Books Reviewed: Baudelaire, Page 1|
by Jack Collings Squire (1922).
Mr. Symon's essay on Baudelaire is slight and rather disappointing. It has faults not usual in his books. Even those who do not approve of his attitude towards art and life or, usually, share his critical admirations, must admit that he has generally been a lucid critic, careful of his English and careful of his form; exercising, in fact, that fastidiousness and aiming at that perfection which delight him in his favourite artists, whether poets, dancers, or music-hall performers. His "Baudelaire" is scrappy; it lacks shape; it is neither a "life" nor a thorough study. It is (if I may use the offensive word inoffensively) padded out with a chapter on Villiers de l'Isle Adam which appears to have been written long before the rest of the book and has no obvious connection with what goes before, and after; and its English is remarkably rough, grammatically and otherwise, if judged by the standard Mr. Symons himself has set. The bibliography is useful. There are a certain number of "facts" in the book which will be interesting to those who are unfamiliar with Baudelairean literature; and the reader who likes the flavour of a bygone fashion may derive some entertainment from the delightful obstinacy with which Mr. Symons maintains his desperately detached attitude towards the seven sins and the seven thousand diseases. He, whatever may happen to the rest of the world, is not going to be thrown off his balance by considerations of morals and hygiene. He sings the old tune which has strayed on from the days of Gautier's "Moi je fais émaux et camées." How charming a perversion! How beautifully stated a brutality! How harmonious a blasphemy! But, granted his point of view, Mr. Symons has often been very penetrating and illuminating, and he might, with a greater expenditure of trouble, have written at least the most interesting thing about Baudelaire in English. And a good book about Baudelaire would be welcome.
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For Baudelaire was one of the most fascinating personalities of his century, and, historically, one of the most influential. I use the word, of course, in a restricted sense. The large public never heard of him, and his "teaching" was never sufficiently coherent, or "practical," or "social," to inspire group activity. He never disseminated drug taking as others have disseminated vegetarianism; no body of his disciples has ever instituted the systematic worship of Satan or consumption of hashish in any Hampstead Hothouse Suburb; and the devotees of despair remain unorganised. But he was important both as symptom and as agent.
In him there came to a climax that romantic pessimism which had wept in Werther and raved in Manfred, and brought gall to the lips of some of his French predecessors; and there was something in him which was in none of the others. He was the father of the later decadence, and much greater than any of his children. Classifications apart, his literary influence has indisputably been immense. His disciples have come to him one by one in the solitude of their own chambers, but those who bear his marks are found in all civilised countries, and have included many of the most conspicuous men of their age. Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Samain, Huysmans, in France: Swinburne, Wilde, Beardsley, in England: these are only a few remembered casually of the swarm whose thought and language have born those unmistakable stigmata. It is possible to be affected by his thought, and then to cast off the sinister enchantment; it is possible to read him without being infected by his pessimism at all. But it is impossible to read him and forget him, to hear his accents without sometimes echoing them, to turn away with indifferent eyes from his powerful and mysterious personality. It is not the actual events of his life that exert this sway. His career was no pageant. He was an affectionate son, he had a long and wretched attachment to a stupid woman of colour, he translated Poe, wrote for the newspapers, despised women, hated Belgians and material progress, was a slave to hashish, and died terribly: there is little more to be said. His power resided within himself and in the poems which came nearest to being an expression of himself. As man and artist he was wholly unlike anybody else.
It is commonly said that Romanticism is distinguished by the desire for "escape": that "Over the hills and far away" is the phrase which best expresses the romantics of all ages and the whole romantic movement of the last century. That passion was present in Baudelaire in its intensest form; but peculiarly. He did not, as did some of our Pre-Raphaelites, turn his back on the contemporary world. He looked hard and long at it; he saw it vile and filthy, and described the foulness he saw with dreadful realism. He was not one of those who avoid life and find happiness by lapping themselves in dreams of things more beautiful and serene, countries of content beyond the horizon and ages golden though the haze of time. He hankered rather than escaped. He was perpetually longing for something "remote from the sphere of our sorrow," but he could never surrender himself to a vision of it; for his eyes were open, and he saw a horrible world and a black universe, terribly anarchic or terribly governed. When he was a young man he made a voyage to the East, and the memories of it haunted him all his life. The hot blue skies, the basking islands, the brown girls, the ships lying under the palm trees, the odours of spice and of brine: they recur in his work continually as symbols of all things unattainable. But we may be sure that when he was in the East he got little consolation from them, and he was sure of it himself. In one of his prose poems (I quote Mr. Symon's own old and excellent translation) he traversed the whole world in imagination, and it all turned to dust and ashes. "Life," he said, "is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire of changing his bed. . . . It seems to me that I should always be happy if I were somewhere else." But he offers his soul Holland, and Lisbon, and the Baltic, and the Indies, and his soul remains unresponsive. In the end: "At last my soul bursts into speech, and wisely she cries to me, 'Anywhere, anywhere, out of the world.'"
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