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The Parnassian Movement

The Parnassian Movement Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Louise Ackermann

Premières poésies 1860, published in 1874

Poésies philosophiques 1874

Théodore de Banville

Les Exilés 1867

Petit Traité de versification française (prose) 1872

Louis Bouilhet

Festons et astragales 1857

Dernières chansons 1872

Henry Cazalis (Jean Lahor)

Vita tristis 1865

l'Illusion 1875

François Coppée

Oeuvres de François Coppée, Poésies, vols. 1864–78

Léon Dierx

Poèmes et poésis 1864

Les Lèvres closes 1867

Anatole France

Idylles et légendes 1870

Théophile Gautier

Emaux et camées 1852

Albert Glatigny

Les Vignes folles 1860

Les Flèches d'or 1864

José-Maria de Heredia

Les Trophées 1893

Alphonse Lemerre, publisher

Le Parnasse contemporain: recueil de vers nouveaux, 3 vols. [collaboration of several poets] 1866, 1871, 1876

Leconte de Lisle

Poèmes antiques 1852

Poèmes et poésies 1855

Poèmes barbares 1862

Les Poètes contemporains (essays) 1864

Catulle Mendès

Soirs moroses 1868

Poésies de Catuule Mendès première série, 1871

Contes épiques 1872

Sully Prudhomme

Les Épreuves 1866

Louis-Xavier de Ricard

Ciel, rue et foyer 1865

Louis de Ronchaud

Poèmes de la Mort 1886

Armand Sylvestre

Poésies 1860–74

Poésies 1872–78

Paul Verlaine

Poèmes saturniens 1867


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 Dumas fils; the year 1857 saw the publication of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Baudelaire's les Fleurs du mal, and Théodore de Banville's Odes funambulesques. In the field of the novel and the drama, the pendulum swung from the extreme of Romanticism to that of Realism, a swing that was the resultant of numerous forces: the unprecedented advances made in the various sciences, the rise to power of the moneyed bourgeoisie with its emphasis upon the value of physical possessions as opposed to artistic creations; briefly, the positivism of which Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer were the philosophical mouthpieces. Poetry, though recognizing the encroachment of the materialistic spirit and in a measure succumbing to it, was yet determined to maintain its independence; and it was the Parnassian group that stood forth as the defenders of Erato in her "struggle for existence." Let us, then, acquaint ourselves with the history of le Parnasse contemporain.

In the year 1859, there came up to Paris from Bordeaux a Jewish banker, Tibulle Mendès, his Catholic wife, and an eighteen-year-old son who very appropriately bore the name of Catulle. This young man enjoyed a most liberal allowance, which he seemed eager to squander, for he soon hit upon the idea—hardly an original one for provincials in Paris—of founding a review. He was not slow in carrying out his idea and the result was what he himself has styled "le premier des journaux parnassiens."1 The periodical flaunted the name of la Revue fantaisiste, and it specialized in printing the poems, sketches and fantasies of a group of young writers who were distinguished "par la témérité des opinions et par l'impertinence aussi de l'attitude." The review was interested in only two things, "la Poésie et la Joie." It was favored with the high patronage of Gautier, Banville, and Baudelaire, and some of its contributors later carved their names in large letters upon the history of French poetry. At the bureau of la Revue fantaisiste, there would gather of an afternoon, Banville, Charles Asselineau, Philoxène Boyer, Baudelaire, Albert Glatigny, and numerous others. One of the contributors to the Revue was a young musician who was struggling bitterly for recognition and whose Tannhäuser had been hissed off the stage of the Opéra in Paris—Richard Wagner. "Presque tous les poètes d'alors vinrent à la Revue fantaisiste," Mendès tells us, and he claims the credit for having helped to bring to light such talents as Villiers de l'lsle-Adam, Sully Prudhomme, and Léon Cladel. A one-act play of his own, le Roman d'une nuit, which Mendès published in his review, brought the author-editor a fine of five hundred francs and one month's imprisonment on the charge of "immorality." The fine was too heavy for the purse of la Revue fantaisiste, the strings of which had apparently been cut by Mendès' father, who was at first none too sympathetic towards his son's literary bohemianism, and the periodical expired. It was succeeded, as mouthpiece of some of its contributors, by such journals as la Revue française and la Revue du progrès, short-lived and otherwise unimportant, while the better-known Revue de Paris printed the verses of such of the future Parnassians as Heredia, Verlaine, Cladel, and others.

During these early years of the sixties, a group of poets, among whom were Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Léon Dierx, Heredia, and Armand Silvestre, had been meeting regularly, every Saturday, at the home of Leconte de Lisle in the boulevard des Invalides. Simultaneously, Mendès, in his handsome apartment in the rue de Douai, was conducting his own salon, with such poets as Coppée, Léon Valade, and Albert Mérat, as his guests. The two groups were brought together by the Hellenist Louis Ménard, and placed themselves at once under the tutelage of Leconte de Lisle. The meetings of this amalgated cénacle were devoted to free discussions of philosophy, æsthetics, and especially literature; in the words of Emile Zola, the group "se cloîtrait dans un coin pour faire de la poésie une véritable religion."2 Not infrequently, one of the assembled poets would read a composition of his own. Leconte de Lisle was a severe judge, but he was appreciative of any type of genius, provided it was animated by "la vénération de l'art, le dédain des succès faciles." It was in this group that the idea of le Parnasse contemporain originated.

Another element had to be assimilated, however, before Parnassus could definitely be transported to Paris. The members of the Leconte de Lisle-Mendès band, impecunious poets who were rich in nothing but leisure, gathered also, at more or less regular intervals, at the home of Théodore de Banville and at the salons of the poetess, Mme. Nina de Callias, the princess Mathilde, and the Marquise de Ricard.3 The lastnamed, a woman of culture and intelligence, had a son, Louix-Xavier de Ricard, who, like Mendès, was casting his generous allowance into the insatiable maw of a review of which he was, of course, the editor—a handsomely made up and consequently expensive weekly entitled l'Art, the second of the "journaux parnassiens." Mendès, foreseeing the early demise of this periodical, prevailed upon Ricard to convert it into a magazine devoted exclusively to poetry, to be edited jointly by the two men.

