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  • Parnassian Cosmopolitanism:Transnationalism and Poetic Form
  • Marion Thain (bio)

When, in the 1870s and 1880s, the fashion for medieval French verse forms in English poetry resulted in an influx of villanelles, rondeaux, triolets, and other fixed forms, there was often great suspicion among commentators about these immigrant arrivals. Indeed, the lack of attention in more recent years to this prominent moment in Victorian poetic history suggests a continued sense of it as a strange excrescence. There has been some study of the individual writers who contributed (centrally or peripherally) to the vogue,1 but in general those constructing broader narratives of nineteenth-century English poetry dismiss it as a prosodic workshop or ignore it altogether. It would be safe to say it has not generally been considered relevant to the story of the modernization of poetry. Yet, if we are interested in literary history, is it not the numerous embarrassing poems that most require our attention, and are potentially the more revealing of English culture, than the few canonical works that transcend their own time and place? The Parnassian vogue was a larger and more prominent feature within British poetry than is usually acknowledged, and should be visible within our literary histories.2 This essay is particularly interested in the vogue as a case study in cosmopolitan poetics.3 What kind of transnational politics and aesthetics were played out in that fashion for French "Parnassian" poetic forms in English poetry of the 1870s and 1880s? The "big" poems of Europe in Victorian literature have received welcome scholarly attention in recent years,4 but what about the small, minor, and sometimes tiny, poems of Europe? English Parnassianism sits at a juncture between scholarship on Victorian cosmopolitan poetics and the newly burgeoning field of scholarship on fin-de-siècle cosmopolitan poetics.5 Lost to some extent between both fields, it is nonetheless a landmark in the history of Victorian poetry's attempt to reach beyond national boundaries to remake itself. Ultimately, I argue that this cosmopolitan poetics brings a tangible politics into the heart of this "art for art's sake" experiment with form. [End Page 463]

The name of the vogue is a reference to the nineteenth-century French journal, Le Parnasse contemporain, issued in the 1860s and 1870s, which inspired the English revival. Indeed, many English Parnassian poems were translations of works by the writers published in the journal, which notably included Charles Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine. The profile of the English Parnassian movement has been outlined by others, so I will not repeat that narrative here, although I will introduce something of the poetic context.6 The 1860s and 1870s saw a battle over form between the traditional and tired, but established, forms of English verse and the need for a new formal energy. The new formal energy came in various guises, but it must be recognized that the revival of Parnassian forms was in this sense a modernizing impulse at this time, as much as was Hopkins's sprung rhythm, and Swinburne's return to sapphic meters. It is not uncommon to read poems such as John Payne's "Ballade" (included in William Davenport Adams's 1878 selection of Parnassian verse and also in Gleeson White's 1887 Parnassian anthology), which asks precisely why poets are turning to poetic forms of the past and replies that it is because "our task is yet undone." Some quotation from this poem will serve to give a flavor of poetry characteristic of the vogue. Stanza 1 begins:

What do we here who, with reverted eyes,     Turn back our longing from the modern airTo the dim gold of long-evanished skies,          When other songs in other mouths were fair?7

Stanza 3 elaborates:

Songs have we sung, and many melodies     Have from our lips had issue rich and rare;But never yet the conquering chant did rise,     That should ascend the very heaven's stair,     To rescue life from anguish and despair.Often and again, drunk with delight of lays,     "Lo!" have we cried, "this is the golden oneThat shall deliver us!"—Alas! Hope's raysDie in...


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