The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 5|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris on April 21st, 1821, in an old turreted house, in the Rue Haute-feuille. He was the son of M. Baudelaire, the old friend of Condorcet and of Cabanis, a distinguished and well-educated man who retained the polished manners of the eighteenth century, which the pretentious tastes of the Republican era had not so entirely effaced as is sometimes thought. This characteristic was strong in the poet, who always retained the outward forms of courtesy.
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In his young days Baudelaire was in no way out of the ordinary, and neither did he gain many laurels at his college prize distributions. He even found the B.A. examination a great difficulty, and his degree was honorary. Troubled by abstract questions, this boy, so fine of spirit and keen of intelligence, appeared almost like an idiot. We have no intention of declaring this inaptitude as a sign of cleverness; but, under the eye of the pedagogue, often distrait and idle, or rather preoccupied, the real man is formed little by little, unperceived by masters or parents.
M. Baudelaire died, and his wife, Charle's mother, married General Aupick, who became Ambassador to Constantinople. Dissension soon arose in the family à propos of young Baudelaire's desire for a literary career. We think it wrong to reproach parents with the fears they manifest when the gift of poetry develops in their offspring. Alas! They are right. To what sad, precarious, and miserable existence does he vow himself—he who takes up a literary career? From that day he must consider himself cut off from human beings, active life; he no longer lives—he is the spectator of life. All sensation comes to him as motif for analysis. Involuntarily he develops two distinct personalities, and, lacking other subjects, one becomes the spy on the other. If he lack a corpse, he stretches himself on the slab of black marble and buries the scalpel deep in his own heart. And what desperate struggles must he endure with the Idea, that elusive Proteus, who takes all manner of forms to escape captivity, and who will only deliver his oracle when he has been forced to show himself in his true aspect! This Idea, when one holds it, frightened, trembling, vanquished, one must nourish, clothe, fold round in that robe so difficult to weave, to colour and to arrange in graceful curves. During this long-drawn-out task the nerves become irritable, the brain on fire, the sensibilities quickened, and then nervous disorder comes with all its odd anxieties, its unconscious hallucinations, its indefinable sufferings, its morbid capriciousness, its fantastic depravity, its infatuations and motiveless dislikes, its mad energy and nervous prostration, its searches for excitement and its disgust for all healthy nourishment.
We do not exaggerate the picture; but we have before us only the talented poets, crowned with glory, who have, at the last, succumbed on the breast of their ideal. What would it be if we went down into the Limbo where the shades of still-born children are wailing, like those abortive endeavors and larvæ of thought which can achieve neither wing nor form? Yes! Desire is not power, nor is Love possession!
Faith is not enough. Another gift is necessary. In literature, as in religion, work without grace is futile.
Although they do not suspect this region of anguish, for, to know it really, it is necessary to go down oneself, not under the guidance of a Vergil or a Dante, but under that of a Lousteau, or a Lucien de Rubempré, parents instinctively display the perils and sufferings of the artistic life in the endeavor to dissuade the children they love, and for for whom they desire one more happy and ordinarily human.
Once only since the earth has revolved round the sun have parents ardently wished to have a son's life dedicated to poetry. The child received the most brilliant literary education, and, with the irony of Fate, became Chapelain, the author of "La Pucelle"! and this, one might even say, was to play the sinister fortune!
To turn his stubborn ideas into another course, Baudelaire was made to travel. He was sent a great distance, embarking on a vessel, the captain of which took him to the Indian seas. He visited the Isles of Mauritius, Bourbon, Madagascar, Ceylon perhaps, and some parts of the "Isle of the Ganges"; but he would not, for all that, give up his intention of becoming a man of letters. They tried vainly to interest him in commerce, but a trade in cattle to feed Anglo-Indians on beefsteak had no attractions for him. All he retained of this voyage was a memory of great splendour which remained with him all his life. He gloried in a sky where brilliant constellations, unknown in Europe, were to be found; the magnificent vegetation with the exotic perfumes, the elegantly odd pagodas, the brown faces and the soft white draperies—all that in Nature was so warm, powerful, and full of colour.
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