The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 14|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
From the depths of his fall, his errors, and his despairs, it is towards this celestial image, as towards the Madonna of Bon-Secours, that he extends his arms with cries, tears, and a profound contempt for himself. In his hours of loving melancholy it is always with her he wishes to fly away and hide his perfect happiness in some mysterious fairy refuge, some cottage of Gainsborough, some home of Gerard Dow, or, better still, some marble palace of Benares or Hyderabad. Never did his dreams lead him into other company.
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Can one see in this Beatrice, this Laura whom no name designates, a real young girl or woman, passionately loved by the poet during his life-time? It would be romantic to suppose so, but it has not been permitted to us to be intimate enough with the secret life of his soul to answer this question affirmatively or negatively.
In his metaphysical conversations, Baudelaire spoke much of his ideas, little of his sentiments, and never of his ideas, little of his sentiments, and never of his actions. As to the chapter of his loves, he for ever placed a seal upon his fine and disdainful lips. The safest plan would be to see in this ideal love a pleading only of the soul, the soaring of the unsatisfied heart, and the eternal sigh of the imperfect aspiring to the absolute.
At the end of the "Flowers of Evil" there is a set of poems on "Wine," and the different intoxications that it produces, according to the brain it attacks. It is unnecessary to say that they are not Bacchic songs celebrating the juice of the grape, or anything like it. They are hideous and terrible paintings of drunkenness, but without the morality of Hogarth. The picture has no need of a legend and the "Wine of the Workman" makes one shudder. The "Litanies of Satan," god of evil and prince of the world, are one of those cold, familiar ironies of the author, in which one would be wrong to see impiety. Impiety is not in the nature of Baudelaire, who believed in the superior law established by God for all eternity, the least infraction of which is punished by the severest chastisement, not only in this world, but in the future.
If he has painted vice and shown Satan in all his pomp, it is without the least complacence in the task. He also had a singular prepossession of the devil as a tempter in whom he saw a dragon who hurried him into sin, infamy, crime, and perversity. Fault in Baudelaire was always followed by remorse, contempt, anguish, despair; and the punishment was far worse than any corporal one could have been. But enough of this subject; we are critic, not theologian.
Let us point out, among the poems which comprise the "Flowers of Evil," some of the most remarkable; amongst others, that which is called, "Don Juan aux Enfers." It is a picture of tragic grandeur, painted in sombre and magisterial colours on the fiery vault of hell. The boat glides on the black waters, carrying Don Juan and his cortège of victims. The beggar whom he tried to make deny God, wretched athlete, proud in his rags like Antisthenes, paddles the oars to the domain of Charon. At the stern, a man of stone, a discoloured phantom, with rigid and sculptural gestures, holds the helm. The old Don Luis shows his whitened locks, scorned by his hypocritically impious son. Sganarelle demands the payment of his wages from this henceforth insolvent master. Donna Elvira tries to bring back the old smile of the lover to the disdainful lips of her husband; and the pale lovers, brought to evil, abandoned, betrayed, trampled under food like flowers, expose the ever-open wounds of their hearts. Under this passion of tears, lamentations, and maledictions Don Juan remains unmoved; he has done what he has wished. Heaven, hell, and the world judge him, according to their understanding; his pride knows no remorse; the shot has been able to kill, but not to make him repent.
By its serence melancholy, its cheerful tranquillity, and oriental kief the poem entitled "La Vie Antérieure" contrasts happily with the sombre pictures of monstrous modern Paris, and shows that the artist has, on his palette, side by side with the blacks, bitumens, umbers, and siennas, a whole gamut of fresh tints: light, transparent, delicate roses, ideal blues, like the far-away Breughal of Paradise, with which to depict the Elysian Fields and mirage of his dreams.
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