It takes courage to break rules. The various experimental, counter-cultural or otherwise Bohemian literary movements of 19th Century Europe found this courage by banding into tribes. It is particularly impossible to study the works of seminal French poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine or Rimbaud without feeling smothered by labels, cross-groupings, re-definitions of previous boundaries and other contemporary attempts to define their right to create free verse about honest feelings.
The purpose of this page is to describe the actual meanings of the various groupings below, and as much as possible to understand the origins of the terms and the meanings they help to those who, whether voluntarily or not, were known by these names.
The Romantic movement originated in late 18th Century England, and is primarily identified with English writers such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Romantic “craze” was well known in France, though, and certainly helped to inspire some of the French crazes that would follow.
“Romantic poetry” does not indicate goofy verses about roses, violets and hearts. Rather, it evokes the medieval literary form known as the “romance”, a popular, exciting type of story that usually described the heroic and tragic adventures of ancient lovers with names like Tristan, Isolde, Floire, Blanceflor or Havelock the Dane.
The idea of a return to the literary simplicity and immediacy of medieval romances must be understood as a revolt against the modern, rational, scientific style of life in post-medieval, “enlightened” Europe. A medieval romance stressed emotion over logic, and was typically written in a vernacular language (such as Italian) rather than a classical language such as Greek or Latin. The poets of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century felt oppressed by classical influence and wanted to plumb the murky depths of human experience rather than waft upwards to intellectual or rational heights.
The romantic revolt against classicism calls to mind other artistic movements based on regression to more pleasing, less lofty forms, such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez’s evocation of Guthrie-era folk in the age of “rock and roll”, or Picasso and Braque’s employment of African primitive art forms in their first cubist paintings.
For many decades, the Romantics were exclusively British. The first were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, quickly followed William Blake and then by an amazingly attractive new generation of wild Romantics, Lord Byron, Percy Byshhe Shelly and Mary Shelley (the Peter, Paul and Mary of British poetry) and John Keats, all of whom became personal celebrities as well as major poets.
The boundaries of Romanticism could not be contained by England, though. Later writers known as Romantics included Victor Hugo (“Les Miserables”) and Stendhal in France, Pushkin in Russia, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other Transcendentalists in America.
Though the group of French poets we are mainly concerned with here are often now known as Symbolists, the term “Symbolist” was consciously created to replace a word they were already known by, which had less healthy connotations. Charles Baudelaire was frequently called a “Decadent” poet, particularly when his works were being banned and his character assassinated. In the late 19th Century a group of writers including Jules LaForgue tried to embrace this term, and a review called Le Decadent went into print.
Mt. Parnassus, in the Pindus range in central Greece, was sacred to Apollo, the God of the Sun. A group of French writers, including the poet Leconte de Lisle, claimed inspiration from this mountain, and began to call themselves the Parnassians. Like the British Romantics, they were a freethinking and intellectually adventurous group, but they stressed the importance of order, tradition and technical excellence in poetry, and in this sense were seen as less radical and more “mainstream” than the original Romantics. The term “Parnassian” is not widely known today, but the influence of this group was very present in the the intellectual circles of this era. A popular journal known as Le Parnasse Contemporain was launched in 1866.
Naturally, the Parnassian’s lukewarm rejection of Romantic extremities produced a virulent rejection in reverse. The best (though not the most successful) poets of the time, such as Paul Verlaine and Stephan Mallarme, felt oppressed by the bland perfectionism of the Parnassian crowd, and proudly threw off the Decadent label to proclaim themselves Symbolists in 1866. On September 18 of this year, a manifesto to this effect, composed by the poet Jean Moreas, was published in the Le Figaro. This is the label these poets are typically known by today.
The term “Symbolist” refers to a literature that stresses indirect suggestions, emotional shadings and ironic references in place of direct and intelligible statements. The idea of “symbolism” may best be understood as something akin to Freudian or Jungian psychology. An image from a dream is an example of the kind of symbol these poets considered valuable. As in the original tenets of Romanticism, literature is reaching into murky depths, plumbing the subconscious, and submitting to the moral and spiritual void that may (or may not) be found there.
The final term we must discuss is perhaps the most confusing in that it refers to an actual nation, Bohemia, which had virtually nothing to do with the literary or cultural movement that borrowed its name. Bohemia, a minor Eastern European kingdom caught between larger kingdoms, ceased to exist after World War I, when it was absorbed into Czechoslovakia (the Bohemian lands, including the city of Praque, are now a part of Czech Republic). In Western Europe, the term “Bohemian” was often incorrectly used to refer to Gypsies, even though Gypsies are now known to have emerged from somewhere within the Middle East, which is nowhere near the Czech Republic.
The first usage of the term “Bohemian” (meaning, literally, “Gypsy”) to refer to the disaffected and impoverished young artists and students of Paris has been traced to a popular French journalist and dramatist, Felix Pyat, who wrote a series of essays about “kids today” in a publication called Nouveau Tableau de Paris au XIX Siecle in 1834. He described this personality type as “alien and bizarre … outside the law, beyond the reaches of society … they are the Bohemians of today.”
The term did not catch on in a huge way, though, until 1845 when a writer named Henry Murger, himself a bohemian (and the model for his own character Rodolphe), began producing a series of stories about himself and his friends for a small Paris newspaper called Le Corsaire-Satan. These stories were later collected in book form and staged as a play, Scenes de la vie de Boheme, which was a tremendous hit and an almost unbelievably definitive influence on French society. Today this play is mainly known as the source of the Puccini opera ‘La Boheme’, but the opera was not introduced until 1896, when the Bohemian youth movement had already been old news for decades.
I have no idea how any of this relates to the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody”.