A century of French verse: Charles Baudelaire, Page 3|
by William John Robertson (1895).
Baudelaire's poetical work is distinguished by its rare perfection of form. If it is insignificant in volume it is exquisite and precious in quality, and has had a larger influence on contemporary poetry in France than the work of any other author. The verse of the Fleurs du Mal, with its shapely line and luminous melody, has been the glass of fashion and the mould of form for Verlaine and Mallarmé and many other poets of the present time. Baudelaire's excessively fastidious taste saved him from the direct imitation of models, although he could appreciate and assimilate foreign ideas, as his prose translations of De Quincey and Edgar Allan Poe and his poetical images from Shakespeare and Gray and Longfellow clearly demonstrate. And although Victor Hugo was in the plenitude of his supremacy in 1840 there is little or no evidence of his formative influence on Baudelaire, who sedulously applied himself to the cultivation of that closely-wrought and deeply-concentrated style which in poetry marks him as a man apart. There is seldom a glimpse of sudden passion in his song, but the expression of his love for the beautiful is so intense, so super-refined and so subtle that his verse glows with a white heat, which fiercely smoulders if it never flames. In his colder and more deliberate moods there is a sculpturesque solidity and a serene beauty that is not excelled even by Landor and Rossetti at their best. Many of his lines have the curved delicacy of flesh and the firm smoothness of marble. If there is a fault in his woven harmony of words it is uniformity of tone: he thrilled a lyre of rich and splendid resonance, but of few strings. Hence the repetition of images when, as in the Hymn to Beauty, he exceeds his customary range. Baudelaire's tropical experience and his responsiveness to exotic sensations assisted him in giving a new colour and a new vibration to French verse. There is a matchless charm and fragrance in such lines as
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'Parfum qui fait rêver aux oasis lointaines' —
(L'Amour du Mensonge.)
'Et trouve un goût suave au vin le plus amer ' —
and there are hundreds like them in those intoxicating Flowers of Evil.
That Baudelaire's book should have been sometimes wilfully and sometimes ignorantly misunderstood is not surprising. The poet has been roughly handled by a few of the eminently sane critics of the present time, represented by Ferdinand Brunetière and Jules Lemaître. But Sainte-Beuve and Paul Bourget and Anatole France have been more tender, more sympathetic, and therefore more just in their judgments on this strange genius. Baudelaire's curious blending of religious mysticism with voluptuous emotion has seemed to many to be blasphemy and even atheism, and yet his inmost thoughts were always a passionate prayer to God for deliverance from the world, the flesh and the devil. His bold and occasionally crude analysis of diseased passion has been mistaken for an appeal to fleshly indulgence by those whose regard for the outward and visible forms of morality blinds them to the spiritual elements of human desire. It is true that such a poet as Baudelaire could have been produced only in an epoch of social corruption and decay, and that he was in many respects the morbid embodiment of the Lower Empire. But he was nevertheless a great and true poet; and if his life was a moral failure and his life's work a moral phenomenon it is because a mysterious fatality has denied to the children of light the wisdom which is so plentifully bestowed upon the children of this world. The sinister eclipse of genius endowed with such conspicuous gifts and graces is only the more appalling if it be true that
'. . . not for this
Was common clay ta'en from the common earth,
Moulded by God, and temper'd with the tears
Of angels to the perfect shape of man'.
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