In England, aspects of realism were seen in the works of the romantic artist Turner, who in his Rain, Steam, and Speed (Figure 12), showed the “anxious inheritors of romanticism’s confident expansiveness who felt, quite rightly, that their ancestors had lived a simpler world.”16 A group of young artists, calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), formed a society that not only wanted to represent the world in a more modest way, but also sought to “translate intensity of vision into intensity of color and detail.”17 Ophelia (Figure 13) by John E. Millais (1829-1896) was one of the masterpieces of this movement - a work filling every centimeter of the canvas with meticulous detail. The intensity makes it seem as if though the observer were present at the moment of the scene - as if the plants, the water, and the body were tangible.Christ in the House of His Parents (Figure 14) is another one of Millais’ works which obtained polemic attention for depicting Christ in an unconventional, humble, and un-glorified circumstance. He used an approach that, in many ways, depicted Christ’s family situation in a more realistic fashion than accustomed, using symbolism as a means to bring meaning to his work:18


                The cut in the child’s palms has come from the nail in the wood which St Anne is reaching to

                remove; the red of blood is echoed in the clothes of Joseph and Anne, and in a single red

                flower by the door. Against the wall on the left is what looks like the bottom half of a

                cross… and the water so anxiously carried by John the Baptist on the right looks forward to

                Christ’s baptism and the start of his ministry.19


Symbolism became a significant part of the language of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, just as it did for other artists in other circles. At a point in time when science was challenging empiricism, poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) dared to called symbolism the “alchemy of the word.”20


Poets began to reflect this scientific inquisitiveness in the way they combined words and formed their thoughts and images. They tried to surpass the limits of their perceptions to achieve greater and subtler ways to communicate.21 Discoveries in the field of psychology made artists focus on reality from a different perspective - a reality that included the subconscious and unconscious. Another characteristic seen in the works of symbolist writers was the concept of synesthesia - a synthesis of experience that allowed one to hear colors, see sounds, and taste smells. They used metaphors and images to express what could not “be expressed in more direct and rational terms.”22 In his “Art Poétique” (Figure 15), Paul Verlaine (1844-1866) explained what he wanted from poetry: “Let’s hear the music first and foremost.” His “Chanson d’automne” shows this connection he felt and called for between music and words:


        Les sanglots longs

        Des violons

        De l’automne

        Blessent mon coeur

        D'une langueur



        Tout suffocant 

        Et blême, quand

        Sonne l’heure,

        Je me souviens

        Des jours anciens

        Et je pleure;


        Et je m’en vais 

        Au vent mauvais

        Qui m’emporte

        Deçà, delà,

        Pareil à la

        Feuille morte. 



In many cases, composers of the same generation also used these ideas of these symbolist writers to explore similar concepts in music. The obvious connections are seen in the songs composed by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), who used the text of these symbolist poems. Verlaine’s C’est l’extase languorous from his Romances sans paroles is one of the many examples of poems used by both Debussy and Fauré.  


Debussy’s piano work La Cathédral Engloutie demonstrates this fusion of the senses that the symbolists were after. The stream of pentatonic chords make us imagine the ringing bells of the cathedral resonating throughout the church. The fluid tonality makes visible the waves of sound that go from one end of the cathedral to the other, creating a sense of the depth to the architecture. One can almost smell the incense and see the colors of the stained glass reflected on the walls. Debussy also experimented with other methods to find ways to “express the constant change of emotion or life.”24 In his opera setting of Maurice Maeterlinck’s (1862-1949) play Pelléas et Melisandre, he does this by veering away from the use of melodies, which (for him) only hindered that process.


French painters, as their literary counterparts, also made a substantial contribution to the symbolists oeuvre. They possessed a vision that allowed them to “convert the objects of the commonsense world into symbols of a reality beyond the world… ultimately a reality from within the individual.”25 This very personal approach allowed their imagination to take flight, cultivating the beginnings of what would later be known as surrealism. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was one of these painters who showed these dream-like qualities in his paintings. In his The Apparition (Figure 16), he renders a very untraditional version of the biblical story of Salome and John the Baptist. Salome is shown as the femme fatale, enjoying her power and influence over her step-father, King Herod. 







