The Road to Imagism, Pt. 1: 19th Century Origins

January 31, 2024 Elijah Perseus Blumov
The Road to Imagism, Pt. 1: 19th Century Origins
Show Notes Transcript

Topics discussed in this episode include:


-What is Modernism?

-Various dichotomies

-The French origins of Modernism

-Charles Baudelaire and the Decadent movement

-Stephane Mallarme and Symbolism/Impressionism

-Eliot, Laforgue, Corbiere, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

-Hugo vs. Baudelaire

-Edgar Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" and "On the Poetic Principle"

-Theophile Gautier's "Emaux et Camees" and Aestheticism

-"L'Art" by Theophile Gautier

-Parnassianism, pseudo-classicism, and convergent evolution

-Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and "Critique of Judgement"

-Noumenal vs. Phenomenal

-Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths

-Arthur Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation"

-Interested and Disinterested Pleasure 

-"Le Vent Froid de la Nuit" by Leconte de Lisle

-"The Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy

-"The Eagle" and "The Kraken" by Alfred Lord Tennyson

-"La Mort de L'Aigle" by Jose Maria de Heredia

-Dinggedicht and Rilke's "Neue Gedichte"

-"Schlangen-Beschworung" by Rainer Maria Rilke

-"On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" by Friedrich Schiller

-The second coming of Parnassianism...

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Versecraft: The Road to Imagism, Part I 


            If you are involved in the arts or humanities, there is a good chance you have read or used the word “modernist” at some point. Probably some point very recently. It may even be a word you have read or used hundreds of times. But what do we mean when we say that something is “modernist?” If we consult the Oxford English dictionary, we find the following definition: Modernism is “a style or movement in the arts which aims to break with classical and traditional forms.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary then, Modernism might as well be a synonym for Romanticism. Surely that can’t be the whole story—after all, T.S. Eliot is a far cry from Wordsworth. The Collins Dictionary offers a slightly more specific answer: “Modernism was a movement in the arts in the first half of the 20th century that rejected traditional values and techniques, and emphasized the importance of individual experience.” Great. Now we know that Modernism is basically Romanticism, but between the arbitrary years of 1900 and 1950. 

            It’s easy for me to be facetious here, because I genuinely do believe that Modernism is, broadly speaking, an umbrella term for the experimental 20th century forms of Romanticism. That being said, I allow that this assessment raises more questions as it answers. If Modernism is actually late Romanticism, why are there so many Modernist thinkers who passionately reject their Romantic forebears? Why is there so much talk of Modernism being a sort of Classicism? How can the same ideology produce both the Pre-Raphaelites and Jackson Pollock, both Frankenstein and Finnegan’s Wake? Is a term which contains so many different styles and ways of thinking even useful? 

            In order to answer these questions and keep ourselves from getting too confused, it is imperative that we continually bear in mind the essential characteristics of Romanticism, self-consciously defined in opposition to Classicism by the German Romantic theorists. Of the many attributes I could list, let us focus on three of the most important: the privileging of the particular over the universal, the subjective over the objective, and sensibility over sense. These shall be the polestars by which we maintain our bearings on the tumultuous seas of ideology. 

            We should furthermore observe that there are two other, more neutral dichotomies worth bearing in mind: expansion vs. contraction, and optimism vs. pessimism. Despite the temptation to associate Romanticism with expansion and optimism and Classicism with contraction and pessimism, a moment’s thought will reveal that both Romanticism and Classicism can partake of both sides of these dichotomies. Classicism can be expansive and optimistic, like Pindar; expansive and pessimistic, like Virgil; contractive and optimistic, like Wilbur; contractive and pessimistic, like Racine. Likewise, Romanticism can be expansive and optimistic, like Wordsworth; expansive and pessimistic, like Melville; contractive and optimistic, like Keats; contractive and pessimistic, like Baudelaire. Ideological distinctions are extremely useful, but we must remember that within them, variety abounds. 

