The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 11|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
Baudelaire's reputation, which during some years had not extended beyond the limits of the little circle who rallied round the new poet, widened suddenly when he presented himself to the public holding in his hand the bouquet of the "Flowers of Evil," a bouquet which in no way resembled the innocent posy of the débutante. Some of the poems were so subtly suggestive, yet so abstruse and eveloped with the forms and veils of Art, that the athorities demanded that they should be withdrawn and replaced by others of less dangerous eccentricity before the book could be comprised in libraries. Ordinarily, there is no great excitement about a book of verses; they are born, live, and die in silence; for two or three poets suffice for our intellectual consummation.
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In the excitement, rumour, and allayed scandal which surrounded Baudelaire, it was recognised that he had given the public, which is a rare occurrence, original work of a peculiar savour. To create in the public a new sensation is the greatest joy that can happen to a writer, and especially to a poet.
"Flowers of Evil" was one of those happy titles that are more difficult to find than is generally imagined. He summed up in a brief and poetical form the general idea of the book and indicated its tendencies. Although it was evidently romantic in intention and composition, it was impossible, by even ever so frail a thread, to connect Baudelaire with any one of the great masters of that particular school. His verses, refined and subtle in structure, encasing the subjects dealt with so closely as to resemble armour rather than clothing, at first appeared difficult and obscure. This feeling was caused, not through any fault of the author, but from the novelty of the things he expressed—things that had not before been made vocal. It was part of Baudelaire's doctrine that, to attain his end, a poet must invent language and rhythm for himself. But he could not prevent surprise on the part of the reader when confronted with verse so different from any he had read before. In painting the evils which horrified him, Baudelaire knew how to find the morbidly rich tints of decomposition, the tones of mother-of-pearl which freeze stagnant waters, the roses of consumption, the pallor of chlorosis, the hateful bilious yellows, the leaden grey of pestilential fogs, the poisoned and metallic greens smelling of sulphide of arsenic, the blackness of smoke diluted by the rain on plaster walls, the bitumens baked and browned in the depths of hell; and all that gamut of intensified colours, correspondent to autumn, to the setting of the sun, to over-ripe fruit, and the last hours of civilisation.
The book is opened by a poem to the reader, whom the poet does not attempt to cajole, as is usual, and to whom he tells the absolute truth. He accuses him, in spite of all his hypocrisy, of having the vices for which he blames others, and of nourishing in his own heart that great modern monster, Ennui, who, with his bourgeois cowardice, dreams of the ferocity and debauches of the Romans, of bureaucrat Nero, and shop-keeper Heliogabalus.
One other poem, of great beauty, and entitled, undoubtedly by an ironical antiphrasis, "Benediction," depicts the coming of the poet to the world, an object of astonishment and aversion to his mother as a shameful offspring. We see him pursued by stupidity, envy, and sarcasm, a prey to the perfidious cruelty of some Delilah, happy in delivering him up to the Philistines, naked, disarmed, after having expended on him all the refinements of a ferocious coquetry. Then there is his arrival, after insults, miseries, tortures, purified in the crucible of sorrow, to eternal glory, to the crown of light destined for the heads of the martyrs who have suffered for Truth and Beauty.
One little poem which follows later, and which is entitled "Soleil," closes with a sort of tacit justification of the poet in his vagrant courses. A bright ray shines on the muddy town; the author is going out and runs through the unclean streets, the by-ways where the closed shutters hide indications of secret luxuries; all the black, damp, dirty labyrinths of old streets to the houses of the blind and leprous, where the light shines here and there on some window, on a pot of flowers, or on the head of a young girl. Is not the poet like the sun which alone enters everywhere, in the hospital as in the palace, in the hovel as in the church, always divine, letting his golden radiance fall on the carrion or on the rose?
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