Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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 Zigzags (enlarged edition) 1852

Jean et Jeanette (novel) 1850; also published in Un trio de romans 1852

Italia (travel essay) 1852; also published as Voyage en Italie (enlarged edition) 1875 [Journeys in Italy 1902]

Constantinople (travel essay) 1853 [Constantinople of Today, 1854]

Les beaux-arts en Europe (criticism) 1855

Théâtre de poche (drama) 1855; also published as Théâtre (enlarged edition) 1872

Avatar (novel) 1857

Jettatura (novel) 1857 [Jettatura, 1888]

Romans and contes (novels and short stories) 1857

Le roman de la momie (novel) 1858 [The Romance of a Mummy, 1882]

Histoire de l'art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans. 6 vols. (criticism) 1858-59

Le Capitane Fracasse (novel) 1863 [Captain Fracasse 1880]

Spirite (novel) 1866

Voyage en Russie (travel essay) 1867 [A Winter in Russia, 1874]

Histoire du romantisme (unfinished critical essay) 1872 [A History of Romanticism, 1900]

The Works of Théophile Gautier. 24 vols. (novels, short stories, travel essays, criticism, drama, novellas, and poetry) 1900-03

The Romantic Ballet (criticism) 1932

Contes fantastiques (short stories) 1962

*This volume includes material in Poésies.

**This volume also includes "Une nuit de Cleopatre," "Omphale," and "La morte amoureuse."

John Van Eerde (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 relief the incomparable whiteness of one of the Rhenish swan-maidens. Gautier's static scene echoes his advice in "L'Art," where he writes "Sculpte, lime, cisèle." His swan-maiden enters motionless: "Blanche comme le clair de lune/Sur les glaciers dans les cieux froids." The act of swimming, evoked in the opening lines, is lost in the dazzling white; there is not even a splash.

White marble stillness is to be seen in many of the poems of the Emaux et Camées. White imagery is often applied but not limited to a Nature context.

The swan-maiden of Gautier's "Symphonie" exemplifies the sculptor's supreme statuary, woman. In "Le Poème de la femme: Marbre de Paros" (1849), written under the inspiration of Ingres, the female form is the subject. The poet yearns to protect the whiteness of this form. In "Rondalla" (1847) he would shield his beloved's "pieds blancs" from a dirty stream. This whiteness gleams with undiminished beauty through transparent film. So says the poem, "Caerulei Oculi" (1852), as a siren disports "sa blancheur bleue" beneath the green enamel of a wave, l. 39. Similarly a silk-stockinged leg 'Trend des lueurs de marbre blanc" in "A la Petra Camara" (1852), l. 55. Such whiteness is especially poetic in a woman's hand:

Sous le baiser neigeux saisie
Comme un lis par l'aube argenté,
Comme une blanche poésie
S'épanouissait sa beauté.
"Imperia" (1851), ll. 5-8.

We have referred to Gautier as a sculptor-poet. As is generally recognized, the term might accurately be enlarged to include the word "painter." He wrote of his generation of romantics in Histoire du Romantisme: [in ed. Librairie de Bibliophiles] "Quant à nous, comme nous l'avons dit, placé à l'y du carrefour, nous hesitions entre les deux routes, c'est-à-dire entre la poésie et la peinture, également abominables aux families. Cependant, sans avoir franchi le Rubicon, nous commencions à faire plus de vers que de croquis, et peindre avec des mots nous paraissait plus commode que de peindre avec des couleurs." Red and its variations had a special appeal to this colorist group. Gautier himself felt the appeal, and it was to supplement his attraction to white: "Mais nous avions en outre un gout particulier, l'amour du rouge; nous aimions cette noble couleur, déshonorée maintenant par les fureurs politiques, qui est la pourpre, le sang, la vie, la lumière, la chaleur, et qui se marie si bien à l'or et au marbre…." Gautier shared this taste: "Je connais tous les tons de la gamme du rose," he writes in "Le Rose" (1867), l. 1. Recalling the ideal accoutrement for the dashing romantic, he finds the memorable touch to be a "Pourpoint de satin rose," so he tells us in "Château du souvenir" (1861), l. 157. Indeed he writes of his famous red waistcoat worn at the opening of Hernani: "Nos poésies, nos livres, nos articles, nos voyages seront oubliés; mais l' on se souviendra de notre gilet rouge" (Histoire du Romantisme).

