Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where stifled art might breathe again - Gautier's Enamels and Cameos

Théophile Gautier’s Selected Lyrics in Norman R. Shapiro’s translation is a book from 2011 that I did not read until recently.  I was waiting for the hype to die down.

Well, there should have been some hype.  Among the lyrics Shapiro “selected” is the entirety of Gautier’s 1852 Enamels and Cameos, one of the great books of French poetry of the 19th century, and what a century for French poetry.  A previous translation, from 1903, existed, but it is so bad that when I wroteabout Gautier five years ago I resorted to my own translations.  What desperation!

Shapiro’s might as well be, then, the only translation.  I doubt there will be another in the next 108 years, so this is it.

Enamels and Cameos has a funny place in English literature.  In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dorian picks the book up just after he has committed a murder.  He is disquieted by a poem about a murderer’s severed hand (“Study in Hands”), then comforted when he turns the page to “Variations on the Carnival of Venice”.  Some of the lines about Venice are included in Wilde’s novel, in French, of course, making Gautier perhaps the French poet most read by English-language readers, if I take “read” to mean “grumblingly skipped.”

As the title suggests, Gautier’s poems are little, hand-crafted objects with little portraits carved on them, deliberately small and even trivial, beautiful rather than sublime.  They are perhaps partly a response to Victor Hugo’s poems, small Romanticism set beside his big, ambitious stuff.  They are also a reaction to the chaos of 1848, as he suggests in the opening lines:

Goethe wrote West’s Divan as men
Waged war to cannons’ blare and boom:
A cool oasis in the gloom,
Where stifled art might breathe again.  (“Preface”)

You can see here what Shapiro does throughout the book.  He keeps the rhymes in their place, no matter what he has to break to do it; he keeps the quatrains; he mimics Gautier’s eight syllable lines with quadrameters.  This pretty well takes care of the whole book (although the above poem is actually a sonnet).

The subjects of the poems vary as in any collection of miniatures.  Seasons, sculptures, women, their breasts, Christmas, the sea, “The Little Dead Girl’s Toys”:

On carpet and on table, there
Lies childhood wealth to others left:
Poor puppet, with his doleful air,
Arms dangling, sprawling, strength bereft.

Or the inexplicable “Symphony in White Major”:

Was it the milk-white drops astride
The winter sky’s azure blue dome?
Silver-pulped lily? Or the tide
Rolling beneath a froth-white foam?

White marble?  Cold, pale flesh, wherein
Dwell the divinities of White?
Silver unburnished?  Opaline
Glimmers flecked with brief bursts of light?

I seem to have found the statues, or the women, or both.  I think of all of these poems as miniatures, but this one is 72 lines and impossible to excerpt in a way that makes any sense.  But you can hear the tone of the thing, which is the tone of most of Enamels and Cameos, and which is also, to my sorry ears, pretty close to the tone of the real thing, Émaux et Camées, which is an achievement.

A generous chunk of the book is available as a PDF for some reason.  I think I’ll spend a couple more days with Gautier’s poems.


  1. Ah, a French Heine...

    The month of March is busy:

    Sous l'herbe, pour que tu la cueilles,
    Il met la fraise au teint vermeil,
    Et te tresse un chapeau de feuilles
    Pour te garantir du soleil.

    Puis, lorsque sa besogne est faite,
    Et que son règne va finir,
    Au seuil d'avril tournant la tête,
    Il dit: «Printemps, tu peux venir!»

    A drowning man speaks:

    Bleuâtre, enflé, méconnaissable,
    Bercé par le flot qui bruit,
    Sur l'humide oreiller du sable
    Je dormirai bien cette nuit!

    ... Mais une femme dans sa mante
    Sur le pont assise à l'écart,
    Une femme jeune et charmante
    Lève vers moi son long regard.

    Dans ce regard, à ma détresse
    La Sympathie aux bras ouverts
    Parle et sourit, soeur ou maîtresse.
    Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!

  2. I was going to use that last line in my next post. I mean, I am going to use it. What a line.