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Taken from Le Carre's Smiley's People:

The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded—if he had afterwards attempted the connection, which he did not—was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry, for at the time he was composing a monograph on the bard Opitz, and trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period.

I checked and found that "Parnassianism was a group of French poets that began during the positivist period of the 19th century". So what's "the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry"? Did Opitz belong to that field?

And how is Opitz related to Hamburg? I checked his biography on Wikipedia but couldn't find any clue.

The only connection I can think of is that Opitz is German, and Hamburg is a German city.

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  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Thanks for the great question!
    – verbose
    Jan 11 at 19:58

1 Answer 1

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First, the meaning of “Parnassian”. This can be just a fancy way of saying “poetic”:

Parnassian, adj., 1.a. Of or relating to Parnassus, as the source of literary (esp. poetic) inspiration; (hence) of or belonging to poetry, poetic.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Mount Parnassus in Greece was the mythological home of the Muses, who inspired poetry and the other arts, which is why the 19th-century French Parnassians adopted the name, but that society is too modern to be the reference in Smiley’s People, which is to the baroque period (17th–18th centuries) and to Martin Opitz (1597–1639).

However, the word can also refer to poetry that is formally competent but uninspired:

1.b. In the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins: designating a kind of poetry or language which can only be written by poets, but which is not the language of inspiration.

This sense fits the last part of the quoted sentence, which says that Smiley is “trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period”—indicating that although he is loyal to his field of study, he finds much German poetry of this period uninspired in Hopkins’ sense.

Other books in the Smiley series make it clear that Smiley was an amateur scholar of German literature. In Call for the Dead there is a brief biographical sketch of the character:

Some time in the twenties when Smiley had emerged from his unimpressive school and lumbered blinking into the murky cloisters of his unimpressive Oxford College, he had dreamt of Fellowships and a life devoted to the literary obscurities of seventeenth-century Germany.

John le Carré (1961). Call for the Dead, chapter 1. London: Gollancz.

I think the connection of Opitz to Hamburg must be that Opitz was so influential in seventeenth-century German poetry that every other poet in the language had to react to him, either by emulation or by opposition, and this included poets in Hamburg:

Lutheran Hamburg on the contrary developed, side by side with great material prosperity, a highly active intellectual life. […] Opitzians and independent poets here met together, and each party sought to increase its importance by starting a poetical society of its own. The minister Johann Rist was established at Wedel on the Elbe in the neighbourhood of Hamburg, and in Hamburg itself Philip von Zesen went to rest, after a chequered and wandering life. […] Rist founded the ‘Order of the Elbe Swans’ (Elbschwanenorden) in 1658; Zesen was from 1643 the president of a ‘German-feeling Society’ (Deutschgesinnte Genossenschaft.)

Wilhelm Schere (1886). A History of German Literature, volume 1, p. 324. New York: Scribner.

So in the course of writing a monograph on Opitz, a scholar like Smiley might consider the contemporary reaction to his subject, which might include Hamburg poets like Rist (who was an Opitzian) and Zesen (who was not). This connection is rather tenuous, but a tenuous link is what’s indicated by the quoted sentence.

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  • Thanks. I didn't notice that Parnassianism was in 19th century. You explanation makes sense. As for the connection, maybe as you said it's rather tenuous so there could be different ways of interpretation. Jan 11 at 22:05

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