IT is a common belief that modern European poetry dates from the age of Symbolism; and that in particular the French symbolists of the late nineteenth century brought into being a style of writing and an attitude to literature which were radically new, and which if they did not at once produce masterpieces, were already coherent, mature, and fairly complete. Nothing is further from the truth. When we examine this impression of coherence, we tend to find ourselves thinking of the poetry of Claudel and Valéry, of Yeats and Eliot, of George and Rilke, and of the appropriate criticism and aesthetic which accompany them; and these are all fruits of the second generation (in principle, if not in strict chronology). The first generation, which is in fact known more by repute than by its artistic achievements, lived in a climate of intense discussion, uncertainty, and relative incoherence. It is to find out exactly what this first generation did think and say, and to clear up a number of misconceptions on the beginnings of present-day aesthetic, that the present book has been written.
Some of the materials drawn on for its arguments are inaccessible and scattered; I have not hesitated to quote from them at considerable length where I find certain matters have been unsufficiently attended to. For fairly obvious reasons I have kept within the limits of the French tradition, as much a precursor in this age as the German was a century earlier; and even within these limits, I have had to make a choice out of the vast mass of available evidence; but I am confident that it is a representative one.
For reasons of space, too, little emphasis has been laid on the actual imaginative literature of the years under review. Not of course that it can be disregarded, for the link between theory and practice is as close here as anywhere else: a new field of enterprise in poetry puts the aesthetician or critic on his toes; and conversely the critic, laying his finger suggestively on a new trend, does much to encourage its cultivation by the writers of his age. Plainly some knowledge of the literary output of Symbolism will be found helpful, if the theme is not to appear too dry and abstract.
In the field of French literature, as of aesthetic philosophy, I have taken every advantage of earlier work of sorting and classification and of original theoretical writings. Whatever originality the follow
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Publication information: Book title: The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895. Contributors: A. G. Lehmann - Author. Publisher: Basil Blackwell. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1950. Page number: v.
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