A century of French verse: Charles Baudelaire, Page 2|
by William John Robertson (1895).
The decay of Baudelaire's noble mind was rapid and ruinous. He had drained the chalice of his youth with full lips, and freely indulged all the desires and delights of his restless fancy. In later years the fiery fret of his imagination turned inwards and wore him down. His genius had been largely recognised after the notorious trial. He was tempted into journalism, but his fastidious taste and scrupulously slow method of composition unfitted him for the kind of toil which exhausted Théophile Gautier. For a while he lived a life of wretched expedients in Paris, renewing his bills, dodging his creditors, and constantly putting off the day of regular labour. Although he knew and declared that 'inspiration is work every day' he had the idle disposition of a luxurious man. He revolved in his imagination vast plans of drama and romance which never came near to execution. His posthumous notes shew that he bitterly regretted the dissipation of his energies; his life gives evidence that he had not the strength of will to amend the evil of his ways. He succumbed at last to the charms of literary lecturing, in emulation of some successful authors in England and America. The experiment was tried in Brussels. Disheartened by his reception he became moody and morose, and alarmed his friends in Paris by writing insane execrations of Belgium and the Belgians. His constitution had been ravaged by debauch, by opiates, by stimulants, and by the remorse of faculties unused or fatally misused. He lost the power to work at anything, his speech became slow and faltering, and the insidious disease soon culminated in a shock of paralysis, varied with spasms of maniacal frenzy. He was brought back to Paris, where after a year of confinement, shut off from the converse and sympathy of mankind, unable to speak or write and with a fixed look of haggard despair on his face, but apparently conscious of his terrible condition, he died. Sad destiny for a poet who was justly described by Charles Asselineau as 'one of the most perfect, most exquisite, and best endowed men of genius' ever given to France. English readers will remember Swinburne's magnificent threnody beginning
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'Shall I strew rose, or rosemary, or laurel,
Brother, on this that was the veil of thee?' —
one of the finest tributes of many paid to the memory of 'this rare and extraordinary poet'.
The character of Charles Baudelaire is an unsolved psychological problem. All that Gautier and Asselineau and Banville and Sainte-Beuve and Du Camp have written about him only serves to bring into relief the contradictions and complexities of this strange idiosyncrasy. He had Bohemian instincts, but was too fastidious to be a real Bohemian. His dandyism in dress and demeanour often took the most fantastic forms. He was notorious for capricious changes in his apparel, in his toilet, in his attitudes, and even in his facial expression. His characteristic mannerism was a peculiarly deliberate emphasis of gesture and speech.
The acknowledged portraits of Baudelaire are so dissimilar as to beget a doubt if they represent the same person. Gautier describes his appearance as that of 'a devil who had turned monk', and such he certainly seems to be in the counterfeit presentment by Naugeot; but in the tragic likeness by Émile Deroy (1844) he looks sad and dreamy — a Hamlet whose brow is prematurely 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought'.
Whether Baudelaire's dilettante experiences in debauch, his ostentatious nympholepsy and the cold cynical perversity of his moral sentiments were entirely real, or in a certain measure merely affected, it would be idle to speculate. He took a malicious pleasure in astonishing 'fools' and loved to 'flabbergast the Philistines' (épater les bourgeois). Even among his intimate associates he would enunciate the most monstrous theories and argue them out with all the earnestness of grave conviction. He was deeply conscious of the cause for grief which his disordered life had given to a fond mother, and he endeavoured to make amends to her by constant affection and tenderness. He did not display the characteristic indifference of a voluptuary towards the wretched mulatto woman with whom he lived for so many years, and whose charms he has sung in strangely sensuous verse; for in his darkest days, long after she had ceased to charm his senses, he ministered to her necessities, and indeed nearly ruined himself to help her when she was sunk in misery and afflicted with an incurable disease. His petulant sallies of violence seem to have been sometimes sincere and sometimes assumed. These whimsical excesses must have been but transient, and perhaps superficial, or else his literary friends could not have left such a fascinating record of his courtesy. 'If ever the word seductiveness could have been applied to a human being' — says one of them — 'it was to him, for he had nobility, pride, elegance, a beauty at once infantine and virile, the enchantment of a rhythmical voice and the most persuasive eloquence'. He was an absolute aristocrat in character as in genius. In general he was not voluble of speech, for he rather affected an English reserve of manner. He had a scrupulous love of neatness, cleanliness and order. Altogether a peculiarly sensitive, nervous and impressionable nature, prone to fantastic idealism, mystically voluptuous and madly amorous of new and strange sensations.
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