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....
(The entire section is 1508 words.)