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Review of  La Littérature symboliste et la Langue

Reviewer: Elyse Barbara Petit
Book Title: La Littérature symboliste et la Langue
Book Author: Olivier Bivort
Publisher: Classiques Garnier Numérique
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 24.3278

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‘La Littérature symboliste et la Langue’ is a collection of studies written by specialists in Symbolist literature and language, and presented during a colloquium in Aoste, Italy, in 2009. This book contains 14 articles that analyze in detail the close relationship between the Symbolist movement and the Language Movement of the late 19th century. These analyses are varied and present different perspectives on the topic. Some articles are more focused on the French language from a linguistic point of view, while other studies analyze French or Francophone writers and the influence of the Symbolist movement in their writing.

‘Avant-Propos’, Olivier Bivort.

In this introduction, Bivort defines the Symbolist movement as a change of literary language and prosody. According to him, the Symbolist movement is opposed to the constraints of academic and traditional French language, and is looking for a new poetic language. The book brings together studies that raise issues related to the representation of literary language in the late 19th century. Each chapter of the book presents a writer that is directly or indirectly linked with the Symbolist movement and its renewal of literary and prosodic rules.

‘Français vs Langue Française, La langue est-elle symbolique?’, Jacques-Philippe Saint-Gérant.

In this study, the author exposes an overview of the French language in the 19th century from a linguistic and grammatical point of view. For the author, the Symbolist movement is placed in opposition to the grammatical and classical rules of linguistics. He explains that it is in the middle of the 19th century that the French language evolved in its forms and its ''discursive manifestations'' (14): tone, style, intonation, thematic expressions, and tropes. He presents the literary movement of the last quarter of the 19th century as a ''revolution of language'' (13) and demonstrates, with specific examples, the attacks made by literary critics, grammarians and linguists on the texts written by writers of the Symbolist movement. The objective of the Symbolist literature that wants to create a new language is fiercely criticized and this new language is presented as subjective and individual, in opposition to the classical language commonly known as collective and shared by all. The author’s perspective is essentially linguistic and presents the Symbolist movement as a reworking of the linguistic sign and its referent (15).

‘Baudelairisme , Brutalisme, Symbolisme’, André Guyaux.

In this analysis, the author conducts a study of the adjectives that literary historians of the time used to characterize the work and the writing of Baudelaire, especially in his celebrated book, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. Guyaux presents Baudelaire as the precursor of the Symbolist movement, but he prefers to put the poet in what he calls the ‘Baudelairisme movement’ rather than into the Symbolist movement itself. Instead, Guyaux blames the Symbolist writers for having lost the ''brutality'' of Baudelaire’s texts. For the specialist, the poet anchors the reader in the reality of words and images; on the other hand, the Symbolists went too far in their renewal of language and imagery by waiving allegory and hypotyposis (36). This study is a statement of Symbolist writing that opposes the ''brutality'' of Baudelaire's writing.

‘Autour de quelques aspects de la langue symbolique de Baudelaire dans les fleurs du mal’, Mario Richter.

In this short article, the author presents two figures of speech used by Baudelaire: symbolic allusion and ambiguity. Through specific examples drawn from the collection of poems, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, Richter provides a detailed study of the linguistic and stylistic contributions of these processes in the message the poet wanted to convey. In addition, Richter shows the influence of these figures of speech in the poetry of Symbolist writers.

‘Enumérations, Antithèses, Oxymores : lecture symboliste de Jean Lahor’, Liana Nissim

In this study, the role of Jean Lahor in the history of the Symbolist movement is presented. Considered a Parnassian poet who is not seeking the novelty of the French poetic language, Jean Lahor belongs to the traditional literary movement. At the time, he became a close friend of Mallarme whose influence anchored the poet in a rhetorical and stylistic originality. The study presents many examples of figures of speech used by the poet to express ''the spectacle of the matter'' (51), a famous theme of Mallarme. The article presents different themes and tropes that allow Jean Lahor to reveal the matter.

‘TROUVER UNE LANGUE. Sur les caractères de la nouvelle langue prophétisée par Rimbaud’, Sergio Cigada.

In this analysis, Cigada strives to demonstrate the argument offered by Rimbaud on the history of poetry that he exhibited in ''Letter of the seer'' in May, 1871. According to the poet, there are three periods of poetry: Greek poetry, the poetry of Baudelaire, and the poetry of the future. Through a thorough study of Greek poetry based on Aristotle's Poetics, of the writing of Baudelaire, and of Rimbaud's work on a “new” poetic language, Cigada shows the correspondence between various embodiments of poetry that connect to the theme of heterogeneity and the infinite world.

