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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)
 
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE was born in Paris in 1821; he died there in 1867. Between these dates lies the evolution of one of the most striking personalities in French literature, and the development of an influence which affected not only the literature of the poet’s own country, but that of all Europe and America. The genuineness of both personality and influence was one of the first critical issues raised after Baudelaire’s advent into literature; it is still one of the main issues in all critical consideration of him. A question which involves by implication the whole relation of poetry, and of art as such, to life, is obviously one that furnishes more than literary issues, and engages other than literary interests. And thus, by easy and natural corollaries, Baudelaire has been made a subject of appeal not only to judgment, but even to conscience. At first sight, therefore, he appears surrounded either by an intricate moral maze, or by a no less troublesome confusion of contradictory theories from opposing camps rather than schools of criticism. But no author—no dead author—is more accessible, or more communicable in his way; his poems, his theories, and a goodly portion of his life, lie at the disposition of any reader who cares to know him.  1
  The Baudelaire legend, as it is called by French critics, is one of the blooms of that romantic period of French literature which is presided over by the genius of Théophile Gautier. Indeed, it is against the golden background of Gautier’s imagination that the picture of the youthful poet is best preserved for us, appearing in all the delicate and illusive radiance of the youth and beauty of legendary saints on the gilded canvases of mediæval art. The radiant youth and beauty may be no more truthful to nature than the gilded background, but the fact of the impression sought to be conveyed is not on that account to be disbelieved.  2
  Baudelaire, Gautier writes, was born in the Rue Hautefeuille, in one of those old houses with a pepper-pot turret at the corner which have disappeared from the city under the advancing improvement of straight lines and clear openings. His father, a gentleman of learning, retained all the eighteenth-century courtesy and distinction of manner, which, like the pepper-pot turret, has also disappeared under the advance of Republican enlightenment. An absent-minded, reserved child, Baudelaire attracted no especial attention during his school days. When they were over, his predilection for a literary vocation became known. From this his parents sought to divert him by sending him to travel. He voyaged through the Indian Ocean, visiting the great islands: Madagascar, Ceylon, Mauritius, Bourbon. Had there been a chance for irresolution in the mind of the youth, this voyage destroyed it forever. His imagination, essentially exotic, succumbed to the passionate charm of a new, strange, and splendidly glowing form of nature; the stars, the skies, the gigantic vegetation, the color, the perfumes, the dark-skinned figures in white draperies, formed for him at that time a heaven, for which his senses unceasingly yearned afterwards amid the charms and enchantments of civilization, in the world’s capital of pleasure and luxury. Returning to Paris, of age and master of his fortune, he established himself in his independence, openly adopting his chosen career.  3
  He and Théophile Gautier met for the first time in 1849, in the Hotel Pimodau, where were held the meetings of the Hashish Club. Here in the great Louis XIV. saloon, with its wood-work relieved with dull gold; its corbeled ceiling, painted after the manner of Lesueur and Poussin, with satyrs pursuing nymphs through reeds and foliage; its great red and white spotted marble mantel, with gilded elephant harnessed like the elephant of Porus in Lebrun’s picture, bearing an enameled clock with blue ciphers; its antique chairs and sofas, covered with faded tapestry representing hunting scenes, holding the reclining figures of the members of the club; women celebrated in the world of beauty, men in the world of letters, meeting not only for the enjoyment of the artificial ecstasies of the drug, but to talk of art, literature, and love, as in the days of the Decameron—here Baudelaire made what might be called his historic impression upon literature. He was at that time twenty-eight years of age; and even in that assemblage, in those surroundings, his personality was striking. His black hair, worn close to the head, grew in regular scallops over a forehead of dazzling whiteness; his eyes, the color of Spanish tobacco, were spiritual, deep, penetrating, perhaps too insistently so, in expression; the mobile sinuous mouth had the ironical voluptuous lips that Leonardo da Vinci loved to paint; the nose was delicate and sensitive, with quivering nostrils; a deep dimple accentuated the chin; the bluish-black tint of the shaven skin, softened with rice-powder, contrasted with the clear rose and white of the upper part of his cheeks. Always dressed with meticulous neatness and simplicity, following English rather than French taste; in manner punctiliously observant of the strictest conventionality, scrupulously, even excessively polite; in talk measuring his phrases, using only the most select terms, and pronouncing certain words as if the sound itself possessed a certain subtle, mystical value,—throwing his voice into capitals and italics;—in contrast with the dress and manners about him, he, according to Gautier, looked like a dandy who had strayed into Bohemia.  4
