That it is well known is part of my point--I never claimed to say anything original about symbolism, just to note that there was a very long tradition of defining it as Symons does. But it does make the point I merely noted. I disagree that all poetry is symbolist or aimed at eliciting anything spiritual. More to the point, many poets don't think so either.

Of course Williams cannot escape the fact that words are themselves symbols, he sought deliberately to reject what is symbolist (and it was one reason he intensely disliked Eliot's poetry). So this poem, for example, is about that. "No ideas but in things," as in no prior spiritual meanings; rather what the words do.

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
-- through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

This is not about whether there are poems that are symbolist or that seek some kind of transcendence, but whether it is intrinsic to poetry. It is not, if a great many serious poets are to count.

On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 8:46 PM, Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
All this is okay and well known. I think one will have to read Glenn Hughes. Thanks.


On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 7:25 PM Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
This is the beginning of Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a major early influence on Eliot. I copy it here because Symons distinguishes between the symbolism of all language by definition, and what he named "symbolist." This is online in pdf, by the way, and it can be downloaded. I simply pointed to the distinction Symons made, and as it was this book that Eliot read early and that made the distinction specifically, perhaps discussion might address the contrast Carrol noted and I emphasized.

My prior point was that not all poetry is or aims to be about the invisible. WCW pretty much hated the idea (though of course even he could not eliminate images and symbols entirely, but he wanted "no ideas but in things). Symons describes what he sees as a particular historic form of poetry, not language in general and not poetry by definition.



"It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or

unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages,

moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best

recognise symbolical worth, and prize it highest."


WITHOUT symbolism there can be no literature;

indeed, not even language. What

are words themselves but symbols, almost as

arbitrary as the letters which compose them,

mere sounds of the voice to which we have

agreed to give certain significations, as we have

agreed to translate these sounds by those combinations

of letters ? Symbolism began with

the first words uttered by the first man, as he

named every living thing; or before them, in

heaven, when God named the world into being.

And we see, in these beginnings, precisely what

Symbolism in literature really is: a form of


expression, at the best but approximate, essentially

but arbitrary, until it has obtained the

force of a convention, for an unseen reality apprehended

by the consciousness. It is sometimes

permitted to us to hope that our convention

is indeed the reflection rather than merely

the sign of that unseen reality. We have done

much if we have found a recognisable sign.

"A symbol," says Comte Goblet d'Alviella,

in his book on The Migration of Symbols,

" might be denned as a representation which

does not aim at being a reproduction." Originally,

as he points out, used by the Greeks to

denote "the two halves of the tablet they

divided between themselves as a pledge of

hospitality," it came to be used of every sign,

formula, or rite by which those initiated in

any mystery made themselves secretly known

to one another. Gradually the word extended

its meaning, until it came to denote

every conventional representation of idea by

form, of the unseen by the visible. "In a

Symbol," says Carlyle, "there is concealment

and yet revelation: hence, therefore, by Silence

and by Speech acting together, comes a double

significance." And, in that fine chapter of


Sartor Resartus, he goes further, vindicating

for the word its full value: "In the Symbol

proper, what we can call a Symbol, there is

ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some

embodiment and revelation of the Infinite;

the infinite is made to blend itself with the

Finite, to stand visible, and as it were, attainable


It is in such a sense as this that the word

Symbolism has been used to describe a movement

which, during the last generation, has

profoundly influenced the course of French

literature. All such words, used of anything

so living, variable, and irresponsible as literature,

are, as symbols themselves must so often

be, mere compromises, mere indications. Symbolism,

as seen in the writers of our day, would

have no value if it were not seen also, under

one disguise or another, in every great imaginative

writer. What distinguishes the Symbolism

of our day from the Symbolism of the past

is that it has now become conscious of itself, in

a sense in which it was unconscious even in

Gerard de Nerval, to whom I trace the particular

origin of the literature which I call Symbolist. [emphasis mine]

The forces which mould the thought of


men change, or men's resistance to them slackens;

with the change of men's thought comes

a change of literature, alike in its inmost

essence and in its outward form: after the

world has starved its soul long enough in the

contemplation and the re-arrangement of material

things, comes the turn of the soul; and

with it comes the literature of which I write in

this volume/a literature in which the visible

world is no longer a reality, and the unseen

world no longer a dream.

On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 7:05 PM, Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. 
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight. 
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night. 

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, 
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends 
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed. 

The poetry does stretch beyond the visible, the said, and implicates the invisible, the unsaid, the incommensurable, the ultimate. 

A pretty symbolic mode. 


On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 5:51 PM Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
It seems impossible to say anything without it becoming a totally tiresome personal attack. I did say something, as did Carrol. I don't see any point to repeating it. But mean-spirited personal remarks do not mean I missed anything. And as obnoxious as it is to say this, I really don't think you are qualified to tell me what I understand or miss. One could quite logically--from your statement--argue that symbols give classified ads the CAPACITY [emphasis yours] to elicit the incommensurable and transcendent. In fact, watching even a few on TV suggests that fast cars, chocolates, shampoo, air fresheners, Cialis (though in separate bathtubs), "everything's better when it ships free," (now have a slightly hysterical upsurge of ecstasy), [fill in your own]--are all instant routes to the incommensurable and transcendent.

This is predictable and immediate leap to sneering is also, I think, why this list long ago ceased to sustain any real discussion.

On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 5:37 PM, Ken A <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
In the ever so brief quote from Hughes, he said the symbolic nature of poetry gives it the CAPACITY to elicit the incommensurable and transcendence. Why assert that this excludes anything else that poetry might do? Carrol and you apparently missed that seemingly reasonable part of the formulation.  Of Carrol's objection to Hughes' wordiness: at least Hughes had something to say. Most especially on the T S Eliot list, I would hope that poetry's dealings with ultimate meaning, the incommensurable, and transcendence constitute eminently appropriate topics of conversation.

Ken A
On Feb 5, 2017, at 4:58 PM, Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
The issue I raised is about "symbol" vs. "symbolist."

On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 4:46 PM, Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
"Neither flesh nor fleshless"

"concentration / Without elimination" 

No, it does not exclude anything. It includes the physical as well as the metaphysical.  Only it does not exclude the ultimate, the permanent, the Absolute. It adds something to, and thus enriches, our experience of this world. 

Who is the third who walks always beside you? 
When I count, there are only you and I together 
But when I look ahead up the white road 
There is always another one walking beside you 
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded 
I do not know whether a man or a woman 
—But who is that on the other side of you? 


On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 1:12 PM Nancy Gish < [log in to unmask]> wrote:
The issue here is, as you note, what one means by "symbolic." Hughes seems to think it is the same as "symbolist" in the notion of being a gateway to a spiritual world outside physical reality. That would seem to cut out a great deal of poetry--like imagism, or WCW or Levertov or any poet who saw or sees poems as ways to engage with the material world directly.

Otherwise, as you say, it is just a tautology.

On Sun, Feb 5, 2017 at 1:07 PM, Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
"Because poetry is fundamentally symbolic in its form, it possesses the
capacity to suggest the incommensurable and unknowable of the transcendence
and thereby reawaken the spiritual experiences that gave rise to the symbols
and stories of poetry in the first place."

This is an odd proposition. Classified ads are fundamentally symbolic. Porn
videos on YouTube  are fundamentally symbolic. Coffee-shop chatter is
fundamentally symbolic. Nothing in particular follows from the tautology
that poetry is symbolic.

The portentousness of the mere word, "symbol," is itself a bit odd.

And what is the difference between "poetry is symbolic" and "poetry is
fundamentally symbolic in its form"?