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Some Remarks on Baudelaire's Influence
upon Modern Poetry and Thought, Page 1

by Guy Thorne (1915).

In his essay called "Pen, Pencil, and Poison" Oscar Wilde remarks: "But had the man worn a costume and spoken a language different from our own, had he lived in Imperial Rome, or at the time of the Italian Renaissance, or in Spain in the seventeenth century, or in any land or in any century but this century and in this land, we should be quite able to arrive at a perfectly unprejudiced estimate of his position and value"; and he also says: "Of course, he is far too close to our own time for us to be able to form any purely artistic judgment about him."

It was only a year after the death of Charles Baudelaire that Gautier wrote the magnificent life-study of the poet, the English translation of which forms part of this volume, and the monograph seems to give the lie direct to Wilde's assertion. There is nothing finer in French literature, more delicately critical, more vivid in its personal pictures, more perfect in its prose. It is the triumph of a luminous brain, full of rays and ideas "whence images buzz forth like golden bees."

Yet it is just because there is some truth in Wilde's plea, that there is still something to be said to-day of Baudelaire. The attempt to say it may seem presumptuous, and I am certain that no single word of Gautier could be altered or improved upon. Everything fitted the biographer for his task. He knew Charles Baudelaire intimately. He possessed an ear for rhythm unequalled in its kind; his fervent and romantic fancy rendered him peculiarly able to appreciate the most delicate of Baudelaire's thoughts and tones of his music. Finally—a fact which has hitherto escaped notice in this connection—the "Mademoiselle de Maupin" of Gautier published in 1835 created much the same scandal and alarm as Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" did in 1857. Although Théophile Gautier himself escaped the fate of being publicly prosecuted for an offence against public morals, he knew what it was to suffer a literary martyrdom, and could feel for his younger friend when the author of "Une Charogne" was brought before the Court. Indeed, it was in the very year that "Les Fleurs du Mal" was issued that Flaubert was prosecuted on account of "Madame Bovary," and Gautier became in consequence the great novelist's staunch friend and champion.

Gautier, above all his contemporaries, was of precisely the temper of mind to appreciate Charles Baudelaire. Nothing was lacking in the man, his temperament or his opportunities, to produce a masterpiece which, ranking with the "Voltaire" of Lord Morley, or Walter Pater's "Leonardo da Vinci," is almost unknown by the general English reader.

Yet there is much to be said of Baudelaire that Gautier could not say. Gautier died in 1872. At that time Baudelaire's work was only known to a distinguished literary coterie. In England it had hardly been heard of. Swinburne, in 1866, when "Poems and Ballads" appeared, was almost certainly the only English man of letters who understood the French poet.

Recently a certain amount has been written about Baudelaire in England. Oscar Wilde constantly refers to his poems; there have been some review articles for the making of which the writers have drawn largely upon Gautier and Asselineau's "Charles Baudelaire; sa vie et son œuvre." Mr. F. P. Sturm (in 1905) made a fine study of the poet as an introduction to an English translation of "Les Fleurs du Mal," published in the "Canterbury Poets" series. It is because I believe I have something new to say that I have dared to include a short study with my translations of Gautier's jewelled prose and of Baudelaire's poems.

Only a very few years ago in England, it was thought, though quite wrongly thought, that the more eclectic literary artists of England and France would, and must always, remain the peculiar property of the leisured and cultured classes. It was not only because the books of such writers were difficult of access and costly in price. Men and women privileged to enjoy and appreciate the work of Baudelaire or Verlaine in France, Walter Pater or Oscar Wilde in England, honestly believed that the vast mass of readers were temperamentally and by training unable to understand these and other artists.

The fact of compulsory education created a proletariat able and willing to read. Astute exploiters of popular necessity arose and began to supply cheap "reading matter" with all the aplomb and success that would have attended their efforts if they had been directed towards any other newly risen want. This happened a generation ago. Millions still feed upon the literary hogwash provided for them, but from among those millions a new class has arisen that asks for better fare, and does not ask in vain.


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