Gautier, Théophile (Poetry Criticism)
Théophile Gautier 1811–1872
(Full name Pierre Jules Thdophile Gautier) French poet, novelist, novella writer, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and dramatist.
Gautier, or "le bon Théo" ("the good Théo"), as he was often called, is regarded as one of the most popular literary figures of nineteenth-century France. His poetic work is noteworthy both for its complete engagement with important artistic revolutions of its age—shifting from passionate Romanticism to urbane aestheticsm to Parnassian formalism—and for its singular devotion to the themes and techniques of literary decadence, including the intimate connection of death and the erotic, exoticism, self-conscious narration, and allusiveness. Opposed to philistinism and utilitarianism, all of Gautier's work displays a love for material beauty and extravagance, a love of art not for the sake of any use, but a love of, as Gautier noted, "l'art pour l'art," "art for art's sake."
Born in Tarbes, a city in the Pyrenees of southwest France, Gautier soon after moved with his family to Paris, where he would live—except for occasional travels—for the rest of his life. At age eleven, Gautier began attending the Lycée Charlemagne, where he met and befriended Gerard Labrunie, who would later become the writer known as Gerard de Nerval. During this time, Gautier studied painting and began writing poems. Although, in 1829, Gautier gave up painting and embraced the literary life after being introduced to Victor Hugo by Nerval, his passions for visual beauty and for visual description in writing—especially the "transposition d'art" ("transposition of art"), the depiction in writing of a painting or a sculpture—would become hallmarks of his literary works. As an advocate of Romanticism, Gautier—long-haired and dressed in his signature, flamboyant, "rouge gilet" ("red waistcoat")—led efforts to oppose classicists and to promote Romantic drama in the "Battle of Hernani." In 1831, with Nerval and other artist/bohemians, Gautier formed the "Petit Cenacle," and later "Groupe du Doyenne," groups dedicated to Romanticism and to unsettling the sedentary bourgeoisie with eccentric behavior. Eventually, however, Gautier realized a need for steady income and employment. In 1835, he began his career as a journalist, and was employed as an art and drama critic for various Parisian newspapers for the rest of his life. Although his reviews were held in high regard, Gautier viewed his journalism as an impediment that kept him from literature, which he believed to be his life's true work. The monotony of work
was occasionally broken by travel, including trips to Spain, Italy, Russia, and the Middle East, and was assuaged by romantic liasons and a passionate, though unrequited, love for the ballerina Carlotta Grisi. Although not actively engaged in politics, Gautier's health was adversely affected by the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and the turmoil which followed. Gautier died of heart disease in 1872.
Released during the July Revolution in 1830, the publication of Gautier's Poésies (1830; Poems), a collection of standard themes in standard verse, went virtually unnoticed. His next collection, Albertus ou l'ame et le péché (1833; Albertus, or the Soul and the Sin), included work from Poésies, new poems in the same mode, and a long, narrative poem, "Albertus," which parodied the satanism then fashionable in literature. Though self-referential and often humorous, "Albertus" introduces the themes of the prominence of art and the spectacle of death which would guide Gautier's writing through La comédie de la Mort (1838; The Comedy of Death) and España (1845; Spain), a collection of poems inspired by a five-month trip through Spain. In his last—and what many consider his most important—collection, Emaux et camées (1852-translated as Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, 1903), Gautier's poetry changes profoundly, becoming compact and chiselled, treating, as Gautier said, "tiny subjects in a severely formal way."
Although Charles Baudelaire dedicated his Les fleurs du mal to "the impeccable poet, the gentle enchanter of French letters … Théophile Gautier," and although at the time of his death eighty fellow writers composed poems in honor of him, Gautier's position as one of the major poets of nineteenth-century France is currently considered questionable. While many critics note the influence of Gautier's impersonal, formal ideals on Parnassians, Acmeists, and Modernists, including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, most believe either that Gautier's poetry simply lacks the profound intensity and spirit—as found in the work of Baudelaire—which is necessary to make poetry great, or that the poetry actively suffers from being mere stylism and escapism. Influenced by deconstructivist theory, some more recent criticism has attempted to excavate the seductive elements of Gautier's self-aware, ironic, and distanced poetry.
