The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 23|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
After such an expression of faith it is difficult to believe that the author of the "Flowers of Evil," in spite of his satanical leanings, has often visited artificial paradises.
PAGE 23 OF 26.
Succeeding the study on hashish is one on the subject of opium. But here Baudelaire had for his guidance a book, singularly celebrated in England, "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," by De Quincey, a distinguished Hellenist, a leading writer, and a man of great respectability, who has dared, with tragical candour, in a country the most hardened by cant in the world, to avow his passion for opium, to describe this passion, representing the phases, the intermittences, the relapses, the combats, the enthusiasms, the prostrations, the ecstasies and the phantasmagoria followed by inexpressible anguish. De Quincey, incredible as it may seem, had, augmenting little by little each dose, come to taking eight thousand drops a day. This, however, did not prevent him from living till the age of seventy-five, for he only died in the month of December 1859, making the doctors, to whom, in a fit of humour, he had mockingly left his corpse as a subject for scientific experiment, wait a long time. This habit did not prevent him from publishing a crowd of literary and learned works in which nothing announced the fatal influence which he himself described as "the black idol." The dénouement of the book leaves it understood that only with superhuman efforts was the author brought to the state of self-correction; but that could only have been a sacrifice to morals and conventions, like the recompense of virtue and the punishment of crime at the end of a melodrama, final impenitence being a bad example. And De Quincey pretends that, after seventeen years of use and eight years of abuse of opium, he has been able to renounce this dangerous substance! It is unnecessary to discourage the theriakis of good-will. But what of the love, however expressed, in the lyrical invocation to the brown liqueur?
"O just, subtle, and all-conquering opium! thou who, to the hearts of rich and poor alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for the pangs of grief that 'tempt the spirit to rebel,' bringest an assuaging balm;—eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath, pleadest effectually for relenting pity, and through one night's heavenly sleep callest back to the guilty man the visions of his infance, and hands washed pure from blood;—O just and righteous opium! that to the chancery of dreams summonest, for the triumphs of despairing innocence, false witnesses; and confoundest perjury; and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges;—thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles—beyond the splendours of Babylon and Hekatompylos; and, 'from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,' callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the 'dishonours of the grave.' Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, O just, subtle, and mighty opium!"
Baudelaire does not translate De Quincey's book entirely. He takes from it the most salient parts, of which he writes in an analysis intermingled with digressions and philosophical reflections, in such a way that he presents the entire work in an abridgment. Nothing is more curious than the biographical details which open these confessions. They show the flight of the scholar to escape from the tyrannies of his tutors, his miserable and starving life in the great desert of London, his sojourn in the lodgings turned into a garret by the negligence of the proprietor. We read of his liaison with a little half-idiot servant, Ann, a poor child, sad violet of the highways, innocent and virginal so far; his return in grace to his family and his becoming possessed of a fortune, considerable enough to allow him to give himself up entirely to his favourite studies in a charming cottage, in company with a noble woman, whom this Orestes of opium called his Electra. For, after his neuralgic pains, he had got into that ineradicable habit of taking the poison of which he absorbed, without disastrous results, the enormous quantity of forty grains a day.
To the most striking visions which shone with the blue and silver of Paradise of Elysium succeeded others more sombre than Erebus, to which one can apply the frightful lines of the poet:
"As when some great painter dips
His pen in gloom of earthquake and eclipse."
De Quincey, who was a precocious and distinguished humanist—he knew both Greek and Latin at the age of ten—had always taken great pleasure in reading Livy, and the words "Consul Romanus" resounded in his ears like a magical and peremptorily irresistible formula. These five syllables struck upon his ear like the blasts of trumpets, sounding triumphal fanfares, and when, in his dreams, multitudes of enemies struggled on a field of battle lighted with livid glimmerings, with the rattling of guns and heavy tramping, like the surge of distant waters, suddenly a mysterious voice would cry out these dominating words: "Consul Romanus." A great silence would fall, oppressed by anxious waiting, and the consul would appear mounted on a white horse, in the midst of a great crowd, like the Marius of the "Batailles des Cimbres" of Decamps, and, with a fatidical gesture, decide the victory.
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