Gautier has spoken for himself in a famous passage of Mademoiselle de Maupin:

I am a man of the Homeric age; the world in which I live is not my world, and I understand nothing of the society which surrounds me. For me Christ did not come; I am as much a pagan as Alcibiades or Phidias. I have never plucked on Golgotha the flowers of the Passion, and the deep stream that flows from the side of the Crucified and sets a crimson girdle about the world, has never washed me in its flood; my rebellious body will not acknowledge the supremacy of the soul, and my flesh will not endure to be mortified. I find the earth as beautiful as the sky, and I think that perfection of form is virtue. I have no gift for spirituality; I prefer a statue to a ghost, full noon to twilight. Three things delight me: gold, marble, and purple; brilliance, solidity, colour. … I have looked on love in the light of antiquity, and as a piece of sculpture more or less perfect. … All my life I have been concerned with the form of the flagon, never with the quality of its contents.1

That is part of a confession of faith, and it is spoken with absolute sincerity. Gautier knew himself, and could tell the truth about himself as simply, as impartially, as if he had been describing a work of art. Or is he not, indeed, describing a work of art? Was not that very state of mind, that finished and limited temperament, a thing which he had collaborated with nature in making, with an effective heightening of what was most natural to him, in the spirit of art?

Gautier saw the world as mineral, as metal, as pigment, as rock, tree, water, as architecture, costume, under sunlight, gas, in all the colours that light can bring out of built or growing things; he saw it as contour, movement; he saw all that a painter sees, when the painter sets himself to copy, not to create. He was the finest copyist who ever used paint with a pen. Nothing that can be expressed in technical terms escaped him; there were no technical terms which he could not reduce to an orderly beauty. But he absorbed all this visible world with the hardly discriminating impartiality of the retina; he had no moods, was not to be distracted by a sentiment, heard no voices, saw nothing but darkness, the negation of day, in night. He was tirelessly attentive, he had no secrets of his own and could keep none of nature’s. He could describe every ray of the nine thousand precious stones in the throne of Ivan the Terrible, in the Treasury of the Kremlin; but he could tell you nothing of one of Maeterlinck’s bees.2

The five senses made Gautier for themselves, that they might become articulate. He speaks for them all with a dreadful unconcern. All his words are in love with matter, and they enjoy their lust and have no recollection. If the body did not dwindle and expand to some ignoble physical conclusion; if wrinkles did not creep yellowing up women’s necks, and the fire in a man’s blood did not lose its heat; he would always be content. Everything that he cared for in the world was to be had, except, perhaps, rest from striving after it; only, everything would one day come to an end, after a slow spoiling. Decrepit, colourless, uneager things shocked him, and it was with an acute, almost disinterested pity that he watched himself die.

All his life Gautier adored life, and all the processes and forms of life. A pagan, a young Roman, hard and delicate, with something of cruelty in his sympathy with things that could be seen and handled, he would have hated the soul, if he had ever really apprehended it, for its qualifying and disturbing power upon the body. No other modern writer, no writer perhaps, has described nakedness with so abstract a heat of rapture: like d’Albert when he sees Mlle. De Maupin for the first and last time, he is the artist before he is the lover, and he is the lover while he is the artist. It was above all things the human body whose contours and colours he wished to fix for eternity in the ‘robust art’ of ‘verse, marble, onyx, enamel.’3 And it was not the body as a frail, perishable thing, and a thing to be pitied, that he wanted to perpetuate; it was the beauty of life itself, imperishable at least in its recurrence.

He loved imperishable things: the body, as generation after generation refashions it, the world, as it is restored and rebuilt, and then gems, and hewn stone, and carved ivory, and woven tapestry. He loved verse for its solid, strictly limited, resistant form, which, while prose melts and drifts about it, remains unalterable, indestructible. Words, he knew, can build as strongly as stones, and not merely rise to music, like the walls of Troy, but be themselves music as well as structure. Yet, as in visible things he cared only for hard outline and rich colour, so in words too he had no love of half-tints, and was content to do without that softening of atmosphere which was to be prized by those who came after him as the thing most worth seeking. Even his verse is without mystery; if he meditates, his meditation has all the fixity of a kind of sharp, precise criticism.

What Gautier saw he saw with unparalleled exactitude; he allows himself no poetic license or room for fine phrases; has his eye always on the object, and really uses the words which best describe it, whatever they may be. So his books of travel are guidebooks, in addition to being other things; and not by any means ‘states of soul’ or states of nerves. He is willing to give you information, and able to give it to you without deranging his periods. The little essay on Leonardo is an admirable piece of artistic divination, and it is also a clear, simple, sufficient account of the man, his temperament, and his way of work.4 The study of Baudelaire, reprinted in the édition définitive of the Fleurs du Mal, remains the one satisfactory summing up, it is not a solution, of the enigma which Baudelaire personified; and it is almost the most coloured and perfumed thing in words which he ever wrote. He wrote equally well about cities, poets, novelists, painters, or sculptors; he did not understand one better than the other, or feel less sympathy for one than for another. He, the parfait magicien ès lettres françaises,5 to whom faultless words came in faultlessly beautiful order, could realise, against Balzac himself, that Balzac had a style: ‘he possesses, though he did not think so, a style, and a very beautiful style, the necessary, inevitable, mathematical style of his ideas.’6 He appreciated Ingres as justly as he appreciated El Greco; he went through the Louvre, room by room, saying the right thing about each painter in turn. He did not say the final thing; he said nothing which we have to pause and think over before we see the whole of its truth or apprehend the whole of its beauty. Truth, in him, comes to us almost literally through the eyesight, and with the same beautiful clearness as if it were one of those visible things which delighted him most: gold, marble, and purple; brilliance, solidity, colour.



This essay draws upon an unsigned review of F.C. Sumichrast’s translation of the works of Théophile Gautier in 24 volumes: ‘Gautier in English’, Saturday Review (15 February 1902), pp. Iii–iv, which Symons partially reprinted in Studies in Prose and Verse (1904) before adding it to the 1919 edition of The Symbolist Movement in Literature.

1. There are grounds for doubting Symons’ confidence that Gautier speaks ‘for himself’ in the passage quoted from this gender-bending novel of cross-dressing and ambiguous sexual identities, since it is taken from chapter nine in which the protagonist, the Chevalier d’Albert, writes to his friend Silvio in an attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has fallen in love with a man. In fact, he is mistaken and the object of his affection, ‘Théodore’, is the eponymous Mademoiselle de Maupin in disguise.

2. Maurice Maeterlinck (see above) published his account of apiculture, La Vie des abeilles [The Life of the Bee], in 1901.

3. Symons translates the fourth line of Gautier’s poem ‘L’Art’ in Émaux et Camées (1852), which celebrates the difficulties of poetic form by comparing it with these intractable materials.

4. Gautier first published his essay on Leonardo da Vinci in L’Artiste in 1858, then reprinted it in The Gods and Demi-Gods of Painting (1863), before adding it to his guidebook Le Musée du Louvre in 1867.

5. Baudelaire dedicated Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) to Gautier using this phrase (‘French literature’s perfect magician’).

6. Symons translates Gautier’s verdict on Balzac in his study Honoré de Balzac (1858).