Charles Baudelaire, Poet of the Malign

DURING the summer of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, while no mean part of the world was looking and wondering amid the noise of crowds at the remarkable works of invention and art, or thinking of the greatness of our industrial age, a few Frenchmen and strangers were for the moment saddened by the death of a French poet, — a poet whose first book had been suppressed, whose very name was an offence to a great many men, but whose writings were uncared for by the general public of Paris. That poet was Charles Baudelaire, author of Les Fleurs du Mal, Critique sur Théophile Gautier, Les Paradis Artificiels, and translations of the works of Edgar A. Poe.

Perhaps only to certain English and American admirers of Swinburne is his name known outside of France. They may recollect reading of him in connection with ideas that belong to the very revolt and pride of human nature.

Baudelaire is the living spring, bitter and beautiful, of which Swinburne is the foaming and impetuous English issue. To that strong and acrid source we must go to discover what flaunting and poisonous flowers, what purple and bloody blossoms, grow under the broad heaven of literature : they have their hour for blossoming.

Charles Baudelaire’s genius, however, does not breathe contagion to infect our literature. It cannot do that, because sanity and health are the general law of life.

Baudelaire is as unique and interesting as Hamlet. He is that rare and unknown being, a genuine poet,—a poet in the midst of things that have disordered his spirit, — a poet excessively developed in his taste by art and beauty, having a remarkable penchant for certain strange ideas, very responsive to the ideal, very greedy of sensation. Most people will say that he prostituted himself to fatal impressions and was intoxicated with pride.

A poet, a genuine poet, is always a strange, a fascinating being ; often he is frail and delicate, agitated by the spectacle of nature and the tragedy of life, before which, without him, men are mute and patient like oxen. Only the prophets are strong, loud, and majestic. The poets are like lost or fallen angels in mortal bodies, seeking in sensation to find God, roaming in vast and vague spaces to lose the consciousness of their bondage. Such a poet was Shelley, such a poet was Poe, such a poet was Charles Baudelaire. His was a sad, a terrible, and accusing spirit, expressing the disorder of his soul, laughing his ironical laugh in the midst of his pleasures, seeing awful visions between the changes of the moon.

The English and American public thinking of Wordsworth, and the pure and lofty expression of his thoughtful joy in nature, later falling down to the jingle of Jean Ingelow, in whose verses pleasant things are pleasantly said, or better, thinking of Bryant and his impersonal love of nature, and of Whittier with his home sentiment, seem to have lost the sense that poetry may be the expression of the terrors and disorders of the soul; they have no intimation of the less self-possessed spirit which broods over the ruins of life, and dreams of the abyss that lies beyond the visible. The abyss in which formless and colossal things scream and float was revealed by Victor Hugo ; the despair of hopeless loss was uttered by Poe: the laugh, the homelessness, the evil that may be found in common and beautiful things, remained for Baudelaire.

His was a new voice, a new and arresting word, thrown into the polite Parisian world. He was familiar with all the seductions of life ; he knew the changes that have come upon the world ; but he felt and looked upon all experience with the old spirit of the strong, unregenerated man who seeks to grasp the fleeting good of sensation, and blasphemes in the midst of pleasures. He expresses the barrenness of sensation, without having liberated himself from its seductions.

Charles Baudelaire was born in India. It may be supposed that he learned the English language during his childhood ; to his long familiarity with it France is indebted for his translations of the works of Edgar A. Poe, whose genius inspired him with a sustained and profound admiration. Théophile Gautier says that “he naturalized in France the mind and imagination of Poe, so learnedly strange that, beside him. Hoffman is not more than the Paul de Kock of the fantastic...... Thanks to Baudelaire,” he continues, “we have a literary savor totally unknown, and the name of Baudelaire must in some sort be inseparable from that of the American author.”

The reader of Baudelaire’s poems is first struck with the force of the sentiment, the vigor of the thought, the strength of the feeling, that animates them. They are the poems of a virile being. They have not one effeminate note. In this particular they have the same masculine and refreshingly frank character that we find in the less musical utterances of Walt Whitman. The resemblance is entirely due to the uniformity of the genuine, virile, poetic mind. Whenever he speaks, you hear the voice of a man in his agony, in his gladness, in his transports. The character of largeness, which is opposed to perfumed drawing-room daintiness, is likewise found in Baudelaire as it is lound in Walt Whitman. What he writes is wholly free from triviality.

What should arrest your attention is Baudelaire’s courage. He will not tolerate cant, which in his judgment robs us of the true and beautiful. He will not consent to deceptions. He tears the decent drapery from men’s vices, and has the uncommon taste to call things by their names. His verses are loaded with indignation, and through them breaks terrible irony and despair.

