The Parnassian Movement
The Parnassian Movement
The Parnassian Movement comprised a group of young poets writing in mid-nineteenth century France. Taking their name from the Greek mountain sacred to Apollo and the Muses, the Parnassians, while displaying considerable breadth of subject matter and style, were characterized by their concern for craftsmanship, objectivity, and lasting beauty. Critics, describing the movement as the poetic workshop of the mid-century, recognize the importance of the Parnassians in developing the artistic voices that emerged in reaction to Romanticism and laid the groundwork for the Symbolist and Decadent poetic traditions. While Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle is recognized as the leading figure of the Parnassian movement, it also included the work of Théodore de Banville, Henry Cazalis, François Coppée, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, José-Maria de Heredia, Sully Prudhomme, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire.
Identified by such names as Les Stylistes, Les Formistes, and Les Impassibles, the poets became known as the Parnassians following the publication in 1866 of Le Parnasse contemporain: recueil de vers nouveaux (The Contemporary Parnassus: An Anthology of New Verse). The publication, produced by Alphonse Lemerre and collected in collaboration with Catulle Mendès and Louis-Xavier de Ricard, includes the verse of thirtyseven poets whose work was drawn from the literary salons of Mendès, Ricard, Leconte de Lisle, and Nina de Villars. The collection granted important critical and public exposure to its poets, and was successful enough to warrant publication of subsequent volumes in 1871 and 1876. As the centerpiece of the movement, the three volumes of Le Parnasse contemporain are considered, claims critic Aaron Schaffer, to "represent a phenomenon of the utmost importance in the history French lyric poetry." Together, they comprise the work of ninety-nine poets and contain, according to Schaffer, "representative verses of virtually every poet of any significance in the third quarter of the century."
While Lemerre, Mendès, and Ricard are generally credited with bringing the Parnassians together, critics point to Théophile Gautier as the intellectual and artistic progenitor of the movement. His plea in 1832 for "art for art's sake," a decided reaction against the social Romanticism which was popular at the time, called for a recognition of art independent of any moral, social, or scientific consideration. This ideal, later adopted as a principal tenet of the Parnassian movement, was developed from the aesthetic writings of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Schiller, and put into practice in his two-volume collection of poetry, Emaux et camées (Enamels and Cameos), first published in 1852. Gautier's concern with preserving the autonomy of art was not only a reaction against the predilections of Romanticism, but was also, according to critic Robert T. Denommé, an attempt "to encourage and ensure the practice of poetic expression in a society predominantly concerned with more immediately useful values." And, otherwise lacking a definitive theory or doctrine, it was this theme under which the Parnassian poets united.
Better understood as sharing an artistic attitude rather than a specific technique, the poets of the Parnassian movement rejected the emphasis on subjective expression and unrestrained imagination which characterized the Romantic period. Disenchanted with the values which dominated mid-century France, the Parnassians conceived their poetry as a way to divorce themselves from social context. Instead of concerning themselves with social or political considerations, they advocated perfection of form, language, and pictorial imagery. Eschewing all which fell outside the "art for art's sake" ideal inherited from Gautier, the Parnassians attempted to create a lasting art which transcended both the attitudes and predispositions of the artist as well as the reality of the times in which it was produced. Often linked to the idea of scientific positivism, the Parnassian movement advocated form as an inseparable part of content, and sought to restore art to its original purity, stripping away all other considerations. "The world of beauty," claimed Leconte de Lisle, "the only objective of Art, comprises in itself an infinite which can have no possible contact with any type of inferior conception." The search for a lasting beauty led the Parnassians, and Leconte de Lisle in particular, to the culture and art of ancient Greece. Denommé writes, "De Lisle's conception of Hellenism constituted one of the principal cornerstones … of Parnassianism. The antiquarianism he advocated gave fuller dimension to such notions as antiutilitarianism, impersonalism, scientific orientation and the idealization of beauty which eventually became part and parcel of the outlook of the major Parnassian poets."
While English-language criticism and translations of Parnassian poetry remain limited, the movement is recognized as having played an important role in the development of French poetry. Its reaction against Romanticism and championing of the "art for art's sake" doctrine not only protected art from the disapproving tenor of mid-century France, but allowed for the development of the Symbolist and Decadent poetic movements which would come to dominate French literature in the following years. And while the movement produced few poets of lasting renown, its significant influence has been recognized by artist and critic alike.
Premières poésies 1860, published in 1874
Poésies philosophiques 1874
Théodore de Banville
Les Exilés 1867
Petit Traité de versification française (prose) 1872
Festons et astragales 1857
Dernières chansons 1872
Henry Cazalis (Jean Lahor)
Vita tristis 1865
Oeuvres de François Coppée, Poésies, vols. 1864–78
Poèmes et poésis 1864
Les Lèvres closes 1867
Idylles et légendes 1870
Emaux et camées 1852
Les Vignes folles 1860
Les Flèches d'or 1864...
