Decadentism and Symbolism: short summary |


The symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé

The symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé –
Source: getty-images

In the last decades of the nineteenth century one happened reaction to rationalism which had shown the most negative sides of progress that materialized with the first war conflicts. In fact, progress did not lead to happiness, on the contrary, it led the world towards a profound crisis (imperialism) that will explode with WWI.

Philosophers and intellectuals had already perceived this change taking place in fact there was already talk of the decline of an era and the end of society. A decadent literature characterized by irrationalism, already anticipated by Schopenauer And Kierkegaard.

One of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century crisis was Nietzsche, which focused on analyzing the critical situation in which mass society lived. He no longer had faith in the world and was convinced that society was destined to perish because it was based on false Christian values.

Nietzsche argues that now everything is relative and that there are no longer any real values ​​on which to be based. According to Nietzsche, man had entrusted himself to a superior being and had not developed his potential, therefore he sees the figure of the supermana spiritually superior man who acts and seeks the pure spirituality, rejecting all the non-values ​​of mass society. It represents a guide for the people who are going to nowhere. This theme is addressed in the work Thus spoke Zarathustra which expresses the concept through the use of aphorisms and not of logical concepts.


Decadentism manifests the rejection of a society that is moving towards standardization, which had objectives of a materialistic nature. Thus occurs the fall of the values ​​that had sustained the culture of the West and the domination of material non-values ​​is affirmed.

Faced with this, the poets flee from this reality and no longer show interest in society.

In the literary field, the decadent novel is affirmed, which has the following characteristics:

  • aestheticism (make life a work of art);
  • attention to the human psyche;
  • I subjective (society is increasingly individualistic);
  • exaltation of the symbol.

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Decadentism is also expressed through the symbolismwhich deepened the stylistic research, or new techniques such as synaesthesia andanalogy.

With Symbolism, the symbol that recalls the real but without an immediate relationship with it is enhanced. With Symbolism the most secret reality is analyzed by valuing intuition and not reason. It was introduced by Baudelaire with the work “The flowers of evil” where he captures the correspondences of reality reaching through them to the heart of things, overcoming material appearances.

Rimbaud he defines the poet as a seer who through his creation penetrates into the depths of reality where traditional poetry did not reach. Verlaine creates poems made of impressions and images.


The initiator of Symbolism is Baudelaire, which uses poetry as a tool to reveal the meaning of symbols; he transforms poetic language by reaching areas of nature or human life that the scientific investigation of the past was unable to touch. The writer investigates the deepest areas of life and reveals the links between things and nature (Correspondences). He no longer has the task of teaching but of interpreting feelings in a subjective way, that is, he is not based on man in relation to society, but exclusively on the interiority of the subject.

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Decadentism and Symbolism: short summary |