Théophile Gautier - A Literary Artist

WE have to speak of a writer formed by influences that touch the life of but a few Americans,—a writer whose habitual life is in the midst of things that have no place in our land. We have neither the marbles of Greece, nor the pictures of the Italian masters, nor the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. We have neither Gothic, Moorish, nor Oriental forms to arrest the mind, and fix us in the contemplation of the great types of a lost or abandoned ideal. It makes a vast difference in our mental experience whether we know, or do not know, these things. In France they have formed great literary and artistic types, like Victor Hugo and George Sand and Théophile Gautier. The grotesque forms, the eccentric passions, the wild play of the imagination, fixed for all ages in the stones of cathedrals, we find again in the phrases of Victor Hugo. His very style resembles the bold, sculpturesque, arbitrary forms of the mediæval workers. Victor Hugo had Notre Dame ; Théophile Gautier had the marbles of Greece and Rome, the pictures of the Renaissance, and the whole contemporary art of France acting upon his mind. His literary work is therefore full of artistic forms. Special and varied forms of art abound more in Gautier’s work than anything derived from literature. He is one of those writers who live less in the alcoves of great libraries than in the galleries of great painters, or in the fields. I need not say how this fact separates him from die ordinary thinker or the average literary man. It is enough to say that it gives a form, a color, and a vividness to his literary work which cannot be found in the writer who is more of a thinker than an artist,—a writer who evolves his subject rather than sees it to depict it.

The literary result that follows from the combined influence of art and nature habitually acting upon a luxurious, voluptuous, tranquil nature, and a mind so much absorbed with the artistic element that modern civilization, the doctrines of socialists, the mania for positive sciences, are considered only as interruptions and discords in the placid and beautiful world of its habitual contemplation, cannot fail to interest, since it is at once provoking and strange to us.

We mast frankly admit that Gautier outrages the common sentiment of the American mind : we hasten to add that the common purpose of the democratic man is strange to Gautier. Gautier represents what has no place in our literature, still less in our life. He represents the supremacy of the artistic. His work is the reaffirmation of the Pagan idea of life in the midst of a debauched society. He is brutally indifferent to all that is held in the purely industrial life, haughty before the Christian idea, and insolent and hopeless in the midst of his idols of flesh, of marble, of color.

It would not be difficult to place ourselves, on the ground of common morality, next to Gautier’s work, and scold him, or make phrases bristling with austere reflections as a contrast to the sentiment of his mind ; he would even serve well as the occasion to lower the pride of the artistic nature, to which we are so much indebted for generous emotions of admiration, and the ennobling pleasure of a gratified æsthetic sense. But we should be far from illuminating our subject; we should be a Philistine of the Pharisaic kind, speaking from a provincial idea of literature ; we should betray that our instinct of propriety was the most active and characteristic fact of our nature.

To judge Gautier we need not invoke Geneva or Exeter Hall. Either of these would only force us to confess the absence of all the senses that respond to the glory of life, and the absence of all those needs the presence of which grace our nature, and, in the midst of monotonies and trivialities and vices, dignify and adorn it with so much that separates it from that of the brutes.

Once knowing the charm, the seduction, the bewildering beauty of all that has triumphed over or possessed the genius of Gautier, — all that has developed in him the voluptuary careless of mankind, we will take a step outside of the sectarian life and its cheap critical effort; we will listen to Gautier as to music. Afterwards it will be well to arraign him before the generous and noble tribuna! in which the lovers of humanity hear the troubles and plead the cause of the poor and weak and deformed ; and then, because Gautier is a man belonging to the universal brotherhood, we must pronounce him to be less than the august and laborious benefactors of the poor in spirit. He is condemned in the highest court, and we can dispense with the tea-table prosecution to which pale Propriety and sectarian Zeal would subject him.