            Finally, in order to distinguish Modernism from previous forms of Romanticism, I think there are three things we can broadly say: firstly, that Modernism is driven by radical formal experimentation; secondly, that it reflects the existential shock of rapid changes in human lifestyles and mankind’s understanding of the world; and thirdly, that it is, in the majority of cases, fundamentally pessimistic in its outlook. In this last respect, Futurism and Art Deco are the virile exceptions which prove the rule. 

            In all the hemming and hawing about which -isms belong to whom, there are at least a couple points of consensus which I am keen to explore. The first is that Modernism is originally a French phenomenon. The second is that Imagism is the first truly modern movement in English literature. How these facts interact has been the subject of much interest for me over the past several weeks. 

            If we are willing to simplify considerably, we can boil down the origins of literary modernism to two revolutionary Frenchmen: Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme. The former, though largely a traditional craftsman and undoubtedly a Romantic poet, is the first to consistently bring unmistakably Modernist subject matter into his poetry: the spiritual malaise of industrial urban life, the perversity of subconscious urges, the hedonism and moral decay that accompanies a loss of traditional values, the combination of gritty, diseased reality with a hallucinatory, escapist, free-associative imagination. The traditional Romantic view, courtesy of Rousseau, that the human soul is fundamentally innocent and good has been repudiated, replaced with a quasi-Christian doctrine of fallenness. It is because Baudelaire reintroduced a psychological sensitivity to vice, sin, and guilt that he is beloved of Catholics, despite his morbid, Satanic excesses. 

Incidentally, the trajectory suggested by Baudelaire from perversity to religiosity is one that would be followed by many in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including that titan of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, who went so far as to say: “I am an English poet of American origin who learnt his art under the aegis of Baudelaire and the Baudelairean lineage of poets.” As I have remarked before, the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” would not have been nearly so shocking if the English-speaking public had been familiar with the post-Baudelairean poetry of Laforgue and Corbiere, Eliot’s early stylistic touchstones. If Baudelaire is a Romantic, which he undoubtedly is, and if Eliot established his brand of Modernism using a Baudelairean blueprint, which he undoubtedly did, this is just one more example of how Modernism is a Romantic development. 

As several critics have remarked, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire can be thought of as symmetrical counterparts, each deeply representative of their respective halves of the 19th century. Hugo is the epitome of the old school, expansive, and optimistic Romantic: wide-eyed, energetic, celebratory, utopian, politically active, unabashedly emotional. Byron, with his cynicism and angst, planted the seeds for a more pessimistic conception of the Romantic, and Keats, with his attempts at detachment and aestheticism, a more contracted one. It was not however until the mid-19th century, which brought the failed revolutions of 1848 and intensified levels of industrialization and scientific disillusionment, that a new pessimistic, contractive version of Romanticism came into its own, epitomized by Baudelaire: morbid, hedonistic, consciously escapist and artificial, yet naturalistically sharp-eyed about the unsavory aspects of life: in a word, decadent. In the hands of poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine, the decadent sensibility, the sense of apocalyptic spiritual sickness, was to become the rancid milk with which Modernism was suckled. 

            If Baudelaire was the first to infuse poetry with a Modernist sensibility, it was Mallarme who provided the metaphysic and radical experimental ethos of Modernism proper. Born twenty years after Baudelaire, Mallarme took the sensory suggestiveness of Baudelaire’s language, turned it up to 11, and gradually discarded everything else, eventually liberating himself from form, meter, grammar, and even intelligibility in pursuit of producing the subtlest mental impressions. For Mallarme, poetry was a form of consciousness expansion, a haven from the grossness of modern materialism where one could glimpse, if only in passing, the Platonic ideal of Beauty. The poet, in Mallarme’s mind, is a sort of high priest or spellcaster, incanting language in a musical, connotative concoction of associations in order to conjure rarified thoughts and feelings. Just as Monet abandoned strictly figurative academic technique in order to paint shimmering suggestions of sunlit images, just as Debussy abandoned tonal theory in order to compose exquisite harmonic progressions suggestive of dreams, so Mallarme created a form of literary impressionism, which came to be called Symbolism. 

