Thursday, May 28, 2009

I, I have made enamels and cameos - Théophile Gautier's beautiful, useless poems

"When he had stretched himself on the sofa, he looked at the title-page of the book. It was Gautier's Émaux et Camées, Charpentier's Japanese-paper edition, with the Jacquemart etching. The binding was of citron-green leather, with a design of gilt trellis-work and dotted pomegranates... As he turned over the pages, his eye fell on the poem about the hand of Lacenaire, the cold yellow hand 'du supplice encore mal laveé,' with its downy red hairs and its 'doigts de faune.' He glanced at his own white taper fingers, shuddering slightly in spite of himself, and passed on, till he came to those lovely stanzas upon Venice:"

And at this point Oscar Wilde (we're in Chapter XIV of The Picture of Dorian Gray) inserts three stanzas of a Gautier poem, from the second of four short verses on the subject of Venice. In the novel, the stanzas are in French. I'll get a dictionary and ma femme and try to translate a stanza very literally (please feel free to correct me), the one Dorian finds particularly evocative of Venice:

The skiff lands and disembarks me,
Throwing its rope around the pillar,
In front of a pink facade,
On the marble stairs.

L'esquif aborde et me dépose,
Jetant son amarre au pilier,
Devant une façade rose,
Sur le marbre d'un escalier.

Delicate, not too complex looking, not too exciting in English. Hard to see what Dorian is getting from them, exactly. The joke, such as it is, is that he has just murdered a friend, and is looking for distraction from Gautier's volume of exquisitely crafted miniatures, the enamels and cameos of the title. Dorian is finding a use for the useless. In the first poem, the "Préface," Gautier says he is like Goethe, who wrote his East-West Divan against the noise of the cannons; without worrying about the hurricane that whipped his windows shut, "I, I have made Enamels and Cameos," decorative, useless things.

About that hand of Lacenaire. Gautier wrote two "Studies of Hands," the first about a clay woman's hand, a sculptor's model - Gautier has this, let's call it a thing, about preferring sculptures of women to actual women - the second, "Pour contraste," about the severed hand of a murderer, still unwashed:

Mummified and all yellow,
Like the hand of a pharaoh,
It stretched its animal-like fingers
Frozen by temptation.

So I see why Dorian did not want to linger over this poem.

The problem is that Gautier's poems are too lyrical, too simple-seeming (but not actually simple) - whatever magic they might have is ineffable. All of Gautier's poems are like this. Here we have a complete Englishing of Émaux et Camées from 1903 which I have read in its entirety, and which, I have concluded, is basically terrible (the 1903 New York Times agrees!). The insertions of extraneous matter, the bizarre choices of rhyme words, the occasional total abandonment of English grammar, what a mess. It's the only complete Enamels and Cameos I have found. I need to find a better translation. These poems can't be harder to translate than Charles Baudelaire, and the Richard Howard Flowers of Evil I'm reading is fantastic.

And here, by the way, is the lovely 1887 Émaux et Camées, the source of the images, yours for free.


  1. reHi Amateur!

    I believe the "sur" in the second verse should be a "son":
    Jetant son amarre au pilier.

    (And I'm very curious about how it is even possible to translate Baudelaire, let alone to do it well.)

  2. oh et j'avais pas fait gaffe : your "é" is misplaced (three times), it should be "Camées" (and you can now delete these two comments of mine).

  3. Thanks so much for the corrections. They're very helpful. I even double-checked the "é" in camées, and see how much good that did.

    I hope to be able to write about Baudelaire a bit, but even these few lines of Gautier were a significant challenge. That's why the corrections are so appreciated.

  4. The only thing I would change in your translation is I would give "puts me down" for "me dépose."

    I've read through a few of these now on Google Books, and I have to say, I'm not super crazy about them. I want my Enamels and Cameos to be a bit more sparkly, perhaps...or perhaps a bit smaller? My favorite by far is the preface. It had me a bit excited but then the first several I read after that didn't strike me nearly as favorably.

  5. Nicole, you don't like "disembark"? I was making the poem more nautical.

    I think your response to the Gautier poems is a bit like my response to Dorian Gray's response. Response response. The pink facade, the marble stairs - those lines are all right, but what's the big deal?

    I can see that part of the esthetic is contained in the versification - Gautier uses short, four-foot lines almost exclusively. So the poems are small scale. No Alexandrines. But, like you, I was expecting more dazzle, although, given the quality of that translation, my opinion of the extent of the dazzle hardly counts.

    Now I wonder, though, if I was misunderstanding the title. Cameos are rarely dazzling. Their artistry lies in the tiniest quiet details, the carving of a smile or a lock of hair. Whatever the equivalent is in French verse, I probably have little hope of detecting it.

    That Preface poem is especially good - I could tell with that one.

  6. I like disembark, but you said you were trying to be literal!

    Regarding the versification--that's actually what created some weirdness for me. I sat here reading them aloud thinking "these sound great" but not that excited about most of what they actually said, or about the particular words.

  7. Wow, it's like a fit of madness. As soon as I start translating I am infected with translator diseases. It's impossible to resist. I say one thing, and do another.

    Gautier is at the leading edge of a certain Modernist aesthetic. Sixty years later, the Dadaists will try to solve Gautier's problem by eliminating sense entirely.

    I now see that in a certain sense Baudelaire is actually easier to translate than Gautier. Baudelaire's subject matter is so strong - or pungent, or oozing, or whatever the adjective is - that even an unpoetic translation might have a powerful effect on the trembling reader.