We have sufficiently anticipated judgment to give you an idea of the illustrious literary artist who has promenaded through all the epochs of art. taking from each their type of beauty, and who has reaffirmed the pagan thought that a beautiful form is more lovely than virtue. Let us know better, and in less general terms, the typical literary artist who closes the present epoch of French literature.

The late Charles Baudelaire, who was a haughty and unique thinker, as well as an intense poet, — a thinker firm and close and clear in the expression of his mind,—wrote several beautiful pages about Gautier. When a man of high literary instincts burns incense before a contemporary, you may know it must be fine and sweet. But with all the respect we have for Baudelaire’s mind, with an equal admiration for his literary faith, we cannot follow him in his fine eulogy of Gautier.

Both Baudelaire and Gautier—the former with his mental life troubled by passion, the latter with his mental life held in a calm voluptuousness—have been indifferent to the ideas that must be cherished by the democratic man, even when he tries most to be an artist, that is, a being wholly given up to the beautiful. But the artistic or beautiful, separated from what we ordinarily call the moral, is unknown among us. We cannot follow Baudelaire ; but we shall cite his word to confirm the statement of the high place that Gautier holds in contemporary French literature. Baudelaire calls him “a perfect man of letters, the equal of the most grand in the past, a model for those who shall come, a diamond more and more rare in an epoch drunk with ignorance and matter.”

Before taking another step into our subject, let us stop to read a few biographical facts. In criticism, which is very often a highway, they serve like memorial stones, at which we can rest, and talk about forgotten things.

Théophile Gautier was born at Tarbes, one of the most ancient cities of France, in the year 1811. He came to Paris at a very early age, and studied at the College of Charlemagne, at which place he became acquainted with Gérard de Nerval, with whom, later, he wrote many of his dramatic criticisms. He was remarked for his size, his beauty, and his carelessness of the ancient classics. The museums of sculpture and painting had more attractions for him than the recitation-rooms of his college. Later, he entered the studio of Rioult. He studied long enough to discover that painting was a means too impersonal and too remote to satisfy the energy of life that was in him demanding an artistic outlet. If painting with colors is too slow a process, why not paint with words ?

In the mean time he had kept up his literary studies. He had gone to the source at which the words are the richest, and the ideas the least troublesome; he had studied the French poets of the sixteenth century. He wrote a few verses, and read them to his friends. The success he obtained encouraged him. In 1828 he presented himself to Sainte-Beuve, and asked permission to read a piece in verse called La Tête de Mort. He was more than encouraged ; he was confirmed by Sainte-Beuve, who praised his work, and introduced him to Victor Hugo as a young poet. After his introduction to Victor Hugo he became his most effective recruit in Paris, shaking his magnificent black hair, and showing his great fists to the classicists of the epoch, nightly going forth to the theatre to slay the Parisian Philistines and Traditionalists. He was at all the first representations of Victor Hugo’s powerful and aggressive plays, and took part in the actual struggles characterizing the advent of the revolutionary dramas of Victor Hugo and Dumas, which he defended in the columns of the press.

He published his first volume of poetry in 1830. The revolutionary excitement of the day absorbed public attention ; Gautier’s verses were not heard in the din of the fusillade that swept the streets of Paris.

Later, 1833 to 1834, he wrote for Figaro, with Gérard de Nerval. Together they made and broke obligations to write for certain papers. They went from La France Littéraire to the Revue de Paris; together they appeared in L’Artist; together they wrote the dramatic feuilleton of La Charte in 1830, and La Presse in 1836. La Presse gave Gautier twelve thousand francs a year for sixty feuilletons on the contemporary theatre and fine arts.

In the space of ten years he made several voyages, — in Italy, in Spain, in the East, in Russia, in Holland, in England. After each voyage he gave the Parisians a book full of vim, of color, of pictures in words.

Gautier is a hunter of words. His literary fields are the dictionaries. Words have for him the attraction that butterflies have for children who run after them. On the first shelf of his library he has fifty dictionaries,—dictionaries of arts, of sciences, and even of the cuisine of all ages and all countries. He asked Baudelaire, when he called upon him for the first time, if he ever read dictionaries ? Happily for Baudelaire, he could reply that very early he had been struck with lexiconnairie.

