What were some common themes in the work of Théophile Gautier? Are there any particular texts that exemplify them?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

French poet, Théophile Gautier, was born in 1811 and died in 1872. He lived in Paris for most of his life, although he traveled widely and did a significant amount of travel writing. His work represents a transition between an older style of Romantic poetry and the Parnassianism of the later half of the century. He shared in common with the Romantics a belief in "art for art's sake", the notion that art has no obligation to address ethical issues but merely to meet its own aesthetic standards. Also like the Romantics, Gautier's own life was highly irregular, involving multiple simultaneous mistresses and a notoriously flamboyant lifestyle (not unlike the wild partying of some contemporary celebrities). Unlike the Romantics, however, his work emphasized craft over spontaneity and symmetrical form over extreme emotion. In this, he is often considered the founder of the Parnassian movement, which emphasised artistic detachment and flawless worksmanship, influencing such important late nineteenth century writers as Charles Leconte de Lisle, Sully Prudhomme, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and José María de Heredia.

Gautier's best known novel is Mademoiselle de Maupin, a work based explicitly on William Shakespeare's play "As You Like It", with the protagonist d'Albert dreaming of a perfect love, settling for a pleasant mistress who is not his ideal love, and then meeting a young man, Théodore, who he is convinced is his ideal woman in disguise. In a plot revolving around a country house amateur production of "As You Like It", it is revealed that Théodore actually is a woman, and she has one perfect romantic night with d'Albert before vanishing. It is tightly plotted, and extremely well written. There are no extra sideplots or irrelevant characters and the pacing and description have no random or irrelevant elements, but clearly and precisely move the action to a climax (both metaphorical and literal) that resolves the initial conflict of the plot. The departure of Mademoiselle de Maupin wraps up the plot, leaving no loose ends or gradual dimuendo after the climax.

Gautier's poetry has a similar lapidary quality, fitting its meter naturally with no syntactic distortions or empty verbiage, with precise and evocative use of language and description, as can be seen in his best known volume, Enamels and Cameos, which contains mainly short descriptive or evocative poems. One of my favourite of his poems illustrating these qualities is "Smoke", a descriptive poem about a peasant cottage, which begins (in my own translation):

A humpbacked thatched cottage huddles

Down there under the oaks.

The roof sags; the wall crumbles;

The threshold is covered with moss.

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