Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1701
Théophile Gautier’s poetry forms the transition between Romanticism and the Parnassus school in France. As a young man, Gautier was a prominent member of the group surrounding Victor Hugo in the battle of Hernani (1830), Hugo’s play that resulted in open conflict between classicists and Romanticists. Later, however, though he did not formally renounce his support of Romanticism, his name was to become associated with the doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and it is especially in connection with his body of ideas that his name is remembered.
Gautier’s earliest poetry was collected into a volume entitled, simply, Poésies, first published in 1830. A pronounced taste for the Middle Ages, a love of lonely places, an impression of alienation—all traditional sources of inspiration for the Romantic poets—find a place in this collection, which is not noted for its originality.
“Albertus, or the Soul and Sin,” a long narrative poem describing a young painter’s fatal infatuation with a witch, appeared in 1833. This work is little read today, but worthy of note, however, is Gautier’s use of the stock-in-trade of the lesser Romantic writers: slugs and toads, phantoms and vampires.
“La Comédie de la mort” (The Comedy of Death), a long poem that came out in 1838, is in two parts. The first part, titled “Life in Death,” involves a dialogue in a graveyard between a worm and a corpse. It is obviously the poet’s intention to shock his reader. In the second part, “Death in Life,” Gautier reveals the grotesque if superficial side of his Romanticism. The intensity with which the poet insists that death overshadows all of life seems to suggest in Gautier a deep-seated pessimism with which he has not always been credited. This impression is reinforced by several pieces in his Poésies diverses, a collection of poems that appeared in one volume with “La Comédie de la mort.” Especially worthy of mention is a short piece called “La Caravane.” Gautier develops beautifully the symbol of a caravan crossing the Sahara as suggestive of humankind making its way in the world. The only oasis, the only resting place, claims the poet, is the graveyard; this idea is evoked in the simplest of terms: “a wood of cypresses strewn with white stones.”
Not all of the poems in this collection are pessimistic, however. “Chinoiserie” (“Chinese Fantasy”) illustrates Gautier’s taste for distant lands and things exotic. The poet affirms that his love goes out not to William Shakespeare’s Juliet, Dante’s Beatrice, or Petrarch’s Laura. Rather, he loves a girl in China who lives in a tower of porcelain:
The one I love, at present, is in China;She is living with her old parents,In a tower of fine porcelain,At the Yellow River, where the cormorants are.
Although not profound, “Chinoiserie” is a delightful piece, which was subsequently set to music. It is worth remarking that even at this relatively early stage in his development, Gautier could offer his dream vision in a precise, finely executed form.
In 1840, Gautier lived in Spain for six months. The first edition of España appeared in 1845; in it the reader gets the impression that the starkness and acute relief of the Spanish landscape and the paintings in the Spanish art galleries sharpened Gautier’s eye.
In “Ribera” and “À Zurburan,” two poems in España written in terza rima, Gautier reveals a remarkable talent for giving a life in verse to the paintings of the two Spanish masters. Moreover, in trying to understand José Ribera’s love of ugliness, and the cruelty and violence of Francisco de Zurburán’s studies of early Christian martyrs, Gautier makes his art criticism into a powerful art form in its own right. Elsewhere in this edition, Gautier’s approach to his art is perhaps more characteristic of the plastic arts than of poetry. In “Le Pin des Landes,” for example, it is the scene viewed that calls to mind the symbol, whereas more commonly a poet will seek out a symbol to illustrate an idea.
Gautier describes how in the Landes, an area of southwest France, the only tree to be seen is the pine, with a gash in its side, to allow its resin to drip into a bowl. He develops the symbolic value of the tree beautifully; the poet, standing upright and alone, is like the tree. For the poet is cut off from others by his superiority and their jealousy. When he is unhurt, he keeps his treasure, Gautier claims; he needs a deep wound in his heart to make him release his works, his golden tears:
Without regretting its blood that flows drop by drop,The pine pours out its balsam and its frothing sap,And still it stands upright by the side of the road,Like a wounded soldier, who wishes to die on his feet.
The poet is thus in the wastes of the world;While he is unwounded, he keeps his treasure.He must have a deep gash upon his heartTo release his verses, these divine, golden tears!
