(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The importance of literary groups or schools has always seemed greater in France than in England or the United States, and much of French literary history can best be understood through the reaction of one school against another. After the great wave of Romanticism in the 1830’s and 1840’s, a counterwave was inevitable. This originated in the group known as the Parnassians, which first made itself known in 1866 and was led by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle and continued by José-Maria de Heredia.

The members of the school had two objectives. They wanted the reformation of the loose metrical methods of the disciples of Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine and a return to something like the traditional strictness of French prosody. More important, they were reacting against the excessive subjectivity and emotionalism of Romantics like Alfred de Musset, who exploited his famous love affair with novelist George Sand in his verse. Poetry, according to the Parnassians, should aim at an “abstract beauty” and avoid the cultivation of “private sorrows and their lamentation”; it should be cold and aloof, purely objective. In the famous “Elephants” (1862) by de Lisle, for example, the great beasts solemnly march across the desert of red sand and as solemnly disappear; “and the desert resumes its immobility.” As James Elroy Flecker, one of the group’s few English disciples, wrote, Parnassians considered it abhorrent “to overlay fine work with gross and irrelevant egoism,” as Hugo had done; had the movement existed in England, Alfred, Lord Tennyson “would never have published ’Locksley Hall.’”

It was in this spirit that Paul Verlaine wrote his early poems. He was, however, never a thoroughgoing Parnassian; occasionally, as in “A Dahlia” (1866), he achieved something of the desired objectivity, but even in his first volume there were hints of the much more characteristic manner that was to develop three years later in Fêtes galantes. In such a poem as “Classic Walpurgis Night” (1866), with its description of the “correct, ridiculous, and charming” garden designed by André Le Nôtre, there is a distinct foreshadowing of the eighteenth century fantasies of his subsequent volume. Also included in this first book is what became one of his most famous poems, “Autumn Song,” one of those almost wordless little songs associated with his later manner.

The publication, between 1857 and 1875, of three books by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt on various aspects of life and art during the eighteenth century marked another sharp break with the Romantics. As had happened earlier in England, the French Romantics had turned violently against the preceding century, detesting what they considered to be its coldness and artificiality. However, as a result of this latest turn of the wheel of taste, this very artificiality became the eighteenth century’s greatest charm; some writers were fascinated by the brilliant, stately society that their grandfathers had overthrown.

Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes—probably his best-known book outside France—belongs to this pattern; in it, as Holbrook Jackson said, “Watteau became literature.” It is an evocation of the world of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with its formal gardens, silks, fluttering of fans, and tinkling of mandolins in the eternal twilight or moonlight, while abbés, female shepherds, and others stroll along paths beside the fountains. Stylistically, most of its twenty-two poems are still indebted to the Parnassian style, but some of the poems in the volume also mark Verlaine’s first flirtation with symbolism.


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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Adam, Antoine. The Art of Paul Verlaine. Translated by Carl Morse. New York: New York University Press, 1963. A dated but classic psychological study of Verlaine’s works. Provides considerable analysis of his oeuvre in the context of his times.

Balakian, Anna. The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal. New York: New York University Press, 1977. Explores Verlaine’s role in the European Symbolist movement. Proposes that the Fêtes galantes poems, with their suggestive emotional nuance, musicality, and attentiveness to color, mark the inception of Verlaine’s Symbolist poetry.

Carter, A. E. Paul Verlaine. New York: Twayne, 1971. Provides a chronological overview of Verlaine’s life and works. Concludes that melancholy and alienation reside beneath the musicality and light manner of the poetry.

Holmes, Anne. “Finding a Language: Verlaine and Laforgue.” French Studies 50, no. 3 (July, 1996). Examines the poetry of Verlaine and Jules Laforgue, discussing their quests for an authentic language, their similar poetic expression, and their use of dialogue.

Lepelletier, Edmond. Paul Verlaine: His Life—His Work. 1909. Reprint. Translated by E. M. Lang. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2006. An intimate look at Verlaine through the eyes of a close friend. Part of Kessinger’s Rare Reprints series.

Taylor-Horrex, Susan. Verlaine, “Fêtes galantes,” and “Romances sans paroles.” London: Grant & Cutler, 1988. Analyzes individual poems as well as prominent themes unifying the collections. Emphasizes the coherence of the collections as landscapes of the soul and cites the concepts of love and passivity as being primary to the poetry. Discusses several possible sources of influence.

Whidden, Seth Adam. Leaving Parnassus: The Lyric Subject in Verlaine and Rimbaud. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Discusses the “crisis of the lyric subject” in nineteenth century French poetry, which was dominated by the lyric. Describes how Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud rebelled against the stringent rules of their predecessors to create a radical new poetry.