The Sacred Grove (1886) by Arnold Boecklin (1827 – 1901)
Of the French Symbolist School of poetry, Nicolas Berdyaev writes in his Crisis of Art (1917) that its contributors not only acutely sensed the profound spiritual crisis that had shaken and shattered Western culture since the Eighteenth Century at least, but attempted a new, redemptive synthesis that would function as the equivalent of “the sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world.” (The translation is that of Father S. Janos.) The Symbolist poets, as Berdyaev plausibly describes their aspiration, “wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era”; they sensed that the arts “are a product of differentiation” of an historical type, and that they “derived from a temple and cultic origin… developed from an organic unity” and “were subordinated to a religious center.” The Symbolists, Berdyaev asserts, were the last Western artists to strive for pure beauty before the schools of aschemiolatry, in a spasm of “empty freedom,” began their program of bespattering the cosmos with mud and offal. Berdyaev even ascribes to the Symbolists a theurgic propensity. In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), he defines theurgic art as “creating another world, another being, another life,” even to the extent of “creating beauty as essence, as being.” (The translator identifies himself only as “D. A. L.”) For the Russian, theurgy in art consists in a revelation of “the religious-ontological, the religious meaning of being.” Theurgy, as “free creation,” seeks to imitate, under the limitations of mortality and temporality, the original creative act of the World Maker, not so as to challenge, but only so as to imitate, the God whose image man bears. The Symbolists in this way make themselves followers of such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach, artists who attributed their creativity hence also their creations not to themselves but, as faithful Monothreeists, to the Three-in-One.
Berdyaev’s observations in The Creative Act and The Crisis are themselves strongly indebted to the poetry and prose of the Symbolists, not least to the musings of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the works of Richard Wagner and Alexander Scriabin. Like their Kiev-born inheritor, the Symbolists were mainly reactionary – as the cases of Baudelaire and Wagner well illustrate. Again like Berdyaev, the Symbolists combined in their creative work and in the explanations thereof their keen sense of transcendence, their anthropological clarity, and their profound vision of cultural decline. Such men were somewhat paradoxically modern in asserting new genres in their respective artistic domains while at the same time both rejecting modernity per se and advocating for the virtues of the West’s pre-modern phases, sometimes in the Middle Ages and sometimes in antiquity. The Symbolists also tended to valorize Christianity. In Mallarmé’s Coup de dès or Roll of the Dice (1897), for example, whose bewildering anti-verses seem in their typographic dispersion to represent the chaos of false freedom, Christ appears as “Le Maître,” “The Master,” who is also the early Nineteenth Century Right-Catholic critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre. Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), whom Mallarmé took as his model, explicitly identified himself as the successor of the same Maistre. In these essential gestures, Symbolism links itself to the larger reactionary critique of “progress” and “revolution” that first becomes explicit in Edmund Burke and in the very same Maistre. The Symbolists must then exert considerable allure on the reactionary, anti-modern consciousness of the early Twenty-First Century – one hopes.
The present essay proposes to examine two short Symbolist poems, both sonnets, and both from the early phases of the movement. These are “Vers dorés” (1846) by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) and “Correspondences” (1857) by Baudelaire, the latter appearing in the poet’s famous verse-anthology Les Fleurs du Mal or Flowers of Evil. In its commentary on the two poems, the essay will bring to bear the insights into Symbolism of Berdyaev, certain elements of the anthropologies of Maistre and René Girard, and the Weltanschauung and generalized convictions of the reactionary consciousness of the Twenty-First Century. The mixture might strike readers as a bit arbitrary or even as vertiginous, but its fundamental coherency should gradually make itself evident. It is a premise of the reactionary consciousness that art is fundamentally conservative and that in its highest expression it is a species of prophesy or apocalypse, at once illuminating the fallenness of the world and pointing the fallen creature towards transcendence of its condition.