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THEOPHILE GAUTIER (1811-1872)

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Originally appearing in Volume V11, Page 537 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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THEOPHILE GAUTIER (1811-1872), 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 College 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 cenacle, to which, as to Victor Hugo in particular, he was also introduced by his gifted but ill-starred schoolmate Gerard de Nerval. With Gerard, 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 fIe bust of Racine, and were at all times ready to exchange word or blow with the perruques and grisdtres 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 (183o), 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 Comedic 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 184o, 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 Emaux et camees, 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 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 humorist 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, yet 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; Menagerie intime (1869) and Tableaux de siege (1872), his two latest works, which display his incomparable style in its quietest but not least happy form. There is no complete edition of Gautier's works, and the vicomte Spoelberch de Lovenjoul's Histoire des oeuvres de Theophile Gautier (1887) shows how formidable such an undertaking would be. But since his death numerous further collections of articles have been made: Fusains et eaux-fortes and Tableaux a la plume (188o); L'Orient (2 vols., 1881); Les Vacances du lundi (new ed., 1888); La Nature chez elle (new ed., 1891). In 1879 his son-in-law, E. Bergerat, who had married his younger daughter Estelle (the elder, Mme Judith Gautier—herself a writer of distinction—was at one time Mme Catulle Mendes), issued a biography, Theophile Gautier, which has been of ten reprinted. With it should be compared Maxime du Camp's volume in the Grands Ecrivains francais (189o) and the numerous references in the Journal des Goncourt. Critical eulogies, from Sainte-Beuve (repeatedly in the Causeries) and Baudelaire (two articles in L'Art romantique) downwards, are numerous. The chief of the decriers is Emile Faguet in his Etudes litteraires sur le XIX' siecle. In 1902 and 1903 there appeared two respectable academic doges by H. Menal and H. Potez. (G. SA.)
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