I know no stronger or more intense expression than the poem to his reader, — to his “hypocrite reader,” his “fellow-man,” as he calls him, — which is placed at the beginning of Les Fleurs du Mal, which was written to make us know how he despises our cowardice, cant, and self-deception, our habitual vices, and, when we talk, naïve exclusion of ourselves from the universality of evil!

Our mulish sins, our cowardly repentance, and “ the good pay we demand for our confessions, the gayety with which we re-enter the slimy path, thinking we wash all our spots with vile weeping,” inspire his soul with disgust and contempt of us. He tells us, with a kind of infernal glee, that Satan rocks our spell-bound minds ; that “he holds the threads that make us find attractions to repugnant objects ” ; and that “every day we descend one step towards hell without horror,” while we "steal on the wing a clandestine pleasure.”

With such startling and biting phrases headdresses his reader, and hurls upon us his horrible images of the evil that is in man. O sage advocates of the doctrine of the total depravity of human nature, rejoice and clap your hands, for here is a modern poet from the heart of Paris giving metrical and convincing expression to your belief!

Charles Baudelaire gives us the catalogue of our vices, and declares that if poison, the sword, and fire have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs the canvas of our pious destinies, it is because our souls are not strong enough. Such is the prelude to his own bold and inexorable poems called Spleen et Idéal, Les Fleurs du Mal, and Révolte.

I discover in Charles Baudelaire a mind almost malignant to men, because they have not the courage of their actions. In this I recognize a remarkable fact in his poetry, — it is the malign influence. He is the poet of the malign, as Shelley was the poet of love, as Byron was the poet of passion and adventure.

Poor Baudelaire, poet of the evil in good things, of the demoniacal element in familiar things ! Some persons have thought he was made insane by his preoccupation with the idea of beauty and his excesses of pleasure. I think he was made insane by an absorbing contemplation of the evil principle, the fatal principle incarnated in all things, and which stared at him.

Baudelaire worshipped the beautiful, but he seems always to have been in bondage to the mysterious and destructive fatality that makes a man the victim of his very qualities. He profoundly felt the tragic truth that man can only be tempted by what corresponds with his nature ; and that that very correspondence is a natural revelation of his wants and pleasure in life. But for his masculine force, his positive mental vigor, he would have been found in the madhouse when he died, long before his genius had grown beautiful and bitter fruit. Probably you have a patronizing pity for him, and think he was weak ! No man would have more quickly resented your pity, for his pride was colossal; and as for his weakness, I cannot recall a writer whose thought, whose feeling, has seemed to me so strong.

But to go back to the sense of Baudelaire’s poetry, although you shall discover in it a malignant spirit, although it expresses the morbid and caustic thought of a soul far from gladness and peace, do not suppose that it is without the beautiful. The beautiful very often exists side by side with the terrible.

Unhappy Baudelaire, so angry with us, with an indignation so deep that it even drowns the objects of it, and inspires a feeling of horror, is a warning, and begets a sentiment of awe. The strength of his thought is more than the loaded weight of his expression, in which particular he has the advantage of Swinburne, whose expression is greater than his thought, stronger than the feeling that urged it forth.

It is a poor protection from the force of Baudelaire’s mind to say that his poetry is the utterance of an insane man. It does not make it any the less true, for emotion and thought are true independently of their origin or issue. Read his Critique sur Théophile Gautier, or his preface to the translated works of Edgar A. Poe, and ask yourself if you could express so high and fine a literary sense, or speak with more authority ?

Baudelaire was a poet and a mind full of force and originality. He belonged to the literary family of Poe and Hawthorne. Like them, he was preoccupied with the subtilty of things and the awful inevitableness of human suffering ; like them, he was burdened with the weight and mystery of the world ; unlike them, he boldly trod the burning marl of his passions, and withered his heart in the furnace-heat of his unslaked desire, now cooled and voiceless in its dark trench of earth.

Charles Baudelaire is the type of the poetic mind unredeemed by love. To me he has a forlorn and fatal grandeur of aspect, like Milton’s Satan ; but he was a modern man in our contemporary world. Consider his situation. He had fed himself at the great springs of English literature, which made him a realist, and authorized his tenacious grasp upon things; he was familiar with antiquity, which gave him a far-off ideal in the past, and discouraged him because he had to look back whither he could not go ; he was in the midst of a luxurious, corrupted phase of modern civilization in France. His poems represent, not merely the local facts of society in France, but typical conditions of man during his age. They are contemporary, like Gavarni’s sketches, and appeal to exalted minds, by certain sides, like Michael Angelo’s figures, which embody a universal idea of human grandeur. I cannot hear his utterances without mingled feelings of admiration, shrinking, and pity. Alfred de Musset, the unhappiest of French poets, seems delicate and weak like a woman beside Baudelaire. Baudelaire alone represents the strong, masculine, unregeuerate man. He seems to have been even untouched by love. Had love been revealed to his heart, the flowers of evil would have wilted, never again to bloom in his life. What a man may become who goes through life without it, — a complete being, I mean, — you may know by reading Baudelaire’s unique poems.