William Turner

Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844)



        16   Gilmour, The Victorian Period, 207. 

        17   Ibid., 209.

        18   Gilmour, The Victorian Period, 211.

        19   Ibid., 211.

        20   Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces, 4th ed., vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 1233.

         21   Fleming, Arts and Ideas, 349.

         22   Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 1232.

         23   Paul Verlaine, "Chason d'autumne," Poem of Paul Verlaine, trans. Henry McCarter, Project Gutenberg, accessed February 13, 2020,

         24   Fleming, Arts and Ideas, 350.

         25   Gardner, Art Through the Ages, 819.

         26   Verlaine, "Ars Poetique," Poetry Foundation, accesed May 12, 2020,



John E. Millais

Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850)



Figure 13

John Everett Millais

Ophelia  (1851)

Leaf-strewing gales

Utter low wail

Like violins,—

Till on my soul

Their creeping dole

Stealthily wins....


Days long gone by!

In such hour, I,

Choking and pale,

Call you to mind,—

Then like the wind

 Weep I and wail.


And, as by wind

Harsh and unkind,

Driven by grief,

Go I, here, there,

Recking not where,

Like the dead leaf.23




Gustave Moreau

The Apparition (1875)


De la musique avant toute chose,

Et pour cela préfère l’Impair
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air,

Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.


Il faut aussi que tu n’ailles point
Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise :

Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise

Où l’Indécis au Précis se joint.


C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,

C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,

C’est, par un ciel d’automne attiédi,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!


Car nous voulons la Nuance encor,

Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance !

Oh ! la nuance seule fiance
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor !


Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine,

L’Esprit cruel et le Rire impur,
Qui font pleurer les yeux de l’Azur,

Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine !


Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou !

Tu feras bien, en train d’énergie,
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie.
Si l’on n’y veille, elle ira jusqu’où ?


O qui dira les torts de la Rime ?

Quel enfant sourd ou quel nègre fou

Nous a forgé ce bijou d’un sou
Qui sonne creux et faux sous la lime ?


De la musique encore et toujours !

Que ton vers soit la chose envolée

Qu’on sent qui fuit d’une âme en allée

Vers d’autres cieux à d’autres amours.


Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure

Eparse au vent crispé du matin
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thyme...

Et tout le reste est littérature.


Paul Verlaine

Art Poétique (1884)

Music first and foremost! In your verse,

Choose those meters odd if syllable,

Supple in the air, vague, flexible,

Free of prounding beat, heavy or terse.


Choose the words you use - now right, now wrong - 

With abandon: when the poet's vision

Coupes the Precise with Imprecision,

best the giddy shadowns of his song:


Eyes veiled, hidden, dark with mystery,

Sunshinetrmebling in the noonday glare,

Staerlight, in the tepid autumn air,

Shimmering in night-bue filigree!


For Nuance, not Color absolute,

Is your goal; subtle and shaded hue!

Nuance! It alone is what lets you

Marry dream to dream, and horn to flute!


Shun all cruel ansd ruthess Railleries;

Hurtful Quip, lewd Laughter, that appall

Heaven, Azure-eyes, to tears; and all

Garlic-stench scullety recipes!


Take vain Eloquence and wring its neck!

Best you keep your Rhyme sober and sound,

Lest it wander, reiness and unbound-

How far? Who can say? - if not in check!


Rhyme! Who will its infamies revile?

What deaf child, what Blck of little wit

Forged with worthess bauble, fashioned it

False and hollow-sounding to the file?


Music first and foremost, and forever!

Let your verse bne what goes soaring, sighing,

Set free, fleeing from the soul gone flying

Off to other skies and loves, wherever. 


Let your verse be aimless chance, delighting

In good-omened fortune, sprinkled over

Dawn's wind, bristling scents of mind, thyme, clover...

All the rest is nothing more than writing.26


Translated by Norman R. Shapiro