The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 7|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
The poet of the "Flowers of Evil" loved what is unwisely known as the style of the decadence, and which is no other thing than Art arrived at that point of extreme maturity that determines civilisations which have grown old; ingenious, complicated, clever, full of delicate tints and refinements, gathering all the delicacies of speech, borrowing from technical vocabularies, taking colour from every palette, tones from all musical instruments, forcing itself to the expression of the most elusive thoughts, contours vague and fleeting, listening to translate subtle confidences, confessions of depraved passions and the odd hallucinations of a fixed idea turning to madness.
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This style of the decadence is the "dernier mot" of Verbe, summoned to express all and to venture to the very extremes. One can recall, à propos of him, language already veined with the greenness of decomposition, savouring of the Lower Roman Empire and the complicated refinements of the Byzantine School, the last form of Greek Art fallen into deliquescence; but such is the necessary and fatal idiom of peoples and civilisations where an artificial life has replaced a natural one and developed in a man who does not know his own needs. It is not easy, moreover, this style condemned by pedants, for it expresses new ideas in new forms and words that have never been heard of before. Contrary to the classical style, it admits of backgrounds where the spectres of superstition, the haggard phantoms of dreams, the terrors of night, remorse which leaps out and falls back noiselessly, obscure fantasies that astonish the day, and all that the soul in its deepest depths and innermost caverns conceals of darkness, deformity, and horror, move together confusedly. One can well imagine that the fourteen hundred words of the dialect of Racine do not suffice an author who is given the difficult task of rendering modern ideas and things in all their infinite complexity and their diversity of colour.
Thus Baudelaire, who, despite his ill success at his baccalaureate examination, was a good Latinist, preferred undoubtedly, to Vergil and to Cicero, Apuleius, Juvenal, Saint Augustine, and Tertullian, whose style has the black radiance of ebony. He went even to the Latin of the Church, to hymns and chants in which the rhyme represents the old forgotten rhythm, and he has addressed, under the title of "Franciscæ meæ Laudes," "To an erudite and devotee," such are the terms of the dedication, a Latin poem rhymed in the form that Brizeux called ternary, which is composed of three rhymes following one another, instead of alternating as in the tiercet of Dante. To this odd piece of work is joined a note no less singular. We transcribe it here, for it explains and corroborates what has just been said about the idioms of the decadence:
"Does it not seem to the reader, as to me, that the language of the last Latin decadence—the supreme sigh of the strong man already transformed and prepared for the spiritual life—is singularly adequate to express the passion that is comprised in, and felt by, the modern world? Mysticism is the opposite pole on the compass of Catullus and his followers, purely cynical and superficial poets, who have only known the pole of sensuality. In this marvellous language, solecism and barbarism seem to me to express the negligences of a passion forgetful of itself and regardless of conventionality. The words, taken in a new acceptation, reveal the charming maladroitness of a northern barbarian kneeling before a Roman beauty. The pun itself, when it crosses pedantism, has it not the saving grace and irregularity of infancy?"
It is unnecessary to push this point further. Baudelaire, when he had not to express some curious deviation, some unknown side of the soul, employed pure, clear language, so correct and exact that even the most difficult to please would find nothing to complain of. This is especially noticeable in his prose writings, when he treats of more general and less abstruse subjects than in his verse.
With regard to his philosophical and literary tenets, they were those of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he had not then translated but whom he greatly admired. One can apply to him the phrases that he himself wrote of the American author in the preface to the "Extraordinary Histories":—"He considered progress, the great modern idea, as the ecstacy of fools, and he called the perfectionings of human habitations, scars and rectangular abominations. He believed only in the Immutable, the Eternal, the self-same, and he was in the possession of—cruel priviledge! in a society amorous only of itself—the great good sense of a Machiavelli who marches before the wise as a column of light across the desert of history."
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