‘Obscurité de la langue, clarté de la poésie’, Olivier Bivort.

In this article, Bivort discusses the definition of ‘clarity’ by distinguishing between the clarity of language and the clarity of speech, with the former belonging to the linguistic field, and the latter representing cultural and ideological phenomenon rooted in the 17th century. In this tradition of seeking clarity of language and of speech, the Symbolist writers were severely criticized in their search for the novelty of French poetic language. Thus, Bivort shows that Symbolists in search of a new literary language, placed poetic clarity and the darkness of language in opposition.

‘Sur le nom de Paphos : Mallarmé et le mystère d’un nom’, Jean-Nicolas Illouz.

This article presents a study of Mallarmé, especially of the last sonnet of ‘Poesies’, which illustrates the intellectual and spiritual work of the poet and his poetic journey. Illouz’s analysis is divided into three parts. In the first part, he recalls the initiative of Mallarmé, in 1860, to write a thesis on language and presents the content of his thesis, which was never completed. In the second part, Illouz refers to Mallarmé’s interest in mythologies and ancient religions and to how he studied them with the aim of expanding linguistic theory with an emphasis on divinity. Illouz supports his point of view through the work of George Cox and Max Müller. Finally, Illouz presents the last part of the ''initiative thesis'' (105) of Mallarmé: poetry. In this part, the author explains, in detail, the last sonnet of ‘Poesies’.

‘Cet idiome […] qu’un contemporain doit connaitre’. A travers Les Mots anglais de Stephane Mallarmé, Marco Modenesi.

Modenesi present the book ‘English Words’ written by Mallarmé, who wrote it in order to earn money. However, the author proves that it is a work that is part of the aesthetic writing of Mallarmé. Based on linguistic and semantic fields, this study reveals the basics of poetic and aesthetic writing of the poet.

‘Le rêve d’une langue bornée mais infinie’ Laforgue poète langagier’, Jean-Pierre Bertrand et Henri Scepi.

Presented in different parts, this paper shows how Laforgue does not attempt to theorize the French language, but rather to understand and possess it in order to reinvent it. In a thorough study, the two authors draw on the origins, history and the writings of the poet in order to better understand their reflection in language. According to them, Laforgue plays with language through the use of humor and wordplay in order to confuse the clarity of literary and conventional French, and to achieve a new language corresponding with erotic desires.

‘La prose symboliste fut-elle l’aboutissement de l’écriture artiste ?’, Gilles Philippe.

In this article, Philippe studies the stylistic evolution of prose in the 19th century, especially in the 1880s. To prove his point, he studies the transition from Impressionist writing to Symbolist prose according to two criteria: lexical and grammatical. Neologism in the Impressionist style is morphological in nature, whereas in the Symbolist style, it is metaphorical. He explains that the transition is not radical, but rather moderate, coinciding with the rise of the Symbolist movement. In the second part, Philippe offers many examples of grammatical changes that took place between Impressionist and Symbolist prose, such as nominalization, or the use of the imperfect and the narrative present. He argues that syntactic and lexical choices illustrate the lyrical sensitivity sought by the Symbolist movement, and that the comparison made at the end of the 19th century between the Impressionist and Symbolist schools should be viewed as moderate, even if it shows radical morphological and syntactic changes.

‘Max Elskamp et les langues’, Christian Berg.

Berg delves into the world of Max Elskamp, a Belgian symbolist poet, and reveals his contribution to the Symbolist movement. With varied examples taken from the poet’s works, Berg presents the literary project of the poet and his poetic space. In the second part, Berg examines, from a linguistic point of view, the specificity of Elskamp’s writing. He examines the languages of the poet: his native language (Flemish), as well as his adopted language (French), but because he did not master these languages, Elskamp strived to manipulate morphosyntax in order to create his own poetic language and overcome this failure. Finally, Berg offers a detailed study of the enunciative frame present in the poet’s different collections. This use of enunciation creates one of the specificities of Elskamp’s writings and creative space.

‘De la langue de la Tribu aux mythes personnels. Le sang des crépuscules de Charles Guerin’, Ida Merello.

Merello, in her article, talks about the writing of Charles Guerin and his vision of Symbolist poetry. In presenting the poet and his work on the border of Parnassus and the Symbolist movement, Merello shows the importance of assonance in the creative space of the young poet who imagines ''assonance as a keyboard of sounds and colors'' (my translation, 165). Merello shows a close connection between Guerin's reflection on the impact of assonance and the research conducted by Louis Becq Fouquières on the correspondence between sound and meaning in theatrical works. In a comprehensive study of ‘Blood of Twilight’, especially of the sonnet ‘The Dreams Picker’, the author reveals the richness of Guerin’s poetic space, while anchoring his work in the ''search for a perfect game between sounds, language and speech” (my translation, 173).