It may be said that Gautier’s defect is an excess of expression,— it is also his distinguishing excellence. His literary form is crowded, sometimes even embarrassed, though no one could be more neat and defined than Gautier at his best moment, in the midst ot his vast resources of expression. But such exuberance and such display are apt to become barbaric. In Gautier it is a part of his Oriental taste.

His cabinet of work is a kind of museum. In it a thousand curious objects are assembled. He has a great Oriental arm-chair, made expressly in honor of his Turkish habits. No less than twelve cals sleep or play about him. He is described as large and majestic in person ; there is a total absence of dryness in his manner. Baudelaire writes that only the beautiful adjectives Oriental and Asiatic can render the kind of temper, at the same time simple, dignified, and soft, of Gautier. On Quai Voltaire we have met him. He is one of the most picturesque and noticed figures, — of a sombre and brooding aspect, seeing nobody, eyes upon the ground, his black hair flowing from under a large-brimmed hat; he goes through the phantombeauty of mist-covered Paris, or walks under its laughing sky,—let us suppose dreaming of the East, or the hand of Rachel, or the shoulders of Grisi, a man full of beautiful memories, yet memories that hold no charm of consolation, but only the bitterness of a lost delight.

Gautier has made the talk of all the salons of Paris by his feuilletons on art and the drama. It is always more convenient to speak of that part of his literary work, and of his Voyage en Espagne. It is not so easy to-introduce his poetry or his romances. We will suggest their character. They are the full, neat, artistic, spontaneous expression of all that surprised and outraged many of the readers of Swinburne’s poems. Both Baudelaire and Gautier, as poets, indulge the full and intense expression of passion and voluptuousness that characterizes Laus Veneris, and other poems of Swinburne. In Baudelaire we find an intense, bitter, masculine sense of the mystery and implacability of passion and desire; in Gautier, a free, frank, luxurious, literary expression of physical beauty and voluptuousness. Gautier is without any intensity ; Baudelaire is uncommonly intense.

Gautier’s representative romance is Mademoiselle de Maupin. To call it the Confessions of Théophile Gautier would not be far from the truth. The Confessions of Rousseau are less oftensive to the modesty and reserve of human nature than the pages of Mademoiselle de Maupin. Yet it must be spoken of, even critically considered, because it is a typical book. It corresponds with the thoughts, sentiment, and life of thousands of cultivated Parisians, and it is remarkable as a piece of expression. What is called “ its prodigious style,” and the ground it covers, in the literary world, you shall judge in reading the following extract. You probably never read anything like it. But it is characteristic of our epoch to entertain everything ; and, above all, the critical mind, necessarily keeping open house, must be ready to show hospitality even to the most foreign thought. We are not to ask Gantlet to live with us ; we simply shelter him under our roof for the night. In the mean time we can examine what manner of man has his being in Paris, the centre of arts. He speaks : —

“ I am a man of the Homeric times ; the world in which I live is not my world, and I do not understand the society that surrounds me. Christ did not come for me ; I am as much a Pagan as Phidias or Alcibiades. I have never been on Golgotha to pluck the flowers of passion ; and the deep river which flows from the Crucified, and puts a red girdle around the world, has never bathed me with its waters ; — my rebellious body cares not to recognize the supremacy of the soul, and my flesh chooses not to be mortified. I find this earth as beautiful as heaven, and I consider the correctness of form as virtue. Spirituality is not my affair, I love a statue better than a phantom, and midday than twilight.

Three things please me: gold, marble, and purple, — éclat, solidity, color. My dreams are all made of that, and all the palaces which I build for my chimeras are constructed with these materials. Sometimes I have other dreams, — they are long cavalcades of horses, pure white, without harness or bridle, mounted by fine-looking youths, nude, who defile upon a band of dark blue, as upon the friezes of the Parthenon ; or young girls crowned with bands, and wearing tunics with straight folds, and who keep turning around an immense vase.”

