French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Literature Under The Empire 1852-1870
The Rise Of Realism
Literature Under The Republic-1870-1899
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Among those who were conspicuous in the contest over the memorable first performance of Victor Hugo's "Hernani" in 1830 none was more so than Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) who had arrayed himself for the occasion in a crimson vest. Born at Tarbes in Gascony, he went to school in Paris, and studied art. But his real bent was toward literature, and he gave much attention, to the writers of the Sixteenth Century. He astonished the critic Sainte-Beuve with some poems written when he was but eighteen. The aggressive young "Romantics" who were ready to strike a blow, as well as argue and applaud, for their side, found in him a spirited leader. He had no dramatic faculty and prepared nothing for the theater, except a few masques and ballets. His first long poem "Albertus" (1830) and others of his early career showed great command of language, but were marred by extravagance. For a while he was an assistant to Balzac, but hated the drudgery. His own first novel, "Mademoiselle de Maupin" (1835), was a tale of a girl who sought adventures while dressed in man's attire. The licentiousness of the story offended even French readers and hurt the author's reputation. But Gautier persevered and cultivated his style so that his prose has become a model for his successors. Of his short tales the masterpiece is the highly artistic but ghastly story, "La Morte Amoureuse" (The Dead Leman). It is founded on the mediaeval superstition of the incubus, and tells how a devout young priest is ensnared by the beauty of a girl, who transports him in sleep to a distant castle. Finally she is discovered to be but a corpse who receives animation for a while from the blood of her victims. That such an unnatural subject should be so treated as to win the verdict of critics is a testimony to the power of Gautier's perfection of handling. Other weird and fantastic stories are his "Arria Marcella," a revival of the life of Pompeii; "Omphale," in which a gay lady of olden times emerges from a tapestry; "Roman de la Momie" (Romance of the Mummy), which reproduces the life of ancient Egypt. "Le Capitaine Fracasse" (Captain Fracasse) (1863) is a novel of stir-ring adventures in the fashion made popular by Dumas, and is considered by many Gautier's best work.
To the last Gautier remained the master of pictorial prose and poetry. His elaborately finished poems were collected in "Emaux et Camées" (Enamels and Cameos), first published in 1856. They are polished gems and show his love for beauty in art and nature. To search for beauty he gave all his powers with an absolute indifference to any other consideration. He cared nothing for religion or science, but was acknowledged as supreme in criticism of art and the drama. He formulated the principle of art for art's sake and lived up to it. In his later career he traveled much and wrote brilliant descriptions of various countries and places. Most of his writing was done for newspapers, but he never lowered his style nor took sides in politics. He died in October, 1872.