Romantic Originals

La Comédie humaine

by Honoré de Balzac, published under the direction of Pierre-Georges Castex
Gallimard, Editions de la Pléiade, 12 volumes pp., fr2, 878 for the set

Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works

edited by Jerome J. McGann
Oxford University Pess (Clarendon Press), 5 volumes, published to date pp., $565 for the set

The Cornell Wordsworth

edited by Stephen M. Parrish
Cornell University Press, 12 volumes published to date pp., $780 for the set

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism

An exhibition at the New York Public Library through January 2, 1988

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism

Catalog of the exhibition by Jonathan Wordsworth and Michael C. Jaye and Robert Woof
Rutgers University Press, 261 pp., $29.95 (paper)


It is a convenient and pleasing Romantic myth that the true work of art springs full-blown from the unconscious mind. Revision comes from the conscious intellect or will, and this, as Wordsworth wrote, “is the very littleness of life,…relapses from the one interior life that lives in all things.”1 Some years ago, a novelist—Muriel Spark, I believe—was asked how she was able to write so many books in such a short space of time. She replied, “I write very fast and I never correct.” This is the ideal. Few writers are so fortunate. Most revise and, as they do so, create more problems than they resolve.

One of Balzac’s most interesting tales, Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), deals imaginatively and succinctly with revision. It was a subject close to the author’s heart: his books generally went through several versions before and after publication. However, no work of his was more completely or profoundly rewritten than Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu.

The scene is laid in Paris in 1612, and the central figure is an invention of Balzac’s, a demonic personality who might have stepped out of the fantastic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann: the old Frenhofer, the greatest painter of the age (all of Balzac’s important characters possess their qualities in the superlative degree, and no moderately talented artist could play a significant role in his work—even Wenceslas Steinbock in La Cousine Bette, when he loses his talent, becomes obsessively and spectacularly incapable and the hopelessly mediocre Pierre Grassou sees his work sold under the names of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian, becomes the favorite painter of the bourgeoisie, and enters the Academy). The two other painters in the tale are historical: the young Nicholas Poussin, just starting out as an artist, visits the atelier of the already established Franz Porbus, and meets Frenhofer there. For ten years Frenhofer has been working on one painting, a life-size portrait of a nude woman lying on a velvet couch—“but what are ten years,” he says, “when it is a question of wrestling with Nature? We do not know how long it took Lord Pygmalion to make the only statue that walked.”

Frenhofer will show no one the picture: to finish it, he says, he needs a model of absolutely perfect beauty. Poussin has such a mistress, the young and modest Gillette, who adores him. He persuades her with difficulty to pose in the nude for Frenhofer, who will in return allow him to view the unknown masterpiece. Alone in his studio with Gillette, Frenhofer compares his painting to the living form of the girl, and decides that it is finished, more beautiful than reality.

He lets Poussin and Porbus into the studio and places them before the work: they see only a

confused mass of colors contained within a multitude of bizarre lines that make up a wall of paint…. Moving closer, they saw, in one corner of the canvas, a naked foot that came out of this chaos…

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