Among Baudelaire’s poems called Spleen et Idéal is one entitled Les Phares, The Light-houses. Its several stanzas depict the great painters of the world, and are splendidly expressive in diction. They interpret the meaning of the great masters. The last stanza is sad and impressive in thought. Its meaning is that the suffering of man, in a passionate sob, rolls from age to age, and dies only on the brink of God’s eternity.

The little poem La Vic Antérieure is beautiful. The dreaming eye of the poet has a vision of Greek life. His spirit recognizes the place as familiar, and he says : —

“ I have a long time lived under vast porticos, which the marine sun tinted with a thousand fires, and whose grand pillars, straight and majestic, at eve were like basaltic grottos.

“The waves, in rolling the image of the sky, mingled, in a mystical and solemn fashion, the all-powerful chords of their rich music with the colors of sunset reflected in my eye.

“ ’T is there that I have lived, in calm voluptuousness, in the midst of the azure of the waves, of splendors, and of nude slaves, all impregnated with odors, who freshened my brow with palms, and whose unique care was to seek the painful secret which made me languish.”

I give you these unmetrical renderings to let you take the bare thought of Baudelaire, which is always poetical. For example, among several poems about the sea, the ancient and prolific source of poetry to the mind of man, he says that the bitter laugh of man, conquered, full of sobs and insults, he hears repeated in the enormous laugh of the sea.

In his poem of the Ideal the thought is likewise uncommon and large and poetical. He says he does not love the beauty of vignettes,— that he leaves to Gavarni, the poet of white and feeble things, his beauties of the hospital,— that he cannot find among those pale roses one flowers that represents his “red ideal.” “What my heart, profound like an abyss, needs, — it is thee, Lady Macbeth, soul strong for crime, dream of Æschylus ; or it is thee, grand Night, daughter of Michael Angelo, twisting peacefully, in a strange pose, charms fashioned to the mouth of Titans !”

His poem of Le Voyage, in which irony, contempt, and audacity give the tone to his voice, expresses the sum and substance of life to a man who is entirely outside of Christian sentiment, and yet far from antique cheerfulness. The only peace and sweetness you can discover in his poems is in the verses with which he celebrates the glory and beauty of the Pagan life. His souvenirs of that ancient and admirable time have the vividness and intensity of a personal experience. Baudelaire’s very being expands and feels anew the strength and ardor of existence at the memory of days when civilization and the natural life of man were not opposed to each other.

When he looks at the present life he becomes cruel, morbid. Too serious to let his mind be amused with the trivial aspects of the time, too penetrating to let his thought rest upon frivolities, he regards his fellow-beings as the sketches and illustrations of a hideous story, of whose meaning they are mere suggestions. He torments himself with the typical and dual life of things. A beautiful woman at the ball is to him a serpent that dances, and he taxes his mind for correspondences and resemblances ; as you read his poem, you are gradually subject to the same fancy: the cadence of the step, the beautiful abandon of the body, — it is the serpent in the woman !

One of his little poems is called Correspondences. The sense of it is unique and fine. He says the perfumes, the color, and the sounds answer each other; that there are perfumes fresh like the flesh of children, soft like a flute, green like the meadows, and others corrupted, rich, and triumphing, having the expansion of infinite things, like amber, musk, benzoin, and incense, which chant the transports of the spirit and the senses.

But what shall we say of his Litanies de Satan, of Abel et Cain, of Une Mar-

tyre? The feeling of horror which they inspire would make you forget the outrage done to your taste. They are poems whose meaning I have not the wish to express. No, I cannot deny it, this poet of evil has a terrible voice,— his is a dreadful cry rising from the heart of our age. Baudelaire walked amongst us despising us, and he was more sincere in his life than we are. He despised us, because with mutual consent we ignore the painful facts that fester in the very centres of our civilization. He curses us in our pleasures, in our vices, in our tardy and feeble repentance. He walked among us like an accusing spirit, who, sharing our unhappiness, contemplated our miseries, and never felt the saving and transfiguring power of a pure human love. As for the love of God, Baudelaire would have laughed a terrible laugh, had you spoken of it.

Byron’s cry is the cry of an audacious, discontented boy compared with Baudelaire’s cry of despair and pride. He did not go with Dante beyond this world to enter the Inferno ; he discovered it in our civilization, and he abandoned all hope the moment he discovered it.