These fine word-pictures are copies in the color of Greek marbles. Their beauty powerfully appeals to the artistic mind. And we can imagine how this literary expression was enjoyed bv the artistic public that lives in Paris. But again listen to Gautier: —

“ I have gazed at love by the light of the antique, and like a piece of sculpture more or less perfect. How is the arm ? Pretty good. The hands are not wanting in delicacy. What do you think of the foot ? I think that the ankle has no nobility, and that the heel is commonplace. But the bosom is well, of a good form ; the serpentine line is undulating; the shoulders are plump, and of a fine character. That woman would make a passable model, and several parts of her might be moulded. Let us love her.

“ I have always been so. I have for women the eyes of a sculptor, not of a lover. I have all my life long worried myself about the form of the flagon, and not about its contents.

“ I consider woman in the antique manner, as a beautiful slave destined for our pleasure. Cynthia, you are beautiful ; hasten, who knows if you will be living to-morrow ? Your hair is blacker than the lustrous skin of an Ethiopian virgin : hasten ; in but a few years, thin silvery threads shall glide into those thick locks ; — these roses smell sweet to-day, to-morrow they will have the odor of death, and be nothing more than the cadavers of roses. Let us breathe thy roses as long as they resemble thy cheeks ; and let us kiss thy cheeks as long as they resemble thy roses. When you are old, Cynthia, no one will care to have you, not even the varlets of the lictor, if you should pay them. Wait till Saturn has marked with his nail that brow, pure and shining now, and you will see how your door, so besieged and so flowery, shall be avoided, cursed, covered with grasses and briers. O hasten, Cynthia ! the smallest wrinkle may serve as a grave to the greatest love.

“It is in that brutal and imperious formula that is uttered the whole antique elegy ; it always comes back to that; it is its strongest reason ; it is the Achilles of its argument. After that it has not much left to say; and when it has promised a robe of byssus, dyed twice, and a necklace of pearls of equal size, it is at the end of its rôle.”

This is Gautier in the fulness of his literary power, in the pride of his artistic strength. He began with art, from art he went into antiquity, in antiquity he discovered a life untouched by pale virtues and sad renunciations, a place where his mind could breathe in the very atmosphere of the religion of pleasure, and he gave himself, body and mind, to all that that world held. With his feet in Paris, it was not difficult. But to do it, he had to do what the ancient Greek did not do, — he had to sink in the scale of his moral nature, and crush utterly the weak life of the moral being that lives by the breath and the example of Christ. The life of enjoyment and the idea of pleasure were good to the Greek. They did not corrupt him, because, to live them, he did not have to resist a more spiritual idea. He did not have to descend in the scale of his moral conception to justify his habits. It is not possible for us to be Greeks, for we face a moral light that was not revealed to them.

A few words, and we have done with Mademoiselle de Maupin. It is a book full of remarkable descriptions that illustrate the power and the effrontery of Gautier, but from beginning to end it is deficient in dramatic force and invention. Like all of Gautier’s works, its excellence consists in the fulness and richness of its descriptive passages ; but it holds a series of pictures of more than questionable taste ; in some pages it outrages all the delicate and modest instincts of human nature. As a narrative, it is encumbered by descriptions, as a series of descriptions it is fatiguing ; as a book, it is full of moral audacity, and remarkable for rich and beautiful phrases. We turn from its overloaded pages to one of his early essays in criticism, called L’Art Moderne. It is Gautier in his specialty as a descriptive art critic. Probably he is unequalled in his power of describing a picture, and fixing its rank. Here is a paragraph which we cite from his article on Maribhat, the celebrated French painter.

