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...
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