The result was le Parnasse contemporain: Recueil de vers nouveaux.4 Mendès takes the credit (though others have disputed it) for the coining of the name, the idea for which he received from collections of verse like Théophile de Viau's le Parnasse satirique. Five issues of the new review appeared at irregular intervals in 1865, and it would soon have gone the way of most literary periodicals had not the group been introduced by a rather erratic violinist, Ernest Boutier, to Alphonse Lemerre who undertook its publication. Lemerre's offices in the passage Choiseul at once became the rendezvous of the contributors to the review, who had almost spontaneously come to be known as the Parnassiens,5 and who filled the room which had been assigned to them by the publisher with their boisterous criticisms and recitations of their verses. In a series of triolets called "l'Entresol du Parnasse," Gabriel Marc,6 a cousin and disciple of Théodore de Banville, brings together, in Lemerre's shop, Leconte de Lisle, Banville, Mendès, Heredia, Theuriet, Coppée, Glatigny, Sully Prudhomme, Valade, Mérat, Dierx, d'Hervilly, Armand Renaud, Cazalis, Lafenestre, and Armand Silvestre. These men, and a score of others, were the authors of the poems selected by Mendès and Ricard for the eighteen numbers of the review, which were, in 1866, bound and issued as a single volume bearing the name of the periodical. And thus was achieved the transmigration of Mount Parnassus.

Alphonse Lemerre was, apparently, a shrewd business man. It is difficult to suppose that, in offering to assume the costs and responsibility of the publication of le Parnasse contemporain, he did so merely as a Maecenas to a group of struggling poets whose work might otherwise never have been seen in print.7 Be that as it may, le Parnasse contemporain evidently proved a sound financial investment. For, three years later, in 1869, Lemerre prepared for publication a second Parnasse contemporain: Recueil de vers nouveaux, containing characteristic verses of no less than fiftysix poets, among whom were practically all of the original thirty-seven. Mendès and Ricard had very little hand in the editing of this volume, which was assembled under the direction of Banville, and the actual publication of which was delayed until 1871, though the title-page bears the date of 1869; this Recueil was less representative of the Parnassians than had been its predecessor.8 Lemerre, by this time, was also the official publisher of the members of the group, whose individual volumes he was bringing out in rapid succession. These ventures must have brought the entrepreneur ample returns; for, in 1876, he issued le Parnasse contemparain: Recueil de vers nouveaux, number three. The poets honored by inclusion now counted sixty-three; the comparative homogeneity of the first collection had entirely disappeared, and, though most of the Leconte de Lisle-Banville-Ricard enthusiasts were to be found within the covers of the third Recueil, they were now rubbing shoulders with numerous interlopers, some of whom were outspokenly hostile to the Leconte de Lislean and Banvillean aesthetics. In a word, the once proud Parnasse contemporain had degenerated into a mere anthology. There was no fourth Recueil.

From the foregoing, it is evident that the three volumes of le Parnasse contemporain represent a phenomenon of the utmost importance in the history of French lyric poetry. In its pages are to be found representative verses of virtually every poet of any significance in the third quarter of the century, with the single exception of Victor Hugo. That Hugo is not to be found between its covers may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that, at the time of the preparation of the first two Recueils, he was still enjoying his exile on the island of Guernsey, and that, in 1876, when the third Recueil appeared, the editors feared to approach him on the subject of inclusion in a mere anthology. Be that as it may, if Hugo was not actually a collaborator of the Parnasse contemporain, his spirit undoubtedly hovered over those who were responsible for its inception. Champions of the cultivation of art in an age rapidly growing more and more materialistic, the original Parnassians thought with veneration of the great rebel of the Romantic cénacle. And, with Hugo ever in mind, they sounded the call to all the poets of the day who truly worshipped at the altar of poesy to rally about the standard. The call was answered by a host of men and women, most of them overflowing with the enthusiasm of youth, and some of them to take their places, before long, in the very forefront of contemporaneous poetry. Many of the poems which were printed in the Parnasse had previously, to be sure, appeared in volumes published by their authors; but an even greater number here saw the light of day in print for the first time. Not a few of the younger Parnassians may be said to have made their literary début in the pages of the Parnasse, to have been "brought out" by one or another of the three Recueils.

A warning must be sounded at this point, however, against the error into which many critics and literary historians have fallen, largely through inadequate acquaintance with the actual contents of the three Recueils. These writers are constantly speaking of the "Parnassian school" and its "doctrine," and passing judgments which indicate that they look upon the Parnassians as an entity after the fashion of the sixteenth-century Pléiade. Nothing could be farther from the truth; … the heterogeneity of the group [can be seen] from the points of view of influence, native endowment, temperament, philosophy of life, and literary technique. Let us, for the moment, listen to Catulle Mendès on the subject. Mendès begins the first of the four lectures which he delivered in Brussels on the theme of the "légende du Parnasse contemporain" with the assertion that the Parnassians had not given themselves this name but had been thus dubbed by adverse critics after the publication of their first collection of "vers nouveaux." Even before the appearance of the 1866 Recueil, the group had been honored with several sobriquets: because of their concern with style and external form, they had been called by some les Stylistes, by others les Formistes; as a result of their connection with the Revue fantaisiste, they had been named les Fantaisistes; and a poem from the pen of Glatigny, entitled "l'Impassible," earned them, Mendès claims, the nickname of les Impassibles.9 As a matter of fact, the poets of the French Parnassus were generally considered "grotesques", and it was not long before the word "Parnassien" became a term of denigration in the mouth of the bourgeois. Mendès then insists, with all the conviction at his command, that the Parnassians were merely a "groupe" and not an "école." "Attirés," he says, "les uns vers les autres par leur commun amour de l'art, unis dans le respect des maîtres et dans une égale foi en l'avenir, ils ne prétendaient en aucune façon s'engager à suivre une voie unique…. Aucun mot d'ordre, aucun chef, toutes les personnalités absolument libres."10 Some of the poets were interested in antiquity—religious, historical, or mythological—others in the various aspects of contemporaneous life. The motto of the group might have been: "Fais ce que tu pourras, pourvu que tu le fasses avec un religieux respect de la langue et du rhythme." And in another account of the aims and achievements of the Parnassians," Mendès sums up this diversity of outlook and of technique in the following sentence: "Je ne pense pas qu'à aucune époque d'aucune littérature des poètes du même moment aient été à la fois plus unis de cœur et plus différents par l'idée et par l'expression." The Parnasse contemporain was not to be the organ of any one group, but was intended to be, and was, eclectic in its nature; it proposed to serve the same function for poetry that the Salon does for painting.12

Before entering upon our study of the contents of the three volumes of the Parnasse contemporain, we may do well to cite the opinions of two writers who were, by temperament, diametrically opposed to the Parnassians—Henri-Frédéric Amiel and Emile Zola. Amiel, the Swiss professor who might have been one of the foremost literary critics of his day if his overmastering self-consciousness had not lamed his mind and his hand whenever he set out to write for publication and whose undeniable talents were to be revealed only in his posthumously published Journal intime, was himself a poet, but one whose aspirations, as he himself sadly confessed, far exceeded his gifts. His reactions to the Parnassians were definitely hostile; on December 9, 1877, a year after the publication of the third Parnasse contemporain, he made the following pronuciamento in his diary:13