But this mania for red (and its nuances, especially pink) is not just an eccentricity in Gautier; it is an artistic necessity. Hence the presence of these tones in his poetry. Venice is pink, and its renowned pigeons are represented by "Deux ramiers blancs aux pieds rosés" in "Madrigal panthéiste" (1849), l. 11. And elsewhere, he invites our attention "Devant une facade rose/Sur le marbre de Fescalier," these lines 23-24 of "Sur les lagunes" (1849) having symbolized Venice for Wilde's Dorian Gray. The rose tone decorates both exteriors and interiors. For example, a pink lamp-shade beckons the poet to stay home on a rainy evening in "La Bonne Soirée" (1868), l. 13. Pink and white, singly or together, are prominent not only in Gautier's description of the sensible universe, but often in his world of abstractions. This is not to exclude other colors. As Louise Bulkley Dillingham says, "Even in Gautier's earliest writing a preoccupation with color is noticeable."

Van Der Tuin sees Gautier subject to a feverish need to find emotional relief in cold, hard stone: "L'apaisement, il le trouvait d'abord dans ces pierreries, dans ces marbres froids, dispersés dans sa poésie et sa prose" (L'Evolution). More important for this article than the question of the validity of Van Der Tuin's statement is the fact that Gautier apparently becomes shocked at the cold, uniform white of his own creations. Pink comes naturally to his assistance where the subject is Woman. A coquette, expressing the wish to wear in her coffin the white dress admired by her beloved, adds the desire that her cheeks be rouged, so that she may "Comme le soir de son aveu/Rester éternellement rose" ("Coquetterie posthume," 1851, ll. 6-7). At a masquerade ball, the poet recognizes the marked lady of his choice by her mouth "rose et fraîche" ("Carnaval," 1849, l. 29). Gautier rejoices in Woman as a being of pink and white in the poem, "A Une Robe rose" (1850), depicting his beloved in a pink dress: "Et l'étoffe à la chair renvoie/Ses éclairs roses reflétés," ll. 11-12. This poem emphasizes the blending of white and pink in a corporeal context:

D'où te vient cette robe étrange
Qui semble faite de ta chair,
Trame vivante qui mélange
Avec ta peau son rose clair?
ll. 13-16.

Pink is Nature's dress for Woman's body. Thus Venice, the Venus of the Adriatic, "Sort de l'eau son corps rose et blanc" in "Sur les lagunes," l. 16. This fusion of pink and white proclaims the glory of the female form in "La Nue" (1866):

On voit onder en molles poses
Son torse au contour incertain,
Et l'aurore répand des roses
Sur son épaule de satin.
Ses blancheurs de marbre et de neige

Se fondent amoureusement
Comme, au clair-obscur de Corrége
Le corps d'Antiope dormant.
ll. 9-16.

Gautier quite naturally passes to thoughts of painting and Correggio after blending white and pink in his poem. What he is doing is indicated by the terms he employs to express admiration for Delacroix in Histoire du Romantisme: "Sur ces sujets, réduits jusque-là à l'immobilité du bas relief, il répandit les magies de la couleur et fit remonter la pourpre de la vie dans les veines pâles du marbre." Unquestionably Gautier, who once wrote "Si j'étais peintre (et j'ai toujours regretté de ne pas l'être….)," injects pink into his scenes as a painter. One thinks here of Edmond de Goncourt's comment [Journal des Goncourt (Paris, 1891), V, 111.] on Degas' laundresses and dancers: "En effet, c'est...

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Barbara W. Alsip (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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David Graham Burnett (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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".


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Monica J. Nurnberg (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 matterthe recounting of a bittersweet, chance encounter with idealized beautyin 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...

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David Graham Burnett (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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-destructioncreation of an ideal, desire for that ideal, and subsequent destructionprevalent 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...

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David Graham Burnett (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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:


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Lloyd Bishop (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Constance Gosselin Schick (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Eric J. Lien (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Constance Gosselin Schick (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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."...

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James M. Vest (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


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