This terminology can be confusing, because in the visual arts, Symbolism and Impressionism are two entirely different styles: the former refers to a mystical, allegorical approach to painting exemplified by artists like Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt, the latter to the shimmering color techniques of artists like Pisarro and Renoir.  In literature however, they mean more or less the same thing: the use of suggestive language and mysterious images to evoke some vague spiritual intuition.  

In all the arts, some form of Impressionism is generally considered the first phase of Modernism— a radical abandonment of traditional techniques in order to produce new and rich psychological effects, or impressions. Though Impressionism may seem whimsical enough, because it is at heart a form of escapism, it is a pessimistic enterprise: with the ongoing collapse of a belief in objective truth, and a recognition of the ugly philistinism of the modern world, the only solution, according to impressionists of all stripes, was to seek refuge in a world of pretty illusions, idyllic landscapes, occult mysticism, dreamlike fantasies, and general haziness. If you squint your eyes, you just might start to believe in it. 

I will note in passing that this conception of poetry as escapist and amoral incantation, concerned with nothing other than aesthetic rapture, derives at least in part from the ideas of a man idolized by both Baudelaire and Mallarme: none other than America’s own Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings, particularly his critical essays The Philosophy of Composition and On The Poetic Principle, proved hugely influential in 19th century France. As both T.S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson bewilderingly recognized, in a certain sense, Poe was the grandfather of Symbolism— and therefore by extension, the grandfather of modernism. The Romantic pedigree grows ever stronger. 

There was another poet however who had been preaching the aesthete’s gospel of “art for art’s sake” decades before Poe: Theophile Gautier, a loyal friend of Victor Hugo’s and a flamboyant, card-carrying Romantic, but a man who would nevertheless prepare the ground for the first significant break from true blue Romanticism in France. Gautier, who had begun his career as a painter and wrote art criticism for much of his life, came to be troubled by the imprecision with which his fellow Romantic writers handled their language, especially in regard to sensory imagery. Believing that poetry existed not to sermonize or self-express, but to create exquisitely beautiful sounds and images, he came to feel that it was the duty of the poet to abandon their vatic pretensions and think of themselves as a craftsman first and foremost, someone whose role, like the sculptor, was to laboriously shape their materials into the most vivid artifacts possible, capable of producing the most delectable aesthetic effects. To attempt philosophical or personal profundity would only be a distraction, liable to muddy the waters—poetry, like sculpture, was about achieving a dazzlingly detailed, polished surface. 

Gautier attempted to embody his own ideals in his 1852 collection, entitled Emaux et Camees, “Enamels and Cameos.” Like a latter-day Horace, he concludes the collection with his own ars poetica, simply entitled “Art,” which begins, in my own translation: 


The most beautiful work of all is made

from working a form that trammels: 

verse, marble, onyx, enamels. 


Banish any false constraints—

Yet for your muse to walk aright,

her boots must be laced tight.


The poem famously ends:


Sculpting, filing, chiseling alone

may seal your floating dream

into resistant stone.


If you had a chance to listen to last week’s episode, this emphasis on artistic detachment and immaculate craftsmanship will strike a familiar note, and it will not surprise you at all to learn that the Parnassians, led by their ringleader Leconte de Lisle, considered Gautier’s marmoreal injunctions the foundation stone of their own philosophy. I mentioned last week that I found the Parnassians fascinating for a couple of major reasons: firstly, for the peculiar combination of Romantic and anti-Romantic traits which they embodied, and secondly, for the intriguing place they occupy in the literary history of ideas, an unlikely bridge over the chasm between Hugo and Baudelaire. By studying them, we may come to better recognize how Modernism as we know it came about, as well as the cyclical impulses of the modernist dialectic.

