Parnassianism or Parnassism was an influential literary movement in France in the second half of the 19th c. It was a kind of reaction against the romanticism of Victor Hugo, de Vigny, and Lamartine, against subjectivism and ‘artistic socialism’.
Some scholars take Theophile Gautier (1811-72) as the founder and star of the movement. Others hold that Leconte de Lisle (1818–94) was the ‘chef d’orchestre’. They both had much influence. In the Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier put forward the belief that art was an end in itself, not a means to an end. In Gautier’s view, a poet was like a sculptor, a craftsman who must be strictly objective and fashion his poem into something almost tangible. Hence analogies with the plastic arts, and imagery is drawn from them. And hence the idea of objective poetry from which the personality of the poet is eliminated. This looks forward to T.S.Eliot’s dictum that the ‘progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’. L’art pour l’art can be taken as one of the slogans of les Parnassiens. For them, poetry achieved the status of a religion.
Most of les Parnassiens were born round about 1840, and the main movement started with Catulle Mendes and L.-X. de Ricard in the early 1860s. Apart from him the important figures were: Theodore de Banville (1823-91), Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907), François Coppee (1842–1908), Leon Dierx (1838–1912), Jean Lahor (1840-1909), and J. M. de Heredia(1842-1905).
By the 1870s the theories of this Parnassian School were beginning to be felt in England, largely through the influence of de Banville whose Petit traité de poésie française (1872) was widely known. De Banville corresponded with Austin Dobson, A.C.Swinburne, Edmund Gosse, and Andrew Lang, and the so-called English Parnassians became enthusiastic followers of the French cult, especially in matters of style and form and in the use of older French forms like ballade, rondeau, and villanelle. However, the doctrines of ‘art for art’s sake‘ never really caught on in England.
Also read: Commedia dell Arte: Definition, Characters and Examples