Théophile Gautier

Born: 30 August 1811
Died: 23 October 1872
A French poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Tarbes on the 31st of August 1811. He was educated at the grammar school of that town, and afterwards at the Collège Charlemagne in Paris, but was almost as much in the studios. He very early devoted himself to the study of the older French literature, especially that of the 16th and the early part of the 17th century. This study qualified him well to take part in the Romantic movement, and enabled him to astonish Sainte-Beuve by the phraseology and style of some literary essays which, when barely eighteen years old, he put into the critic’s hands. In consequence of this introduction he at once came under the influence of the great Romantic cénacle, to which, as to Victor Hugo in particular, he was also introduced by his gifted but ill-starred schoolmate Gérard de Nerval. With Gérard, Petrus Borel, Corot, and many other less known painters and poets whose personalities he has delightfully sketched in the articles collected under the titles of Histoire du Romantisme, &c., he formed a minor romantic clique who were distinguished for a time by the most extravagant eccentricity. A flaming crimson waistcoat and a great mass of waving hair were the outward signs which qualified Gautier for a chief rank among the enthusiastic devotees who attended the rehearsals of Hernani with red tickets marked “Hierro,” performed mocking dances round the bust of Racine, and were at all times ready to exchange word or blow with the perruques and grisâtres of the classical party. In Gautier’s case these freaks were not inconsistent with real genius and real devotion to sound ideals of literature. He began (like Thackeray, to whom he presents in other ways some striking points of resemblance) as an artist, but soon found that his true powers lay in another direction. His first considerable poem, Albertus (1830), displayed a good deal of the extravagant character which accompanied rather than marked the movement, but also gave evidence of uncommon command both of language and imagery, and in particular of a descriptive power hardly to be excelled. The promise thus given was more than fulfilled in his subsequent poetry, which, in consequence of its small bulk, may well be noticed at once and by anticipation. The Comédie de la mort, which appeared soon after (1832), is one of the most remarkable of French poems, and though never widely read has received the suffrage of every competent reader. Minor poems of various dates, published in 1840, display an almost unequalled command over poetical form, an advance even over Albertus in vigour, wealth and appropriateness of diction, and abundance of the special poetical essence. All these good gifts reached their climax in the Émaux et camées, first published in 1856, and again, with additions, just before the poet’s death in 1872. These poems are in their own way such as cannot be surpassed. Gautier’s poetical work contains in little an expression of his literary peculiarities. There are, in addition to the peculiarities of style and diction already noticed, an extraordinary feeling and affection for beauty in art and nature, and a strange indifference to anything beyond this range, which has doubtless injured the popularity of his work. But it was not, after all, as a poet that Gautier was to achieve either profit or fame. For the theatre, he had but little gift, and his dramatic efforts (if we except certain masques or ballets in which his exuberant and graceful fancy came into play) are by far his weakest. It was otherwise with his prose fiction. His first novel of any size, and in many respects his most remarkable work, was Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). Unfortunately this book, while it establishes his literary reputation on an imperishable basis, was unfitted by its subject, and in parts by its treatment, for general perusal, and created, even in France, a prejudice against its author which he was very far from really deserving. During the years from 1833 onwards, his fertility in novels and tales was very great. Les Jeunes-France (1833), which may rank as a sort of prose Albertus in some ways, displays the follies of the youthful Romantics in a vein of humorous and at the same time half-pathetic satire. Fortunio (1838) perhaps belongs to the same class. Jettatura, written somewhat later, is less extravagant and more pathetic. A crowd of minor tales display the highest literary qualities, and rank with Mérimée’s at the head of all contemporary works of the class. First of all must be mentioned the ghost-story of La Morte amoureuse, a gem of the most perfect workmanship. For many years Gautier continued to write novels. La Belle Jenny (1864) is a not very successful attempt to draw on his English experience, but the earlier Militona (1847) is a most charming picture of Spanish life. In Spirite (1866) he endeavoured to enlist the fancy of the day for supernatural manifestations, and a Roman de la momie (1856) is a learned study. of ancient Egyptian ways. His most remarkable effort in this kind, towards the end of his life, was Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863), a novel, partly of the picaresque school, partly of that which Dumas was to make popular, projected nearly thirty years earlier, and before Dumas himself had taken to the style. This book contains some of the finest instances of his literary power. Yet neither in poems nor in novels did the main occupation of Gautier as a literary man consist. He was early drawn to the more lucrative task of feuilleton-writing, and for more thirty years he was among the most expert and practitioners of this art. Soon after the publication of Mademoiselle de Maupin, in which he had not been too polite to journalism, he became irrevocably a journalist. He was actually the editor of L’Artiste for a time: but his chief newspaper connexions were with La Presse from 1836 to 1854 and with the Moniteur later. His work was mainly theatrical and art criticism. The rest of his life was spent either at Paris or in travels of considerable extent to Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, England, Algeria and Russia, all undertaken with a more or less definite purpose of book-making. Having absolutely no political opinions, he had no difficulty in accepting the Second Empire, and received from it considerable favours, in return for which, however, he in no way prostituted his pen, but remained a literary man pure and simple. He died on the 23rd of December 1872. Accounts of his travels, criticisms of the theatrical and literary works of the day, obituary notices of his contemporaries and, above all, art criticism occupied him in turn. It has sometimes been deplored that this engagement in journalism should have diverted Gautier from the performance of more capital work in literature. Perhaps, however, this regret springs from a certain misconception. Gautier’s power was literary power pure and simple, and it is as evident in his slightest sketches and criticisms as in Émaux et camées or La Morte amoureuse. On the other hand, his weakness, if he had a weakness, lay in his almost total indifference to the matters which usually supply subjects for art and therefore for literature. He has thus been accused of “lack of ideas” by those who have not cleared their own minds of cant; and in the recent set-back of the critical current against form and in favour of “philosophic” treatment, comment upon him has sometimes been unfavourable. But this injustice will, beyond all question, be redressed again. He was neither immoral, irreligious nor unduly subservient to despotism, but morals, religion and politics (to which we may add science and material progress) were matters of no interest to him. He was to all intents a humanist, as the word was understood in the 15th century. But he was a humourist as well, and this combination, joined to his singularly kindly and genial nature, saved him from some dangers and depravations as well as some absurdities to which the humanist temper is exposed. As time goes on it may be predicted that, though Gautier may not be widely read, his writings will never cease to be full of indescribable charm and of very definite instruction to men of letters. Besides those of his works which have been already cited, we may notice Une Larme du diable (1839), a charming mixture of humour and tenderness; Les Grotesques (1844), a volume of early criticisms on some oddities of 17th-century literature; Caprices et zigzags (1845), miscellanies dealing in part with English life; Voyage en Espagne (1845), Constantinople (1854), Voyage en Russie (1866), brilliant volumes of travel; Ménagerie intime (1869) and Tableaux de siège (1872), his two latest works, which display his incomparable style in its quietest but not least happy form.

All books by Théophile Gautier