Unlike in the political sphere, the literary revolutionary period does not cease at Waterloo 1815. Byron, Keats, and Shelley lived on in England, Goethe was still energetically finishing Faust in Germany, and Hugo was yet to come to France. Nevertheless, the poets of the age enclosed by the Concert of Vienna grew in apprehension toward a very different kind of foe – the onslaught of the industrial revolution as it spilled out of England and onto the continent. Like the political revolution of France, this industrial revolution had as part of its core the destruction of the old world order. Unlike that of France, this revolution was attacking an order far older and more profound than any Ancien Regime – it was destroying man’s natural environment and his place in agrarian-led society.

Wordsworth, writing as early as 1806, shows his concern over man’s fading connection to the natural in The World is too much with Us where he accuses his contemporaries of killing their own souls. As the nineteenth century developed, the ugly, sooty, and degradant city and factory landscape had poets struggling with the ability to write anything beautiful. Take, as a prime example, Matthew Arnold’s Consolation (1852):

Mist clogs the sunshine.

Smoky dwarf houses

Hem me round everywhere;

A vague dejection

Weighs down my soul.

How, then, did the poets of this time find consolation? Far from diluting and disintegrating in this period of rapid and transformative change, the classical tradition thrived as a means of escapism. The literary mind would look to other lands and other ages for more appropriate subject-matter of their art. This escapism was not always confined to Greece and Rome. At the same time as Europe’s furnace smoke plumed, the last vestiges of the unchartered earth were being found and filled – so we see Gauguin head to Tahiti, Rimbaud to Java and east Africa, and Pierre Loti to the Orient. The Middle Ages still worked as a romantic retreat. Other artists found their escapism through drug use – it is impossible to deny the effects of opium on the likes of De Quincey and Baudelaire.

In the classical retreat, which here is our principal concern, we find two modes of thought:

  1. Parnassus
  2. Antichrist

These modes and their effects on nineteenth century literature will now be discussed in turn.


An image of Classical Parnassus: Writers viewed themselves as above the mob

Parnassus is the mountain in central Greece which towers above Delphi, on which the Greek gods were set to live. It is far removed, lofty, natural, beautiful – it here symbolises the pursuit of the secluded artist. It is the classical symbol similar to the ivory tower, a phrase coined by Saint-Beuve in his 1879 poem A.M. Villemain. Parnassus is more suitable here firstly because it is a Greek term, but also because it has connections with publications earlier than 1879. Le Parnasse contemporain, or The Modern Parnassus was a periodical run by French poets from 1866 to 1876. They named it such because the mountain is inhabited by the Muses – goddesses of poetry as well patrons of history, philosophy, science, drama, in fact everything in civilisation that is above material concerns. The French named Montparnasse, the hill in Paris where the universities, art and thought of that great city assembled. To be Parnassian was to be on that hill in that moment in time. More broadly, it was to assert the beauty of Greek and Latin aesthetic ideals, against that of the nineteenth century.

In painting it was Ingres’ Apotheosis of Homer and The Spring, it was the tranquil visions of Puvis de Chavannes. For Parnassian writers, it was about despising both romanticism for distorting life, and industrialism for degrading it. What it believed in was a distinct set of ideals:

  1. Emotional Control

Expression is present but constraint. Emotion is ever-present, but does not result in extravagant outburst. Another word for the method is impassibility, coined by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-94), leader of the Parnassian group. Victor Hugo’s love novels – Notre-Dame, L’Homme qui rit, Les Travailleurs de la mer, are all far too fantastical for the Parnassians. Désiré Nisard (1806-88) would criticise Hugo for distorting the standards of French literature, just as Lucan and Statius had done for

Leconte de Lisle
Leconte de Lisle: Chief Parnassian

Latin. In Italy, Giosue Carducci (2835-1907) denounced romantic attitude to life in his Classicism and Romanticism. In Edgar Allan Poe’s love-poem To Helen, we see this exhaustion with romanticism well laid out. In it, the traveller returns to

The glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

The contrast between the frenetic emotionalism of such poets as Swinburne and the serenity which produces saner thought and better poetry was put by Matthew Arnold (1822-88) in Bacchanalia; or, The New Age. When tempted by the revelry, Arnold asks

Glow not their shoulders smooth?