Poésies [Poems] 1830
*Albertus ou l'Ame et le péché [Albertus, or the Soul and the Sin] 1833
La comédie de la mort [The Comedy of Death] 1838
España [Spain] 1845
Emaux et camées [Enamels and Cameos] 1852; enlarged edition (1872) [Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, 1903]
Poésies complétes. 3 vols. [Complete Poems] 1932
Gentle Enchanter: Thirty-Four Poems by Théophile Gautier 1961
Other Major Works
Les Jeunes-France, romans goguenards (satire) 1833
Mademoiselle de Maupin (novel) 1835-36 [Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1890]
L'eldorado (novella) 1837; also published as Fortunio, 1838 [Fortunio, 1915]
**Une larme du diable (short story) 1839
Giselle ou les Wilts [with Vernoy Saint-Georges] (ballet scenario) 1841
Tra los montes (travel essay) 1843; also published as Voyage in Espagne 1845 [Wanderings in Spain, 1853]
Les grotesques (criticism) 1844
Nouvelles (novellas) 1845
Zigzags (travel essays) 1845; also published as Caprices and...
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SOURCE: "'La Symphonie en blanc majeur': An Interpretation," in L'Esprit Créateur. Vol. III, NO. 1, Spring, 1963, pp. 26-33.
[In the following essay, Van Eerde explores the meaning of the inclusion of the color red at the end of Gautier's otherwise all-white poem and finds that the color communicates emotional need.]
Marie-Antoinette Chaix, in La Correspondance des arts dans la poésie contemporaine (Paris, 1919), considers Théophile Gautier's poem, "La Symphonie en blanc majeur" (1849), a literary exercise. H. Van Der Tuin, in L'Evolution psychologique, esthétique et littéraire de Théophile Gautier (Paris, 1933), calls it decorative art. Joanna Richardson describes it as a linguistic "tour de force" in Théophile Gautier, His Life And Times (New York, 1959). This article would address itself to the matter of Gautier's introduction in the last strophe of pink into an otherwise all-white tableau and its significance for an interpretation of the poem. Whiteness will predominate from the first quatrain. Not until the last strophe does pink intrude:
Sous la glace où calme il repose
Oh! qui pourra fondre ce cœur
Oh! qui pourra mettre un ton rose
Dans cette implacable blancheur.
The preceding seventeen strophes have regaled the reader with a series of images that establish in bold...
(The entire section is 3398 words.)
SOURCE: "Jewel and Metallic Imagery in the Poetry of Théophile de Viau and Théophile Gautier," in Romance Notes, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Autumn, 1974, pp. 38-45.
[In the following essay, Alsip compares the poetic imagery of Théophile de Viau and Gautier, concluding that while Gautier may have been influenced by the earlier poet's imagery, he was not an imitator for he developed different, subtler uses for his imagery.]
In Metaphysical, Baroque and Précieux Poetry, Odette de Mourgues comments "… Théophile Gautier, who rediscovered these poets (Théophile, Saint-Amant, and Tristan) and appreciated their art so much that he contrived at times to rival them, found it difficult to achieve their successful blend of light transparence and jewelled richness." Might a comparison of jewel and metallic imagery in the œuvres poétiques of Théophile de Viau and Gautier's Émaux et camées indeed reveal Gautier to be a conscious imitator of this aspect of Théophile's art?
Gautier knew Théophile's work. His essay explaining his affinity for the seventeenth-century poet and his work is clear in Les Grotesques (1835), written nearly twenty years before the first edition of Émaux et camées in 1852.
Avant d'avoir lu un seul de ses vers je lui portais déjà un tendre intérêt à cause de son nom de Théophile … je vous avoue...
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SOURCE: "The Thematic Function of Sexual Identity in Théophile Gautier's Comédie De La Mort," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, May, 1977, pp. 38-50.
