Saturday, April 26, 2014

Gautier's poems about Spain - Ruins of vanished races sleep

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”?

Javanese jungle-denizen,
Big-bellied 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.


  1. "There cannot be too many comical poems about the hippopotamus." That sounds sensible. Of course, could there really be any serious poems about the hippopotamus? Really?

  2. You must be right. Even a poem meant to be serious - what would that be - a poem against hippopotamus poaching - would be inadvertently comical.

  3. Probably Rupert Brooke's "On the Death of Smet-Smet, the Hippopotamus Goddess" comes closest.

    I bet there are some poems from Africa.

  4. Tsk, tsk, tsk... Garcia Lorca's Totentanz:

    O the large mask. Look at the African mask!
    How Africa is coming to New York!

    The pepper trees are gone,
    over-sized phosphoric matches.
    Gone too the Camels and their flayed flesh
    and the valleys of light the swans lifted on the beak.

    It was the time of dry things:
    burrs in the eye and a laminated cat,
    iron rusting on the large bridges
    and the final silence of the cork.

    It was the great gathering of the dead animals,
    pierced by the swords of light;
    Ash-hooved Hippopotamus' rapt in joy eternal
    and Springboks with forget-me-nots on their throats.

    O the large mask. Look at the African mask!
    Sand, crocs and fear descending upon New York!

  5. Tsk...tsk...and well, well, well. Let the river horse ride again! Bravo!

  6. I'm sorry, I find both of those poems hilarious. "Ash-hooved Hippopotamus' rapt in joy eternal" - might as well put the hippo in a tutu.

    1. I'm sorry, I cannot resist the challenge of writing one sad poem about the cursed animal:

      "Poor, poor hip hippopotamus with a tutu!
      We too can be just as ridiculous as you,
      sometimes" quietly sang the little match girl
      as the snow silently, ceaselessly piled upon her.

    2. That is a fine poem. It proved me that my heart is not made of stone - I laughed and laughed.

  7. By the way, you can see the influence of Parny on Brooke's poem. Specifically of this Chanson Madecasse, Mon fils a peri dans le combat

    My son was killed in the battle ... O my friends! cry for the son of your chief. Take his body to the house inhabited by the dead. A high wall protects it, and on the wall there are rows of threatening cattle horns . Fear the abode of the dead, for their wrath is terrible, and their revenge is cruel. Cry for my son.

    The blood of enemies will no more redden his arms.
    His lips will never kiss other lips.
    The fruits will not ripen for him.
    He will no more press his hands over soft and burning breasts.
    He will sing no more lying under a tree's branches.
    He will not whisper again into the ears of his mistress: Let's do it one more time, my beloved!

  8. Once again we see the power of language! The hippo is actually a huge, vicious, aggressive animal, one of the most dangerous in the world. But it has a name that sounds like a nursery rhyme. Would Smet-Smet be funny as a jackal goddess, or a cobra goddess?

  9. As funny, no, even though all three animals are always smiling.

    I remember a zookeeper once told me that the most dangerous animal in the zoo was not the polar bear but the pygmy hippo.

  10. All right, one more, and then I'll pipe down. Here's an unfunny hippo by South African poet Gert Strydom:

  11. That Strydom poem is a great example. A little bit of the sublime in the wild. Thanks.

  12. Incidentally, how did Gautier's hippopotamus get to Java?

  13. That is a good question. Shapiro fails to explain.

    In a later stanza, Gautier says that the hippo "fears not kris, nor javelin (ni kriss ni zagaies). The weaponry is from the right place, at least. Then he mentions a Sepoy, and says the hippo shares the jungle with tigers, boas, and buffalo. It's a hodgepodge.

  14. For the rhyme, I'm afraid. In the original, "Java" rhymes with "rêva." Shameful.

  15. Arrgh, I was looking right at the poem and did not see the rhyme. I do like, though - this is a glimpse into the creative process - how the choice of rhyme word builds an entire nonsensical world around it.