Les Parnassiens sculptent des urnes d'agate et d'onyx, mais que contiennent ces urnes? de la cendre. Ce qui manque, c'est le sentiment vrai, c'est le sérieux, c'est la sincérité et le pathétique, c'est l'âme et la vie morale. Je m'efforce en vain d'aimer cette manière d'entendre la poésie. Le talent est prestigieux, mais le fond est vide. L'imagination veut tout remplacer. On trouve des métaphores, des rimes, de la musique, de la couleur; on ne trouve pas l'homme. Cette poésie factice peut enchanter à vingt ans; mais qu'en peut-on faire à cinquante? Elle me fait songer à Pergame, à Alexandrie, aux époques de la décadence, où la beauté de la forme cachait l'indigence de la pensée et l'épuisement du cœur. J'éprouve avec intensité la répugnance que cette poétique inspire aux braves gens. On dirait qu'elle n'a souci de plaire qu'aux blasés, aux raffinés, aux corrompus, et qu'elle ignore la vie saine, les mœurs régulières, les affections pures, le travail rangé, l'honnêteté et le devoir. C'est une affectation, et parce que c'est une affectation, l'école est frappée de stérilité. Le lecteur désire dans le poète mieux qu'un saltimbanque de la rime et un piqueur de vers; il veut trouver en lui un peintre de la vie, un être qui pense, qui aime, qui a de la conscience, de la passion, du repentir.

Zola, the self-professed founder and law-giver of the Naturalist school, had much the same fault to find with the Parnassians, but stressed their "uselessness" more than their "unmorality."14 He first crucifies Gautier as the inventor of the theory of "l'art pour l'art." All of Gautier's written and spoken work, says Zola,

a été une gymnastique étourdissante sur le terrain du paradoxe. Il écrivait comme on peint, avec le seul souci des lignes et des couleurs…. Il apoussé du premier coup le romantisme à la perfection classique…. Le romantisme se fige dans l'artpour l'art qui est sa forme classique… Dèsqu'une littérature ne vit plus que par les mots, elle meurt. Avec Gautier, le romantisme … en est à sa phase parfaite, … qui annonce l'écroulement. Il n'y a plus d'idée dessous, plus de base humaine, plus de logique ni de vérité. L'école n'aura bientôt qu'à se faisander avec les Parnassiens et à mourir de sa belle mort…. C'est un romantisme …devenant dogmatique, se glaçant pour imposer une formule de beauté parfaite et éternelle…. Laversification ainsi entendue devient un art délicat, très compliquée et très charmant, qui se suffit à luimême en dehors de l'idée.

Zola was indignant over the fact that the Parnassians stopped up their eyes and their ears "pour ne pas être troublés par le milieu vivant qui les entourait…. Tous reconnaissaient la souveraineté de la forme, tous juraient de bannir les émotions humaines de leurs œuvres…. Il fallait être sculptural, sidéral, se placeren dehors des temps et de l'histoire, mettre son génie à trouver des rimes riches et à aligner des hémistiches aussi durs et aussi éclatants que le diamant." But, like Amiel, Zola is compelled to admit the surpassing wizardry of the Parnassians as artists. "Jamais, à aucune époque," he finds himself avowing, "on n'a rimé avec une largeur plus grande. La langue française, sous leurs doigts, a été travaillée comme une matière précieuse." Ironically enough, Mendès, the historiographer of the French Parnassus, returned Zola's compliment by declaring that the Médan group15 were Parnassians and that Nana was "la création d'un poète"16 rather than the depiction of a phase of life as seen by a Naturalist.

The very enemies, thus, of the Parnassians were compelled to make grudging admission of the fact that, whatever else they may have done or neglected to do, they were, for the most part, animated by an exceedingly lofty ideal. This ideal, borrowed from Gautier

and practiced assiduously by the leaders of the group, may be styled, for our purposes, Parnassianism; it was never formulated into a "doctrine," and it represented an attitude rather than a technique. In its broadest sense, it was, briefly stated, a constant striving after perfection of form, with the elimination, as far as was humanly possible, of the personal element; only the first half of this definition, however, might be said to hold true for all the Parnassians, for the Baudelairean wing of the group, at least, was as introspective, in its own peculiar way, as were ever the most rabid of the Romanticists. Preoccupation with form and objectivity was not confined to the Parnassians, properly so called; they were manifest in the works of the great novelists and dramatists of the period, in those, for instance, of Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas fils. The critic Brunetière, therefore, states, with some show of justice, that, if the birth of Parnassianism at all bears dating, the year to which this event might best be attributed would be 1857, which saw the publication of Madame Bovary, les Fleurs du mal, Dumas' la Question d'argent, and the first edition of the complete works of both Leconte de Lisle and of Théodore de Banville.17 The grouping of the names of these two poets and of Baudelaire is most significant for our purpose; for it was under their guidance and inspiration that the new generation was attempting the difficult task of clambering beyond the foothills of Parnassus. Describing this tripartite influence, Gautier asserts that some of the Parnassians imitated the "sérénité impassible" of Leconte de Lisle, others the "ampleur harmonique" of Banville, and still others the "âpre concentration" of Baudelaire, "chacun," however, "avoc son accent propre qui se mêle à la note empruntée."18 The Parnassians' concern for form was so intense as frequently to degenerate into a maniac clownery and more than occasionally to make for banality, if not even for nullity, of content. By their mass effort, the group lent to the theory of "art for art's sake" appropriated from Gautier a dignity it might otherwise have lacked. For those who think, with Brunetière19 that form is the chief justification of poetry, the Parnassians performed a signal service in the cause of French lyric verse; but the groups who denominated themselves Symbolists and Decadents, "transfuges du Parnasse contemporain," rebelled violently against this form-idolatry and "ont revendiqué l'ancienne liberté du poète."20 Thus, the Parnassians found themselves before long in the position of revolutionaries who have substituted their autocracy for the one they have been at such pains to annihilate, and whose despotism, equal to that of the deposed tyrants, hastens their own overthrow.