[In the following essay, Burnett interprets Gautier's Comédie as a heroic confrontation with mortality and a struggle for sexual self-knowledge and artistic wholeness.]
The decade of the 1830's in France was marked by a lively interest in questions of sexual identity. The clear delineation of masculine and feminine impulses characteristic of the neo-classical perspective yielded to more ambivalent views of sexuality during the era introduced by the "bataille d'Hernani".
This change originated through a combination of social and æsthetic considerations. Gender stereotypes were flaunted by feminist "lionnes" such as George Sand and by the revellers who favoured transvestite costumes for the frequent masked balls of the period. The remarkably numerous followers of Ganneau, the self-styled Mapah (mother/father) of the Evadanist (Eve/Adam) sect, attest to the appeal of a religious dogma which emphasized the equality, if not the indivisibility, of the sexes. As well as serving the social causes espoused by Sand, Ganneau, and others, the attacks on sexual stereotypes also suited the coterie of Romantic artists intent upon shocking the popular imagination. No flight of idealistic speculation was too far-fetched for...
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SOURCE: "Inspiration and Aspiration: Gautier's "La Diva'" and Musset's "Une Soirée perdue'," in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 5, September-December, 1978, pp. 229-42.
[In the following essay, Nurnberg contrasts poems by Gautier and Alfred de Musset with similar subject matter—the recounting of a bittersweet, chance encounter with idealized beauty—in order to highlight and define Gautier's visual aesthetic]
In 1838, Théophile Gautier published a poem entitled "La Diva," in which he recounts a visit to the Théâtre-Italien. The opera is Rossini's Mosé, but Gautier is soon distracted from the stage by the sight of a beautiful woman, Julia Grisi, in a box. Henceforth oblivious of the musical performance, Gautier devotes himself to detailing the physical perfections of Julia, and ends his poem regretting having given up painting in favour of poetry: only painting, he says, can hope to capture the essence of physical beauty. On 14th July, 1840, Alfred de Musset visited the Comédie-Française for a performance of Le Misanthrope. He too describes his evening in verse. The play gives him cause for reflection on the moral degeneracy of his own time, and the need for a contemporary Molière to denounce it—Musset himself, perhaps, he muses wistfully. At the same time, his attention is drawn by a girl seated in front of him, and later, when the play is...
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SOURCE: "The Destruction of the Artist in Gautier's Early Poetry," in Bulletin de la Société Théophile Gautier, No. 3, 1981, pp. 49-58.
[In the following essay, Burnett describes the pattern of artistic self-destruction—creation of an ideal, desire for that ideal, and subsequent destruction—prevalent in many of Gautier's early poems.]
In the concluding stanza of "Albertus" (1832), Théophile Gautier challenges the reader to decipher the "allégorie admirable et profonde" of his "légende théologique". This 1400 line compendium of romantic clichés recounts the saga of the witch, Véronique, who transforms herself into a seductive young woman. By chance, she sees a "fashionable", young, poet/painter, Albertus, and falls in love with him. She arranges to have him brought to her and seduces him after extracting a promise that he will sell his soul to have her. In the midst of their lovemaking, she and her surroundings are changed back to their original, hideous form. Albertus and Véronique fly together to a "sabbat" which ends as follows:
Le Diable éternua. - Pour un nez fashionable
L'odeur de l'assemblée était insoutenable.
- Dieu vous bénisse, dit Albertus poliment.
- A peine eut-il lâché le saint nom que fantômes,
Sorcières et sorciers, monstres, follets et gnomes,
Tout disparut en l'air...
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SOURCE: "The Architecture of Meaning: Gautier and Romantic Architectural Visions," in French Forum, Vol. 7, No. 2, May, 1982, pp. 109-116.