Melt not their eyes?

Is not, on cheeks like those, Lovely the flush?

To which the shepherd of his poem responds:

Ah, so the quiet was!

So was the hush!

  1. Severity of Form

In this field, the most impressive work is The Trophies by José-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905), which processes through the western tradition from ancient Greek legends, through Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, with emphasis on heroism and beauty. In its form it seeks to replicate the controlled nature of the poetry of antiquity. At the same time, Carducci was producing his Barbarian Odes, in the manner of Horace. It carries with it typical Parnassian sentiments:

I hate the vulgar mob, and fence it off

Unlike the strict form of baroque, the Parnassians did not make the baroque mistake of educing any ‘rules’ from their models. Classical form was about the acceptance of discipline, not. The idea was best put by Théophile Gautier (1811-72) in his poem L’Art:

No false restraints put on!

Yet, to walk steadily,

Muse, you must don

A narrow buskin high

  1. Beauty is an independent value

This was a defiance against the realists and religious propagandists like Mr. Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, who held that no art was good unless it taught an improving lesson. Leconte de Lisle, who rejected Keats’ identifying beauty as true, wrote ‘The Beautiful is not the servant of the True’

  1. Art for art’s sake

This leads on from the third ideal and is easily the most famous. It had its origins not in Victor Hugo, as the Frenchman believed, but in Kant and his philosophical successors. In France, it is inextricable from the political pessimism cause by the failure of second French Republic. In England, the doctrine was proclaimed by A.C. Swinburne (1837-1909), who took after Gautier, and Walter Pater (1839-94), in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance.

Art for art’s sake, it may be noted, is not a classical doctrine. The Greeks and Romans did not believe that art was divorced from morality. That danger of stating that art is non-moral is that it leads art too easily down the path of becoming immoral. Joris-Karl Huysmans illustrates such a descent from non-moral to immoral in his novel A Rebours, where the aesthete Des Esseintes goes from colourless deed to ill deed in his search for petty stimulation.

No one character better took advantage of ‘art for art’s sake’ than Oscar Wilde (1856-1900), who, like Swinburne, saw an opportunity not to remove art from a doctrine of morality, but to use his art to teach a new moral code, chiefly in sexual matters. The true tragedy of this is that sexual passion could be explored in an eloquent manner in the pre-existing Graeco-Roman setting, as was the case in Tennyson’s Lucretius and Oenone, Browning’s Fifine at the Fair and Pan and Luna.

The Parnassians were a confused bunch. By seeking to remove themselves from what they viewed as the vulgar materialist masses, they slowly unwound themselves from the Graeco-Roman tradition which was at the core of their original detachment. As industrialism grew to penetrate every aspect of society, the poets and writers of the group were not so much in an ivory tower as adrift in an isolated barge. Did, then, the Parnassians produce anything positive?

The best among this class were supreme scholars in Greece and Rome – Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) had Horace’s odes memorised by heart while still a boy and knew well his position as the English Virgil of his time. For Arnold and Swinburne, reading Greek and writing poetry were independent activities, but the likes of Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) wrote Latin poetry as freely as English. Landor is maintained to have said that he was

‘Sometimes as a loss for an English word, for a Latin never’

Robert Browning (1812-89) was a linguist extraordinaire, as familiar with Greek and Latin as he was with French and Italian.