Hardly had the first issues of le Parnasse contemporain appeared than an outburst of violent carpings was leveled at the heads of its collaborators. The irascible Barbey d'Aurevilly was one of the bitterest of the critics; in a series of "Médaillonets" contributed to le Nain jaune during the month of November, 1866, he fired a fusillade at each of the thirty-seven poets of the group.21 The attack at times took on the guise of burlesque. Thus, a band of young poets—either because they had not been invited to contribute to le Parnasse contemporain or for more genuinely artistic reasons—composed, early in December, 1866, a collection of parodies under the general title of le Parnassiculet contemporain.22 This otherwise totally unimportant volume almost provoked a duel between the leader of the hostile group, Paul Arène, and Catulle Mendès, and called forth replies in kind from various Parnassians. In April, 1867, there appeared, for example, a periodical called la Gazette rimée, published by Lemerre, a satirical review, the expenses of which were borne by one of the lesser Parnassians, Robert Luzarche, and the principal contributors to which were Paul Verlaine and Anatole France. Other periodicals created to defend the group against its vilifiers were la Parodie, which dragged out a brief existence in 1869; la Renaissance littéraire et artistique, issued at about the same time; la Revue du monde nouveau, in 1874; le Siècle littéraire, in 1875, and, in the same year, perhaps the most important of all, la République des lettres. The greater number of the contributors to these periodicals were Parnassians; and la République des lettres, owned and directed by Catulle Mendès, the original "fantaisiste," enjoyed comparative success, as it lasted for three years. With his usual sympathy for youthful writers, irrespective of literary leanings, Mendès published in this review not only the poems of his colleagues, but the compositions of such men as the members of Zola's Médan group, æsthetically the very antipodes of the Parnassians. Thus, Maupassant, Huysmans, Léon Hennique, and Paul Alexis appeared in its pages; and, most surprising of all, when the periodical which was printing Zola's l'Assommoir in instalments suspended its publication because of the furor it was creating, Mendès, realizing the true merits of the work, welcomed the Naturalist leader into his fold and carried the novel to its completion in la République des lettres. In this way, Mendès confuted the charge (made, among numerous others, by Zola himself) that the Parnassians were a closed corporation; moreover, as early as 1871, the same enterprising lover of the arts had inaugurated a series of "matinées de poésie ancienne et moderne" in the théâtre de l'Ambigu, the prime purpose of which was to acquaint the populace of Paris with the poetic strivings of these so-called impassible artists. By 1880, the Parnassians had earned an almost legendary position in the history of mid-nineteenth-century French literature; but the rumblings of revolt that had been faintly making themselves heard were soon to burst forth in the Symbolist-Decadent reaction which, for the next two decades, almost completely crowded their literary progenitors off the stage of French lyric poetry.

We are now prepared to offer ourselves a bird's-eye view of the contents of the three volumes of le Parnasse contemporain. The first Recueil, as we have seen, was published in 1866 and contained the contributions of thirty-seven poets. That the work was undertaken under the ægis of Gautier is demonstrated by the fact that the volume opens with a group of five poems from his pen. The attachment of the Parnassians to the Romanticists is evidenced by the inclusion of two members of the earlier Romantic cénacle, Emile Deschamps, one of the founders of la Muse française, and his brother Antoni. Arsène Houssaye, a hanger-on of Romanticism in the days of its decline and for seven years director of the Comédie française, is represented by a far larger group of poems than his talents deserved. With the publications of compositions of these four poets, the Parnassians seemed to feel that they had fulfilled their obligations to the parent body, for the overwhelming majority of the contributors were young men and women, many of them in their early twenties in 1866. Most of these budding geniuses went to school to one or another of the three poets whose names have already been linked, Leconte de Lisle, Banville, and Baudelaire; these men and their immediate disciples play so important a rôle in the development of French lyric poetry of the latter half of the nineteenth century that they merit consideration in independent chapters. Banville, who follows Gautier in the Recueil, is represented by only one poem, "l'Exil des Dieux," an elegy on the disappearance of the pagan gods and all that their names connote, which may be regarded as the keynote of the volume. Time and again, the strain of sadness and of ennui, of hatred for the bourgeois and his new gods, is to be heard in the verses of the Parnassians. Aphrodite, as spokesman for the gods in Banville's poem, laments:23

… Nous errons vaincus parmi les fondrières.


Homme, vil meurtrier des dieux, es-tu content?


Tout est dit. Ne va plus boire la poésie
Dans l'eau vive! les dieux enivrés d'ambroisie
S'en vont et meurent, mais tu vas agoniser.
Ce doux enivrement des êtres, ce baiser
Des choses, qui toujours voltigeaient sur tes lèvres,
Ce grand courant de joie et d'amour, tu t'en sèvres!

Then follow five sonnets by José-Maria de Heredia, the last of which, "Prométhée," echoes Banville's plaint in the words, "car il n'est plus de Dieux."24 Heredia's master, Leconte de Lisle, appears next, with a group of nine characteristic poems, in the last of which, "la Dernière vision," the poet prognosticates the end of mankind and of all its illusions:

Et ce sera la Nuit aveugle, la grande Ombre
Informe, dans son vide et sa stérilité,
L'abîme pacifique où gît la vanité
De ce qui fut le temps, et l'espace, et le nombre.25

The Leconte de Lislean ideal is most succinctly expressed, in this volume, by a sonnet called "Nirvana," the first of a series of five "Sonnets mystiques" by Louis Ménard who, it will be later shown, had pronounced literary and philosophical affiliations with the master. The sonnet bears quoting in its entirety.26

L'universel désir guette comme une proie
Le troupeau des vivants; tous viennent tour à tour
A sa flamme brûler leurs ailes, comme autour
D'une lampe l'essaim des phalènes tournoie.

Heureux qui, sans regrets, sans espoir, sans amour,
Tranquille et connaissant le fond de toute joie,
Marche en paix dans la droite et véritable voie,
Dédaigneux de la vie et des plaisirs d'un jour!

Néant divin, je suis plein du dégoût des choses;
Las de l'illusion et des métempsycoses,
J'implore ton sommeil sans rêve; absorbe-moi,

Lien des trois mondes, source et fin des existences,
Seul vrai, seul immobile au sein des apparences,
Tout est dans toi, tout sort de toi, tout rentre en toi!

The remaining sonnets of Ménard reveal the same weariness with life. "Thébaïde" concludes with the statement that the poet has found, in place of "le ciel rêvé dans l'âpre solitude," only "la morne impuissance et l'incurable ennui."27 And again, in "la Sirène":

Mais moi, je ne sais pas pourquoi j'ai voulu naître;
J'ai mal fait, je me suis trompé, je devrais bien
M'en aller de ce monde où je n'espère rien.28

This ennui is, of course, a heritage of the Romantic era and is to be observed in the verses of a goodly majority of the Parnassians. One of the youngest of them, François Coppée, who was later, because of his predilection for subjects drawn from the life of the "submerged tenth" to earn for himself the title of "le poète des humbles," voices the same languorous boredom in the four poems by which he is represented in the Recueil.

