Gautier's Hippo, Baudelaire's Goony-bird, Rimbaud's Dancing Bear



Théophile Gautier, one of the Parnassien poets and a friend of Balzac, Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo, played a major role in the French cultural life of the mid-XIXc. Like Nerval he can be thought of as a link between the Romantics and the Symbolists, and he was taken as a model by Pound and Eliot and highly admired by Henry James. He advocated art for art's sake (with no "message") and a pure, rather impersonal  poetry written in difficult forms. His declaration that  "Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality" still sounds contemporary, at least for very old people like me.

By and large he was eclipsed by more vivid poets who followed in his footsteps, and unfortunately he is remembered nowadays mostly for the programatic poem "L'art", which is part of the canned history of manifesto poetry which culminates in Dada and Surrealism.

Recently I happened on some photographs of Gautier, however, and his grumpy, distinctly non-effete appearance caught my eye. (The photo I've posted isn't the worst: there's another one where he looks like a street wino). It's no great discovery to point out that apolitical escapism is a reaction to political hopelessness and to the debasement of political life, but these pictures made me feel that Gautier's aestheticism was also  reactive, and that he had been engaged in a lifelong struggle against his inner oaf. A little research brought up some more evidence: Gautier's totem animal was the hippopotamus.

The Hippopotamus
The big-bellied hippopotamus 
Lives in the jungles of Java, 
Where monsters growl from every lair, 
More than you'd ever dream of.
The boa uncoils and hisses,
the tiger unleashes his roar. 
The buffalo bellows with rage --
but the peaceful hippo just feeds and sleeps.
The hippo fears neither sword nor spear, 
He just stands and looks right at you.
He laughs and laughs at the sepoys' bullets
bouncing off his hide.
I am like the hippopotamus:
Swathed in my conviction,
protected by strong and inviolable armor,
fearlessly I cross the desert. 
(From Poésies Diverses, 1833-1838)

Those with a background in Frankish oaf studies will, of course, think immediately of Baudelaire's albatross flopping helplessly on the ship's deck ("exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered, he cannot walk because of his great wings") and Rimbaud's other albatross, his big bear with purple gums, and his braying ass running through the fields. 

I hypothesize that there is some kind of dialectical relationship between social awkwardness and poetry.


Cezanne as oaf

Manet even gave as a reason for not exhibiting that he could not afford to commit himself alongside Cezanne, who was thought of as a little freakish even by those other members who sensed his strength. And Cezanne gave them plenty of reason for feeling so. He was rough in manner, sometimes surly, always unsure of himself, and defensively contemptuous of fine manners.


L'hippopotame (Théophile Gautier)

L'hippopotame au large ventre
Habite aux jungles de Java ,
Où grondent, au fond de chaque antre,
Plus de monstres qu'on n'en rêva.

Le boa se déroule et siffle,
Le tigre fait son hurlement,
Le buffle en colère renifle;
Lui, dort ou paït tranquillement.

Il ne craint ne kriss ni sagaies,
Il regarde l'homme sans fuir,
Il rit des balles des cipayes
Qui rebondissent sur son cuir.

Je suis comme l'hippopotame;
De ma conviction couvert,
Fort armure que rien n'entame,
Je vais sans peur par le désert.

A much more Gautieresque translation of Gautier's "Hippopotamus"

Robert Creeley on Gautier's hippopotamus:

"Zo was het overduidelijk mijn hart dat sprak bij de beslissing om The Hippopotamus van Théophile Gautier uit te brengen."

Bottom (Arthur Rimbaud)

La  réalité  étant  trop  épineuse  pour  mon  grand  caractère,-  je  me  trouvai  
néanmoins  chez ma dame,  en  gros  oiseau gris bleu s'essorant vers les moulures 
du plafond et traînant l'aile dans les ombres de la soirée. 
Je fus, au pied du baldaquin supportant ses bijoux adorés et ses chefs-d'oeuvre 
physiques un gros ours aux gencives violettes et au poil chenu de chagrin, les yeux 
aux cristaux et argents aux des consoles 
Tout se fit ombre et aquarium ardent. 
Au matin aube de juin batailleuse, - je courus aux champs, âne, claironnant et 
brandissant mon grief, jusqu'à ce que les Sabines de la banlieue vinrent se jeter 
à mon poitrail.

Reality being too prickly for my grand nature, at my lady's I became a
big blue-gray bird -- soaring toward the moldings of the ceiling, dragging my wings after me in the shadows of the evening.

At the foot of the canopy supporting her precious jewels and her
physical masterpieces, I was a big bear with purple gums and fur hoary with grief, my eyes on the crystal and silver on the consoles.

Everything grew dark and burning aquarium.

In the morning - a battling June dawn - I ran through the fields, an ass,
braying and brandishing my grievance, until the
Sabines came from
the suburbs to hurl themselves on my chest.

(My translation, with borrowings from Fowlie and Treharne).


L'Albatros (Charles Baudelaire)

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Que suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les goufres amers.

A peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comes des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, come it est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-guele,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au mileu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.


The Albatross

Often to pass the time on board, the crew
will catch an albatross, one of those big birds
which nonchalantly chaperone a ship
across the bitter fathoms of the sea.

Tied to the deck, this sovereign of space,
as if embarrassed by its clumsiness,
pitiably lets its great white wings
drag at its sides like a pair of unshipped oars.

How weak and awkward, even comical
this traveller but lately so adoit -
one deckhand sticks a pipestem in its beak,
another mocks the cripple that once flew!

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
riding the storm above the marksman's range;
exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,
he cannot walk because of his great wings.

(Tr. Richard Howard)


Bonus hippo poem by T.S. Eliot

Thorough annotation of the Eliot Hippo poem

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.....
(Eliot has been included for completeness, though he cannot be regarded as satisfying the 
requirements of my paradigm.)

I am emersonj at gmail dot com

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

Return to Idiocentrism