A symbol is an object invested with a particular set of meanings, not necessarily or obviously connected to it. It is a certain sort of sign, whose meaning is known only to the instructed. Whilst metaphor colours and describes, symbol gives meaning.

Examples of symbols

  • A cross in a particular shape and especially on or in a building, symbolises the Christian faith. Originally, a cross in this shape meant punishment in Roman times, but became invested with its symbolic meaning through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ
  • A red rose is commonly understood as a symbol of romantic love
  • Because of their constantly changing form, a cloud is often used as a symbol of mutability, as in Act 4 sc 14 of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion …
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

It does, my lord.

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

Public symbolism

So there are public symbols, commonly recognised in a culture:

  • Another set of public symbols is to be found in heraldry
  • Another set in ballet, which is a form of symbolic dance.

A set of symbols becomes its symbolism.

Other types of symbols are known as emblems (pictures in words) and leitmotifs (recurring theme tunes or phrases).

Private symbolism

Writers, especially modern writers, often produce their own private symbolism or individual symbols. These may stem from private and personal memories or incidents in their life. Sometimes they are private belief systems, drawn from more widely known symbolism, as in the case of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats:

  • One of Yeats' central symbols was the rose. The precise significance was drawn from various occult systems, including Rosicrucianism (literally 'the rose-cross')
  • Another set of his symbols derived from the phases of the moon. He had to write a book to explain the precise meanings.

Symbolic writers

Symbolic writers, if they are in a group, are known as Symbolists. Examples of Symbolists are:

  • The French poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Stephan Mallarmé
  • American poets Edgar Alan Poe and T.S.Eliot
  • British novelists Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. Dickens did not write consistent symbolist prose, but nevertheless used symbols widely, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy and E.M.Forster among many other writers.

Symbolism in psychoanalysis

Psycho-analysts, following Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung, also suggest that everyone has their private or shared symbols. Events in life or fears cannot always be faced directly. Other objects are invested with the emotions transferred from the original situations, often in dream form. Such symbols have powerful resonances and need skilled analysts to decode their true meaning.

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