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More than any other art form, poetry permits its writers to articulate their emotions and express the inner workings of their minds, body, and soul. Specifically, metaphors and symbolism give an extra sense of depth to said words and ideas, and give poetry a subjective lens that allows the reader to resonate more with the art. Symbolism in poetry uses indirect suggestions and symbolic images to further the intensity of meaning. Its style has influenced many famous poets, including the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Frost. When used as a literary device, symbolism means to imbue objects with a certain meaning that is different from their original meaning or function. Other literary devices, such as metaphor, allegory, and allusion, all aid in the development of symbolism. Authors use symbolism to tie certain things that may initially seem unimportant to more universal themes. The symbols then represent these grander ideas or qualities. For instance, an author may use a particular color that on its own is nothing more than a color, but hints at a deeper meaning.

Symbolism began in the late nineteenth century as an art movement of French, Russian, and Belgian origin Symbolism, as a type and movement in poetry, emphasized non-structured internalized poetry that describes thoughts and feelings in disconnected ways and places logic, formal structure, and descriptive reality as a background. “Influences on the Symbolist poets included the dark, introspective romanticism of William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe” (Academy of American Poets 2004). The influence of Edgar Allan Poe and other famous poets inspired the author Charles Baudelaire to publish the first piece of literature with this style called Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. The book’s “…dark, introspective, multifarious worlds revealed subjects and styles that had been previously barred from poetic inclusion, and for this reason, Baudelaire was alternately celebrated and condemned as a heretical and even obscene innovator” (2004), and as time went on, the aesthetic of such a unique and intriguing style grew in popularity; by the twentieth century, it attracted an entire generation of writers. From that point forward, symbolism had become a distinct form in the art community.

Robert Frost, one of the most famous American poets, preferred to use metaphors in his style of symbolism. Metaphors are devices that build an analogy between two things rather than having one thing symbolically represent another thing not present in the poem or an abstract thought. Frost’s poems do have some symbolism, however. His most well-known poems, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Road Not Taken,’ have symbols that stand for choices and the paths people take in life. In the latter, this symbol is the fork in the road. Flowers are a symbol for a loved one in his poem ‘Rose Pogonias.’ In that poem, they represent his wife Elinor. Frost was a literary genius but gained his early inspiration from the poet Edgar Allan Poe. “As an adolescent, Frost immersed himself in Poe’s work and assimilated his style to produce several ingenious parodies and imitations of Poe, especially in the April and December 1891 issues of the Bulletin” (citation and explanation).

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The symbolic structure that dominates this school of poetry allows for many different interpretations of its writing, encouraging deep analysis and reflection. Some famous poems using symbolism have hidden meanings that remain a mystery, and are open to vast interpretation. For example, “A Road Not Taken”, a short poem by Robert Frost, describes two roads that he is faced with. The roads themselves could symbolize several things: mainly choices, and he picks the one less traveled. Frost is one of many artists who uses symbolism to create meaning in his words. Paul Valéry may also be considered one of the most important symbolist thinkers, as he is commonly described as a pivotal figure of many poetic schools. His work built upon the work of the writers mentioned above and eventually became a foundation for twentieth-century modernists and structuralists. His “highly self-conscious and philosophical style” influenced English-language writers such as T. S. Eliot and John Ashbery (Academy of American Poets 2004). His work as a critic and theorist of language was important to many of the structuralist critics of the 1960s and 1970s.

The term symbolist was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the Symbolists from the similar work of Decadents, a style that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality, in both literature and art around the same time. There are many symbols in everyday settings that have a an automatic connotation with certain poems. Not all poets use symbolism as a poetic device.

Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ is a good example of a poem that has both easily found symbols and intricate deeper meanings. Rereading the poem to analyze it displays how it can be objectively and subjectively approached. The raven is a symbol of ill fortune, and it can communicate the meaning of the word “nevermore” more effectively than any other creature. That the raven lands on the bust of Pallas is another symbol, connecting the nonsensical word ‘nevermore’ with a symbol of wisdom. This allows the reader to interpret that the raven’s word has more wisdom and meaning than previously thought.

In the poem, there is no clear description of Lenore. Her looks are not described, and the relationship between Lenore and the narrator is unknown. It is not important, as there is a clear sense of longing from the narrator, which is the main focus of the poem. The lack of details regarding Lenore makes her a likely symbol. “She may represent idealized love, beauty, truth, or hope in a better world. She is ‘rare and radiant’ we are told several times, an angelic description, perhaps symbolic of heaven” (Lorcher 2016). Lenore may symbolize truth: the narrator cannot help but think of her, and her ubiquitous, yet elusive, nature haunts the narrative.

Nature and time are less recognizable, despite being just as prominent, symbols in the poem ‘The Raven’ The poem is set at midnight and “…in December, implying that something is ending, but also symbolizing a new beginning. The bad weather in the poem also stands for the nature of the man’s dark feelings” (Meehan 2017). Knowing what symbols mean in one poem allows the reader to use this knowledge to interpret other poems. Major descriptions of the atmosphere in poems can be used to interpret the more abstract ideas of inner thoughts and feelings. A common symbol such as midnight is “traditionally referred to as the witching hour and the darkest part of the night–midnight is more than a number on the clock. It is no accident that Poe chooses this as the time for the bird’s arrival. December lives in the winter. December is in the winter. December symbolizes death” (Meehan 2017). These types of symbols are called traditional symbols because they are common in many of the original poetry.

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