A century of French verse: Charles Baudelaire, Page 1|
by William John Robertson (1895).
The life and death of Charles Baudelaire is one of the most awful tragedies in the annals of literature. The fate of Chatterton and Collins, of Gilbert and Bertrand, and of so many other children of despondency and madness is pale in pathos beside the spectacle of Baudelaire, after his strangely lurid existence in Paris and Brussels, lingering in a madhouse, paralysed and speechless, until death released his suffering soul.
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Charles-Pierre Baudelaire-Dufaïs belonged to a family of some social distinction. His father was a professor in the University of Paris, an accomplished scholar, and the friend of Condorcet and Cabanis. Charles Baudelaire was but a boy when his father's widow married General Aupick, afterwards French ambassador to the Porte (1850). At home he was a spoiled child, in school a rebellious subject. His precocious love of letters and his capricious temper were a source of anxiety to the family, and these faults were aggravated by his irreconcilable attitude towards the disciplinarian step-father. A violent outburst of anger at an official dinner given by the General (who was grossly insulted by the boy before his guests) determined the 'parents' to send him abroad, after a fortnight of solitary confinement in his own room. Baudelaire lived for a time in the East Indies, travelled thence to Mauritius, Bourbon and Madagascar, failed to find any attraction in commerce, and squandered his time and the money with which he was liberally furnished. Returning to Paris he inherited, on reaching his majority, a small fortune (about seventy thousand francs — It has been argued that because Baudelaire left some thirty or forty thousand francs he could never have been in absolute penury. But the fact is overlooked that he had only the revenue of this sum, which to a man of his luxurious habits was of little account. He earned but a pittance by his pen, and was always desperately in debt.) and decided to follow the literary vocation. He had learned English when in the East, and toiled assiduously for a time to fit himself for his chosen career. His relations tried to introduce him into social life, but his wilful eccentricity always frustrated their wishes. Then he launched into the world of cafés, saloons and studios, trod the primrose path of dalliance, ran through one half of his little patrimony in about two years, and was put under legal tutelage. This temporary access of Bohemianism caused Théophile Gautier to express some apprehension lest Baudelaire should go the way of Petrus Borel.
Théodore de Banville says that Baudelaire had immense erudition. Maxime Du Camp avers that he was woefully ignorant. The two things are not incompatible, but there is not much evidence of deep learning in Baudelaire's literary works. He was certainly a devouring reader. Although he had been something of a lexicomaniac from his youth upwards his methodical habits and accurate memory enabled him to dispense with a large library. His criticisms shew that he had the gift of keen observation and profound spiritual insight. In literature his predilection was for the old French poets and the poets of the Latin decadence.
Baudelaire was a consummate connoisseur in painting and music. In his Salon articles he fought the battle of Eugène Delacroix. He was the first of that enlightened band of French poets who championed the cause of Richard Wagner. In 1861, when not one French composer of music had the least inkling of the essential qualities of Wagner's genius, Baudelaire declared that 'no musician excels him in painting material and spiritual space and depth'. Indeed the æsthetic writings of Baudelaire are full of lucid and discerning judgments, at once subtle and sober in their discrimination. He held uncompromising opinions on the artist's right of choice in subject and treatment as an essential privilege of genius; and his scorn for every concession to easy popularity or vulgar consistency was pronounced. 'The most sacred right of man', said he, 'is the right to contradict himself.'
It was in les Fleurs du Mal that Charles Baudelaire threw down the gauntlet by the application of his æsthetic theories to poetry. Most of them written in 1843-1844, but not published until 1857, these poems caused a tremendous commotion. The criminal prosecution which followed their appearance embittered the poet's character, for, although he was legally acquitted and could not but rejoice at the vogue given to his verses, he resented the humiliation of having to defend from the criminal bar his claim to literary freedom. The Sapphic poems which gave the occasion of legal procedure were judiciously eliminated in the definitive edition of the Fleurs du Mal. It is therefore to be regretted that the moral offence should have been renewed, if indeed the erotic poems surreptitiously published in Brussels were written by Baudelaire. But it ought to be charitably remembered that he was then under an intellectual cloud, overwhelmed with debt, and riddled with cynical disgust of life. He was not instigated by any mere greed of gain, for, as Banville truly says, the poet had 'a profound and absolute scorn of money'.
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