The third of the triumvirs who held sway over the younger Parnassians, Charles Baudelaire, is represented in the first Parnasse contemporain by a group of no less than fifteen poems printed under the caption of Nouvelles fleurs du mal. The first of these is an "Epigraphe pour un livre condamné" in which the "peaceful and bucolic reader" is urged: "Jette ce livre saturnien, Orgiaque et mélancolique." The poet whose Fleurs du mal had stirred up a scandal similar to that of Madame Bovary appeals: "Lis-moi pour apprendre à m'aimer" and closes with the cry: "Plains-moi … sinon, je te maudis."29 All the poems are marked by the magic workmanship of their creator and the temptation is almost overpowering to quote freely from them, inasmuch as they exemplify Baudelaire's individual peculiarities. In "Madrigal triste," the poet, with his characteristic perversity, pictures a love strikingly different from that of a Lamartine or a Musset.

Je t'aime surtout quand la joie
S'enfuit de ton front terrassé;
Quand ton coeur dans l'horreur se noie;
Quand sur ton présent se déploie
Le nuage affreux du passé.30

As long as she will not have felt "l'étreinte de l'irrésistible Dégoût," his love will be unable to declare: "Je suis ton égale, ô mon Roi." In "Recueillement," the poet bids his grief be calm: "Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche";31 and in "le Gouffre," he paints the "multi-form nightmare of fear" which pervades all of life:

En haut, en bas, partout, la profondeur, la grève,
Le silence, l'espace affreux et captivant.

J'ai peur du sommeil comme on a peur d'un grand trou,
Tout plein de vague horreur, menant on ne sait où."32

Here we have the Romantic longing known as the "mal du siècle" turned inside out and its hollow nothingness exposed.

Sully Prudhomme, one of the most important of the poets for whom the Parnasse contemporain was the "jumping-off point," contributed to the Recueil three poems, the first of which, "les Ecuries d'Augias," shows him already preoccupied with the questions of justice and truth. A sonnet, "le Doute," also reveals the metaphysical penchant which was to make of him the philosophical poet of his day:

La blanche Vérité dort au fond d'un grand puits.
Plus d'un fuit cet abîme ou n'y prend jamais garde;
Moi, par un sombre amour, tout seul je m'y hasarde,
J'y descends à travers la plus noire des nuits.

Et j'entraîne le câble aussi loin que je puis;
Or, je l'ai déroulé jusqu'au bout, je regarde,
Et, les bras étendus, la prunelle hagarde,
J'oscille sans rien voir ni rencontrer d'appuis.

Elle est là cependant, je l'entends qui respire,
Mais, pendule éternel que sa présence attire,
Je passe et je repasse et tâte l'ombre en vain.

Ne pourrai-je allonger cette corde flottante,
Ou remonter au jour dont la gaîté me tente,
Et dois-je dans l'horreur me balancer sans fin?33

Another sonnet well worth citing is that with which Paul Verlaine opens a group of seven short poems. The æsthetics of the Leconte de Lisle Parnassians, whom Verlaine was soon to abandon to become the follower of Baudelaire and the divinity of the Decadents, is to be found succinctly stated in "Vers dorés":

L'art ne veut point de pleurs et ne transige pas,
Voilà ma poétique en deux mots: elle est faite

De beaucoup de mépris pour l'homme et de combats
Contre l'amour criard et contre l'ennui bête.

Je sais qu'il faut souffrir pour monter à ce faîte
Et que la côte est rude à regarder d'en bas.
Je le sais, et je sais aussi que maint poète
A trop étroit les reins ou les poumons trop gras.

Aussi ceux-là sont grands, en dépit de l'envie,
Qui, dans l'âpre bataille ayant vaincu la vie
Et s'étant affranchi du joug des passions,

Tandis que le rêveur végète comme un arbre
Et que s'agitent—tas plaintif—les nations,
Se recueillent dans un égoïsme de marbre.34

The Baudelairean heritage is manifest in such poems as "Cauchemar" and "Dans les bois," where the poet trembles "à la façon d'un lâche," and the very brooks "font un bruit d'assassins."35 "Mon rêve familier" paints the unknown woman whom the poet might love:

Son regard est pareil au regard des statues,
Et pour sa voix lointaine et calme et grave, elle a
L'inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues.36

This same statuesqueness is masterfully achieved in a brief water-scape, "Marine"….

In a group of nine poems, Stéphane Mallarmé, the second of the outstanding disciples of Baudelaire, gives voice to a long cry of sterility and hopelessness. In "le Sonneur," the poet declares that he is weary unto death:

J'ai beau tirer le câble à sonner l'idéal,


Mais, un jour, fatigué d'avoir enfin tiré,
O Satan, j'ôterai la pierre et me pendrai.37

"L'Azur" opens with a stanza in the same strain;

De l'éternel Azur la sereine ironie
Accable, belle indolemment comme les fleurs,
Le poète impuissant qui maudit son génie
A travers le désert stérile des Douleurs.38

Life is ineffably wearisome. "La chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres," begins "Brise marine,"39 and in the "Epilogue" to his group of contributions, the poet threatens to break with his past:

Je veux délaisser l'art vorace d'un pays Cruel ….40

[The score] or more remaining contributors to the first Parnasse contemporain need not retain our attention much longer…. For the present, a word will suffice on the subject of a few of those whose names appear in the table of contents of the Parnasse contemporain and who merit at least passing attention. That the editors of the first Recueil, Catulle Mendès and Louis-Xavier de Ricard, were better organizers than poets is evident from the verses which they included as most characteristic of their talents. The very names of Mendès' contributions—"le Mystère du lotus," "Dialogue d'Yama et d'Yami," "l'Enfant Krichna," and "Kamadéva"—testify amply to the fact that the ebullient Catulle was paying Leconte de Lisle his usual compliment of imitation. The only point worthy of note in Ricard's nine poems is his use of a verse-form which he calls "sonnet estrambote" and which has three, instead of the usual two, tercets rhyming aab ccb ddb or aab cbc bdd. A poet of real power & is Léon Dierx, represented in the first Recueil by six poems. Finally, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, later to become celebrated as the author of Contes cruels and other works in prose, began as a Parnassian, with three poems in the first Recueil. The collection is brought to a close with sonnets by seventeen poets including, in addition to virtually all those mentioned thus far in this chapter, Léon Valade, Albert Mérat, and Henri Cazalis, who also wrote under the pseudonym of Jean Lahor.