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Aaron Schaffer (essay date 1929)
SOURCE: "Parnassus in France," in Parnassus in France: Currents and Cross-Currents in Nineteenth-Century French Lyric Poetry, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1929, pp. 46–71.
[In the following excerpt, Schaffer provides an overview and history of the Parnassian movement, focusing on the poets and poetry featured in the three volumes of Le Parnasse contemporain.]
Romanticism had freed literature of the fetters that had so long shackled it, and now men no longer blushed to pour out their souls in verse and to give these verses to be read by others. In the hands of Lamartine, Hugo, Vigny, and Musset, lyric poetry again became in France one of the dominant genres; in those of Gautier it became a "thing of beauty" rather than of passion or of metaphysical contemplation. The stage was set for an efflorescence of lyric poetry such as France has seldom known; this efflorescence we are now prepared to study in its successive stages and to follow to its decline.
Gautier's Emaux et camées was published in 1852; fourteen years later the first Parnasse contemporain: Recueil de vers nouveaux issued from the press. The three intervening lustra were marked by epoch-making achievements in the realm of French literature: Leconte de Lisle's Poèmes antiques appeared in 1852, as did la Dame aux Camélias of...
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Parnassians And Epic Form
Herbert J. Hunt (essay date 1941)
SOURCE: "The General Contribution of Le Parnasse," in The Epic in Nineteenth-Century France: A Study in Heroic and Humanitarian Poetry from Les Martyrs to Les Siècles Morts, Basil Blackwell, 1941, pp. 367-401.
[In the following excerpt, Hunt details the contributions of several Parnassian poets to the development of the epic form in nineteenth-century French literature.]
There are few indeed among both greater and lesser Parnassians who did not at some time or other try their hand at pastiche epic. In fact, we might reasonably call it the characteristic form of a large group of poets whose set purpose it was to eschew the more fluid kinds of composition as too readily lending themselves to sentimental laxity and personal self-abandon. As a compensation for the self-restraint imposed upon them by the choice of episodic narratives, even when they conceived of them as a vehicle for elegy or for philosophic meditation, the poets enjoyed full liberty to exercise their ingenuity in the achievement of descriptive effects, to indulge their taste for local colour in setting scenes, for sculptural evocation in placing characters, for the technique of enumeration and suspension in unfolding action, and for dramatic sensation or epigrammatic surprise in preparing dénouements and establishing, by subtle hint or clearly-drawn inference, the equation...
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Parnassianism And Positivism
D. G. Charlton (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: "Positivism and Leconte de Lisle's Ideas on Poetry," in French Studies, Vol. II, No. 3, July, 1957, pp. 246-59.
[In the following excerpt, Charlton discusses the Parnassian movement in relation to positivism, asserting that the connection is weaker than commonly thought.]
It has been frequently alleged, especially in comparisons with the Symbolists, that the Parnassian poets are Positivistic in their attitude to life and poetry.1 Van Tieghem, for example, comments: 'Ceque les purs artistes de 1830-35 refusèrent aux Saint-Simoniens, les poètes de 1850-60 l'accordèrent au positivisme', whilst Jasinski concludes: 'Accord du scientisme et de l'esprit «artiste», tel est bientôt le vif de l'inspiration parnassienne.' And of Symbolism by contrast he writes: 'A la certitude positiviste, qui prétendait chasser toutes les ombres, il oppose la perpétuelle énigme de l'indéfini, de l'insondable.'2 Brunetière, Lanson, Thibaudet, Martino and many others all postulate or imply the same link: this generation, it is claimed, lives in the shadow of Auguste Comte.3
Such assertions need severe qualification for a number of reasons, and not least because the definition of Positivism they presuppose is often inexact or even erroneous. The term may be variously applied to the entirety of Comte's thought,...
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Brereton, Geoffrey. "Leconte de Lisle and Heredia." In An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, pp. 166-77. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.,1956.
Places the Parnassians between the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century and the Symbolist movement which emerged in the 1880s. Identifies José-Maria de Heredia as the only "pure Parnassian" poet of note, and Leconte de Lisle as "the high priest of La Parnasse."
Denommé, Robert T. "The Elaboration of a Poetic Creed." In Leconte de Lisle, pp. 29-43. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973.
Details Leconte de Lisle's support and defense of the "art for art's sake" philosophy and his incorporation of the classical aesthetic into the Parnassian movement.
Epstein, Edna. "Themes in Parnassian Poetry." Modern Language Review 65, No. 3 (July 1970): 541-51.
Describes the major ideological themes of the Parnassian movement, stressing the group's formal concerns and their placement of art in opposition to nature.
Harms, Alvin. "Heredia and the Parnassians." In José-Maria de Heredia, pp. 39-51. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
Details Heredia's connection to the Parnassian movement, his literary...
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