 So far in this episode, it may seem like I have been leaping all over the place: from Modernism to Romanticism to Impressionism, to Symbolism, from Baudelaire to Mallarme to Eliot to Poe to Gautier. Part of what I have been trying to do is to sketch the chronological context in which to situate the Parnassians, which cannot be appreciated without a nod both to where they came from and what they anticipated. From here however, with the exception of one philosophical detour, it should be pretty smooth sailing to our eventual main subject, the phenomenon of Imagism in the 20th century. 

As I mentioned last week, the poets who came to call themselves the Parnassians were among the many in the mid-19th century who, disillusioned by the failure of the Romantic revolutions of 1848, and both excited and disturbed by increasing industrialization and scientific advancement, rejected traditional Romanticism as dangerously naïve, self-indulgent, and passé. Poetry had proven to be ineffective as a tool of social change, and noxious as a tool of self-aggrandizement. If poetry was to serve any function now, the Parnassians thought, it must imitate the sciences, and be a cool and disciplined lens onto reality: highly polished, sharply observant, and emotionally detached. At the same time, it must not shirk from what was still believed to be poetry’s most essential function: to provide the salvific experience of beauty. Gautier was the first to show, if only impurely, how such poetry might be written. 

With their devotion to correcting the follies of Romanticism, to mimesis, disciplined craftsmanship, emotional restraint, and, to top it off, a renewed desire to emulate Greco-Roman poetry, as is suggested even in the name “Parnassian,” it is tempting to label Parnassianism as a Classicist movement. The truth, however, is more complicated. It does certainly possess Classical qualities, and these qualities are a major reason I am drawn to it. However, Parnassianism is less a case of neoclassical rebirth and much more like a case of convergent evolution—just as two unrelated animals in different times and places may evolve similar features in order to respond to the similar demands of their environment, so too did Parnassianism develop classical features in order to combat Romanticism. It is not a wolf hunting a deer, it is a deer that has evolved wolf-like features in order to hunt other deer in the absence of true wolves. Let’s return to the three essential Romantic imperatives I mentioned at the beginning of this episode: the privileging of the particular over the universal, the subjective over the objective, and sensibility over sense. A true Classicism would reverse all of these imperatives. The Parnassians, however, reversed only one of them. For them, objectivity trumped subjectivity, true, but ultimately, they were still more concerned with savoring details in themselves rather than using them to express abstract ideas, which they distrusted, and more concerned with using poetry purely to arouse feeling rather than logically convince. Like earlier Romantics, they were fascinated by exotic settings, fantastical events, the sublime, forgotten ruins, and ancient civilizations—despite their attempts at realism, escapism was often the true goal. This last remark leads to what is perhaps the essential point: like previous Romantics, the Parnassians did not feel at home in reality. 

I confess, dear listener, that as soon as I wrote those words, I began to doubt them—such is the hazard of generalizations. I suspect, for instance, that Heredia did indeed develop a mature equanimity regarding the lot of the human condition. Moreover, I think one of the noblest aspects of the Parnassian project was that their poetry was not simply art for art’s sake, as they may have liked to pretend it was, but a concentrated, clear-eyed attempt to see and celebrate nature for the beautiful but savagely uncaring phenomenon that it is. Later decadent writers like Baudelaire would twist this frank appreciation of nature into a perverse celebration of cruelty, vice, and disease, but for the Parnassians, it was simply an honest attempt to reconcile oneself to and find the grace within a heartless world. Nevertheless, one does detect in the Parnassians, particularly in their leader, Leconte de Lisle, a metaphysical pessimism that thwarts any truly wholesome spiritual reconciliation. Thus far, I have spoken of two of the great Parnassian influences: the disillusioned, realist zeitgeist of the mid-19th century, and the lapidary aestheticism of Gautier. There remains one very important spiritual influence however, which haunts not only the Parnassians but nearly all the artistic movements of the late 19th century— I am speaking of course of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. 

