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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Théophile Gautier (1811–1872)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Louis Sanderson (1851–1922)
 
THÉOPHILE GAUTIER was born in Tarbes (Department of the Hautes-Pyrénées) in Southern France, August 31st, 1811. Like all French boys, he was sent to the lycée (academy), where he promised to be a brilliant scholar; but his father was really his tutor, and to him Gautier attributed his instruction. Young Théophile showed marked preference for the so-called authors of the Decadence—Claudianus, Martial, Petronius, and others; also for the old French writers, especially Villon and Rabelais, whom he says he knew by heart. This is significant, in view of the young man’s strong tendencies, later on, towards the new romantic school. The artistic temperament was very strong in him; and while still carrying on his studies at college he entered the painter Rioult’s studio. His introduction to Victor Hugo in 1830 may be considered the decisive point in Gautier’s career: from that day he gave up painting and became a fanatic admirer of the romantic leader.  1
  A short time afterwards, the first representation of ‘Hernani’ took place (February 25th, 1830), an important date in the life of Gautier. It was on this occasion that he put on for the only time that famous red waistcoat, which, with his long black mane streaming down his back, so horrified the staid Parisian bourgeois. This red waistcoat turns out, after all, not to have been a waistcoat at all, but a doublet; nor was it red, but pink. No truer is the legend, according to Gautier, that on this memorable occasion, armed with his two formidable fists, he felled right and left the terrified bourgeois. He says that he was at that time rather delicate, and had not yet developed that prodigious strength which later on enabled him to strike a 520-pound blow on a Turk’s-head. In appearance Gautier was a large corpulent man with a leonine countenance, swarthy complexion, long black hair falling over his shoulders, black beard, and brilliant black eyes; an Oriental in looks as well as in some of his tastes. He had a passion for cats. His house was overrun by them, and he seldom wrote without having one on his lap. The privations he underwent during the siege of Paris, doubly hard to a man of Gautier’s Gargantuesque appetite, no doubt hastened his death. He died on October 23d, 1872, of hypertrophy of the heart.  2
  Gautier is one of those writers of whom one may say a vast deal of good and a vast deal of harm. His admirers think that justice has not been done him, that his fame will go on rising and his name will live as one of the great writers of France; others think that his name may perhaps not entirely disappear, but that if he is remembered at all it will be solely as the author of ‘Émaux et Camées’ (Enamels and Cameos). He wrote in his youth a book that did him great harm in the eyes of the public; but he has written something else besides ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin,’ and both in prose and poetry we shall find a good deal to admire in him. One thing is certain: he is a marvelous stylist. In his earliest poems Gautier already possesses that admirable artistic skill that prompts him to choose his words as a painter his colors, or a jeweler his gems and stones, so as to produce the most brilliant effects: these first compositions also have a grace, a charm, that we shall find lacking later on, for as he proceeds with his work he pays more and more attention to form and finish.  3
  ‘Albertus, or Soul and Sin,’ the closing poem of Gautier’s first collection, is a “semi-diabolic, semi-fashionable” legend. An old witch, Veronica, a second Meg Merrilies, transforms herself into a beautiful maiden and makes love to Albertus, a young artist—otherwise Gautier himself. He cares for nothing but his art, but falls a victim to the spell cast over him by the siren. At the stroke of midnight, Veronica, to the young man’s horror, from a beautiful woman changes back to the old hag she was, and carries him off to a place where witches, sorcerers, hobgoblins, harpies, ghouls, and other frightful creatures are holding a monstrous saturnalia; at the end of which, Albertus is left for dead in a ditch of the Appian Way with broken back and twisted neck. What does it all mean? the reader may ask. That “the wages of sin is death” seems to be the moral contained in this poem, if indeed any moral is intended at all. Be that as it may, ‘Albertus’ is a literary gem in its way; a work in which the poet has given free scope to his brilliant imagination, and showered by the handful the gems and jewels in his literary casket. Gautier may be said to have possessed the poetry of Death—some would say its horrors. This sentiment of horror at the repulsive manner of man’s total destruction finds most vivid expression in ‘The Comedy of Death,’ a fantastic poem divided into two parts, ‘Death in Life’ and ‘Life in Death.’ The dialogue between the bride and the earth-worm is of a flesh-creeping nature.  4
  It is however as the poet of ‘Émaux et Camées’ (Enamels and Cameos) that Théophile Gautier will be chiefly remembered. Every poem but one in this collection is written in short octosyllabic verse, and every one is what the title implies,—a precious stone, a chiseled gem. Gautier’s wonderful and admirable talent for grouping together certain words that produce on one’s eye and mind the effect of a beautiful picture, his intense love of art, of the outline, the plastic, appear throughout this work. You realize on reading ‘Émaux et Camées,’ more perhaps than in any other work by this writer, that the poet is fully conscious of his powers and knows just how to use them. Any poem may be selected at random, and will be found a work of art.  5
