Symbolism: South America and Russian Symbolist Poetry

Francoise Rosset, Wheaton College

Discussions of Russian Symbolism usually emphasize the international nature of the Symbolist movement and its common goals and interests across cultures. But the fact is, many of these discussions of Symbolism in Russia tend to reference primarily one major "other" Symbolism -- the French tradition embodied in the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and several other French writers of the period.

The purpose of this paper is to go further afield and explore a more untrodden frontier, the Symbolist poetry of Latin American poets, and in the process compare the Latin Symbolist tradition(s) with those of Russia. The two poets most commonly associated with Symbolism in Latin America are Nicaraguan-born Rubén Darío, who lived in various parts of Central and South America, and the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig; this paper will focus on both, and on the Russian poets Blok, Bely, Gippius and Ivanov. And the discussion will inevitably veer off towards French Symbolism as well, since it serves as a common subtext and context. Just as most Russian Symbolists (and post-Symbolists as well) acknowledged their interest in Baudelaire and French Symbolism, Darío explored the concepts of synaesthesia and “eternal harmony,” mentioned France repeatedly in his poems and even wrote some work in French, while Herrera y Reissig was fascinated by Baudelairean dandyism and the decadent streak in Symbolism.

The purpose of this paper is comparative, but the scope of the comparison remains limited. This is not an attempt to trace mutual "influences," for at this point it seems that, if some Russian poets knew of the Latin poets, there is no evidence that this knowledge was deep; conversely, there is little evidence that the Latin Symbolists were familiar with the Russians.
Rather the paper will flesh out some of the international contexts of Russian Symbolism, other traditions whose works parallel the poems of the Russians, and show a remarkable confluence of aesthetic ideas (and a common focus on other arts), shared interests in the musicality of verse and the general cultural harmony known as synaesthesia, a shared fascination with decadence, mysticism, and the evanescent nature of experience.