I have most appreciated Norman Shapiro bringing a readable version of Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos into English, but his Selected Lyrics volume also includes many more Gautier poems dating as far back as 1830, when the poet was 19. I found Gautier’s verse more conventional as he grew younger (the book is organized backwards ), but how could I resist “The Hippopotamus”?
Snuffles from deep within his den
Mid monsters, some undreamt by us.
And so on. T. S. Eliot, the goof, published a knockoff of this poem in 1917. There cannot be too many comical poems about the hippopotamus.
Still, more pleasurable, and all new to me, are the thirty poems selected from the 1845 España, covering Spanish landscapes, history, music, painting, and whatever else caught his imagination. The poems are more conventional than the Enamels and Cameos in that they feature some of the usual Romantic Spanish exoticism. I note that Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen was published he same year. But Gautier’s powers of observation usually ground him. This is from “L’Escurial,” in which the poet see the massive, abandoned Escorial palace complex from a distance and compares it to the pyramids:
Everything would seem dead but for the flights
Of swallows, from their niches’ cornice-heights –
Kings’ statue-hands – swarming on pediments,
With fluttering wings, chirping their ecstasy
To wake him from dreams of eternity:
This giant, slumbering now, and ages hence… (ellipses in original)
I guess the poet has gotten closer as the poem went on if he can see the hands of the statues. I don’t know what the translator excluded, but this poem feels like it is part of a sequence in which the poet clambers around the Spanish mountains:
Ruins of vanished races sleep. The ground,
Swept by great waves – biblical world long drowned,
Behemoth and Leviathan of stones –
Reveals a graveyard vast, tomb upon tomb,
Monster concealed deep in its rockbound womb,
Whose blocks of granite are the Titans’ bones. (from “Higher I Climbed…”)
Spain is portrayed as a ruin, or as a graveyard, which it is, in a sense, as is every country:
Passing by a Cemetery
What is the tomb?... Soul’s costume studios
Where, as they leave the theater, roles now done,
Actors – men, women, children, every one! –
Stop to return their rented acting-clothes! (ellipses in original)
But this is exactly the kind of attitude a Romantic poet brings with him rather than an aspect of Spain. In the opening poem, “Leave-taking” – amusing title; the leave-taking is from civilization, meaning Paris – travels to combat ennui, but learns hard lessons:
[Travel] proves to us that in the hearts most sure,
Most dear, forgetfulness holds sway; it shows –
O sadness next to none! O bitter throes
Of misery supreme! – that one day you
Will be the victim of oblivion too!
Poor atom! Mere minuscule nothing, cast
Aside and lost, lonely speck in the vast
Expanse… (ellipses mine)
One might suspect parody. But the interest of these poems comes from the contrast between the character’s mopiness and his clear interest in what he sees.
Slopes in the sun, flowerless, cheerless; rock
Granite-cliff, deep ravines carved in the chalk; (“On the Way to the Miraflores Charterhouse”)
Or maybe it is something else. There is a poem, “The Oleander of Generalife,” in which the poet makes out with a flower:
My laurel love, that shrub. Each night I would
Take my ease by it, reveling in my bliss,
Kissing a moist, red flower-mouth! – Oh, could
It be?... I pressed my eager lips, and stood
Awed, as I felt the flower return my kiss!... (ellipses in original)
Now I want to read a complete translation of España.