I'm trying to understand the difference between Symbolism and Romanticism as literary movements. As I understand it, the symbolists explicitly wanted to distance themselves from the romantics.

But if I compare Stephane Mallarme's "Afternoon of a Faun" (founder of Symbolism) with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (founder of Romanticism), both poems seem to embody the same literary philosophy?

Both poems are about painting an imaginary, pastoral scene that has little connection to reality for the sake of the beauty of the poem itself. Both are concerned with dreams and visions and the creative imagination. Obviously, the poems are very different in many ways, but not in any way that relates to the philosophies of Romanticism and Symbolism?

Compare excerpts from the poems below:

"The Afternoon of a Faun":

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
So bright
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.

O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Or plunge ...’

"Kubla Khan: Or, a Vision in a Dream: A Fragment"

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

  • Welcome to the site! Interesting question :-) – Rand al'Thor Dec 19 '20 at 14:44
  • Why do you assert that the poems are not different in any way that relates to Romanticism and Symbolism as philosophies? That they each are about an unreal pastoral world, or are both concerned with dreams and visions, does not mean that they reflect the same philosophy. Plenty of other poems from all eras share those attributes. – verbose Dec 20 '20 at 10:27
  • In what way are the different in terms of their underlying philosophy though? A guess a cruder question would be - what makes one a Romantic, not a Symbolist poem, and the other a Symbolist, not a Romantic poem? – user1365680 Dec 20 '20 at 11:18
  • @user1365680 your question specifically says “they embody the same literary philosophy”. What is your basis for saying that? It seems like it’s begging the question. – verbose Dec 20 '20 at 20:49

I think just comparing two poems to try to figure out the difference between Romanticism and Symbolism is very misleading. I believe that Symbolist poets wrote poems which spanned the whole spectrum from Romanticism to Symbolism.

Poetry Foundation describes Symbolism as:

They rejected their predecessors’ tendency toward naturalism and realism, believing that the purpose of art was not to represent reality but to access greater truths by the “systematic derangement of the senses,” as Rimbaud described it.

Thus, a pure Symbolist poem will not depict any actual realistic events, but will use language to evoke a "greater truth."

While you may not see much difference between Mallarmé's poem "Afternoon of a Faun" and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," Mallarmé wrote poems that were much closer to the ideal of Symbolism than "Afternoon of a Faun." One of these was Quand l'ombre ménaça de la fatale loi. Here is one translation. Here is another one. And I quote the first four lines of a different translation below:

When the shade threatened with the fatal decree
that old Dream, my bones' craving and their blight,
pained to die under the funereal height
it bowed its doubtless plumage deep in me.

Splendour — ebony hall where, to allure
a king, illustrious wreaths writhe in their doom —
you are merely a pride lied by the gloom
to the faith-dazzled solitary viewer.

(translated by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore)

Here, unlike Coleridge's Kubla Khan, it's not at first apparent what the poem is describing, and to me it certainly doesn't seem to be describing things naturalistically or realistically, but much more impressionistically and symbolically. And while Romantic poems often have deeper meanings hidden behind a surface meaning, they generally have surface meanings; for this poem it's very difficult to divine a surface meaning at all. For example, The Poetry Foundation's article on Mallarmé says that

It exhibits the same sudden transition from the dark and funereal confines of a closed room to the huge expanse of the night sky, although it occurs this time much earlier in the poem, at the beginning of the second quatrain,

while other critics claim that Mallarmé is talking about the the night sky in the first quatrain. (I'm with these other critics; I don't see why his "funereal ceiling" in the first quatrain aren't the dark night sky.)

Nearly all poems written by Romantic poets have a surface meaning where things are described reasonably naturalistically, even though many of them also have a metaphorical meaning that is harder to decipher.


The thing is this choice can be misleading. And we can also view Romanticism as two different things. In general Romanticism > Symbolism. There're some researchers who track romantic symbolism and they claim Coleridge was the one. So you can be right in this one, however this doesn't prove it's one and the same. As it was already stated above between the lines (I believe), symbolists wanted to evoke some emotions and uncover psychological truths whereas naturalism only depicts what can be seen. On the first ground they might seem the same but the devil's in the detail.

  • Could you please write out what you mean by "Romanticism > Symbolism". Also "some researchers" sounds like weasel words; you could improve your answer by citing actual publications, so those arguments can be read and verified. – Tsundoku Dec 21 '20 at 10:15
  • Sure, if we talk about Romanticism as the epoque it's much more than purely Symbolism whichcan be purely seen as a movement. I haven't cited because I don't know anything in English but you can use Google Translate for this one e.g. tekstualia.pl/pl/varia/symbolizm/o_symbolizmie_romantycznym Quite a nice essay. – kuska Dec 21 '20 at 15:56
  • If your source is in Polish, it would be more helpful to quote the relevant passage in Polish and provide an English translation below it. Sending some to an article in a foreign language and telling them to use Google Translate is not helpful. You submitted the answer, so you do the research. That's the logic here. – Tsundoku Dec 21 '20 at 16:16
  • OK, sorry, you're right. I'll try to edit tomorrow when have more time :) – kuska Dec 21 '20 at 17:02

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