  The contrast was no less violent between Baudelaire’s form and the substance of his conversation. With a simple, natural, and perfectly impartial manner, as if he were conveying commonplace information about everyday life, he would advance some axiom monstrously Satanic, or sustain, with the utmost grace and coolness, some mathematical extravagance in the way of a theory. And no one could so inflexibly push a paradox to the uttermost limits, regardless of consequences to received notions of morality or religion; always employing the most rigorous methods of logic and reason. His wit was found to lie neither in words nor thoughts, but in the peculiar standpoint from which he regarded things, a standpoint which altered their outlines,—like those of objects looked down upon from a bird’s flight, or looked up to on a ceiling. In this way, to continue the exposition of Gautier, Baudelaire saw relations inappreciable to others, whose logical bizarrerie was startling.  5
  His first productions were critical articles for the Parisian journals; articles that at the time passed unperceived, but which to-day furnish perhaps the best evidences of that keen artistic insight and foresight of the poet, which was at once his greatest good and evil genius. In 1856 appeared his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; a translation which may be said to have naturalized Poe in French literature, where he has played a rôle curiously like that of Baudelaire in Poe’s native literature. The natural predisposition of Baudelaire, which fitted him to be the French interpreter of Poe, rendered him also peculiarly sensitive to Poe’s mysteriously subtle yet rankly vigorous charms; and he showed himself as sensitively responsive to these as he had been to the exotic charms of the East. The influence upon his intellectual development was decisive and final. His indebtedness to Poe, or it might better be said, his identification with Poe, is visible not only in his paradoxical manias, but in his poetry, and in his theories of art and poetry set forth in his various essays and fugitive prose expressions, and notably in his introduction to his translations of the American author’s works.  6
  In 1857 appeared the “Fleurs du Mal” (Flowers of Evil), the volume of poems upon which Baudelaire’s fame as a poet is founded. It was the result of his thirty years’ devotion to the study of his art and meditation upon it. Six of the poems were suppressed by the censor of the Second Empire. This action called out, in form of protest, that fine appreciation and defense of Baudelaire’s genius and best defense of his methods, by four of the foremost critics and keenest artists in poetry of Paris, which form, with the letters from Sainte-Beuve, de Custine, and Deschamps, a precious appendix to the third edition of the poems.  7
  The name ‘Flowers of Evil’ is a sufficient indication of the intentions and aim of the author. Their companions in the volume are: ‘Spleen and Ideal,’ ‘Parisian Pictures,’ ‘Wine,’ ‘Revolt,’ ‘Death.’ The simplest description of them is that they are indescribable. They must not only be read, they must be studied repeatedly to be understood as they deserve. The paradox of their most exquisite art, and their at times most revolting revelations of the degradations and perversities of humanity, can be accepted with full appreciation of the author’s meaning only by granting the same paradox to his genuine nature; by crediting him with being not only an ardent idealist of art for art’s sake, but an idealist of humanity for humanity’s sake; one to whom humanity, even in its lowest degradations and vilest perversions, is sublimely sacred;—one to whom life offered but one tragedy, that of human souls flying like Cain from a guilt-stricken paradise, but pursued by the remorse of innocence, and scourged by the consciousness of their own infinitude.  8
  But the poet’s own words are the best explanation of his aim and intention:—
