Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) is a lesser-known French poet who was a great admirer of Victor Hugo (which is how I found his works) and part of the Romanticism movement. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was without intellectual depth or emotional intensity. However, according to Arthur Canfield, “he had a rare power of seeing the forms and colors of things…he was an objective visual artist, a poetic painter”(French Poems, 569). This is one reason I was compelled to translate his poem L’Art; I love all things Hugo, Art and French! Secondly, I was drawn to the structured literary form of enjambment in the third line of each stanza in this poem, which draws your attention to a particular word of phrase of emphasis. This is part of Gautier’s “painting” with words.

The themes, or apostrophes, in Gautier’s L’Art point to the beauty of art through its great Muses: the daughters of Zeus, Clio, Thalia, Melpomene, Erato, etc. In addition, the poet becomes the statuary and the painter as he “sculpts, files and chisels his masterpieces”. Hard work is highlighted for all professions including using the “hand” and “thumb” [which is not typically associated with poetry, – reject the softer “watercolors”.]

In thinking about Gautier’s metaphors in L’Art, the sculptor kneads clay; the poet kneads words, and needs words!! Both art and poetry are creations of beauty. Both require great skill; one is not more important than the other. I admire the art of sculpting as well as the art of poetry. The sculptures of Rodin—Balzac, Hugo, The Kiss, Le Penseur are my favorites. The sculptures of Michelangelo—David, the Madonna of Bruges, Pietà (Gautier’s “La Vierge et son Jésus”). The poetry of Hugo, Valéry, Longfellow, Goethe, Homer, Dickinson are masterpieces as well.

I hope you enjoy this little poem by Gautier. Note that in my English translation, I tried to keep with this typography even though our sentence structure is considerably different and therefore it loses some of the emphasis.

L’Art by Théophile Gautier

OUI, l’œuvre sort plus belle
D’une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail*.

Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que, pour marcher droit,
Tu chausses,
Muse, un cothurne étroit.

Fi du rhythme commode,
Comme un soulier trop grand,
Du mode
Que tout pied quitte et prend!

Statuaire, repousse
L’argile que pétrit
Le pouce
Quand flotte ailleurs l’esprit.

Lutte avec le carrare,
Avec le paros dur
Et rare,
Gardiens du contour pur ;

Emprunte à Syracuse
Son bronze où fermement
Le trait fier et charmant ;

D’une main délicate
Poursuis dans un filon
Le profil d’Apollon.

Peintre, fuis l’aquarelle,
Et fixe la couleur
Trop frêle
Au four de l’émailleur.

Fais les sirènes bleues,
Tordant de cent façons
Leurs queues,
Les monstres des blasons ;

Dans son nimbe trilobe
La Vierge et son Jésus,
Le globe
Avec la croix dessus.

Tout passe. –L’art robuste
Seul a l’éternité,
         Le buste
Survit à la cité,

Et la médaille austère
Que trouve un laboureur
           Sous terre
Révèle un empereur.

Les dieux eux-mêmes meurent,
Mais les vers souverains
Plus forts que les airains.

Sculpte, lime, cisèle ;
Que ton rêve flottant
           Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant !

[*this is the French word for varnish; how ironic that we use this word for digital correspondence today!]

My English Translation

YES, the work comes out more beautiful
That is formed from material
Verse, marble, onyx, enamel*.

We have no need for false constraints!
But to walk straight,
      Your shoes,
Muse, a narrow path.

Fi! of convenient rhythm,
Like a shoe that’s too big,
           In mode
That fits and fails every foot!

Who models, shunned,
The clay slips by
           The Thumb
When the mind goes astray.

Grapple with travertine,
With parian
            More rare,
Guard the pure contour;

Borrow from Syracuse
Her bronze standing firm
            To accuse
The proud, charming line;

From a delicate hand
A perfect vain
            Of Agate
The profile of Apollon.

Painter, flee from watercolor
And fix the color
            Too frail
In the fires of the enameller.

Make the mermaids and dolphins
Twist from five fashions
           Their tails,
Blue monsters of the coat of arms;

In its three-lobed halo
The Virgin and her Jesus
           The globe,
And His Cross thereon.

All passes.—Robust art
Lives forever;
           The bust
Is the city’s survivor.

And the dull medal
Found by the humble laborer
            Beneath ground,
Reveals an emperor.

The gods even perish.
Yet the sovereigns
Stronger than bronzes.

Sculpt, chisel, rasp;
Let your floating dream
            Seal itself
In the resistant block!

Work Cited

Canfield, Arthur G., and Patterson, W.F. French Poems. New York: Holt & Co. 1941.