A century of French poets: Charles Baudelaire, Page 2|
by Francis Yvon Eccles (1909).
For a short period Baudelaire's life now became more regular and his activity more fruitful. He was reconciled with his mother, General Aupick being dead. In spite of premature infirmities, his debts and the exactions of usurers, the bankruptcy of his publisher and the reluctance of editors to take the work of a poet who had appeared in the police-courts, he laboured courageously and produced no small quantity of prose and verse in the next four years. His wonderful Petits poèmes en prose, familiar, metaphysical, allegorical and grotesque, were printed in various reviews; he continued his translation of Poe, for whose hysterical genius he had so long felt a mysterious sympathy; he added some exquisite pieces to Les Fleurs du Mal in view of a second edition which eventually appeared in 1861; and he published a strange farrago called Les Paradis artificiels in 1859, founded largely on experiments with haschisch (a soporific decoction of Indian hemp) and the reading of De Quincey's Opium-Eater, which he partly translated. He distinguished himself also as one of the earliest champions of Richard Wagner; became interested in the grim talent of the well-known draughtsman and war correspondent Constantin Guys; wrote some valuable papers on contemporary poets which, after appearing in a review, were incorporated with Crépet's great historical anthology Les Poètes français; — and conceived the singular ambition of entering the French Academy. He was twice a candidate — the second time for the chair of Lacordaire! — but was persuaded on each occasion to withdraw; and the best result of this aberration was a brief but pleasant intercourse with Alfred de Vigny in his last days.
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Baudelaire's last books were translations of Poe which appeared in 1864 and 1865. In the former year he left Paris for Brussels with the idea of paying his debts by profits from lectures. His success as a lecturer on Gautier and Delacroix was short-lived; disagreements and misunderstandings with the agents left him penniless, hopeless and ailing. He founded new hopes on a book about Belgium, and took copious notes, and made many journeys up and down a country in which almost everything and every one exasperated him. His health broke down entirely; alcohol, narcotics and moral and material insulation did the rest. In the spring of 1866 he had a paralytic stroke in a church at Namur and was taken back, henceforth speechless, to Brussels. He lingered for more than a year, tenderly nursed by Madame Aupick, and died in a private hospital in Paris.
The miserable life of Baudelaire does not account for the sinister inspiration of Les Fleurs du Mal. But he was born with a fatal avidity for sensations, and an intense consciousness of being irremediably alone. Given his genius, the infirmity of his will, an idealism which excluded all compromise, refused to take life as it came and constantly confronted his failures with an heroical second self, the course he ran and the poetry he made seem both to proceed from these two unhappy distinctions. His irony and his cynicism — the armour he wore against the importunity of the self-complacent and the temptations of an easy expansiveness — hardly detract from the desperate sincerity which is the final impression of his verse. He made himself the centre of the world; but there was in him an aristocracy which forbade the mercenary sob, the disorder, the revolted egoism of the debased romantic temper.
Baudelaire was besieged by images of corruption and by a vision, partly a memory, of some material paradise; or rather, the sensation of death, the homesickness for an exotic bliss, are the poisonous excitants that continually sting all his faculties of perception at once — hearing, touch, smell as well as sight; and this is so rare among the poets that his merely visual power seems by comparison ordinary. The interchange of sensations with which Symbolism has made us familiar is a very frequent process of Baudelaire's: his authority with the Symbolists has been immense, in some degree through a real affinity (a common fastidium), more perhaps by accidental associations and actual misunderstanding: for his genius, upon the whole, is expressive rather than suggestive — he evokes the objects of sensation by naming them, rather than by naming other things; — and indeed we might go farther and say without much exaggeration that his art had many classical elements.
His verse (if we except what Gautier called his sonnets libertins) is scrupulously correct. In Les Fleurs du Mal the romantic type of Alexandrine is frequent, but it does not prevail: the rime is more often curious than rich: the general effects are solidity, logic, amplitude, volume, density. He loved long words; he used assonance before that subsidiary charm became common. Baudelaire belongs to the type of artists who conceive easily and bring forth with anguish. Hence a certain languor and oppressiveness, and the extreme importance of details: hence also, here and there, a formality which some critics have not hesitated to brand as prosaicism.
Baudelaire is morbid, if excessive unhappiness is morbidity. He is also virile. The two things must be conciliated somehow. The little Baudelairiens who have an itch to seem satanic take trouble to be morbid and (superfluously) to be epicene. Unhappy, and virile, and sincere, and an artist — but no epithets will serve to draw him from his insulation. One thing should be added — his inspiration is essentially Christian: only a believer can blaspheme.
Charles Baudelaire's works and translations fill six volumes (édition définitive — Calmann Lévy, 1868-1870). Many prose fragments, notably two curious diaries, are to be read in M. E. Crépet's Baudelaire Posthume, published in 1887. The poems excluded from Les Fleurs du Mal have been reprinted under the title Les Épaves.
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