The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 17|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
Any sensitive ear can understand the charm of this liquid sound four times repeated, and which seems to sweep one away to the infinity of a dream, like the wing of a gull in the surging blue of a Neapolitan sea. Alliteration is often to be found in the prose of Beaumarchais, and the Scandinavian poets make great use of it. These trifles will undoubtedly appear frivolous to utilitarians, progressive and practical men who think, with Stendhal, that verse is a childish form, good for primitive ages, and ask that poetry should be written in prose to suit a reasonable age. Yet all the same, these are details which make verse good or bad, and which make a man a poet or not.
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Many-syllabled and full-sounding words pleased Baudelaire, and, with three or four of these, he often makes a line which seems immense, the sound of which is vibrant and prolongs the metre. For the poet, words have in themselves, and apart from the meaning they express, intrinsic beauty and value, like precious stones still uncut and not set in bracelets, in necklaces or in rings. They charm the connoisseur who watches and sorts them in the little chalice where they are put in reserve, as a goldsmith would his jewels. There are words of diamond, ruby, sapphire, emerald, and others which glisten phosphorescently when struck.
The great Alexandrines of which we have spoken, that come in times of lull and calm to die on the shore in the tranquillity and gentle undulation of the swelling surge, sometimes dash themselves to pieces in the foam and throw up their white spray against the sullen rocks, only to be tossed back immediately into the salt sea.
The lines of eight feet are brisk, strong, striking, like a cat-o'-nine-tails, lashing the shoulders of those who, with a wicked conscience, perform hypocritical actions. They also display strange caprices; the author encases in his metre, as in a frame of ebony, the nightly sights of a cemetery where the eyes of the owls shine in the shadows; and, behind the bronze-green curtains of the yew-trees, slide, with spectral steps, pick-pockets, devastators of tombs, thieves of the dead.
In these eight-feet lines he paints sinister skies where, above the gibbet, rolls a moon, grown sickly from the incantations of Canidies. He describes the chill ennui of a dead person, who has exchanged his bed of luxury for the coffin, who dreams in his solitude, starting at each drop of icy rain that filters through his coffin-lid. He shows us, in his curiously disordered bouquet of faded flowers, old letters ribbons, miniatures, pistols, daggers, and phials of laudanum. We see the room of the coward gallant where, in his absence, the ironical spectre of suicide comes, for Death itself cannot quench the fires of lust.
From the composition of the verses let us pass to the style. Baudelaire intertwines his silken and golden threads with strong, rude hemp, as in a cloth worked by Orientals, at the same time gorgeous and coarse, where the most delicate ornamentations run in charming caprice on the fine camel's-hair, or on a cloth coarse to the touch like the sail of a boat. The most delicate, the most precious even, is hurled in with savage brutalities; and, from the scented boudoir and voluptuously languorous conversations, one falls into ignoble inns where drunkards, mixing blood with wine, dispute at the point of their knives for some Helène from the streets.
"The Flowers of Evil" are the brightest gem in Baudelaire's crown. In them he has given play to his originality, and shown that one is able, after incalculable volumes of verse where every variety of subject seems to be exhausted, to bring to light something new and unexpected, without hauling down the sun and the stars, or making universal history file past as in a German fresco.
But what has especially made his name famous is his translation of Edgar Poe; for in France little is read of the poet except his prose, and it is the feuilletons that make the poems known. Baudelaire has almost naturalised for us this singular and rare individuality, so pregnant, so exceptional, who at first rather scandalised than charmed America. Not that his work is in any way morally shocking—he is, on the contrary, of virginal and seraphic chastity; but because he disturbed accepted principles and practical common sense, and, also, because there was no criterion by which to judge him.
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