          “Poetry, though one delve ever so little into his own self, interrogate his own soul, recall his memories of enthusiasms, has no other end than itself; it cannot have any other aim, and no poem will be so great, so noble, so truly worthy of the name of poem, as that which shall have been written solely for the pleasure of writing a poem. I do not wish to say that poetry should not ennoble manners—that its final result should not be to raise man above vulgar interests. That would be an evident absurdity. I say that if the poet has pursued a moral end, he has diminished his poetic force, and it would not be imprudent to wager that his work would be bad. Poetry cannot, under penalty of death or forfeiture, assimilate itself to science or morality. It has not Truth for object, it has only itself. Truth’s modes of demonstration are different and elsewhere. Truth has nothing to do with ballads; all that constitutes the charm, the irresistible grace of a ballad, would strip Truth of its authority and power. Cold, calm, impassive, the demonstrative temperament rejects the diamonds and flowers of the muse; it is, therefore, the absolute inverse of the poetic temperament. Pure Intellect aims at Truth, Taste shows us Beauty, and the Moral Sense teaches us Duty. It is true that the middle term has intimate connection with the two extremes, and only separates itself from Moral Sense by a difference so slight that Aristotle did not hesitate to class some of its delicate operations amongst the virtues. And accordingly what, above all, exasperates the man of taste is the spectacle of vice, is its deformity, its disproportions. Vice threatens the just and true, and revolts intellect and conscience; but as an outrage upon harmony, as dissonance, it would particularly wound certain poetic minds, and I do not think it would be scandal to consider all infractions of moral beauty as a species of sin against rhythm and universal prosody.
  “It is this admirable, this immortal instinct of the Beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its spectacle as a sketch, as a correspondent of Heaven. The insatiable thirst for all that is beyond that which life veils is the most living proof of our immortality. It is at once by poetry and across it, across and through music, that the soul gets a glimpse of the splendors that lie beyond the tomb. And when an exquisite poem causes tears to rise in the eye, these tears are not the proof of excessive enjoyment, but rather the testimony of a moved melancholy, of a postulation of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect, which wishes to take immediate possession, even on earth, of a revealed paradise.
  “Thus the principle of poetry is strictly and simply human aspiration toward superior beauty; and the manifestation of this principle is enthusiasm and uplifting of the soul,—enthusiasm entirely independent of passion,—which is the intoxication of heart, and of truth which is the food of reason. For passion is a natural thing, even too natural not to introduce a wounding, discordant tone into the domain of pure beauty; too familiar, too violent, not to shock the pure Desires, the gracious Melancholies, and the noble Despairs which inhabit the supernatural regions of poetry.”
  9
  Baudelaire saw himself as the poet of a decadent epoch, an epoch in which art had arrived at the over-ripened maturity of an aging civilization; a glowing, savorous, fragrant over-ripeness, that is already softening into decomposition. And to be the fitting poet of such an epoch, he modeled his style on that of the poets of the Latin decadence; for, as he expressed it for himself and for the modern school of “decadents” in French poetry founded upon his name:—
          “Does it not seem to the reader, as to me, that the language of the last Latin decadence—that supreme sigh of a robust person already transformed and prepared for spiritual life—is singularly fitted to express passion as it is understood and felt by the modern world? Mysticism is the other end of the magnet of which Catullus and his band, brutal and purely epidermic poets, knew only the sensual pole. In this wonderful language, solecisms and barbarisms seem to express the forced carelessness of a passion which forgets itself, and mocks at rules. The words, used in a novel sense, reveal the charming awkwardness of a barbarian from the North, kneeling before Roman Beauty.”
  10
  Nature, the nature of Wordsworth and Tennyson, did not exist for Baudelaire; inspiration he denied; simplicity he scouted as an anachronism in a decadent period of perfected art, whose last word in poetry should be the apotheosis of the Artificial. “A little charlatanism is permitted even to genius,” he wrote: “it is like fard on the cheeks of a naturally beautiful woman; an appetizer for the mind.” Again he expresses himself:
          “It seems to me, two women are presented to me, one a rustic matron, repulsive in health and virtue, without manners, without expression; in short, owing nothing except to simple nature;—the other, one of those beauties that dominate and oppress memory, uniting to her original and unfathomable charms all the eloquence of dress; who is mistress of her part, conscious of and queen of herself, speaking like an instrument well tuned; with looks freighted with thought, yet letting flow only what she would. My choice would not be doubtful; and yet there are pedagogic sphinxes who would reproach me as recreant to classical honor.”