I think the best way to sum up Schopenhauer’s thought is to think of it as a marriage of Kantian philosophy and the most pessimistic aspects of Buddhism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant attempted to prove that the world we experience is not actually objective reality, but merely an interpretive representation of it catered to the demands of our consciousness. Reality in itself, what Kant called the noumenal world, is inaccessible to us— we can only know the world our senses and cognition present to us, which Kant dubbed the phenomenal world. As such, Kant insisted, metaphysics is an impossible field of study—we can never know what there actually is, because our mind is always in the way, interpreting it for us. Rather, the primary task of philosophy is epistemology—the study of what we actually can know, and mapping out the topography of our mental faculties and operations. This observation of the human mind from outside itself, determining what its own limits and abilities are, is what Kant called transcendental critique, a term which was later completely misappropriated by American pseudo-mystics like Emerson and Thoreau.  

Speaking of the transcendentalists however, it cannot be stressed enough how instrumental Kant’s insights were to the development of Romanticism. For one thing, it effected what Kant himself called a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy: inquiry now revolved no longer around the world itself, but around the subject experiencing the world. As such, the self and self-consciousness took upon unprecedented importance. Furthermore, the death of metaphysics proclaimed by Kant threw European thinkers into a crisis. Surely, they thought, there must be some way for us to access the real world! Unable to refute Kant rationally, philosophers took a mystical turn, formulating all kinds of theories for how one might be able to “pierce the veil” of experience and see behind it to absolute reality through the use of emotion, intuition, and pattern recognition. Where philosophers go, artists follow, and it was not long before artists too began forsaking reason to pursue their own attempts to mystically access the forbidden realms of truth.

 One of the most popular antidotes to Kant’s intolerable conclusion, not to mention the creeping atheism of the Enlightenment and modern science, was to align oneself with some form of Pantheism—the belief that all of nature, including oneself, is synonymous with God. If all things are absolute reality, including ourselves, then absolute reality cannot be hidden from us. Reading Spinoza became sexy, and has remained sexy ever since. The story of 19th century philosophy is mostly the story of German thinkers wrestling with the implications of what Kant had done, and becoming mystics in the process. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel all came up with different grandiose systems to explain how we are the universe experiencing itself. Arthur Schopenhauer, who despised such thinkers as being entirely too woo-woo, nevertheless ended up following a similar trajectory. Like his arch-rival Hegel, he sought to find out a way to access the noumenal world. Like Emerson, whom he would have also despised, he found his inspiration in Eastern religion. 

Despite inventing a complex new architecture of philosophical concepts and terms, Kant’s fundamental insight was not radically dissimilar from what the Buddha had preached over two thousand years earlier—the world as we know it is an illusion of the senses. Moreover, the Buddha had gone so far as to create a formula, known as the four noble truths, for how to live in such a duplicitous world: 1. Recognize that life involves suffering. 2. Recognize that desire is the cause of suffering. 3. Recognize that to end desire is to end suffering. And 4. Recognize that the way to end desire is to follow Buddhist teachings. Fundamental to the process of achieving enlightenment is recognizing that all things are not only ephemeral, but illusory, including one’s own identity. Not only does this recognition enable to let go of one’s individual desires, but to let go of the self, which is the ultimate source of desire. Without a self to want something, no wanting can take place, and therefore no suffering can occur. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, Nirvana, is not a place, like heaven— it is a mindset that one achieves when one is completely free of desire, able to observe the quaint shadow puppetry of the world in a state of serene contemplation. 

