early 20th century.

Another function of symbolism in poetry has been to hide the true meaning of a poem, when its intention is to address taboo subjects of the day. Charles Baudelaire is considered one of the primary founders of the Symbolism movement. He published his collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil, in 1857, Paris, France. Several poems in the collection were considered obscene by the authorities for allusions to such topics as lesbianism, Satanism, and drug addiction, and, though the author and publisher were fined for promulgating such work, it sold out quickly. It also served as a great impetus to other poets to begin using symbolism in poetry to express their controversial views on life.

The origin of the use of symbolism in poetry arose at a time in western societies when mechanization and the exploitations of physical science were taking root. Ideas about human perceptions of the world promoted by biologists like Charles Darwin and philosophers like Auguste Comte suggested that nothing was real except what could be perceived by the senses. Symbolist poets felt that this degraded the mystical and spiritual aspect of human existence. Poetry's use of symbolism both then and now has been a direct attempt to maintain the legitimacy of inner life and contemplation that goes beyond what can be quantified or given a dollar value.

Due to these roots in the founding of symbolism in poetry, the arena has continued to focus on valuing ethereal concepts such as love, the meaning of life, and changing cultural values over measurable facts attained through strict reasoning. This allows symbolism to be expressed in a wide variety of formats, from lyrical poems that can be sung or played on musical instruments to free association poems that, on the surface, may appear nonsensical until thought about more deeply. The genre has also had a traditional focus on the dark side of human nature, using symbolism in an attempt to bring to light aspects of human existence that are often carefully buried by all other expressions in human culture.

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