Théophile Gautier Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3065

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The typical twentieth century critical estimation is that Théophile Gautier is a transitional figure in French poetry, although this was not the judgment of his own time, for he was highly, perhaps extravagantly, praised by his contemporaries. Today, Gautier is often viewed as a second-generation Romantic whose earliest work is excessively imitative of the previous generation and whose mature work anticipates the poetic achievement of later, greater poets and of entire literary schools. It is a curiosity that Gautier is better known today as a spokesman for an aesthetic doctrine, art for art’s sake—which he never systematized and only fitfully realized—than for his poetry itself.

That particular aesthetic was years in developing. If Gautier was incapable, even to the end, of setting aside all the Romantic “baggage” of his early years, there always existed in him a detached, ironic, objective observer who bridled at subscribing wholeheartedly to Romantic subjectivity or Romantic political and social involvement. The idea that a work of art should exist in a vacuum, as some kind of cold, clear object without reference to extraneous and irrelevant religious, political, and social meanings, was first clearly stated in Gautier’s work in the preface to the novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. This concept of art for art’s sake was not original with Gautier, who was himself uncomfortably conscious of the vagueness of such grand abstractions as beauty, form, and art: In subsequent pronouncements, he attempted to grapple with these abstractions and to concretize them. For all this, Gautier was still a child of the Romantic era (a fact he would fondly recall until his death), and as a boy of nineteen, he exuberantly entered the literary scene, consciously treading in the giant footsteps of the noted first-generation French Romantic poets: Hugo, Lamartine, Vigny, and Musset.


Gautier’s first book of verse, Poésies, is characterized by a precocious formal virtuosity. Stock Romantic themes, such as love and the impermanence of life, abound in this first collection, although as early as the second edition of 1833 (which enlarged the scope of Poésies from forty to sixty poems), the detached, satiric observer characteristic of Gautier’s mature verse can be detected—most notably in the long narrative poem “Albertus: Ou, l’Âme et le péché” (“Albertus: Soul and Sin”), after which the 1833 collection is named. With typical Romantic whimsy and ambiguity, Gautier termed the poem a “theological legend.” The work recounts the tale of a witch who, by transforming herself into a beautiful woman, lures the titular hero into selling his soul for a single night of pleasure. Upon sealing the bargain, she reverts to her normal state and drags Albertus off to a witches’ Sabbath. The discovery of the hero’s mangled body in a forest clearing the following morning presumably demonstrates the wages of sin.

Even a brief summary suffices to indicate the customary Romantic fascination with the occult, the macabre, and the grotesque. In this poem, however, Gautier, much in the manner of Goethe and George Gordon, Lord Byron (to whom “Albertus” is unmistakably indebted), casts an ironic glance back on the clichés and excesses of Romanticism, the enthusiastic abandon that often merely gave way to bathos. In spite of the evident enjoyment and skill with which he creates the Romantic milieu (certain passages give early witness to Gautier’s undeniable descriptive genius), there is at the same time an ironic undercutting of the emotional atmosphere of Romantic horror. Gautier would refer to “Albertus” and to The Drama of Death as examples of his maladie gothique (gothic illness). While acknowledging their descriptive verve and the formal and prosodic talent they evidence, a modern reader is likely to view these early works as occasionally enjoyable compendia of motifs and preoccupations of the Romantic era.

The Drama of Death

The Drama of Death (a miscellany of fifty-six poems composed between 1832 and 1838) possesses, as do all Gautier’s collections to some extent, no particular thematic unity. Like Poésies, The Drama of Death displays the poet’s mastery of a variety of verse forms; also noteworthy are the early glimpses of Gautier’s developing aesthetic, particularly in the poems concerning Michelangelo, Petrarch, Albrecht Dürer, and Raphael, which celebrate the enduring triumphs of art. Other poems, especially the three-part title poem, confirm Gautier’s obsession with death. Some of these death poems are somberly eloquent in their struggle to balance the states of being and nonbeing; more often, they demonstrate a morbid fascination with the gruesome physical mutation caused by death or the idea of animate interment, such as “Le Ver et la trépassée” (“The Worm and the Dead Woman”), which is cast as a ghoulish dialogue between a young bride-to-be, mistakenly buried alive, and a worm, her rather unexpected spouse. Indeed, the theme of death pervades Gautier’s œuvre, but in early Gautier works, one might describe it as an obsession, often purely physical, without resolution. The psychology of this obsession was of tremendous consequence for Gautier’s aesthetic, ultimately leading him to prefer the enduring to the mutable—to prefer, as he stated, “marble to flesh”—and to value art over life itself.