  11
  In music it was the same choice. He saw the consummate art and artificiality of Wagner, and preferred it to all other music, at a time when the German master was ignored and despised by a classicized musical world. In perfumes it was not the simple fragrance of the rose or violet that he loved, but musk and amber; and he said, “my soul hovers over perfumes as the souls of other men hover over music.”  12
  Besides his essays and sketches, Baudelaire published in prose a novelette; ‘Fanfarlo,’ ‘Artificial Paradises,’ opium and hashish, imitations of De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’; and ‘Little Prose Poems,’ also inspired by a book, the ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ of Aloysius Bertrand, and which Baudelaire thus describes:—
          “The idea came to me to attempt something analogous, and to apply to the description of modern life, or rather a modern and more abstract life, the methods he had applied to the painting of ancient life, so strangely picturesque. Which one of us in his ambitious days has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, and to the assaults of conscience?”
  13
  Failing health induced Baudelaire to quit Paris and establish himself in Brussels; but he received no benefit from the change of climate, and the first symptoms of his terrible malady manifested themselves—a slowness of speech, and hesitation over words. As a slow and sententious enunciation was characteristic of him, the symptoms attracted no attention, until he fell under a sudden and violent attack. He was brought back to Paris and conveyed to a “maison de santé,” where he died, after lingering several months in a paralyzed condition, motionless, speechless; nothing alive in him but thought, seeking to express itself through his eyes.  14
  The nature of Baudelaire’s malady and death was, by the public at large, accepted as confirmation of the suspicion that he was in the habit of seeking his inspiration in the excitation of hashish and opium. His friends, however, recall the fact of his incessant work, and intense striving after his ideal in art; his fatigue of body and mind, and his increasing weariness of spirit under the accumulating worries and griefs of a life for which his very genius unfitted him. He was also known to be sober in his tastes, as all great workers are. That he had lent himself more than once to the physiological and psychological experiment of hashish was admitted; but he was a rare visitor at the séances in the saloon of the Hotel Pimodau, and came as a simple observer of others. His masterly description of the hallucinations produced by hashish is accompanied by analytical and moral commentaries which unmistakably express repugnance to and condemnation of the drug:—
          “Admitting for the moment,” he writes, “the hypothesis of a constitution tempered enough and strong enough to resist the evil effects of the perfidious drug, another, a fatal and terrible danger, must be thought of,—that of habit. He who has recourse to a poison to enable him to think, will soon not be able to think without the poison. Imagine the horrible fate of a man whose paralyzed imagination is unable to work without the aid of hashish or opium…. But man is not so deprived of honest means of gaining heaven, that he is obliged to invoke the aid of pharmacy or witchcraft; he need not sell his soul in order to pay for the intoxicating caresses and the love of houris. What is a paradise that one purchases at the expense of one’s own soul?… Unfortunate wretches who have neither fasted nor prayed, and who have refused the redemption of labor, ask from black magic the means to elevate themselves at a single stroke to a supernatural existence. Magic dupes them, and lights for them a false happiness and a false light; while we, poets and philosophers, who have regenerated our souls by incessant work and contemplation, by the assiduous exercise of the will and permanent nobility of intention, we have created for our use a garden of true beauty. Confiding in the words that ‘faith will remove mountains,’ we have accomplished the one miracle for which God has given us license.”
  15
  The perfect art-form of Baudelaire’s poems makes translation of them indeed a literal impossibility. The ‘Little Old Women,’ ‘The Voyage,’ ‘The Voyage to Cytherea,’ ‘A Red-haired Beggar-girl,’ ‘The Seven Old Men,’ and sonnet after sonnet in ‘Spleen and Ideal,’ seem to rise only more and more ineffable from every attempt to filter them through another language, or through another mind than that of their original, and, it would seem, one possible creator.  16
 
 
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