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Some French Writers: Baudelaire; The Man, Page 4
by Edward Delille (1893).

Asselineau's account of the covert pride and joy with which Baudelaire, shortly after 1848, showed him the entire MS. of the Fleurs beautifully copied out and stitched into a neat binding, is not without its pathos. So much, these verses were to the poet, and so little — then — in the estimation of any one else! The hapless "Flowers" might, indeed, have never appeared in book form at all but for the happy chance of a man of literary taste, Poulet-Malassis, setting up as a publisher and at once bringing out works by Gautier, Banville, Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle. Needless to say the greatly daring Malassis became eventually a bankrupt. Proper punishment for a man who had actually tried to foist on the public productions of the highest literary art, instead of novels by Alexander Dumas père, Octave Feuillet, or Eugène Suë!

Persons who delight in discreditable reports concerning men of letters — whether false or true makes little matter — have read with pleasure in the biography of Baudelaire by M. E. Crépet, published not long since in Paris, that the poet played a not quite admirable part amidst the general agitation of the 1848 revolutionary period. Was it rationally to be expected that a writer, a poet, who for years previously — through the strain of his art no less than owing to the circumstances of his life — had been taxing to the utmost a nervous system naturally delicate and irritable, would upon an occasion of sudden, unforeseen excitement display the soldier-like calm of a Wellington on the field of battle? Had Wellington been placed abruptly in the position of having to write half a dozen pieces of the Fleurs du Mal or a series of Petits Poèmes en Prose, it is probable that he, too, would have cut a somewhat sorry figure. But, of course, to exact grapes from thorns and figs from oak-trees will, one supposes, remain a favourite amusement of humanity in the future as it always has been in the past.

The years immediately following 1848 saw a somewhat different Baudelaire, physically, from the slender Brummel-like youth with full black locks and half -grown black beard of 1840. Stouter, with hair cropped close, shaven cheeks, and small, somewhat snaky black moustache, the poet, wearing a white blouse and living somewhere in the outskirts of the capital, presented an appearance less poetic though perhaps more revolutionary. Baudelaire's republicanism, however, did not long endure. The Second Empire, to which he was the sooner reconciled by reason of his clear perception of, and extreme contempt, for, the democratic fallacy that men in general are units equal and identical in value, aroused in him but little of Victor Hugo's Jovian wrath. He had not, by-the-bye, any of the great poet-politician's personal motives for rage and hatred; no special reason for detesting a régime, whose initial crime in M. Hugo's eyes was doubtless its not having set a high enough price upon the suggested if not exactly proffered services of M. Hugo.

Only in resentment of the judicial sentence pronounced in 1857 against his Fleurs du Mal, might Baudelaire have been stimulated to launch a Châtiments of his own. That the six pieces of verse condemned by the Paris Courts were of a nature actually and truly immoral, none knew better than their author. This appears from a passage in his posthumously published diary, where he speaks of "ce livre atroce." The great subject for regret must be that these six pieces were not "condemned" by Baudelaire himself the moment after he had written them. Artistically, as well as morally, they are a blot upon the ensemble of the Fleurs du Mal. Conceived in a different spirit, they are expressed in a different tone. Bad morality, in the last resort (and in a very different sense from that of the Philistine "moralists," who with characteristic thickness of thought are always confounding the merely unpleasant with the obscene) must be necessarily bad art. In other words, any sentiment base and turbid in itself cannot take on a pure and beautiful artistic expression. All which art touches, art ennobles and refines; that which is not susceptible of being touched by art is of itself ignoble, and remains so.

There is in every man of genius a potential if not actual criminal, as every introspective man of genius well knows. The great thing is not to let the criminal get the upper hand. Baudelaire let loose the criminal too often. Too often he played the part of Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. And a very lamentable Hyde it is, a dejected and sinister figure, worn and wasted at little more than forty, the shaven haggard face wrinkled, the dark eyes feverishly shining, the neglected locks thin and long and grey, the general attire loose and shabby (shabby, the dandy of early days!) that we behold haunting balls such as that erstwhile odious Casino in the Rue Cadet, and there conversing in cynical callous strain with professional habituées of the place; wishing still to produce effets de surprise as the man of genius unrecognised, and flying into a fit of "neurasthenic" rage when a "lady" of somewhat more literary turn than the rest confesses acquaintance with but one poet, and that poet — not Baudelaire, but Baudelaire's pet abomination the elegiac Alfred de Musset. Poor Musset! Poor Baudelaire! Poor "lady!" Amazing world!


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