“In deserto”

The mature phase of Gautier’s career as a poet began with the collection of forty-three miscellaneous poems titled España. This collection was viewed as a kind of poetic companion volume to the 1843 travelogue Wanderings in Spain: Both convey the traveler-poet’s absorption in the topography and the art and culture of the Iberian Peninsula; both relate a search for the ideal (which Spain had always represented to Gautier) tempered by experience. Gautier’s descriptive genius, the immense technical vocabulary characteristic of his entire canon, more consistently comes to the fore in this collection than in any of its predecessors.

The poem “In deserto” (in the desert) subtly exemplifies Gautier’s growing mastery of his art while revealing the contradictions that often distinguish his poetic practice from his poetic theory. Through a rapid accumulation of images, Gautier paints a vivid portrayal of the stark central wilderness of Spain. Each subsequent image is calculated to reinforce the effect of aridity and desolation. In the first ten lines, there is a topographical description of a wasteland of rocky mountains and stretches of desert, rendered in a technical vocabulary capable of fine distinction: “Les monts aux flancs zébrés de tuf, d’ocre et de marne/ . . . le grès plein de micas papillotant aux yeux/ . . . L’ardente solfatare avec la pierre-ponce” (The mountainsides striped like the zebra in tuff, ochre and marl/ . . . Sandstone replete with mica sparkling to the eye/ . . . The glowing volcanic vent with its pumice stone).

The sun rises to a noonday glare over a world incongenial to the gentle, fragile forms of life:

Là, point de marguerite au coeur étoilé d’or
Point de muguet prodigue égrenant son trésor;
Là, point de violette ignorée et charmante,
Dans l’ombre se cachant comme une pâle amante;

(There, no daisy with heart of golden stars

No lavish lily of the valley stringing out its pearls,
There, no charming and unnoticed violet
Hiding in the shadows like some pale lover.)

In this landscape, only the smooth-skinned viper and the scaly lizard are at home. In a final image, a solitary eagle is seen atop a mountain peak, silhouetted against the raw and riotous colors of sunset. The effect of the whole is of a photograph focused to the sharpest clarity, and if this were the sum of Gautier’s intention, the poem would be an unqualified success. Instead, he chooses to complicate the effect by the inclusion of a single metaphor. It seems as if Gautier were uncomfortable with the sharp, objective lines of the photographic image, and a subjective note is introduced when, suddenly, a narrator appears to remark that the rocks, boulders, and sandy expanses “are less arid and dead to vegetation/ Than my rocklike heart to all feeling.” The reader recognizes the comparison immediately as a rather overworked, sentimental image pieced together from conventional Romantic vocabulary.

In the midst of a hard-edged descriptive “composition of place,” this subjective note is a solitary leftover of what John Ruskin would term the “pathetic fallacy,” in which the external world appears as a projection of the poet’s inner reality. Is the unusual and stark position of the image so early in the poem (one would conventionally expect it in the conclusion) a coup of perception or a miscalculation? Does it, perhaps, signal some realization on the poet’s part of a certain “inhumanness” in an aesthetic that increasingly stresses surface and gesture over the subjectivity of inner meaning? To a modern reader, this “rocklike heart” probably seems gratuitous, and the poem as a whole discloses the Gautier whom critic Wallace Fowlie calls a “prisoner of appearances,” restricted in his role as “spectator of the visible world of objects, landscapes, and animals.” That it was perplexing for Gautier to “look within” is a characteristic made more clear in another poem from España, “À Zurbarán.”

