I have just read Brunetière's1 article and would like to talk about
it. Of Gautier2 I have only read
Le Capitane Fracasse, no matter, what I am doing has no
pretension of being a criticism of merit.
M. Brunetière treats Théo - as his close friends call him - as romantic Malherbe:3 Malherbe and Théo, here the scowling critic, there the long haired poet, enemy of the Greeks and the picturesque, the passionate lover of the Middle Ages; the one with an arid imagination, the other full of warmth and spirit. I have only read his Fracasse, what could be more delightful? In a Rabelaisian style, in what is most charming in Rabelais, a painterly, artistic style. From the renaissance Gautier looks for the picturesque, he wanders idly about, he strolls around out of curiosity: he stops in front of a château, a tavern, in front of the Pont-Neuf, he brings back to life the Paris of Louis XIII. He seems to make a study, sketch with nonchalance and grace: makes a few strokes at first, then looking it over again, finally loads his picture with colour. His imagination sees every detail, understands everything: the smallest details, the innermost recesses; he touches, passes on and strokes; he leads you and we follow. This old, dusty château interests him, he doesn't want to leave it; he rummages around, goes upstairs, makes the rotten boards of the staircase creak under his feet; there he is in the room of his ancestors, the old faded portraits watch him, he uses light tones; we go into the dungeon, he uses strong colours: this house of a bygone age gives up its delights.
The unfortunate man is devoid of ideas, M. Brunetière still exclaims. What is he to do then? Philosophy? Mechanical theory? Algebraic calculation? We live in a period of great decadence, France has become Byzantine - does that alarm you? Not at all - nothing is more charming than decadence: it is the ideal, the pleasurable idleness of ideas, we do not search them out, we write as dilettantes, we write leaning on one elbow, with the tip of our pencil, we seek out turns of phrase: Gautier is a decadent in the correct sense - a Byzantine, an idle artist, there is none of the scholar in him, none of the historian as Brunetière would want him; he is a painter, he only looks at the outside; deep down, he hardly worries about it; if I dare I would compare him, to Malherbe? not so, but to France4, just like him, he has no ideas, like him, all he has is charm. If I were ever to found a republic in the manner of Plato, I would found it on total decadence; all ideas would be banished from it, its citizens would look at the sky and dream.
Le Lundi is about to
publish... a play, "The First May Morn"5.
The... author asks the reader's permission to inform him
beforehand that the title is an allusion to a poetic usage from
16th century England. "All the young people from the town,
boys and girls, left as a band and took off for the neighbouring
wood. There they spend the night singing, dancing, embracing one
another etc. etc. ..." (François-Victor Hugo).6 When we read "The First May
Morn" we come to know what the festival consisted of. I
simply wanted to show that it is not (at least at heart) a simple
fantasy. Without going back to Chaucer, I would like to remind
you what Lysander, the tender and tortuous lover of Hermia told
her: "And in the wood, a league without the town, Where I
did meet thee once with Helena, To do observance to a morn of
May, There I will stay for thee." (Scene 3 [sic]7 of "A Midsummer-Night's
Dream"). François-Victor Hugo says that the Puritans
censured this Pagan, Celtic ceremony.
That is precisely why it pleases me; it must have been exquisite in the 16th century to escape for one night from the religious prosaism of the period, and revive under the mysterious mists, in the leafy depths, the ancient Celtic and naturalist dreams, to tremble before the rising sun, in the rustling leaves, made blue by the moon that stirred up the sprites in their celestial and fantastic dances.
Le Lundi, 10 December 1887.
1. Ferdinand Brunetière wrote an article in La Revue des Deux Mondes 1st Dec 1887 entitled "Théophile Gautier".
2. Théophile Gautier (1811 - 1872) wrote widely on literature and art, and Proust had a great affection for his historical novel Le Capitane Fracasse. In Jean Santeuil Jean is described reading Le Capitane Fracasse.
3. François de Malherbe (1555 - 1628). Poet, in later life a forerunner of French classicism in his demand for clarity and rigour.
4. Anatole France (1844 - 1924). Novelist and academician.
5. This is all we know about the play, which Proust apparently never wrote.
6. François-Victor Hugo translated Shakespeare in Oeuvres complètes de William Shakespeare, 1865.
7. Actually Act I
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