Gautier’s Hippo, Baudelaire’s Albatross, Rimbaud’s Dancing Bear: Oafishness in Poetry

Théophile Gautier, the Parnassian poet 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 Gautier has been 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. 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.

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 at and jeered, he cannot walk because of his great wings”) and Rimbaud’s albatross,big bear with purple gums, and braying ass running through the fields. I conclude that there is some kind of dialectical relationship between social awkwardness and poetry.


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 there and looks right at you.
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.

Théophile Gautier, Poésies Diverses, 1833-1838


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 flaming aquarium)…. In the morning – a battling June dawn – I ran through the fields, an ass, braying, brandishing my grievance, until the Sabines came from the outskirts to hurl themselves on my chest.

–Arthur Rimbaud

Often the crew, to pass the time on board,
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 adroit –
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)

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. –author unknown


T.S. Eliot’s bonus hippo poem is included here as a companion to the Gautier poem, though Eliot was not an oaf, but a “slicker” (cf. F Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise):

by: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
HE broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

Gautier, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire


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.

— Théophile Gautier


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.

— Arthur Rimbaud


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.

–Charles Baudelaire