The Fantoms of Théophile Gautier


In 1857 Charles Baudelaire dedicated his collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, to his “friend and master” Théophile Gautier. Following a trial for obscenity (guilty on six counts), The Flowers of Evil rightly became the most famous book of erotic poetry published in nineteenth-century France, and the wording of Baudelaire’s dedication to Gautier became equally celebrated: “Au poète impeccable, au parfait magicien ès lettres françaises” (“To the irreproachable poet, perfect magician of French literature”).

The significance of this flamboyant dedication to Gautier, and especially that unexpected word magicien, has puzzled readers ever since. But a forgotten sequence of Gautier’s bizarre short stories, never collected in his own lifetime but now known as Les Contes fantastiques, may throw some light—perhaps a blue, phosphorescent, erotic moonlight—on this intriguing question.

In 1857 Théophile Gautier was forty-six, and at the height of his reputation as a poet and critic. Having started his career as an art student in Paris, he had fallen spectacularly under the influence of Victor Hugo and enlisted as one of the shock troops of Romanticism, sporting shoulder-length hair and scarlet waistcoats, and publishing ultra-Romantic poetry (Albertus, 1832) and a scandalous novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1836), whose heroine spends much of her time dressed as a man. Gautier was immediately snapped up by one of the new breed of newspaper magnates, Émile de Girardin (the Rupert Murdoch of his day), put on a large salary, and employed to write a column, or feuilleton, every week for the next thirty years, first on the popular mass-circulation newspaper La Presse and later on the government-sponsored Le Moniteur universel.

The rapid, mandarin brilliance of Gautier’s prose was widely recognized and admired, together with his famous facility. “It’s all a question of good syntax,” he would say. “I throw my sentences into the air…and like cats I know they will always land on their feet.” He was also known for his adventurous travel books (dashed off during summer vacations), his love of Mediterranean cooking, his interest in opium, and his uninhibited love of the female nude (ideally in marble, but if necessary in the bath), as typically appears in his glistening “Le Poème de la Femme” from Émaux et Camées:

…Elle semblait, marbre de chair,

En Vénus Anadyomène

Poser nue au bord de la mer.1

He featured frequently in the humorous cartoons and caricatures of the day, usually bearded and cross-legged in the Oriental manner, and surrounded by amorous cats, entwining hookahs, and plump, faintly suggestive cushions. He was endlessly pictured by the most renowned Parisian photographer of his generation, Félix Nadar (see illustration on page 62), who was fascinated by his large, amiable, crumpled face, once compared to a double bed on a Sunday morning.

The ever-grateful Baudelaire subsequently wrote a long essay on Théophile Gautier in 1859. In this he analyzed the master’s limpid prose style, praised his poetry—now changed into the finely “chiseled” Parnassian style of Émaux et Camées—and acknowledged his huge impact as a drama…

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