Let us now cast a rapid glance over the second and third volumes of the Parnasse contemporain in order to note their most significant features. It is the second Recueil that contains the sonnet called "l'Impassible"…. This poem was written in 1866, too late for inclusion in the first Parnasse and is here quoted because of its possible connection with the point raised by Mendès as to why the Parnassians were also sometimes called les Impassibles":

La Satiété dort au fond de vos grands yeux;
En eux, plus de désir, plus d'amour, plus d'envie;
Ils ont bu la lumière, ils ont tari la vie,
Comme une mer profonde où s'absorbent les cieux.

Sous leur bleu sombre, on lit le vaste ennui des Dieux,
Pour qui toute chimère est d'avance assouvie,
Et qui, sachant l'effet dont la cause est suivie,
Mélangent au présent l'avenir déjà vieux.

L'infini s'est fondu dans vos larges prunelles,
Et, devant ce miroir qui ne réfléchit rien,
L'Amour découragé s'assoit, fermant ses ailes.

Vous, cependant, avec un calme olympien,
Comme la Mnémosyne, à son socle accoudée,
Vous poursuivez, rêveuse, une impossible idée.41

Mendès, it will be remembered, declares that it is to Albert Glatigny's "l'Impassible" that the group owed this particular one of its many nicknames. Now Glatigny's poem has as little reference to a band of poets as does Gautier's sonnet, both clearly depicting the hetaira who has been disenchanted in her search for the ideal lover. As a matter of fact, there is little need to look to either of these poems for the origin of this sobriquet of the Parnassians, inasmuch as the adjective "impassible" had been applied to Leconte de Lisle soon after the appearance of his Poèmes antiques in 1852, and the epithet might readily have been transferred from the master to his disciples.

In this connection, it is of interest that Glatigny's "l'Impassible" was not published in any of the three Recueils, although four poems from his pen are included in the second Parnasse. This unusual personage, a strolling actor by profession and a poet by avocation, is the subject of the larger part of the first conférence of Mendès' Légende, in which the pseudo-historian exaggeratedly dates the birth of Parnassianism from his meeting with Glatigny in Paris in about 1860. Some attention will be given the picturesque career of this barnstorming histrion in our study of Théodore de Banville and his followers.

Leconte de Lisle and Banville are, of course, both to be found between the covers of the second and third Recueils; but the name of Baudelaire, who had come to his pitiful end in 1867, is not included. Leconte de Lisle is represented by a biblical poem, "Kaïn,"42 in the 1869 collection, and in that of 1876 by "Hiéronymus,"43 the first part of what was to be anepic poem, in three parts, to be known as l 'Epopée du moine. Banville's contribution to the second Recueil was a group of ten "ballades joyeuses"44 and to the third a bouquet of "rondels composés à la manière de Charles d'Orléans." Heredia's sole attempt at a poem de longue haleine, an epic of the conquest of Peru and its gold by Pizarro, entitled "la Détresse d'Atahuallpa" never advanced beyond the prologue "les Conquérants de l'or," which is to be found in the second Parnasse; and in the third there is a group of twenty-five sonnets from the hand of this master sonnetteer.45 Another truncated composition in the second Recueil is Mallarmé's dramatic poem, Hérodiade, which he styles "fragment d'une étude scénique d'un Poème de Hérodiade."

Among the poets whose names appear for the first time in the second Recueil is a group of no less than five women: Nina de Callias, Louisa Siefert, Mme. Auguste Penquer, Mme. Blanchecotte,46 and Louise Colet, more celebrated as the mistress of Flaubert than in her own right. But by far the most noteworthy of the débutants of this volume is Anatole France. In his early twenties at the time of the publication of the original Parnasse, France was carried away by the love of antiquity that animated the Leconte de Lisle cénacle, and the second Recueil contains two poems of his in the Biblical strain, while the third published the first part of his neo-pagan les Noces corinthiennes.47 Anatole France, however, could not long endure the shackles of poetry, and he soon passed into the fields of fiction and criticism in which he won the laurels that made him universally recognized as the supreme French prosateur of his day.

Of the minor poets of the Parnassian group, at least four should be mentioned here: Léon Cladel, whom Mendès styles "un des plus grands lyriques du siècle,"48 Armand Silvestre, Albert Mérat and Léon Valade. The two last-named were inseparable friends who shared Mendès' enforced poverty when the banker's dissatisfaction with his son's bohemian dilletantism had compelled him to endure the privations of the Latin Quarter garret, and they had later been presented by him to Leconte de Lisle and his disciples. Mérat earned for himself some slight renown as the poet of the environs of Paris, and it is these that he celebrates in a group of seven poems published in the second Parnasse under the name of Hors des murs. The contributions of Valade to the three Recueils are in the lofty strain of the poet conscious of the dignity of his calling and thirsty for a share in the universal beauty.

A word about a few of the contributors to one or another of the three Recueils who did not, properly speaking, belong in the fold, and we shall have concluded this rather dreary catalogue. Victor de Laprade (1812–1883) was a somewhat windily pompous poet whose cultivation of antiquity made him, in a sense, a predecessor of Leconte de Lisle, though he was never actually a member of the Parnassian group. Mme. Louise Ackermann (1813–1890) enjoyed some consideration as a philosophical poet. Paul Bourget, the foremost present-day exponent of the psychological novel in France, began as a poet, disciple of Anatole France and Leconte de Lisle. The celebrated critic, Sainte-Beuve, who entirely disclaimed poetry after the severance of his relations with the Romanticists (about 1840), has somehow or other crept into the second Recueil with one poem. Auguste Barbier (1805–1882), whose volume of political verse, les Iambes (1831) brought him momentary glory, was all but rescued from oblivion by the same Recueil; and Paul de Musset, shining in the light reflected by his brother, is represented in the anthology, as is Jean Aicard, later to become a staid member of the French Academy. Finally, Eugène Manuel and Armand Renaud, poets of the people like Coppée, are given places in the seats of the mighty.