[In the following essay, Burnett discusses the evolving role of the poem-as-architecture in Gautier's La comédie de la mort]
In 1838 Théophile Gautier published a collection of poetry entitled La Comédie de la mort. The volume opens with the poem "Portail" and closes with "Le Sommet de la tour." In both works the poet casts himself in the role of architect, laboriously erecting a gothic cathedral from crypt to pinnacles. His verses are the building blocks to which he gives the charge:
En funèbres caveaux creusez-vous, ô mes vers!
Puis montez hardiment comme les cathédrales,
Allongez-vous en tours, tordez-vous en spirales.
While these sometimes tortuous metaphorical efforts occasionally make tedious reading, they do reveal the problematics of poetry as architecture. The poet's verses have both function and form, as do their architectural counter-parts. Gautier's verses function as tombs for his dead illusions:
Mes vers sont des tombeaux tout brodés de sculptures;
Chacun est le cercueil d'une illusion morte.
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SOURCE: "The Earnest but Skeptical Questor: Gautier's Albertus and Mademoiselle de Maupin," in Romantic Irony in French Literature from Diderot to Beckett, Vander-built, 1989, pp. 83-95.
[In the following essay, Bishop discusses the use of a complex, romantic irony which Gautier employed for humorous effect and for the fuller treatment of serious themes.]
No French author has better epitomized the romantic dilemma than Théophile Gautier. His lifelong yearning for the ideal was accompanied by a career-long pessimism that told him his frantic search was futile. He suffered the agonizing dual awareness that, on the one hand, the human condition was intolerable and, on the other, transcendence was impossible. One tries to spread one's wings, says the heroine of Mademoiselle de Maupin, but they are weighed down by slime, the corrupt body anchors the soul to earth. Critics have spoken of Gautier's Gnostic and Manichaean dualism, of his view of the universe as a battleground upon which the forces of good and evil fight for dominance. But for this unbeliever, orthodox Christianity—especially its analysis of man's dualism—provided the central text, and Gautier found it eloquently expressed in Hugo's preface to Cromwell, which "shone in our eyes," says Gautier of himself and his fellow romantics of 1827, "like the Tables of the Law on Sinai."
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SOURCE: "Albertus: Narrating Poetic Allegory," in French Literature Series, Vol. XVII, 1990, pp. 60-68.
[In the following essay, Schick explores the ironic and seductive effects of Albertus's intratextual weaving.]
Theophile Gautier's talent as a storyteller is much more readily appreciated today than his talent as a poet. Paradoxically, the recognition of his narrative abilities generally focuses on the poeticity of his prose fictions, a poeticity itself attributed in large measure to the fantastic thematics of his narratives, their self-conscious écriture, the plasticity of this writing, and their expansive, gratuitous delight in verbal pyrotechnics—all factors which, when applied to his poems, usually serve to dimmish their "poeticity."
Interestingly, Gautier's first narrative was a poem. Composed in 1831-1832, "Albertus" is made up of 122 stanzas, each one consisting of eleven alexandrines and one concluding octosyllabic verse. It is generally categorized as a "long narrative poem" although, in fact, the narrative of "Albertus" is embedded within the self-referential metapoem of its writing and its reading. The penultimate stanza proclaims: "-Joyeux comme un enfant à la fin de son thème, / Me voici donc au bout de ce morale poème! / En êtesvous aussi content que moi, lecteur?"; and the final verses of the poem conclude:
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SOURCE: "The Prefatory Poetics of Théophile Gautier," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 47-54.
[In the following essay, Lien examines the role of the prefatory poem in reconciling Gautier's aesthetic of emotional detachment with an impulse toward sentiment in La comédie de la mort, Espñna, and Emaux et camees.]
Although his position as precursor of the Parnassian movement remains undisputed, readers and critics alike tend to relegate Gautier the poet to the status of reformed Romantic whose Emaux et camées illustrate his doctríne of 'Tart pour l'art." His earlier poetry and the development of his personal poetics remain shrouded in the anthology formula of descriptive poet with a limited emotional range. As is so often the case in the nineteenth century, these "idées reçues" are the by-product of the author's own prefatory discourse, most notably the preface to Albertus (1832) in which Gautier distances himself from both the emotional grandiloquence of the early Romantics and the socio-political concerns that pervaded the literary circles during the 1830s. Indeed, Gautier must have seemed a curious figure with his call for artistic expression the utility of which resided in its beauty alone.
