The French poet Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894), a leader of the group of poets called the Parnassians, was famed for the sonorous and brilliantly visual qualities of his poetry.
Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle was born in Saint-Paul on the Île de la Réunion, an overseas department of France, on Oct. 22, 1818. Brought to France in his infancy, he later returned at various times to Réunion before settling in Paris to work on socialist journals. After the political disillusionment of 1848, Leconte de Lisle turned from politics and devoted his life to poetry. As a young man, he had been deeply moved by the visual brilliance of Victor Hugo's poems in Les Orientales, which he claimed had revealed to him the beauty of his homeland. Another youthful influence, along with his revolutionary social enthusiasms, had developed under the influence of Louis Ménard. Leconte de Lisle's passionate interest in ancient Greece, evident in much of his poetry, also showed itself in his translations of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Theocritus.
Leconte de Lisle's finest volumes of verse include his Poèmes antiques (1852); his Poèmes barbares (1872), first published in 1862 as Poésies barbares; and his Poèmes tragiques (1884). Two other collections, Derniers poèmes (1895) and Premières poésies (1902), appeared posthumously. His Poésies complètes was published in four volumes in 1927-1928.
Greek legend and myth inspired many of the poems in Poèmes antiques, such as Hélène, La Robe du centaure, Kybèle, Pan, and Vénus de Milo. However, in the poem Midi Leconte de Lisle expressed a longing for annihilation, and in such poems as Bhagavat, çunacépa, and La Vision de Brahma, the poet expressed the Hindu concept of universal illusion. This concept persisted in his thought, attaining its final and most desolate statement in La Maya of the Poèmes tragiques.
Poèmes barbares contains the major portion of Leconte de Lisle's finest verse. The title of this collection indicated that the poems in it were "barbarian" in the sense of being non-Greek. One poem, Les Montreurs, attacks the display of personal emotion in poetry. While subjects of the Poèmes barbares are drawn from many lands, the finest poems in the collection concern themselves mostly with the poet's own illusionless and lonely view of life. These include L'Écclésiaste, Les Hurleurs, Fiat nox, Le Vent froid de la nuit, and Soivet seclum. Another fine group treats exotic landscapes (La Vérandah, Le Paysage polaire), especially those inhabited by wild animals (Les Éléphants, Le Sommeil du condor, La Panthère noire, Les Jungles, and Le Jaguar). In fact, many of Leconte de Lisle's finest poems depict exotic animals and landscapes (deserts, jungles, mountains, and seas), and a recurrent note in his verses combines the representation of alien lands or distant times with the emptiness of the human situation in an unfeeling universe of illusion and change.
On March 31, 1887, Leconte de Lisle occupied Victor Hugo's seat in the French Academy. He died in Voisins near Louveciennes, France, on July 17, 1894.
For biographies of the poet see Irving Henry Brown, Leconte de Lisle: A Study on the Man and His Poetry (1923), and Irving Putter, Leconte de Lisle and His Contemporaries (1951). There is a chapter, "Leconte de Lisle and His Disciples," in Aaron Schaffer, Parnassus in France (1929). Alison Fairlie, Leconte de Lisle's Poems on the Barbarian Races (1947), provides a valuable study of the poet's finest volumes of poems. Other studies are Irving Putter, The Pessimism of Leconte de Lisle: Sources and Evolution (1954) and The Pessimism of Leconte de Lisle: The Work and the Time (1961).