For Schopenhauer, Buddhism was the missing piece that solved the puzzle of European philosophy. In his magnum opus, The World As Will And Representation, he synthesized Kant, Siddhartha, and German pantheism into a haunting mythos of his own making. According to Schopenhauer, the noumenal world, the objective, inaccessible being-in-itself, while it cannot ever be seen directly, can be indirectly inferred through the representations it produces, the phenomenal world of which we are a part. Because we are ourselves representations of the noumenal world, we have not only an outside view of it, in the form of the external world presented to us, but an inside view of it, in the form of our consciousness. For Schopenhauer, the essential attribute of our consciousness is desire—it is what we are driven by. Moreoever, when we look out at the world, we see that it too is full of desire, full of things willing to become different things. Desire is the very basis of movement, the very basis of time, the very basis of both physical and mental existence. What all of this points to, Schopenhauer claims, is a disturbing but accurate picture of what the hidden reality of the world actually is: pure, mindless will. A blind and starving god, grasping forever into the darkness of itself, unable to ever be satisfied, transforming itself into countless representations, including ourselves and the entire universe, in order to chase its endless, senseless hunger. Hence the title of the book: The World As Will and Representation. 

Because the Will can never be satisfied, it suffers. Because everything in the world is a representation of the Will, the whole world and everything in it is saturated with suffering, and will continue to suffer so long as they remain identified with the Will. For Schopenhauer as for the Buddha, the only release is to learn to stop desiring. Schopenhauer however is far less optimistic than the Buddha about our ability to do this—after all, we are made of the very thing we would reject—we are all little packets of desire. Certain saint-like individuals excepted, the best we can hope for is to achieve temporary respites from our suffering. For Schopenhauer, the experience of art is one of the most effective ways to achieve such a respite. To understand why, we must briefly go back to Kant. 

In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant unwittingly helped to lay the groundwork for Romanticism. In another of his books, The Critique of Judgement, he unwittingly helped to lay the groundwork for aestheticism. In this latter book, he distinguishes between interested and disinterested pleasures. An interested pleasure is the pleasure taken in the sheer sensory enjoyment of something, like a hamburger or heroin, or else the pleasure taken in the anticipation or fantasy of experiencing something. If you react positively to a picture of delicious food on a menu, or a sexy pornographic poster, it is not primarily because you think these images are beautiful—rather, it is because they make you excited to experience something that they advertise. By contrast, the pleasure taken in looking at a sunset or a painting is different—we don’t desire anything from the painting or the sunset, we simply think they are pleasurable to behold, good in themselves. This sort of a pleasure is, according to Kant, a disinterested pleasure, because it is a pleasure completely separate from any self-interested appetites we have. What gives us disinterested pleasure is what we call beautiful. 

This concept of disinterested pleasure took off in a big way, and the study of how this sort of pleasure operated led to the development of an entirely new philosophical field: Aesthetics. Those who decided that disinterested pleasure was the highest kind of pleasure there is, and that art should strive only for the pure, spiritual pleasure of beauty, became known as aesthetes—Gautier is one of the first prominent examples. For Schopenhauer, the disinterested pleasure taken in beauty acquired a salvific significance. To be absorbed in the contemplation of something that had nothing to do with one’s own desires, indeed, to forget one’s own desires completely in the process, was to find a temporary refuge from the suffering of the Will. 

Of all the arts, Schopenhauer thought music was the greatest and most powerful, because it creates an aesthetic response without having to be about anything, without having to be representational. Because music is non-representational, summoning forth emotions purely out of a sense of movement, build and release, Schopenhauer thought that music was in fact capable of representing the Will in itself. To listen to music is thus to experience the cosmic Will operating outside yourself— nothing could be closer to Nirvana. In Schopenhauer’s eyes then, the arts were not merely entertainment or distraction, but disciplines of extreme spiritual and existential importance. Schopenhauer championed the arts like no philosopher ever had before, and the splenetic, alienated artists of the late 19th century ate it up like catnip, pessimism and all. 