Despite this wealth of knowledge, the Parnassians remain tainted by a mixture of escapism and defeatism in a world which was changing rapidly from the classical perspective. But a view to the past was not in vain, for the past is never dead. It exists continuously in the minds of thinkers and men of imagination. Whether Ariosto or Virgil, Milton or Racine, those who expressed their ideals at a heroic distance ennobled those ideals. In their search for the universal emotions of man, writers found insights in

Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure: Aristophean Vigour

classical rather than contemporary figures. Whether it was Tennyson channeling Keats in the Lotus Eaters, or Homer in his Ulysses; or Browning describing the complex vigour of Aristophanes in The Last Adventure of Balaustion, figures in the long chain of the classical tradition were the outpost. An interesting development of the Parnassians was the question of how far back to cast the eye? Leconte de Lisle, in his Antique Poems, begins with evocations of Hindu legend before passing onto Greece, before tackling biblical, Phoenician, Scandinavian, and Celtic history in his Barbarian Odes. The English Parnassian equivalent is Landor’s Imaginary Conversations, which ranges over a wide stretch of the historical landscape.

This historical perspective was something that slowly filtered into the public consciousness throughout the Industrial age – it was the one which had been sculpted a century prior, by Gibbon and Wincklemann, broadened by Wolf and Wood, and cemented by Niebuhr. It was on this backbone of the historical landscape that poets like Matthew Arnold could write his Empedocles on Etna, and create through that classical setting the means of impersonality. Nowhere else could Arnold show his two selves – the thinker and the singer. The danger of using the setting was when the author cared little for their classical illusion, but more so for slipping contemporary associations into an obscure world. This is where Arnold’s Merope fails where his Empedocles on Etna succeeds. Tennyson admired Lucretius. Swinburne did not so Atalanta. In Browning’s Balaustion Adventure, he is an enthusiast of Euripides’ Alcestis. Browninig was replication in Balaustion’s love for Euripides a genuine love he had in his own life – that for Elizabeth Barrett.

Empedocles On Etna
Empedocles on Etna: Matthew Arnold finds genuine Classical enthusiasm

The Parnassians had a strange time of it. Poetry was becoming reclusive and detached even at the time of where other high art and literature was flourishing – think the grand operas of Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Puccini, and the Russians; the sweeping novels of Dickens and Tolstoy. But perhaps they were simply the more prescient of the artistic minds. No other forms could trace itself back to the Greeks the way that poetry and drama could. None had seen more of the tradition, and none, it seemed, were as world-weary.


Christianity was hated and despised by many of the most ardent lovers of the classics during the nineteenth century. We are looking here to the successors of revolutionary poets such as Shelley and Holderlin. They thought Christianity was a perversion of Graeco-Roman ideals, if it could be called Graeco-Roman at all. The Anti-Christians had three main arguments:

  1. Christianity is not part of the European tradition; it is oriental, and therefore barbarous and repulsive

The chief writer using this argument was one Ernest Renan (1823-1892), whose works Prayer on the Acropolis and The Origins of Christianity are filled with lines describing Christianity as ‘a foreign cult’ and St Paul as ‘an ugly little Jew’. The argument, as can be elicited from Renan, is tinged with the rising anti-Judaism of the time. The Jews were Asiatic, not European. The sentiment abounds in the works of Anatole France (1844-1924). In The Governor of Judea he has an older retired Pontius Pilate recall nothing of the miracle worker Jesus Christ, but only in the Jews a mad and barbarous people. In France’s Thais, he places a contrast between the lovely, civilised, Epicurean courtesan of Alexandria, and the barbarous, fanatical, Christian monk.

Giosue Carducci: One of many who embraced Satanism

Anti-Judaism can be traced to more recognisable figures such as Oscar Wilde in his Salomé. Strauss had their grotesqueness emphasised when he added music to the play.

  1. Christianity means repression, paganism means liberty

This is the Shelley view. Giosue Carducci, mentioned as a Parnassian above, also fell into this trap while pursuing Italian unification. Among his opponents to the unification he saw Pius IX as chief oppressor. Building upon his revolutionary predecessor Alfieri, he penned a hymn To Satan in 1863, published two years later. Carducci equates Satan with the spirit of progress, whom he admires. In its neo-paganism it  goes further than the Litanies of Satan of Baudelaire, as also associates Satan as the god who ruled the ancient pagan worlds of Persia, Asia Minor and Lebanon. Carducci held that Satan was behind the free life of the human spirit. He associates Satan with all reformers since the Middle Ages. Now that spirit was encapsulated in the great scientific advancement of Carducci’s age. The chariot of fire, conquering the world of Jehovah, was the locomotive. Carducci more explicitly states the union of the industrialist and the Roman as anti-Christian in his poem By the Springs of Clitumnus.

