Books Reviewed: Baudelaire, Page 2|
by Jack Collings Squire (1922).
His spirit had, he knew, the power of poisoning all that it contemplated. He was, he said in one of his poems, the peer of Midas; he could turn gold into dross and built sarcophagi in the gleaming fields of heaven. He was endowed at birth with a passion for "the place where you shall never be; the lover whom you shall never know"; his life was spent in the pursuit of a Beauty defined by himself as inaccessible. Yet there the passion was. He might, in life, vainly attempt to distract himself with every vice. He might talk blasphemy about God and cynicism about human love. He might expend all the resources of his unique art on the description of the repellant objects which fascinated him. He might peer into every forbidden room, and defile every altar. He might walk, in the flesh or in imagination, through the most sterile of deserts and the most fetid of marshes, through all the disordered nightmares of the drug, and all the squalid byways of the human city, taverns, and brothels, and rain-soaked cemeteries; he might profess indifference to pain and admiration for evil; but he could never kill his unsatisfied heart, and, above the confusion, he could always perceive the glimmer of virtue and love and peace beyond his reach:
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Des Cieux Spirituels l'inaccessible azur,
Pour l'homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S'ouvre et s'enfonce avec l'attirance du gouffre.
Neither physical debauchery nor philosophic diabolism could long distract him from the unattainable ideal, and it is this which is one of the chief sources of his undiminished power of commanding men's attention and even affection. It is easy enough to detect pose or feebleness in the ordinary decadent; and Baudelaire's own works have made thousands of such. We are tempted to say to them, "Stop this nonsense," or "Take some healthy exercise," and conceive their cases as sufficiently dealt with. Baudelaire cannot be dismissed like that. It is not possible to despise him, and we are not able to suppose that he failed to understand anything: he did not pose, there was no medicine for him, and he was as familiar with the thoughts of others as which his own. Fifty years after his death he still speaks in the portrait printed in the common edition of his poems.
We see those dark liquid penetrating eyes looking out from under the contemplative forehead, the wide shut mouth, the pouting under lip. There is pride in it that tells us we are to expect, in conversation, no confessional flow, no appeal for pity; nothing but courteous, precise, ironic sentences, acute brief analyses, observations slightly tinged with a bitter humour. But the soul in reserve is evident in the fixed, ardent, melancholy look. He suffered and he was strong. When he died of general paralysis, locked up in a body without speech, his condition was an image of his whole life. He was always a prisoner beyond reach of human contact, and the lips in his portrait seem to say that whenever he may find himself he will be the same on earth or in interstellar space, in heaven or in hell, a wanderer, a solitary and an alien. There was power in him, the power of a great personality; but his strength was strangely manifested. There is a story by himself with a hero whose impotence was "so vast" that it was "epic."
His one resource—it can be explained no more and no less in him that in any other—was his art, and his genius as an artist was so extraordinary that his influence would still have been great had his character and "subject-matter" lacked their peculiar qualities. He wrote impeccable prose; but his verse, for compactness, for accuracy, for music, cannot be surpassed. He may not be ranked with the world's greatest poets: humanity will scarcely concede that to a man whose principal work was labelled (not without reason) "Flowers of Evil," and who was successfully prosecuted for obscenity: apart from which, volume of work and universality of appeal are bound to count in such matters. But there certainly never was a poet who said with more perfection what he had to say, who had fewer weak lines or otiose words, who was more consistently near his own highest level of achievement. His sense of form was like that of the great masters in marble and bronze, and he worked like a slave in his narrow field, watering it with his sweat "pour extorquer quelques épis." Here, at any rate, his influence cannot but have been salutary. If the Symbolists trace to him the origins of their "correspondences" and their mystical minglings of the senses, the Parnassians were certainly as much in his debt for the example he set of artistic self-discipline. To read him is to contract a disgust with looseness and diffuseness. It is perhaps significant that the memorial ode which the young Swinburne wrote on him was the most clear, vivid, and truly classic of all Swinburne's poems.
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