The place of l’ Esbekich at Cairo ! No picture ever produced upon me an impression so profound and vibrating. I should be afraid of being called exaggerated if I said that the sight of that picture made me sick, and gave me a home-sickness for the Fast, where I never had set my feet. I believed that I was looking at my veritable country ; and when I turned my eyes from the ardent painting, I felt myself an exile. I see it still, that enormous carob-tree, with the monstrous trunk, pushing into the hot air its branches coiled like knotted serpents, and its tufts of metallic leaves, whose black undulations render so brilliant the indigo sky. The shadow stretches itself, azured upon the tawny ground; the houses lift, with surprising reality, their cabinets trellised with cedar and cypress wood ; a nude child follows its mother, a long phantom enveloped in a blue zalek. The light sparkles, the sun darts arrows of fire, and the heavy silence of burning hours weighs upon the atmosphere.”

This is no ordinary description. It is such phrases that have placed Gautier at the head of all word-painters. He is master of the art. It is no common writer who falls upon such an expression of an Oriental day, — “ the light sparkles, the sun darts arrows of fire, and the heavy silence of burning hours weighs upon the atmosphere.” While in Spain he notices two cypresses that rise against the blue sky, next to the red walls of the Alhambra. They strike upon his sense like a sharp note in music. He speaks of them : “ Those two black sighsof foliage, sad, like a thought of death in the midst of general joy ; the only sombre tint in that dazzle of gold, of silver, of azure, of rose.” You remark that the poet speaks in the phrases of the descriptive writer. It must be so. Every fine descriptive talent must draw a word from the heart of the poet, and Gautier is a poet as well as a remarkable word-painter. He is a poet by his word rather than by his thought,— like Tennyson. He is graceful, vivid, distinct, richly colored, but not magnetic. Say he is a descriptive poet. A more profound poetical gift not only speaks from the experience of the eye, but from the experience of the soul. Gautier is a poet who speaks only from the experience of the eye. Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Shelley spoke alike from the experience of the eye and the soul. Gautier, living in sensation, has no utterance from the inner depth. He never goes beyond form and color. They are the two limitations that content his nature. Therefore you cannot discover anything vague or visionary, or anything blank or empty, in his work. No ; he is an artist with words, — an artist contented with form and color, in fact always seeking for both, and never troubling himself with the undefinable and the infinite, which had such fascination and charm for Shelley, and filled with fury the troubled soul of Baudelaire.

When the poetical talent of a writer is limited to the word, and does not inhere in the very thought, he is local, and cannot be translated. Such a poet is Gautier. He is therefore limited to French critics. As a poet he cannot have a public outside of France, save among a few men of letters. Only by rising to the level of poetic thought can a poet speak to all men, and be read in all languages.

In 1830 Gautier gave Albertus; in 1845, La Comédic de la Mort ; in 1858, Emaux et Camées.

We discover that Robert Browning and Swinburne have read to good advantage the poems of Gautier. He is not as dramatic as Browning, nor as loose as Swinburne ; but he is vivid and artistic as the first, and even more pagan and natural than the last. In “ Enamels and Cameos ” we find some remarkable verses under the title,— “ Study of Hands ; Hands of an Empress and of an Assassin contrasted,” which show at once Gautier’s love of the beautiful and fascination before the horrible, — an antithesis that no Frenchman can resist. His poem entitled La Comédie de la Mort is called “a large and sublime page, sombre and fantastic.” Albertus is a poem certainly not to the fashion of the English or American mind, being a medley of arbitrary and fantastic images, and a story of things that do not belong to our latitude. Yet the writer to whom we are indebted for some of our biographical facts says that it is written under the influence of a true poetic breath, and takes a place by the side of the works of Alfred de Musset. A short poem celled Le Lion du Cirque is truly vigorous ; vivid and bold in expression. it is equally vivid and bold in conception.

