The name is derived from the original Parnassian poets' journal, Le Parnasse contemporain, itself named after Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses of Greek mythology. The anthology was first issued in 1866 and again in 1869 and 1876, including poems by Charles Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, François Coppée and José María de Heredia.
The Parnassians were influenced by Théophile Gautier and his doctrine of "art for art's sake". As a reaction to the less-disciplined types of romantic poetry/and what they considered the excessive sentimentality and undue social and political activism of Romantic works, the Parnassians strove for exact and faultless workmanship, selecting exotic and (neo-)classical subjects that they treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment. Elements of this detachment were derived from the philosophical work of Schopenhauer.
Despite its French origins, Parnassianism was not restricted to French authors. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of Parnassians, Olavo Bilac, Alberto de Oliveira's disciple, was an author from Brazil who managed carefully to craft verses and metre while maintaining a strong emotionalism in them. Polish Parnassians included Antoni Lange, Felicjan Faleński, Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Leopold Staff. A Romanian poet with Parnassian influences was Alexandru Macedonski. Florbela Espanca was a Parnassian Portuguese poet (Larousse).
British poets such as Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson and Edmund Gosse were sometimes known as "English Parnassians" for their experiments in old (often originally French) forms such as the ballade, the villanelle and the rondeau, taking inspiration from French authors like Banville. Gerard Manley Hopkins used the term Parnassian pejoratively to describe competent but uninspired poetry, “spoken on and from the level of a poet’s mind”. He identified this trend particularly with the work of Alfred Tennyson, citing the poem "Enoch Arden" as an example.