Carducci was not the only Parnassian who strayed into anti-Christian thought. In France, Leconte de Lisle produced a Popular History of Christianity, a savage philippic against the Church and its corruptions, while his friend Louis Ménard (1822-1901) thought Greek religion was a truer philosophical picture of the universe, a thought put forward best in his Hellenic Polytheism.

The most common attack on the church by ninenteenth century writers revolved around sexual liberty. This is often given too much association with the Greek tradition, as the writers believed love in Greece was free and unashamed. Unfortunately for them, the theory from which it flowed credited the Greeks with far more sexual licence then they admitted or admired – except in a few cosmopolitan cities like Alexandria. Sometimes they distorted the facts of history by confusing Hellenism with Orientalism. The great sinner here is Pierre Louys (1870-1925), who was not schooled in Greek and even disliked the Iliad and Odyssey until he read Leconte de Lisle’s translation. Revering both de Lisle and Ménard, he wrote A New Pleasure, and produced epigrams of the Syrian-Greek poet Meleager before rendering Lucian’s Courtesans’ Conversations, and eventually The Songs of Bilitis, Louys’ magnum opus.

Like Dares the Phrygian in the middle ages, it plays on the idea of the work being an undiscovered manuscript from ancient Greece. Taking its character from Sappho’s Lesbian lover to a Cypriot temple-prostitute. The open-eyed frankness of the poems on homosexuality and prostitution is, though, not Greek but oriental in origin. This critic came primarily from one Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, professor of Greek at Berlin – he maintained that a character such a Bilitis could never have written great poems had she led such a life. It was incompatible with Greek sense of self-discipline and their understanding of art. Nevertheless, Louys proceeded along his own decadent ideal of ancient Greece, publishing his Aphrodite at his own expense in 1896, in which he quotes from the Song of Solomon.

Louys’ Mistake: Veneration of a Decadent Antiquity

In France’s Thais, Mérimée’s Carmen, and Flaubert’s Salammbo, the theme of Louys was continued. The problem with these antichristian texts was that they mistook the time of Greece which appealed to them. Louys’ dream Greece was not Greece at all, but the decadent polyglot megapolis of Alexandria – which was then no more Greek than New Orleans is now French and Rio de Janeiro Portuguese. Louys and his readers wanted not the clear waters of Ilissus, beside which Socrates talked to young Phaedrus of passion and the mastery of reason, but a draught from the turbid Nile, where Aphrodite was seen as a divinity far more terrible and Asiatic than the smiling spirit born of Aegean sea-foam.

  1. Christianity is timid and feeble, paganism is strong and intense

No discussion of the classically inclined writer who rebuked Christianity can be complete without mentioning Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). He had gone to the best German classical, Pforta, with the aforementioned Wilamowitz-Moellendorff; he was professor at Basle by the time he was twenty-five; and in 1872 he produced his theory on the origin of Greek tragedy, Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geist der Musik. For Nietzsche, it had arisen from a tension between the wild forces of Dionysus and the god of light and beauty, Apollo.

Nietzsche admired Greek art for its intensity; its difficulty; its aristocratic quality. Aeschylus was his hero, but so was Theognis, the sixth-century writer who called his fellow oligarchs ‘good’ and the commoners ‘bad’, from which came the distinction between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘villains’. Nietzsche’s paganism was such a force in his thinking that he thought Christianity as a Jewish stratagem of revenge on the Romans in Beyond Good and Evil. He agreed with Tacitus, that the Jews were a people “born for slavery” and that in them begins the ‘slave-revolt in morality’. Yet Nietszche was more subtle than rambling attacks on anti-Asiatic Judaism. He knew that in figures such as Socrates, there was a critic of instinctive and traditional morality as was then experienced by the Greeks. In that sense, Socrates was a forerunner to Christ.