The three volumes of the Parnasse contemporain, thus, are a rather amorphous congeries of verses from the pens of a varied assortment of lyric poets of every degree of endowment, from Gautier and Leconte de Lisle down to the veriest poetaster. It is significant, indeed, that the contributors to the third Recueil are listed in alphabetical order; this volume, at least, was looked upon as a mere anthology, whereas the other two collections had been edited with some view to presenting the work of poets animated largely by similar artistic ideals. What, then, is the importance of the three Recueils? Briefly, they may be said to offer us a cross-section of French lyric poety of the third quarter of the last century which would scarcely be obtainable in any other manner. Here we see the genre in divers stages of growth, from the feeble Romanticism of the brothers Deschamps through the great neo-Romantics, the Parnassians properly so called, to the horde of poets who received at their hands their first training in the difficult task of Pegasus-taming and then, in many instances, turned their steeds along the new paths of Symbolism and Decadence. The Parnasse contemporain permits us, as it were, a glimpse into the poetic workshop of the middle of the century; here we see poets who have "arrived" extracting from previously-published volumes compositions to serve as stimulus to their disciples; here we observe the neophytes making their first faltering steps up the steep slopes of Parnassus. Many of the poems in the three Recueils are intrinsically precious, many others are worthless; all are representative. In keeping alive the flame of poetry at a time when scientific positivism was making its most serious inroads into art, le Parnasse contemporain performed an invaluable service, and is consequently, despite its obvious shortcomings, deserving of a generous chapter in any history of French lyric poetry. Virtually every poet of the succeeding generation underwent, positively or negatively, the influence of the Parnassians, just as the dramatists who followed Scribe had all to reckon with that "carpenter of plays." Even the vers-librists, paradoxical though this may seem, are in their debt, if not for their technique, at least for their susceptibility to form and line and color in the manifestations of the objective world and for their feeling for the nuances of words….


1 Mendès: la Légende du Parnasse contemporain, deuxième conference, from which the quotations on the following pages are taken, execpt where otherwise noted.

2Documents littéraires (Paris, Charpentier, 1881, chapter on "les Poètes contemporains").

3 For a discussion of the Parnassian salons, vide the present author's article, "The Parnassians at Play," which is to appear in the Romanic Review early in 1930.

4 Paris, Lemerre, 1866.

5 The authorship of this name has been attributed to Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly who, in a series of articles called "Médaillonets" (printed in le Nain jaune in November, 1866) bitterly attacked the thirty-seven contributors to le Parnasse contemporain.

6 A contributor to the second and third series of the Parnasse. The "Entresol du Parnasse" was written in 1870 and published in Marc's volume, Sonnets parisiens (1875).

7Cf. on this point, Remy de Gourmont: Promenades littéraires, vol. V (Paris, Mercure de France, 1913, p.49).

8 In the Nouvelles littéraires for October 10, 1925, Marcel Coulon publishes an interesting letter, hitherto "inédite," from Arthur Rimbaud to Banville, dated May 24, 1870. Rimbaud, then only fifteen years old and later to become the boon companion of Verlaine and the deity of the Symbolists, sent Banville three poems with the following request: "Si ces vers trouvaient place au Parnasse contemporain?—Je ne suis pas connu, qu'importe?" Rimbaud had been encouraged in this request by the fact that the Parnasse contained poems not only by the masters, but also by poets of second and third rank, and some even by totally unknown writers. But Rimbaud's contributions were not included in the second Parnasse contemporain.

9 Contained in les Vignes folles (Poésies complètes, Paris, Lemerre, 1879, p. 43). Mendès incorrectly states that this poem was dedicated to Gautier, whereas it was actually inscribed to Baudelaire. Mendès' error may have arisen from the fact that Gautier, too, was the author of a sonnet called "l'Impassible," which will be quoted and discussed later in this chapter.

10Op. cit., pp. 19 et seq.

11Le Mouvement poétique français de 1867 à 1900 (Paris, Fasquelle, 1903, p. 114).

12 Vide J. Huret: Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire (Paris, Charpentier, 1891, p. 289).

13 Vol. II, pp. 243–44.

14Documents littéraires—vide the chapter on Gautier and that on "les Poètes contemporains."

15 Which met weekly during the winter at Zola's home in Paris and in summer at his country-home at Médan, on the Seine, not far from Versailles, and included Guy de Maupassant, J. K. Huysmans, Léon Hennique, Paul Alexis, and Henri Céard. In 1880, this group published a volume of stories under the caption of les Soirées de Médan. Maupassant's contribution, "Boule de suif," was easily the best story of the volume and the success enjoyed by this, his first published fictional effort, set him on the path which was to lead him to the heights of fame.

16Legende, p. 146.

17Histoire et littérature (Paris, Lévy, 1885—essay on "le Parnasse contemporain," vol. II, pp. 207–33).

18Le Progrès de la poésie française depuis 1830, which forms a suite to his Histoire du Romantisme (Paris, Fasquelle, 1911). Gautier also adds, as a fourth pattern for imitation, the "farouche grandeur de la dernière manière d'Hugo." Modesty forbade any mention of the group's indebtedness to his own poetry.

19Loc. cit.

20Nouvelles questions de critique (Paris, Lévy, 1898—essay on "le Mouvement littéraire au XIXe siècle," p.310).

21 He had, in the same journal, in 1864, executed, in a similar manner, the members of the French Academy in a series of Médaillons de l'Académie française…. Some of the facts of this paragraphare taken from M. Ibrovac's exhaustive work on José-Maria de Heredia (Paris, les Presses françaises,1923).

22 Paris, Librairie centrale, 1867. No less a personage than Alphonse Daudet, then twenty-six, collaborated in the composition of this series of parodies.

23Parnasse contemporain, vol. I, pp. 10–11.

24Ibid., p. 16.

25Ibid., p. 32.

26Ibid., p. 33.

27Ibid., p. 34.

28Ibid., p. 35.

29Ibid., p. 65.

30Ibid., p. 67.

31Ibid., p. 78.

32Ibid., p. 79.

33Ibid., p. 97.

34Ibid., p. 137.

35Ibid., pp. 138–39.

36Ibid., p. 144.

37Ibid., p. 163.

38Ibid., p. 165.

39Ibid., p. 168.

40Ibid., p. 170.

41Parnasse contemporain, vol. II, p. 261.

42 Spelled "Qaïn" in the edition of the Poèmes barbares (1862), in which it was first published.

43 Never completed. It was included under the name "Hiéronymus" in the Poèmes tragiques (1884).

44 Included in Trente-six ballades joyeuses (1875).

45 The fragment and the sonnets were later published in les Trophées (1893).

46 Mme. Blanchecotte and one Mélanie Bourotte (who is represented in the third Recueil) were disciples of the erratic poet, Thalès Bernard, whose exaggerated self-esteem made him an enemy of Leconte de Lisle and kept him out of the Parnassian group. The two poetesses were humorously dubbed "Cotte et Rotte."