With Schopenhauer in the background, the trajectory of 19th century art starts to come more sharply into focus. The detached contemplation of nature and eradication of the lyric “I” practiced by the Parnassians was not merely an attempt to make poetry scientific, but an exercise in Schopenhauer’s Kantian quasi-Buddhism, an attempt to disentangle oneself from the will and engage in disinterested meditation. The fetishization of perversity and excess championed by the Decadents was in part a recognition of and capitulation to the inherent lust and suffering of the Will—if you cannot escape it, you might as well masochistically join it. The hermetic, occult practices of the Symbolist poets was an attempt to reach beyond representation, and like music, engage the Will itself in a disinterested aesthetic trance. The novels of naturalist writers like Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy, which depict life as a predetermined series of events governed by circumstance and irrational desire, are pseudo-scientific demonstrations of Schopenhauer’s principles. 

To make an end of this very long digression, any art which is under the thrall of Schopenhauer can never be classical, because it can never achieve a wholesome relationship to the world. That the Parnassians were under his dark spell is obvious once you start to look for it. In Leconte De Lisle’s Le Vent Froid de la Nuit, “The Cold Night Wind,” we have the following passage, which I take from David Slavitt’s translation: 


For the fortunate dead, oblivion is sweet

without any trace of pain, desire, or will. 

Deep in your graves you can rest easy, and I

envy you, old convicts whose fetters fall,

free of the evils that you have suffered, all

consumed in the pyre, their cinders drifting high. 

The dead are resting silently now in their

sleep. In the wind are dogs digging for food, 

and implacable nature driving us all. I would

weep for us and the sufferings we bear. 

But what’s the point? The exigencies of life

are not worth tears if one cannot rectify

the world. The wounded wolf knows he must die

and with his bleeding mouth bites at the knife.

Torture and more torture, blows, and then

nothing, nothing. Earth opens its jaws

and swallows our flesh. Without the slightest pause,

grass grows over the vanity of men. 


Outside of Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain,” it would be hard to find a poem more Schopenhauerian than this. To be fair, not all of Leconte’s work is this explicitly gloomy, and to be fair again, this almost sounds like it could be from a Greek tragic chorus. The difference is that here there is no reconciliation, no dignity, no faith in the nobility of human life. For Leconte, the pleasure of beholding the savage, non-human beauty of a tiger or a python, the sunlight passing through a tropical gorge, was as close to transcendence as one could get. Interestingly, the two most prominent Parnassians, Leconte and Heredia, were both born on tropical islands, and their poetry often evokes the lush foliage and brutal lifeways of jungle environments, reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau. This precedent of using the tropics as the setting for scenes of sublimity and contemplation would go on to prove deeply influential to poets like Paul Valery and Wallace Stevens. 

            Indeed, though a short-lived movement, the Parnassians were deeply influential, and in ways that are not always obvious. Some of you may know that Gerard Manley Hopkins once criticized Lord Tennyson for writing so-called “Parnassian” poetry, by which he idiosyncratically meant poetry that was finely crafted but uninspired, “spoken on and from the level of the poet’s mind.” This judgement speaks more to Hopkins’s own Dionysian tastes than to any deficiency in Tennyson or the Parnassians, but by an interesting coincidence, Tennyson, who was a lover of French verse, was actually one of the few English poets who did occasionally write authentically Parnassian poetry in English. Consider his short masterpiece, “The Eagle:” 


He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.


The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.


Aside from the Victorian sentimentality of “lonely lands,” this poem exhibits all the traits of Parnassianism: lapidary craftsmanship, an invisible, detached narrator, sharp natural imagery, and a foreboding conclusion. One suspects that Tennyson was inspired here by a poem of Heredia’s, La Mort de L’Aigle, “The Death of the Eagle.” Another excellent example from Tennyson is his mighty sonnet, “The Kraken,” which I’ll link to in the show notes. 

Other English poets, like Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson, were sometimes known as the “English Parnassians,” and while it is doubtful how much they took from the actual Parnassians, their commitment to formal rigor and efforts to bring old French forms into English is why forms like the villanelle and triolet are popular in English to this day. In other countries like Portugal, Brazil, Poland, and Turkey, Parnassianism proved inspirational to many of their most prominent lyric poets of the 19th century. 

