The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 12|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
"Élévation" shows us the poet floating in the sky, beyond the starry spheres; in the luminous ether; on the confines of our universe; disappearing into the depths of infinity like a tiny cloud; intoxicating himself with that rare and salubrious air where there are none of the miasmas pertaining to the earth and only the pure ether breathed by the angels. We must not forget that Baudelaire, although he has often been accused of materialism, and reproached for expending his talent upon doubtful subjects, is, on the contrary, endowed in a large degree with the great gift of spirituality, as Swedenborg said. He also possesses the power of correspondence, to employ a mystical idiom; that is to say, he knows how to discover by secret intuition the unexpressed feelings of others, and how to approach them, by those unexpected analogies that only the far-sighted are able to seize upon. Each poet has this power more or less developed, which is the very essence of his art.
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Undoubtedly Baudelaire, in this book dedicated to the painting of depravity and modern perversity, has framed repugnant pictures, where vice is laid bare to wallow in all the ugliness of its shame; but the poet, with supreme contempt, scornful indignation, and a constant recurrence towards the ideal which is so often lacking in satirical writers, stigmatises and marks with an indelible red iron the unhealthy flesh, plastered with unguents and white lead.
In no part is the thirst for pure air, the immaculate whiteness of the Himalayan snows, the azure without blot, the unfading light, more strong and ardent than in the poems that have been termed immoral, as if the flagellation of vice was vice itself, and as if one is a poisoner for having written of the poisonous pharmacy of the Borgia. This method is by no means new, but it thrives always, and certain people pretend to believe that one cannot read the "Flowers of Evil" except with a glass mask, such as Exili wore when he worked at the famous powder of succession.
We have read Baudelaire's poems often, and we are not struck dead with convulsed face and blackened body, as though we had supped with Vanozza in a vineyard of Pope Alexander VI. All such foolishness—unfortunately detrimental, for all the fools enthusiastically adopt that attitude—would make any artist worthy of the name but shrug his shoulders when told that blue is moral and scarlet immoral. It is rather as if one said: "The potato is virtuous, henbane is criminal."
A charming poem on perfumes classifies them, rousing ideas, sensations, and memories. Some are fresh, like the flesh of an infant, green like the fields in spring, recalling the blush of dawn and carrying with them the thoughts of innocence. Others, like musk, amber, benzoin, nard, and incense, are superb, triumphant, worldly, and provoke coquetry, love, luxury, festivities, and splendours. If one transposed them into the sphere of colours, they would represent gold and purple. The poet often recurs to this idea of the significance of perfumes. Surrounding a tawny beauty from the Cape, who seemed to have a mission for sleeping off home sickness, he spoke of this mixed odour "of musk and havana" which transported her soul to the well-loved lands of the Sun, where the leaves of the palm-trees make fans in the blue and tepid air, where the masts of the ships sway harmoniously to the roll of the sea, while the silent slaves try to distract their young master from his languishing melancholy. Further on, wondering what will remain of his work, he compares himself to an old flagon, forgotten amongst the spider-webs, at the bottom of some cupboard in a deserted house.
From the open cupboard comes the mustiness of the past, feeble perfumes of robes, laces, powder-boxes, which revive memories of old loves and antiquated elegance; and, if by chance one uncorks a rancid and sticky phial, an acrid smell of English salts and vinegar escapes, a powerful antidote to the modern pestilence.
In many a passage this preoccupation with aroma appears, surrounding with a subtle cloud all persons and things. In very few of the poets do we find this care. Generally they are content with putting light, colour, and music in their verses; but it is rare that they pour in that drop of pure essence with which Baudelaire's muse never failed to moisten the sponge or the cambric of his handkerchief.
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