The Poems and Prose Poems|
of Charles Baudelaire: Preface, Page 8
by James Huneker (1919).
He was born at Paris, April 9, 1821 (Flaubert's birth year), and not April 21, as Gautier has it. His father was Joseph Francis Baudelaire, or Beaudelaire, who occupied a government position. A cultivated art lover, his taste was apparent in the home he made for his second wife, Caroline Archimbaut-Dufays, an orphan and the daughter of a military officer. There was a considerable difference in the years of this pair; the mother was twenty-seven, the father sixty-two, at the birth of their only child. By his first marriage the elder Baudelaire had one son, Claude, who, like his half-brother Charles, died of paralysis, though a steady man of business. That great modern neurosis, called Commerce, has its mental wrecks, too, and no one pays attention; but when a poet falls by the wayside is the chase begun by neurologists and other soul-hunters seeking victims. After the death of Baudelaire's father, the widow, within a year, married the handsome, ambitious Aupick, then chef de bataillon, lieutenant-colonel, decorated with the Legion of Honour, and later general and ambassador to Madrid, Constantinople, and London. Charles was a nervous, frail youth, but unlike most children of genius, he was a scholar and won brilliant honours at school. His stepfather was proud of him. From the Royal College of Lyons, Charles went to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, but was expelled in 1839, on various discreditable charges. Troubles soon began at home. He was irascible, vain, precocious, and given to dissipation. He quarreled with General Aupick, and disdained his mother. But she was to blame, she has confessed; she had quite forgotten the boy in the flush of her second love. He could not forget, or forgive what he called her infidelity to the memory of his father. Hamlet-like, he was inconsolable. The good Bishop of Montpellier, who knew the family, said that Charles was a little crazy — second marriages usually bring woe in their train. "When a mother has such a son, she doesn't re-marry," said the young poet. Charles signed himself Baudelaire-Dufays, or sometimes Dufais. He wrote in his journal: "My ancestors, idiots or maniacs ... all victims of terrible passions"; which was one of his exaggerations. His grandfather on the paternal side was a Champenois peasant, his mother's family presumably Norman, but not much is known of her forbears. Charles believed himself lost from the time his half-brother was stricken. He also believed that his instability of temperament — and he studied his "case" as would a surgeon — was the result of his parents' disparity in years.
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After his return from the East, where he did not learn English as has been said — his mother taught him as a boy to converse in and write the language — he came into his little inheritance, about fifteen thousand dollars. Two years later he was so heavily in debt that his family asked for a guardian on the ground of incompetency.
He had been swindled, being young and green. How had he squandered his money? Not exactly on opera-glasses, like Gérard de Nerval, but on clothes, pictures, furniture, books. The remnant was set aside to pay his debts. Charles would be both poet and dandy. He dressed expensively but soberly, in the English fashion; his linen dazzling, the prevailing hue of his habiliments black. In height he was medium, his eyes brown, searching, luminous, the eye of a nyctalops, "eyes like ravens"; nostrils palpitating, cleft chin, mouth expressive, sensual jaw, strong and square. His hair was black, curly, glossy, his forehead high, square and white. In the Deroy portrait he wears a beard; he is there what Catulle Mendes nick-named him: "His Excellence, Monseigneur Brummel!" Later he was the elegiac Satan, the author of L'Imitation de N. S. le Diable; or the Baudelaire of George Moore: "the clean-shaven face of the mock priest, the slow cold eyes and the sharp cunning sneer of the cynical libertine who will be tempted that he may better know the worthlessness of temptation." In the heyday of his blood he was perverse and deliberate. Let us credit him with contradicting the Byronic notion that ennui could best be cured by dissipation; in sin Baudelaire found the saddest of all consolations. Mendès laughs at the legend of Baudelaire's violence, of his being given to explosive phrases. Despite Gautier's stories about the Hôtel Pimadon and its club of hasheesh-eaters, M. Mendès denies that Baudelaire was a victim of the hemp. What the majority of mankind does not know concerning the habits of literary workers is this prime fact: men who work hard, writing verse — and there is no mental toil comparable to it — cannot drink, or indulge in opium, without inevitable collapse. The old-fashioned ideas of "inspiration," spontaneity, easy improvisation, the sudden bolt from heaven, are delusions still hugged by the world. To be told that Chopin filed at his music for years, that Beethoven in his smithy forged his thunderbolts by the sweat of his brow, that Manet toiled like a labourer on the dock, that Baudelaire was a mechanic in his devotion to poetic work, that Gautier was a hard-working journalist, are disillusions for the sentimental. Minerva springing full-fledged from Jupiter's skull to the desk of the poet is a pretty fancy; but Balzac and Flaubert did not encourage this fancy. Work literally killed Poe, as it killed Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert and Daudet. Maupassant went insane because he would work and he would play the same day. Baudelaire worked and worried. His debts haunted him his life long. His constitution was flawed — Sainte-Beuve told him that he had worn out his nerves — from the start, he was détraqué; but that his entire life was one huge debauch is a nightmare of the moral police in some red cotton nightcap country.
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