In Germany, the greatest Parnassian poet was none other than Rainer Maria Rilke. In his collection entitled Neue Gesichte or “New Poems,” which constitutes his so-called middle period and includes several of his most famous lyrics, including “The Panther” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke was inspired by the meticulous artistic discipline of his friend Rodin to take an intensely concentrated, sculptural, objective approach to his poetry. Practicing what was has later been called Dinggedichte, or “thing-poetry” Rilke used each lyric to zero in on a single object and describe it as vividly as possible. 

While Rodin may have been Rilke’s original inspiration, it is impossible that he could have been living in France, writing this kind of poetry, and not have been directly inspired by the Parnassians. Even his subject matter, like wildcats and ruined marbles, is straight out of the Parnassian playbook. If you need any more proof, consider his poem Schlangen-Beschwörung, or “Snake Charming,” translated here by Edward Snow:


When the charmer, swaying in the marketplace,

pipes on the flute of gourd that lulls and rouses,

it sometimes happens that he lures across

a listener, who steps out from the tumult


of the stalls into the circle of the pipe,

which wills and wills and wills until at last

it makes the reptile stiffen in its basket,

and fawns upon the stiffness till it softens,


alternating ever more blindly and dizzily

what startles and stretches with what unloosens—

and then just a glance: and the Indian’s 

infused in you a foreignness,


in which you die. It’s as though a blazing

sky crashed in on you. A crack

runs through your face. Spices pile themselves

upon your Nordic memory,


which is of no avail. No power’s a charm,

the sun ferments, the fever falls and strikes;

the shafts rise up with a malicious joy,

and poison glistens in the snakes.


Y’all better stop playing with me if you don’t think that’s the most Parnassian thing you’ve ever heard! Everything about it: the detachment, the languorousness, the exoticism, the underlying menace, the Schopenhauerian emphasis on will and melding of sex and death, the glistening snakes, it’s all straight out of Leconte de Lisle— though of course with the particular verbal intensity that Rilke is famous for. 

Back among the French, it is worth noting that both of our modernist trailblazers, Baudelaire and Mallarme, both started out their careers in Parnassian circles. It was from the Parnassians that Baudelaire learned his love of rigorous form, precise sensuous details, and synthesis of beauty and danger, and we would do well to remember that he dedicated his magnus opus, Les Fleurs du Mal, to the movement’s grandfather, Gautier. In his famously sensitive descriptions of cats, we can detect the slinking tigers and panthers of Leconte de Lisle. 

In 1795, the poet philosopher Friedrich Schiller published his famous essay, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.” Poetry, Schiller argued, could be divided into these two camps—naïve poetry is unselfconscious, detached, and describes its subject directly. Schiller associates this mode with the Ancient Greeks. Sentimental poetry, by contrast, is the poetry of modern times: self-conscious, reflective, and colored by the author’s personality and feelings. Schiller thought that naïve poetry was preferable, but could not be recovered. To attempt naïve poetry in modern times would be an artificial projection, and would therefore still be sentimental. Schiller wrote, “our feeling for nature is similar to the sick person’s feeling for health.” 

The Parnassian project was, in some ways, just such an attempt to reintroduce naïve poetry into a sentimental age. These poets did not fully achieve the Classical purity they desired, but in the attempt, they produced some of the most interesting and compelling poetry of the 19th century. By now, you have probably figured out the punchline of this episode, and the reason I have spent all this time talking about the Parnassians: I contend that Imagism, the first modern movement in English literature, was the second coming of Parnassianism—another noble attempt, perhaps naïve, to reintroduce naïve poetry into a sentimental age, another case of Romanticism at war with itself, another fascinating project of detached, detail-oriented, semi-Classical purification. But that story will have to wait until next time.