One must remember, however, in spite of the burgeoning stylistic virtuosity that one already finds in this collection, that Gautier possessed, as...
(The entire section is 2396 words.)
SOURCE: "Théophile Gautier's Poetry as Coquetterie Posthume," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 & 2, Fall-Winter, 1991-92, pp. 74-81.
[In the following essay, Schick explores the poem, "Coquetterie posthume," and discusses how its seemingly paradoxical conjunction of seduction and death can illuminate other aspects of Gautier's poetics.]
Ever since Georges Poulet's seminal work [Etudes sur la temps humain, 1950] on time in Gautier, it is generally acknowledged that Gautier's obsession with death is a matrix not only for his choice of themes but also for his esthetics and poetics. "Tout passe.—L'art robuste / Seul a l'éternité." and "Les dieux euxmêmes meurent. / Mais les vers souverains / Demeurent / Plus forts que les airains" ("L'Art") are verses that most popularly identify Gautier's place in the 19th Century canon. Recently, the poet Jacques Lardoux offers the poem "Coquetterie posthume" as evidence mat Gautier's "pierres précieuses" are "un défi, en dernière instance, lancé au temps et à la mort par les plus petits objets, les plus petits poèmes."
Quand je mourrai, que l'on me mette,
Avant de clouer mon cercueil,
Un peu de rouge à la pommette,
Un peu de noir au bord de l'oeil.
Car je veux, dans ma bière close,
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SOURCE: "Théophile Gautier's 'Albertus' and the Thematics of Nailing," in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 & 4, Spring-Summer, 1992, pp. 317-28.
[In the following essay, Vest explores Gautier's use of images of nailing in "Albertus."]
To dismiss "Albertus" as a gratuitous, puerile fantasy or as a frenetic exercise in poetic license is to deny Gautier his due. Although the young writer's penchant for l'emphase and for heterogeneous subjects and styles is evident in "Albertus," yet it is also true that this poem was carefully reworked prior to publication in 1832 and that, for all its posturing and rambling, it exhibits considerable thematic and organizational coherence. Contributing to that cohesiveness is Gautier's insistence on images of nailing, images that directly counter its apparent predilection for chaotic movement. It is no accident that "Albertus" begins and ends with references to clous and that allusions to nailing recur at important points in this and others of Gautier's writings. The present study will not attempt to reassess the psychosexual implications of the clou, but will instead concentrate on the intellectual and symbolic importance of this recurrent image that constitutes a unifying metaphor in "Albertus" and that provides a useful reference point for understanding Gautier's outlook on literature and on life.
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Richardson, Joanna. Théophile Gautier: His Life and Times. London: Max Reingardt, 1958, 335 p.
The definitive English-language critical biography.
Bristol, Evelyn. "The Acmeists and the Parnassian Heritage." In American Contributions to the Tenth International Congress of Slavists, edited by Jane Gary Harris, pp. 71-81. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1988.
Explains the effects Gautier's emotional and materialistic poetry and poetics had on the Acmeists, especially Nikolai Gumilev.
Dillingham, Louise Bulkley. The Creative Imagination of Théophile Gautier. Princeton, N.J. and Albany, N.Y.: Psychological Review Co., 1927, 356 p.
Psychological investigation into Gautier's motivations and techniques, tracing his artistic evolution from Romanticism to Realism and finding him to be, overall, more prosaic than poetic.
Grant, Richard. Théophile Gautier. Boston: Twayne, 1975, 179 p.
Overview of Gautier's life and work, inluding commentary on his poetry.
Haxell, Nichola A. "Hugo, Gautier and the Obelisk of Luxor (Place de la Concorde) During the Second Republic." Nineteenth-Century...
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