‘La réflexion métalinguistique de Camille Mauclair et ses retombées stylistiques’, Simonetta Valenti.

By analyzing the work and writings of the poet and literary critic Camille Mauclair, Valenti presents ''The reflection of Mauclair on language'' (my translation, 178). Valenti states that the poet's language is the instrument that allows access to the main function of poetry, namely ''the pursuit of mystery that founded the universe'' (my translation, 178). In order to achieve this, it is important to control language, not as a tool of communication, but as a method to suggest universal harmony. The linguistic processes used by Mauclair are symbols and free verses, which Valenti examines in detail in the texts of the poet and in the history of the Symbolist movement. Finally, based on the work of Mallarmé that Mauclair has studied, in which she found inspiration, Valenti demonstrates the importance of morphosyntax and its renewal in Symbolist poetry in order to achieve the ultimate goal: to reflect the Absolute.

‘Pour une langue sensible. L’héritage symboliste dans l’écriture proustienne’, Marisa Verna.

In this study, Verna discusses the rhetorical process of thematic association used in the writing of Proust to emphasize ''the complex relation of inheritance, of denial, of surpassing that characterizes the relationship between Proust and Symbolist language” (my translation, 201). The author relies on a passage of ‘In Search of Lost Time’, especially on the description of the painting ‘The Port of Carquethuit of Elstirs’. Before starting the analysis of the passage from Proust, Verna exposes the position of the writer in relation to Symbolist writing and presents various texts (especially in Baudelaire) in which Proust found inspiration and from which he created an aesthetic view of new writing. Through a detailed description of the excerpt, and by drawing on many artistic and literary references (e.g. Ovid, Rimbaud, Chateaubriand), Verna shows the pervasiveness of the thematic association process in Proust’s work and its role in the aesthetics of his writing.


This book gives an overview of the Symbolist and linguistic movements from the 19th century. Divided into 14 articles, it offers various perspectives on the topic. Every article analyzes the evolution of language in different literary texts. The analyses encompass the role of writers and/or the influence of their writings in their respective literary domain. The authors provide studies that look deep for linguistic aspects in the Symbolist poetic field. Even if the articles are connected to each other in terms of topic, readers can easily browse through the book without following its chronological order. The book allows readers to acquire a better understanding and greater knowledge of the Symbolist movement. The detailed analyses of different writers provided in each article enrich readers’ grasp of linguistic, stylistic as well as poetic issues. The richness of figures of speech and Symbolist themes that characterize poetry of the time is provided in various examples of texts. This book offers a great understanding of the separation between the traditional and conventional poetry of Parnasse and the search for a new language proposed by Symbolist poets. Every author exposes, in a personal manner, the transition that took place at the time, but agrees with the theory that the Symbolist poets created, through their view of the world: a new poetic language.

Two articles in this collection that are particularly compelling are: ‘ Français vs Langue Française, La langue est-elle symbolique?’, written by Saint-Gérant ; and ‘La prose symboliste fut-elle l’aboutissement de l’écriture artiste ?’, by Philippe. These two chapters present the Symbolist movement in its progression, yet also in contrast with the traditional writing of the time. Both authors emphasize different aspects of French language: linguistic, morphological, rhetorical and poetic. These articles allow readers to embrace the evolution of the French language during the 19th century through the presentation of different literary movements, such as the Impressionist or the Parnasse schools, in order to get a better overview of the necessity of the Symbolist movement, as seen by many authors. Finally, these two articles give readers a better understanding of other articles in the collection that offer a more detailed discussion of specific poets’ writing.

Overall, this collection is particularly intended for graduate students studying French literature, and professors who want to provide detailed articles on the Symbolist movement and/or its writers in their courses. The readers will appreciate the accessibility of the writing style of the chapters, as well as the wide range of texts, authors and ideas featured in the book, all of which will allow future researchers passionate about the Symbolist movement to find material to deepen their knowledge.
Elyse Petit is just graduated for a Master in French at the University of Arizona and she will attend the doctoral program in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University in Fall 2013. Her research interests center around SLA in development of intercultural competence, multiliteracies approaches to culture and language teaching, teaching French as a foreign language, and language use in cultural representations provided in multimedia and literature.