  The same qualities that distinguish Gautier as a poet are to be found in his novels, narratives of travels, criticisms,—in short, in everything he wrote; intense love for the beautiful,—physically beautiful,—wonderful talent for describing it. Of his novels, properly speaking, there are four that stand out prominently, each very different in its subject,—a proof of Gautier’s great versatility,—all perfect in their execution. The first is ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’; it is an immoral book, but it is a beautiful book, not only because written with a rare elegance of style, but also because it makes you love beauty. Briefly, ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’ may be called a pæan to beauty, sung by its high priest Théophile Gautier.  6
  The other remarkable novels by this writer are ‘Le Capitaine Fracasse’ (Captain Smash-All), ‘Le Roman de la Momie’ (The Romance of the Mummy), and ‘Spirite.’ ‘Captain Fracasse,’ although not published until 1863, had been announced long beforehand; and Gautier had worked at it, off and on, for twenty years. It belongs to that class of novel known as picaresque—romances of adventures and battles. ‘Captain Fracasse’ is certainly the most popular of Gautier’s works.  7
  ‘The Romance of the Mummy’ is a very remarkable book, in which science and fiction have been blended in the most artistic and clever manner; picturesque, like all of Gautier’s writings, but the work of a savant as well as of a novelist. Here more than in any other book by this author,—with the exception perhaps of ‘Arria Marcella,’—Gautier has revived in a most lifelike way an entire civilization, so long extinct. ‘The Romance of the Mummy’ abounds in beautiful descriptions. The description of the finding of the mummy, that of the royal tombs, of Thebes with its hundred gates, the triumphal entrance of Pharaoh into that city, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, are all marvelous pictures, that not only fill the reader with the same admiration he would evince at the sight of a painting by one of the great masters, but give him the illusion of witnessing in the body the scenes so admirably described.  8
  ‘Spirite,’ a fantastic story, is a source of surprise to readers familiar with Gautier’s other works: they find it hard to conceive that so thorough a materialist as Gautier could ever have produced a work so spiritualistic in its nature. The clever handling of a mystic subject, the richness and coloring of the descriptions, together with a certain ideal and poetical vein that runs through the book, make of ‘Spirite’ one of Gautier’s most remarkable works.  9
  Théophile Gautier has also written a number of nouvelles or short novels, and tales, some of which are striking compositions. ‘Arria Marcella’ is one of these; a brilliant, masterly composition, in which Gautier gives us such a perfect illusion of the past. Under his magic pen we find ourselves walking the streets of Pompeii and living over the life of the Romans in the first century of our era; and ‘Une Nuit de Cléopâtre’ (A Night with Cleopatra) is a vivid resurrection of the brilliant Egyptian court.  10
  Of his various journeys to Spain, Italy, and the Orient, Gautier has given us the most captivating relations. To many this is not the least interesting portion of Gautier’s work. The same qualities that are so striking in his poems and novels—vividness of description, love of the picturesque, wonderful power of expression—are likewise apparent in his relations of travels.  11
  As a literary and especially as an art critic, Gautier ranks high. Bringing to this branch of literature the same qualities that distinguish him in others, he created a descriptive and picturesque method of criticism peculiarly his own. Of his innumerable articles on art and literature, some have been collected under the names of ‘Les Grotesques,’ a series of essays on a number of poets of the end of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries, ridiculed by Boileau, but in whom Gautier finds some wheat among the chaff. The ‘History of Dramatic Art in France for the Last Twenty-five Years,’ beginning with the year 1837, will be consulted with great profit by those who are curious to follow the dramatic movement in that country. Of his essays on art, one is as excellent as the other; all the great masters are treated with a loving and admiring hand.  12
  Among the miscellaneous works of this prolific writer should be mentioned ‘Ménagerie Intime’ (Home Menagerie), in which the author makes us acquainted in a most charming and familiar way with his home life, and the various pets, cats, dogs, white rats, parrots, etc., that in turn shared his house with him; la Nature chez elle (Nature at home), that none but a close observer of nature could have written.  13
  The last book written by Gautier before his death was ‘Tableaux de Siège’ (Siege Pictures, 1871). The subjects are treated just in the way we might expect from such a writer, from a purely artistic point of view.  14
  Gautier has written for the stage only short plays and ballets; but if all he ever wrote were published, his works would fill nearly three hundred volumes. In spite of the quantity and quality of his books, the French Academy did not open her doors to him; but no more did it to Molière, Beaumarchais, Balzac, and many others. Opinions still vary greatly as to Théophile Gautier’s literary merits; but his brilliant descriptive powers, his eminent qualities as a stylist, together with the influence he exercised over contemporary letters as the introducer of the plastic in literature, would seem sufficient to rank him among the great writers of France.  15
 
 
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