Friday, July 1, 2011

Le Parnasse contemporain (1866)

In 1866, France was in the midst of radical changes. The Industrial Age was in full swing, with new factories, railroads, steamships, telegraphs, all deeply changing not only the economy, but also the geography and the society of the France. France was increasing its grasp on Algeria and making progress in exploring and colonizing sub-Saharan Africa as well. German reunification and expansionism were presenting real threats to France, with a big war clearly in the offing. At home, conflicts between Napoleon III and liberals were increasing, as were tensions between the Church and secularist forces, all compounded by growing Marxist fervor among the working classes. The map of Paris had been redrawn by Haussman, and, as Zola paints it, the city, from its slums to its mansions, was in a constant state of change.

In the same year, the first edition of Le Parnassee contemporain was published, a collection of some 200 poems by 37 poets, among them the alredy famous (Gautier, Baudelaire) and the soon-to-be-famous (Verlaine, Mallarmé), not to mention a whole tribe of midrange poets of reputation, including Héredia, Mendès, Prudhomme, Banvile, Coppée and many others). The volume stands as a showcase of the best in French poetry at the time.

But those times of social change are hardly reflected in the poems. Leaving aside the efforts of Gautier and Baudelaire, most of the poems in the collection reflect an escape from the contemporary. There are scores of nature poem, with such titles as “L’hiver”. “Nuit d’hiver”. “Lune d’hiver”, “Journée d’hiver” .

There are a number of poems on classical mythology, and a few that range toward Hindu mythology. Many poems are about faithless mistresses, disappointed love, and a few about death. The diction, for the most part, is pretty modest in range, not at all reflecting the enormous vitality seen in the prose of the era, for example – there are almost no colloquial expressions, regionalisms, or foreign borrowings. Few of the poems are deliberately difficult linguistically, few tell a story, few have any humor at all. In terms of format, most are sonnets, and most are in alexandrines. Almost all of them are timeless in the worst sense, betokening a desire to avoid the complications are contemporary life.

I confess that much French poetry leaves me cold -- in contrast to English and German verse. But these Parnassian poems, with a handful of exceptions, seem extraordinarily bloodless and shallow – nor often clever.

One final carp: the word azur must occur in over one third of the poems, a bit of poetic diction that seems more at home in the 18th century, even as the sky in Paris was turning brown from soot.

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