Nietzsche: The Fury of the 19th Century Anti-Christ Writer

What Nietzsche was in philosophy, Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) was in literature. Flaubert detested nineteenth-century morality. He maintained that the world had passed through three stages:

  1. Paganism
  2. Christianity
  3. Skunkery – his own age being ruled by skunks

He wrote two great works on classical themes – Salammbo (1862), one of the great historical novels in the European catalogue with its intriguing setting of the great Roman rival, Carthage; and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874). He was part Louys, part Nietzsche, and despite the faults in his classical assertions, was undoubtedly enamoured with the great works of antiquity. He is quoted as being ‘haunted’ by phrases in the Aeneid. Flaubert’s fault is the same as many a nineteenth century writer – his hatred of his own vulgar age pushed him into admiration of an extreme opposite, and away from a balanced Graeco-Roman ideal.

The Christian Backlash

Christianity was still at this still a vital force in civilian life and had in it an energy to oppose its critics. We see in Chateaubriand’s The Martyrs an assertion that the early Christians had faced worse opposition and prevailed. This turn to admiring the founding of Christianity in the heart of the Roman Empire led to a series of novels claiming Rome fell because it was an immoral, pagan empire. The best known of these are:

Title Year Author Synopsis
The Last Days of Pompeii 1834 E.G.E.L. Bulwer-Lytton, later Lord Lytton (1803-73) The symbolic destruction of a pagan city in its conflict with Christianity
Hypatia 1853 Charles Kingsley (1819-75) Hypatia as the noble embodiment of Christianity against the barbarians
Ben-Hur 1880 Lewis Wallace (1827-1905) A Jewish nobleman turned galley-slave in the time of Christ
Quo Vadis? 1896 Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) The penetration of Rome by Christianity with character-sketches of St. Peter, Nero, and Petronius, with an overly sensational climax: a gigantic Pole killing a huge German aurochs in the arena to free a naked princess

Antiquity in Popular Fiction

Building on the earlier popularity of the likes of Fénelon’s Telemachus, novels such as J.J. Barthélemy’s The Travels of Young Anacharsis in Greece became best-sellers for generations. Even Macaulay’s great Lays of Ancient Rome strays into the category of antiquity as proto-fantasy. This field becomes mixed by also including text-books disguised as fiction, such as Becker’s Gallus. Whatever the categorisation, the growing readership which spread in the industrial age still harboured a keen interest in the Greek and Roman world.

There also existed more explicitly anti-Christian novels such as David Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which placed into its fiction a purely rational type of criticism, which sometimes

Marcus Aurelius
Antonine Rome: Pater, like Gibbon, placed it as the apex of Roman life

treated the gospel and the growth of the faith purely as ‘a product, like sugar or vitriol’.

The best of these novels is Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885), which ascends the exotic tale in antiquity to become an intriguing philosophical study. It is set in the age of the Antonines – which Gibbon and others believed to the highest point ever reached by human existence on this planet. A young Roman noble is plunged into doubt by the death of his mother and of a close sceptic friend. First, he becomes an Epicurean, before converting to Stoicism after a meeting with Marcus Aurelius. Penetrating deeper into this thought, the young man finds himself on the verge of Christian conversion, before being arrested and dying for the faith. Like Virgil, his is seen as a soul worthy of Christ.

Such was the seen in the great industrial expanse of the nineteenth century. As writers became disillusioned and confused by their own ever-changing surroundings, they began to become so with the meaning of the Graeco-Roman tradition as well. Some sought the Parnassian retreat, others railed against Christian corruption of a purer paganism. Whatever path they found themselves on, it was clear that the water-level of modernity was close to a new breaking point – a point which confounding and intrigued the greatest literary minds of the age. Some saw dangerous storm-clouds, others saw a cleansing flood to wipe away old corruptions and habits. The world was changing, and the Classical Tradition needed more than ever to re-find its solidity in those minds who were still enraptured by it.