Study in Hands

By Théophile Gautier 1811–1872 Theophile Gautier

Translated By Norman R. Shapiro

I saw a plaster hand, on view
In sculptor’s studio, set apart...
Aspasia’s? Cleopatra’s?... Who?
This fragment’s human work of art?
Like lily silvered by the dawn,
Frozen in kiss of snow, its light
Loveliness dazzled me, and shone
In poetry of purest white.
Though pallid, wan, yet striking, it
Spread over velvet, graceful, slender
Fingers—delicate, exquisite—
Decked thick with rings of weighty splendor.
Thumb high, in serpentine-like pose,
Arched in a svelte and shapely line,
It lay, fine set, like one of those
Hands held with proud air Florentine.
Did it comb out the sultan’s beard
On jeweled caftan? Or, with twirls
And twistings, when Don Juan appeared,
Play in his lustrous, glistening curls?
A courtesan’s? A queen’s? Did this
Wrought hand a scepter wield? Which one?
The paragon of fleshly bliss?
Sovereignty’s beauteous paragon?
Doubtless, by little starts and fits,
It lit, poised, in its fluttering,
On the she-lion croup of its
Chimera-dream, caught on the wing;
The Empire’s fantasies; bombastic
Love of fantastic, sumptuous schemes;
Voluptuous frenzies orgiastic;
Impossible and futile dreams;
Wild tales; poetic escapades
Of hashish, Rhine-wine sorcery;
Dashing Bohemian cavalcades
On steeds unbridled, coursing free...
Such are the things the eyes divines
In that white book, by Venus written:
Blank palm where she has traced the signs
One reads, a-tremble, terror-smitten.
Close by, in contrast, lying there,
Encushioned, was the severed hand—
Pungent-embalmed—of Lacenaire,
Assassin and scourge of the land;
Curio most depraved! But, though
Repulsed, I reached and touched it, still
Barely cleansed of its horrors! Oh!
That flesh, red-downed and deathly chill!
Sallow hand, like a mummy’s wrought,
All yellowed, laid-out pharaoh-wise,
Spreading its faun-like fingers, taut,
As if to seize its tempting prize;
Exuding from their tips, an itching
Lusting for living flesh and gold,
About to writhe, convulsed, and twitching
Before their victims, as of old.
Vice clawed vile hieroglyph designs
Of heinous wrongs—most foul, most fell—
In all its wrinkles, all its lines,
Signs that the executioner knew well!
One see its scabrous deeds large writ
In the palm’s bestial creases, and
The boiling cauldron scalding it
With every crime at sin’s command;
Capri’s debauches libertine,
Of fleshpot brothels orgy-rife
Stained through with blot of blood and wine
Like the old Caesar’s blasé life.
At once both soft and savage, its
Shape shows a curious elegance,
A fearsome grace that counterfeits
The gladiator’s graceful stance!
Crime’s aristocracy! No plane,
No hammer’s labors ever made
Its flesh tough time and time again!
Its only tool, the dagger-blade...
Work’s honest calluses! For you
We look in vain, no sign we see:
Evil’s false poet, butcher true—
A Manfred of the gutter, he!

Théophile Gautier, “Study in Hands” from Selected Lyrics, translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Copyright © 2011 by Norman R. Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Source: Selected Lyrics (Yale University Press, 2011)

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Poet Théophile Gautier 1811–1872


Subjects Living, The Body, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries

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French art critic, journalist, and fiction writer Théophile Gautier was born in 1811 and lived in Paris for most of his life. He attended the Collège Charlemagne, where he became friends with the poet Gérard de Nerval. Gautier was first interested in painting but turned to poetry and became an early proponent of Romanticism. With the publication of his first collection of poetry, Albertus (1832), and his novel Mademoiselle de . . .

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SUBJECT Living, The Body, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries


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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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