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What is W.B. Yeats' definition of symbolism? |

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The Symbolist movement in France, from which Yeats took much of his inspiration, was largely formed in reaction to the dominant naturalism of the age. Symbolist writers railed against what they saw as naturalism's obsession with mere exteriority, with a precise, unerringly detailed description of the material world and everything in it. In response, Symbolism laid great emphasis on the treatment of fleeting sensations and experiences, those all-too-brief moments of quasi-mystical epiphany which often come to us at certain points in our lives. In place of the objectivity of naturalism, Symbolists stressed the importance of the subjective for art in general and poetry in particular.

Symbols were vital in that they gave shape to the constant, ever-changing flow of subjective experience. Symbols, of their very nature, suggest and hint, rather than provide the kind of literal meaning that naturalism seeks to give us. They point toward a higher reality than the senses can provide. To a large extent, Symbolism is a rebellion against the world of matter, the spatio-temporal world in which we live our daily lives.

As a convinced spiritualist as well as a poet, Yeats found himself irresistibly drawn toward the use of symbols in his work, which he believed expressed profound elemental truths that had existed since the dawn of time. He drew a distinction between two kinds of symbol: traditional and personal. Traditional symbols were those that had been in use for quite some time. A rose as a symbol of love would be an obvious example. Personal symbols were those created by the poet himself to capture and express the ceaseless flux of his own subjective experience.

As Yeats progressed as a poet, his use of symbols became ever more personal and complex. Examples of his personal symbols include the tower, which at various points in Yeats's work symbolizes ancient heritage, loneliness, or in "A Prayer for My Daughter," a dark and dismal future. Yeats's symbol of the bird, like all his personal symbols, is incredibly dynamic, taking on a life of its own as it develops and adapts, depending on the individual poem's context. For instance, the falcon in "The Second Coming" is an altogether different creature from the swans in the "The Wild Swans at Coole."

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