The poet describes a lion of the Roman amphitheatre lashing his flank or drowsily dreaming of life in the spaces of the desert. His keeper tells him to be patient, in his close cell, for on the marrow Cæsar has commanded the door to be opened; he shall have, in the midst of the circus, under the eyes of Rome, saluted by the noise of Roman voices, a Christian virgin, — more white than the Pagan. Venus,— whose body he shall tear in his rage. Then the poet turns upon himself, likens his heart to that chained beast, bound in its cell, yet longing to find a white and virgin victim to slake its lust. The figure is not too strong,and it is true; and Gautier has made a picture and a poem out of the ancient fact and its eternal human correspondence. But enough. We cannot enumerate all Gautier has written, much less characterize particular poems. He has been an incessant writer, — writer of stories, criticisms, and poems ; fantastic and arbitrary and lawless in the first; descriptive, just, expressive, in the second ; vivid and beautiful in the last. Without being a magnetic writer, simply by the fulness and richness of his power of expression and his love of and search for the beautiful, he has made himself the type of a number of contemporary French writers, and by high qualities takes his place as master. He is probably best known to foreigners by Le Roman de la Momie. His rank is, however, fixed by his art feuillotons and poems. In them he exhibits his natural literary traits and qualities. In them we discover how a mind charmed by beautiful forms, warmed by beautiful colors, taking delight in shapes, textures, tones, can itself produce with words corresponding impressions, and without tenderness, without a creative imagination, even without intense mental power, can make a place bv itself, and live by the force of a style that appeals solely to our appreciation of the beautiful. Gautier understands and loves the beautiful, and among critics he is almost purely descriptive, contenting himself in being the literary expression of a picture or a statue that pleases him. He has knowledge without pedantry, and he has dislikes without bad temper. Probably no man living has a more instructed sense of painting and sculpture. Among his earlier essays in criticism is an article on The Beautiful in Art, which, admirable as a just and intelligent exposition of the subject, also derives an additional interest from the fact that it contains a criticism of Töpffer’s reflections on the same subject. In those days Gautier thought seriously ; his palette was not so full of color, but be used his more limited means to express a more active mind than to-day. Then he was less a hunter of words and more a seeker of the best thoughts. Since then he has become a luxurious writer. He folds his subject in a splendid and ample garment of words. He. has become more exuberant with time, because he has always labored to enrich his intellectual soil; in him expression is rapid and full-blown, like vegetation in tropical forests. Simply by the grace, the fulness of his literary talent does he please the mind ; for, we repeat, he is not intense, he is not compact (qualities which the American mind prefers), and he is without a great and unique creative imagination, having written nothing as original and typical as Maurice de Guérinés Centaure, or Keats’s Hyperion.

We have sufficiently expressed our understanding of the characteristics of Théophile Gautier the literary artist, — a being preoccupied with art in all its forms, and seeking for all possible means of fine and luxurious sensation. Revolutions, inventions, democracy, Ideas of progress, have no place in his mental experience. He is extraordinary, even in Europe, and would be monstrous in America. We could not forgive his selfishness and indifference to all that for which societies hope and struggle. Victor Hugo may call him a grand poet, and we know that Baudelaire perplexed himself to speak about him in a manner sufficiently noble ; he still remains in our judgment a man and a writer not to be spoken of as on the same level with noble and austere artistic types.

He is admirable for his art, for his gift, for the alternate jet and flow of his thoughts, but odious as an example, being selfish, luxurious, Oriental. It is not given to men of the Occident to lie like Hellenic gods in their pleasure, careless of mankind, still less to come from their opium dreams to debauch the senses and seduce the imagination. Yet God lets the rain fall alike on the just and the unjust. Who will dare refuse even the ministrations of the lovers of life, when they hold so large a place in poetry, in art, in all that makes the splendor, the glory of civilization, and without which civilization would be an intolerable burden? We admire Gautier, we listen to his music of words, and to his phrases like pictures. and as after music, as after a beautiful glance, we think only of pleasure and the sweet expansion it has given to our being, and for the time, in a soft climate, under a beautiful sun, forget to be moralists.