47 Published in its entirety, by Lemerre, in 1876. It had been preceded in 1873, by a volume entitled Poèmes dorés.

48 Vide J. Huret, op. cit., p. 299.

The pressure of the new Realistic forces, particularly as regards science and the objective attitude towards history and nature, impinges on poetry in the work of the Parnassians. The activity of these poets was brought to a focus in the collection called Le Parnasse contemporain (1866, 1869 f.) which gave its name to the school. The group started with diverse talents and aims, but with a common desire for faultless artistic workmanship. Some of the early founders (Catulle Mendès, Glatigny, etc.,) never made a profound mark; others began as Parnassians and ended as something else. This was the case with Sully Prudhomme, François Coppée and Verlaine. The term "Parnassiens" came to connote an Olympian calm, which these young writers affected; they were averse to Romantic storm, stress and subjectivism; for similar reasons they were also known as "les Impassibles." For a time they all submitted to the influence of a strong chieftain who gave direction and body to the movement.

William A. Nitze and E. Preston Dargan, in A History of French Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Present, revised edition, Henry Holt and Company, 1927.

P. E. Charvet (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Parnassians and Heredia," in A Literary History of France, Vol. IV: The Nineteenth Century, 1789–1870, Ernest Benn Limited, and Barnes and Noble Inc., 1967, pp. 344–7.

[In the following except, Charvet outlines a brief history of the Parnassian movement, discussing, in particular, the work of José-Maria de Heredia.]

Three efforts at least were made in the early 1860's to build a new literary school round a critical review: Catulle Mendès launched the Revue fantaisiste in February 1861; it survived till November. Louis Xavier de Rizard founded the Revue du progrès moral, littéraire, scientifique in March 1863; its title at least reflects the new intellectual orientation, the desire to harness literature to social progress and science; it lasted a year. Another review, L'Art, owed its short existence (November 1865-January 1866) to the same founder.

The sense of a certain community of attitudes promoted by these 'ephemera' was also promoted by what may be regarded as the first 'Naturalist' play—though the term had not yet been coined—Henriette Maréchal. The performances, which faintly echoed the 'battle of Hernani', brought the partisans of the new ideas closer together, but in the absence of public interest and funds to establish on a firm basis a critical review as a rallying ground, the idea of a volume of contemporary poetry was born in the mind of the publisher Lemerre. Though lacking the character of an aggressive literary manifesto, Le Parnasse contemporain, recueil de vers nouveaux (1866) has given its name to a generation rather than a school of poets; amongst the contributors—some forty in all—figured poets as diverse as Baudelaire and Heredia, Mallarmé and Verlaine. The watch-words were craftsmanship, plasticity, objectivity; at least they could share their admiration for a trinity of poets—Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Banville, and their dislike of much Romantic poetry, especially the sentimentalism of Lamartine and Musset.

Of all the poets who contributed to the Parnasse contemporain the most representative is José Maria de Heredia (1842–1905). By 1866 he was already the acknowledged master of the sonnet; Les Trophées (1893) contains the full collection of 118 sonnets, composed with splendid craftsmanship over the previous thirty years, 'Romancero', a ballad in Romantic vein on the 'Cid', and a minor epic, 'Les Conquérants de l'or', saga of Pizarro, the Spanish Conquistador.

With this apparently modest baggage Heredia has an assured place in French literature, showing thereby with [Mallarmé], though only remotely of his persuasion, that concentration and quality are more important than the dispersal and quantity that come from the outpourings of Romantic emotion.

The sonnet form is usually associated with love poetry—Petrarch, Ronsard, Du Bellay, Shakespeare. Heredia's own master, Leconte de Lisle, uses the sonnet only rarely; his themes—e.g. the legends of primitive peoples on man's origins, the horrors of modern materialism and more generally of this life, the peace of Nirvana, the cruelties of nature in exotic climes—seemed too copious a draught for so small a vessel, designed to contain only the fragrant essence of love or some other lyrical mood; the few sonnets in Poèmes Barbares suggest that he chose the sonnet when passion—love, hatred, contempt—welled up in him and needed to be communicated in a discreetly personal but not dispassionate form: e.g. 'Le Colibri', 'Les Montreurs', 'Le Voeu suprême', 'Aux Modernes'.

Heredia's most successful sonnets, in contrast, have no appeal to the emotions. The ephemeral nature of things admittedly recurs often:

La vie O Sextius est brève. Hâtons-nous
De vivre …
('A Sextius')

Tout meurt …
Les roses et les lys n'ont pas de lendemain
('Sur le livre des Amours')

Le temps passe. Tout meurt. Le marbre même s'use
('Médaille Antique')

But even if this theme represents the poet's own pessimism, its purpose in the sonnets concerned is not to reveal his mood, it is to evoke the ethos or fit into the picture of a period: Rome, the Renaissance, Sicily. In none of the sonnets concerned is the reader allowed to dwell on the idea of the fugacity of things and give it personal lyrical importance by an inward look on himself. This is particularly true in the last case where the attention is at once fastened on history and concrete details:

Agrigente n'est plus qu'une ombre, et Syracuse
Dort sous le bleu linceul de son ciel indulgent.

In short, Heredia as a good Parnassian transposes emotion from a personal to an aesthetic key. This is well brought out by comparing his sonnet 'Soir de Bataille', with Leconte de Lisle's poem 'Le Soir d'une Bataille'. The slight difference in the title has its importance; Leconte de Lisle's battle has substantival and therefore greater force than the adjectival force of Heredia's. From the outset therefore we are warned that Leconte de Lisle is going to evoke the horrific aftermath of a specific battle and make a direct impact on the reader's emotion, whereas Heredia intends to take advantage of battle effects in general, to make an aesthetic impact. The absence in Heredia's title of the definite article reinforces this impression, by giving it general significance, which in its turn seems to remove the horror from close proximity to our personal experience.

These impressions are confirmed by the contents of the poems themselves. Leconte de Lisle's, a modern battle, something close to the reader's experience therefore, or at any rate only a short remove from it by imagination, the whole ending on a political note—the value of the sacrifice in the name of liberty; Heredia's, on the other hand, far removed in time. We can therefore imagine the scene with as little personal emotion as though we were watching it through a telescope on the moon; distance in space or time transforms emotion into intellectual interest or curiosity. Here, perhaps, lies the explanation why Heredia's evocations of past situations come no nearer to us than the Renaissance. He then veers to the East—distance in space. Any attempt to capture the spirit of the modern age might have meant a departure from the objectivity Heredia cultivated. Only in the last section, 'La Nature et le Rêve', does the poet allow a personal element to creep in, but this section which, save in the pen pictures of Brittany, lacks a theme like those that give unity to each of the other sections, is not the most characteristic or satisfying of Les Trophées.

At their best Heredia's sonnets are like microcosms of a given age or civilization; references that invoke the reader's own framework of knowledge:

La terre maternelle et douce aux anciens Dieux.


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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...

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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...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)

Further Reading

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...

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