“Dans la Sierra,” also in España, involves a landscape as a symbol, too. Inspired by the arid mountains of Spain, Gautier insists that he prefers them to the fertile plains. The cult of beauty for its own sake, suggested in this poem, was crafted into a new poetic doctrine by Gautier.
The collection Enamels and Cameos, to which additions were made in the five editions between 1852 and 1872, marks a major development in Gautier’s poetry; it is the collection for which he is best remembered and that which illustrates his doctrine of art for art’s sake.
As early as 1832, in the preface to his Poésies, Gautier declared that the value of art lay in its beauty and not in its usefulness: It was not the artist’s business to exercise an influence on the crowd. “In general,” he wrote, “as soon as a thing becomes useful, it ceases to be beautiful.” Art, he claimed, was a luxury, offered to a small, elite public capable of understanding it. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836), moreover, Gautier went on to say that only that which serves no purpose is beautiful. In an article in L’Artiste he insisted that the artist’s sole aim was to capture beauty.
Gautier’s poetic doctrine may have been influenced by two aspects of his life. The subordination of idea to form brings to mind the plastic arts, and Gautier did start his artistic career as a painter. In addition, he earned his living as a journalist, drama critic, and art critic at a time when the writer risked becoming a commodity, the prey of unscrupulous editors and publishers. He was only too aware of the difficulties a writer faced in trying to retain his integrity. On the other hand, Gautier was too much of a critic not to see that in trying to follow all the tenets of the Romantic movement, its adherents frequently sacrificed accuracy for effect.
Enamels and Cameos is Gautier’s attempt to return to precision and clarity, even at the expense of subject matter. The title of the collection is significant; the poems grouped under it are highly polished, exquisitely crafted pieces. The tone of the edition is set by the preface. Here Gautier states that just as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at Weimar cut himself off from the world to write, so he, Gautier, disregarding the storms lashing his windows, wrote Enamels and Cameos.
If Gautier’s aim in poetry was now beauty, he tells how the poet might achieve this effect in a poem written in 1857 and added as a conclusion to Enamels and Cameos. In “L’Art,” Gautier claims that, like painting or sculpture, poetry is both an art and a skill to be learned. The poet, a craftsman, must have a firm grip on all the resources of the language. If he succeeds in overcoming the problems of rhyme, syntax, and vocabulary, while creating no artificial obstacles, the work of art will resist the ravages of time as no other human creation can:
All things pass on.—Robust artAlone possesses eternity; The bustSurvives the city.The very gods die,But verse, sovereign, RemainsStronger than the sword
In this collection Gautier’s extreme attachment to form results in carefully executed, sophisticated poetry, which is generally more impersonal than his previous work. On the other hand, the subject matter is often slight: “Study of Hands,” “To a Red Gown,” and “The Tea-Rose” are representative titles.
In España, especially, Gautier attempted artistic transpositions, trying to reproduce in verse the effect obtained by a work of art in another medium. In Enamels and Cameos, such attempts become more ambitious. In “Variations on the Carnival of Venice,” for example, the poet offers a series of four pieces in which the point of departure is a musical phrase from a Venetian song. In rhythmic, colorful verse, Gautier creates a picture of Venice as he imagines it once was.
In “Symphony in White Major,” Gautier again attempts an artistic transformation, showing all the nuances and associations of white. This is a fine display of virtuosity, but there is little development within the poem.
The appeal of Enamels and Cameos is limited because, in trying to banish himself from his work, Gautier creates what might be considered “cold” poetry. By shutting himself off from the world, he severely restricts his choice of subjects. It might be argued, moreover, that Gautier’s choice of art for its own sake is made at the expense of content—that beauty of form is not enough.
The “impersonal” poetry of the Parnassians owed much to Gautier, and his artistic transpositions were of great consequence for Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists. Moreover, if Gautier’s creative talents were limited, he did, nevertheless, by his respect for his calling and for the word, renew a tradition that began with François Malherbe. Baudelaire lavished perhaps excessive praise on Gautier, but in writing that Gautier was a poet for whom the inexpressible did not exist, he paid his compatriot a merited compliment.
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