Read One of Cleopatra's Nights Online

Authors: Théophile Gautier

One of Cleopatra's Nights

BOOK: One of Cleopatra's Nights
* * *
Translated by
One of Cleopatra's Nights
And Other Fantastic Romances
First published in 1838
ISBN 978-1-62012-864-0
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.

The love that caught strange light from death's own eyes,
And filled death's lips with fiery words and sighs,
And, half asleep, let feed from veins of his
Her close, red, warm snake's-mouth, Egyptian-wise:

And that great night of love more strange than this,
When she that made the whole world's bale and bliss
Made king of the whole world's desire a slave
And killed him in mid-kingdom with a kiss.


Memorial verses on the death of Théophile Gautier

To the Reader

The stories composing this volume have been selected for translation
from the two volumes of romances and tales by Théophile Gautier
respectively entitled
Romans et Contes
. They afford in
the original many excellent examples of that peculiar beauty of fancy
and power of painting with words which made Gautier the most brilliant
literary artist of his time. No doubt their warmth of coloring has been
impoverished and their fantastic enchantment weakened by the process of
transformation into a less voluptuous tongue; yet enough of the original
charm remains, we trust, to convey a just idea of the French author's
rich imaginative power and ornate luxuriance of style.

The verses of Swinburne referring to the witchery of the novelette which
opens the volume, and to the peculiarly sweet and strange romance which
follows, sufficiently indicate the extraordinary art of these tales. At
least three of the stories we have attempted to translate rank among the
most remarkable literary productions of the century.

These little romances are characterized, however, by merits other than
those of mere literary workmanship; they are further remarkable for a
wealth of erudition—picturesque learning, we might say—which often
lends them an actual archæologic value, like the paintings of some
scholarly artist, some Alma Tadema, who with fair magic of
color-blending evokes for us eidolons of ages vanished and civilizations
passed away.

Thus one finds in the delightful fantasy of
Arria Marcella
not only a
dream of "Pompeiian Days," pictured with an idealistic brilliancy beyond
the art of Coomans, but a rich knowledge, likewise, of all that
fascinating lore gleaned by antiquarian research amid the ashes of the
sepultured city—a knowledge enriched in no small degree by local study,
and presented with a descriptive power finely strengthened by personal
observation. It is something more than the charming imagination of a
poetic dreamer which paints for us the blue sea "unrolling its long
volutes of foam" upon a beach as black and smooth as sifted charcoal;
the fissured summit of Vesuvius, out-pouring white threads of smoke from
its crannies "as from the orifices of a perfuming pan;" and the
far-purple hills "with outlines voluptuously undulating, like the hips
of a woman."

And throughout these romances one finds the same evidences of
archæologic study, of artistic observation, of imagination fostered by
picturesque fact. The glory of the Greek kings of Lydia glows goldenly
again in the pages of
Le Roi Candaule
; the massive gloom and
melancholy weirdness of ancient Egypt is reflected as in a necromancer's
mirror throughout
Une Nuit de Cléopâtre
. It is in the Egyptian
fantasies, perhaps, that the author's peculiar descriptive skill appears
to most advantage; the still fresh hues of the hierophantic paintings,
the pictured sarcophagi, and the mummy-gilding seem to meet the reader's
eye with the gratification of their bright contrasts; a faint perfume
of unknown balm seems to hover over the open pages; and mysterious
sphinxes appear to look on "with that undefinable rose-granite smile
that mocks our modern wisdom."

La Morte Amoureuse,
the stories selected for
translation are mostly antique in composition and coloring; the former
being Louis-Quinze, the latter mediæval rather than aught else. But all
alike frame some exquisite delineation of young love-fancies; some
admirable picture of what Gautier in the
Histoire du Romantisme
prettily termed "the graceful
that haunt the happy slumbers of

And what dreamful student of the Beautiful has not been once enamoured
of an Arria Marcella, and worshipped on the altar of his heart those
ancient gods "who loved life and youth and beauty and pleasure"? How
many a lover of mediæval legend has in fancy gladly bartered the blood
of his veins for some phantom Clarimonde? What true artist has not at
some time been haunted by the image of a Nyssia, fairer than all
daughters of men, lovelier than all fantasies realized in stone—a
Pygmalion-wrought marble transmuted by divine alchemy to a being of
opalescent flesh and ichor-throbbing veins?