“À Zurbarán”

Gautier frequently required the stimulus of some existing artifact for poetic inspiration. He developed for this purpose the concept of the transpostion d’art, in which an art object (a painting, a piece of statuary, even a building) could be created anew in words, recomposed, as it were, by the poet. Some of Gautier’s finest achievements are in this genre. “À Zurbarán,” for example, is a powerful evocation, not of a single canvas by the sixteenth century Spanish master, but of that superascetic religiosity which thrived in the age of the Inquisition and which imbues so much of Francisco de Zurbarán’s work. Thus, Gautier singles out Zurbarán’s monks and penetrates to the very essence of their spirituality, formed by the harsh discipline of fasting, hair shirts, and flagellation. The poet is dumbstruck by the display:

Croyez-vous donc que Dieu s’amuse à voir souffrir
Et que ce meurtre lent, cette froide agonie
Fassent pour vous le ciel plus facile à s’ouvrir?

(Do you then believe that God is amused by suffering,

And that this prolonged death, this gelid agony
Will make the gates of heaven more easy to open?)

Along with the poet’s sense of revulsion, however, is a recognition of the strange, unearthly strength in the physical presence of these ascetics: “Pourtant quelle énergie et quelle force d’âme/ Ils avaient, ces chartreux, sous leur pâle linceul” (All the same, what energy, what spiritual power/ They had, those brothers, beneath their colorless shrouds).

The mere reproduction or evocation, even recomposition, of the Zurbarán canvases is not, however, Gautier’s principal intent. The subject of the poem is, rather, the inability of the narrator to reconcile two extremes of emotion: revulsion and admiration. How can he balance his “Mais je ne comprends pas ce morne suicide” (“But I do not comprehend this gloomy suicide”) with his vision of “Le vertige divin, l’enivrement de foi/ Qui les fait rayonner d’une clarté fiévreuse” (“The divine vertigo, the intoxication of faith/ Which makes them shine with a febrile brightness”). Toward the conclusion of the poem, the real source of this dilemma is revealed when the narrator (with the eyes of a painter) expresses his personal difficulty in conceiving of a totally spiritualized life, in which the physical world is a mere tribulation to be put up with—indeed, a matter of little import:

Forme, rayon, couleur, rien n’existe pour vous,
À tout objet réel vous êtes insensibles,
Car le ciel vous enivre et la croix vous rend fous.

(Form, light, color, nothing exists for you,

To every physical object you rest insensible,
For heaven intoxicates you and the cross has made you mad.)

How could the poet who once described himself as “un homme pour qui le monde extérieur existe” (a man for whom the external world exists) understand such transcendent spirituality, such unworldliness? For Gautier, the solid ground of reality lay exclusively in the perceived object, and he saw in the plastic arts the true medium for achieving permanence and endowing life with value. Literature, too, might approach the plastic, both in subject matter and in treatment. This was to be the goal of his final collection of verse, and the theory of art for art’s sake was to be its foundation.

Enamels and Cameos

Gautier’s poetic practice was not always aligned, however, with his theoretical views, as is clear from the contents of Enamels and Cameos—nor, for that matter, was his poetic theory consistently formulated. All the same, as the critic P. E. Tennant has pointed out, Gautier was consistent about stating four basic principles: Beauty is defined by clarity of form (the forma of classical aesthetics), and form and idea are inseparable; pure art is autonomous, not to be held accountable to social, political, or religious evaluation; art is not natural but, rather, artificial—divine of effect, perhaps, but made by man; and, finally, although a certain irrational state (“inspiration”) is functional in the creation of art, pure art is the product of calculation and hard work.

The appearance of Enamels and Cameos, in 1852, was a turning point in French literature, marking the shift away from Romantic lyricism to a more aesthetic, objective manner in which art would exist in a world of its own, apart from the mundane personal or social concerns of everyday life. Gautier labored over and corrected the contents of the collection for the last twenty years of his life, eventually enlarging its scope from the eighteen poems of the first edition to the forty-seven poems of the final edition of 1872. Once again, there is no rigorous thematic unity or structure (Richard Grant, in his study Théophile Gautier, makes a case for a loose thematic structure), nor is the disposition of the individual pieces of particular significance—with the exception of “L’Art” (“Art”), which Gautier specified as the final poem. As the title of the collection suggests, and as Gautier himself stated, the goal was “to treat small subjects in a restricted manner.”

