The Parnassian Movement Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.