Gautier was an artist in the common acceptation of the term, as well as
a poet and a writer of romance; and in those pleasant fragments of
autobiography scattered through the
Histoire du Romantisme
we find his
averment that at the commencement of the Romantic movement of 1830 he
was yet undecided whether to adopt literature or art as a profession;
but, finding it "easier to paint with words than with colors," he
finally decided upon the pen as his weapon in the new warfare against
"the hydra of classicism with its hundred peruked heads." As a writer,
however, he remained the artist still. His pages were pictures, his
sentences touches of color; he learned, indeed, to "paint with words" as
no other writer of the century has done; and created a powerful
impression, not only upon the literature of his day, but even, it may be
said, upon the language of his nation.

Possessed of an almost matchless imaginative power, and a sense of
beauty as refined as that of an antique sculptor, Gautier so perfects
his work as to leave nothing for the imagination of his readers to
desire. He insists that they should behold the author's fancy precisely
as the author himself fancied it with all its details; the position of
objects, the effects of light, the disposition of shadow, the material
of garments, the texture of stuffs, the interstices of stonework, the
gleam of a lamp upon sharp angles of furniture, the whispering sound of
trailing silk, the tone of a voice, the expression of a face—all is
visible, audible, tangible. You can find nothing in one of his
picturesque scenes which has not been treated with a studied accuracy of
minute detail that leaves no vacancy for the eye to light upon, no
hiatus for the imagination to supply. This is the art of painting
carried to the highest perfection in literature. It is not wonderful
that such a man should at times sacrifice style to description; and he
has himself acknowledged an occasional abuse of violent coloring.

Naturally, a writer of this kind pays small regard to the demands of
prudery. His work being that of the artist, he claims the privilege of
the sculptor and the painter in delineations of the beautiful. A perfect
human body is to him the most beautiful of objects. He does not seek to
veil its loveliness with cumbrous drapery; he delights to behold it and
depict it in its "divine nudity;" he views it with the eyes of the
Corinthian statuary or the Pompeiian fresco-painter; he idealizes even
the ideal of beauty: under his treatment flesh becomes diaphanous, eyes
are transformed to orbs of prismatic light, features take tints of
celestial loveliness. Like the Hellenic sculptor, he is not satisfied
with beauty of form alone, but must add a vital glow of delicate
coloring to the white limbs and snowy bosom of marble.

It is the artist, therefore, who must judge of Gautier's creations. To
the lovers of the loveliness of the antique world, the lovers of
physical beauty and artistic truth, of the charm of youthful dreams and
young passion in its blossoming, of poetic ambitions and the sweet
pantheism that finds all Nature vitalized by the Spirit of the
Beautiful—to such the first English version of these graceful fantasies
is offered in the hope that it may not be found wholly unworthy of the



One of Cleopatra's Nights
Chapter I

Nineteen hundred years ago from the date of this writing, a
magnificently gilded and painted cangia was descending the Nile as
rapidly as fifty long, flat oars, which seemed to crawl over the
furrowed water like the legs of a gigantic scarabæus, could impel it.

This cangia was narrow, long, elevated at both ends in the form of a new
moon, elegantly proportioned, and admirably built for speed; the figure
of a ram's head, surmounted by a golden globe, armed the point of the
prow, showing that the vessel belonged to some personage of royal

In the centre of the vessel arose a flat-roofed cabin—a sort of
or tent of honor—colored and gilded, ornamented with palm-leaf
mouldings, and lighted by four little square windows.

Two chambers, both decorated with hieroglyphic paintings, occupied the
horns of the crescent. One of them, the larger, had a second story of
lesser height built upon it, like the
châteaux gaillards
of those
fantastic galleys of the sixteenth century drawn by Della-Bella; the
other and smaller chamber, which also served as a pilot-house, was
surmounted with a triangular pediment.

In lieu of a rudder, two immense oars, adjusted upon stakes decorated
with stripes of paint, which served in place of our modern row-locks,
extended into the water in rear of the vessel like the webbed feet of a
swan; heads crowned with
, and bearing the allegorical horn
upon their chins, were sculptured upon the handles of these huge oars,
which were manoeuvred by the pilot as he stood upon the deck of the
cabin above.

He was a swarthy man, tawny as new bronze, with bluish surface gleams
playing over his dark skin; long oblique eyes, hair deeply black and
all plaited into little cords, full lips, high cheek-bones, ears
standing out from the skull—the Egyptian type in all its purity. A
narrow strip of cotton about his loins, together with five or six
strings of glass beads and a few amulets, comprised his whole costume.

He appeared to be the only one on board the cangia; for the rowers
bending over their oars, and concealed from view by the gunwales, made
their presence known only through the symmetrical movements of the oars
themselves, which spread open alternately on either side of the vessel,
like the ribs of a fan, and fell regularly back into the water after a
short pause.

Not a breath of air was stirring; and the great triangular sail of the
cangia, tied up and bound to the lowered mast with a silken cord,
testified that all hope of the wind rising had been abandoned.

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