But Baudelaire is dead. His cry is yet with us, and we must heed that cry. The cry of the poet expresses the suffering of the age ; it expresses the moral malady of a civilization. He came among us to make us know how far a man may go from the serene and beautiful world of our dreams. But Les Fleurs du Mal grew not out of the poet’s mind alone. They were fed and nourished by the moral soil of French life. Reproach him, at rest in his grave, for the pictures he made with words, the desires he so passionately expressed, the abnormal and shocking situations which he revealed? You dare not. You must reproach and correct the civilization which made his experience and emotions possible. Call him insane if you choose ; but first ask what made him insane, and you will not contemplate so tranquilly the aspects of human life. Read him, and you will enlarge your experience; read him, and you will broaden and deepen your sympathies. He will sadden you ; but what saddens spiritualizes and lifts out of brute life. Read him, and he will startle you ; but what startles gives a mental movement and takes out of inertia.

Baudelaire’s poetry is intensely personal,— it is even local. But all fine poetry not descriptive of external things is personal, and often it is local, inasmuch as it belongs not to a common experience. To take Baudelaire at his true value, we must understand him as the outcome of Parisian life in which the worship of beauty and the thirst for pleasure is supreme. The title of Several of his poems will do much to suggest to you their peculiar character, — such as Le Serpent qui Danse; Parfum Exotique; Horreur Sympathetique; Les Métamorphoses du Vampire; Les Promesses du Visage; Femmes Damnées; Les Bijoux; La Fontaine de Sang; L' Ame du Vin; La Mort; L' Homme et La Mer.

Charles Baudelaire was also a critical mind. He thought with force, and spoke with authority. His critique upon Gautier is a witness to the independence and incisiveness of his mind and of his high literary sense. Les Paradis Artificiels, which is composed of two parts, — one a translation of De Quincey’s “Confession of an OpiumEater,” the other, his own Confessions of an Hashish-Eater, — is remarkable for its terse and splendid diction, and thorough analysis of the ideas and sensations of a fine mind forced into activity by artificial means.

Victor Hugo paid him the tribute of a letter of thanks for his critique upon Théophile Gautier, in which he said: “Your article is one of those pages which strongly provoke the mind. Rare merit to make think.....You write of things profound and often serene. You love beauty. Give me your hand.”

The thinker in Charles Baudelaire is most interesting to me. It is the thought embodied in his verses that arrests my mind and separates the poet from the versifier, and gives him his place outside of their smooth insipidities. How far he is above or below, or how well he rivals his illustrious contemporaries in metrical art, is a question which belongs exclusively to his French critics ; but his thought, his emotion, his artistic sentiment, his moral idea, his poetry, — that is, the expressed relation of his mind to life and nature,— may appear in any language that corresponds with the mind of a civilized man, and bear witness to his being.

I have no pleasure in thinking of Charles Baudelaire. He has revealed himself as the most forlorn and energetic figure of the world’s poets. He has incarnated in his poems a covetous and haughty spirit; and he went through the golgotha of his passions unsatiated and unhumbled. De Musset, the melancholy poet of the disenchantments of life, and Heine, the sad mocker of the changefulness of life, are very light offenders against the serene or stagnant world of well-regulated people, compared with the positive, the unmitigated, the caustic poet Baudelaire. If you confront him, you will never forget him ; he will not let you forget him. He plants his thought in your mind, and it rankles there, the painful proof of a real and contemporary experience, that never has had so intense and bold a representative as the wretched author of Les Fleurs du Mal.

Naturally such a poet puts in play the whole of your moral and æsthetic faculties. If you make your reflections according to tradition, it is very easy to classify Baudelaire ; you rank him among the evilly possessed spirits ; you say he had several devils in him. The old symbols furnish good material for your rhetoric. No doubt his soul was in very bad company, and, to use the expressive language of Henry James, “resorted to eccentric and explosive methods by way of compelling society” to mark its work. Yet it is a serious question, and does not come within the range of my faculties, to say how far he was responsible for his extraordinary mental and moral life. He had mysterious and irresistible attractions to beautiful and fatal things, and they made the sadness of his soul, the fascination of his musical and sonorous verses, and the dark destiny of his life. He is one more type in the Pantheon of the poets ; as defined, as striking as Dante ; like him, intense, terse, vivid, in his use of words; like him, tenacious in his hold upon real things, while he expressed the dual life, the mysterious and ideal ; but he created no figure, and he made no story; he was impelled to express his personal experience, stripped bare of the usual poetic fictions and common inventions of timid and conventional, or modest and reserved writers. “ He loved the rare, the difficult, the strange,” wrote one of his friends; “and when he painted the deformities of humanity and civilization, it was only with a secret horror. He had for them no complaisance, and he looked upon them as infractions of the universal harmony.” As a writer he was remarkable for his pitiless logic and lyric fury of expression.