All but four of the poems are in octosyllabic quatrains, for Gautier had come to favor the more intimate eight-syllable line to the rhetorical twelve-foot Alexandrine. The almost exclusive repetition of a single stanzaic form does not preclude a surprising variety of subject matter—on the contrary, it emphasizes a richness of rhyme and a certain structural solidity.

Gautier does not wholly abandon the big Romantic themes; rather, he treats them in miniature. For example, a number of poems in the collection are openly personal in the Romantic manner: “Le Château du souvenir” (“The Castle of Remembrance”) is clearly autobiographical, and several other poems celebrate Gautier’s affairs with various mistresses. Yet, though Gautier avails himself of the confessional mode introduced by the Romantics, his “personal” poems are in fact curiously impersonal, conveying little sense of the familiar or intimate; in them, life is preserved in cameo.

“Symphony in White Major” and “Art”

Gautier’s two best-known poems are included in Enamels and Cameos: “Symphonie en blanc majeur” (“Symphony in White Major”) and “Art.” The latter is an openly didactic piece and a clear poetic statement of Gautier’s concept of literature as plastic art, its final stanza making this exhortation to his fellow poets: “Carve, burnish, build thy theme,—/ But fix thy wavering dream/ In the stern rock supreme.”

“Symphony in White Major” is a tour de force of thematic variation, and a comparison with “In deserto” from the collection España, a poem that shares the same fundamental technical procedure, reveals the measure of Gautier’s progress as an artist. Like “In deserto,” “Symphony in White Major” is an evocation of a landscape, but the landscape evoked is that of a woman’s body. That the woman of the poem existed in real life (she was the striking beauty Marie Kalergis, a student of Frédéric Chopin and a friend of Franz Liszt) is of little consequence. Gautier’s aim is not a photographic image in the manner of “In deserto” but the re-creation, for the reader, of the associations and sensations produced within the artist by the sight of the woman.

There is clearly something not entirely human about such perfect beauty, for the first image is of a femme-cygne (swan woman) “from the Rhine’s escarpments high.” What follows is not so much a direct description of the woman’s body as an enumeration of images, similes, and metaphors that relate the unique essence of her beauty: its pure, glacial whiteness. Much in the technique of the “transposition d’art,” Gautier has analyzed the woman’s beauty in order to retrieve its essential components, reconstructing not flesh and blood, but rather an effect:

Of the marble still and cold,
Wherein the great gods dwell?
Of creamy opal gems that hold
Faint fifes of mystic spell?
Or the organ’s ivory keys?
Her wingèd fingers oft
Like butterflies flit over these,
With kisses pending soft.

It is a beauty that calls forth worship: “What host, what taper, did bestow/ The white of her matchless skin?” The woman’s beauty is, in some sense, an abstraction of beauty itself. The heroine is barely present; the greater part of the poem avoids specific reference. Certainly, the final stanza refers directly back to the source of the artist’s fantasy. Even here, however, personal experience is transformed and the passion of love expressed only indirectly. How much more satisfying is this ambiguity than the blunt, awkward “rocklike heart” of “In deserto”:

What magic of what far name
Shall this pale soul ignite?
Ah! who shall flush with rose’s flame
This cold, implacable white?

The technical and conceptual advances evident in “Symphony in White Major” can be found throughout Enamels and Cameos. There are inconsistencies with Gautier’s aesthetic ideal of the cool, clear, nonsubjective work of art (his Parnassian successors, Leconte de Lisle and Heredia, would more consistently realize the goal of literature as a plastic art), but few readers have denied the integrity of the craftsman who labored over these poems. The poems may not affect the reader in his emotional being, but they please the intellect with their fluctuating colors, their wealth of rhyme, and their perfection of form.


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