George Saintsbury



Charles Baudelaire.




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It is not difficult to appreciate the general features of Baudelaire's poetry. The first thing, perhaps, which strikes a careful observer is that it is singularly unfrench. The characteristics which one is accustomed to look for in French poetry, even in that which has been most exposed to the denationalizing influences of the Romantic movement, are almost entirely absent. The medium of expression is for the first time entirely under the control of the artist. Even Victor Hugo and Théophile Gautier, able as they undoubtedly are to say anything, show more traces of the restraining influence of the language than does Baudelaire. Whether this be owing merely to artistic mastery, or to the absorbing and unprovincial character of [513] the thoughts which he chiefly expresses, it is certain that it exists to a degree which prevents many Frenchmen from thoroughly admiring the poet. They miss the accustomed turns of thought and expression, the poncif from which not even 1830 was able thoroughly to disengage French poetry. Both in reading published criticisms and in conversation, it is usual to find them preferring the least characteristic pieces, poems such as "Don Juan aux Enfers" or "La Géante," which are merely very excellent examples of a style in which fifty Frenchmen have done nearly as well, and two or three better. But the poems quoted above, and many others of equal or superior attractions, which exhibit almost for the first time in French, the vague yearnings and aspirations, complaints and despair to which the English and German languages lend themselves so readily, are far less generally appreciated. The iron of language and prosody has entered into the soul of the average Frenchman to such an extent that he can hardly understand freedom; and this is indeed scarcely to be wondered at by any one who knows what the laws and conditions of French poetry really are. Judicious recurrence to old modes of speech has to a great extent strengthened and suppled the vocabulary, and diligent study of the Pléiade has enriched the repertory of metres; but what, after all, is to be done with a language which practically possesses but one foot — the iamb? Let any one take an English poet and see what the result of cancelling almost all his anapæstic and trochaic rhythm would be. The French versifier is in fact very much in the position of a man with one hand tied behind his back, and three fingers of the other hand disabled. Nothing in versification is more wonderful than the ingenuity with which the great French poets of the century have endeavoured to get the better of their restrictions, and have managed to produce such lyrics as Victor Hugo's Chasseur Noir, and Théophile Gautier's Barcarolle. But Baudelaire's great peculiarity and excellence is that he manages to produce almost endless variety of metrical and rhythmical effect without having recourse to any mechanical aids of complicated metre and rhythm; by far the larger number of his poems being written in ordinary Alexandrines or eight-syllabled verses, arranged in simple four-line stanzas. It is not at all improbable that the superior poetical merit of his Alexandrines is owing to his never having written for the stage; but whatever be the cause of the merit it certainly exists, and his verses stand almost alone in their singular variety of cadence and consequent flexibility of expression. In many of his poems, notably in "Une Martyre," he has managed to stamp such a character of sombre horror on the verse, that if syllables of similar sound but unknown sense were substituted, the general effect would still be retained. It is undoubtedly in the production of this kind of effect, varied and enhanced by touches of quiet beauty, that [514] he chiefly excels, displaying, as he says himself of a picture of Manet's:

"Le reflet inattendu d'un bijou rose et noir."

But original as Baudelaire unquestionably is, he is not any more than others a literary Melchisedec, and I should be inclined to trace the origin of this peculiar manner to one of the earlier romantics, Petrus Borel. Petrus has had rather hard measure in one of Baudelaire's critical essays, and in truth his various extravagances, his bousingotisme and lycanthropy, were not calculated to attract the younger poet, whose undemonstrativeness and hatred of exaggeration carried him to the other extreme. But Baudelaire has fully acknowledged the excellence of the piece which I have here in view — the preface in verse to Madame Putiphar. This poem may be found at length in Asselineau's Bibliographie Romantique, and is one of the most remarkable in modern French poetry. It is with considerable difficulty that a reader well acquainted with the Fleurs du Mal can bring himself to believe that it is not Baudelaire's own, with a difference. The spirit is the same, the style with its sombre glitter is the same, and the chief point of contrast is the less severe dignity of language and versification. The resemblance of the Petits Poëmes en Prose, to the work of another early romantic, Louis Bertrand, though avowed is less striking. Bertrand's work, Gaspard de la Nuit, which a reprint in 1869 has enabled those who wish to study, no doubt suggested to Baudelaire the idea of elaborating short pieces of prose with the unity, precision, and adornment of verse; but the execution of the two is very different, and a consideration of its differences would afford an admirable exercise in criticism. Bertrand seems to have proposed to himself the execution in prose of something similar to those poems which have been among the chief results of 1830, poems exhibiting some definite pictorial subject in a pictorial manner. Accordingly his pieces are all very short, and are divided into staves of about equal length, each of which corresponds to a four-line stanza. The book, even in its reprinted form, being not widely known, I may give as a specimen, not the best but one of the shortest of the pieces: —




"C'est ici! et déja, dans l'épaisseur des halliers, qu'éclaire à peine l'œil phosphorique du chat sauvage tapi sous les ramées:
Aux flancs des rocs qui trempent dans la nuit des précipices leur chevelure de broussailles, ruisselante de rosée et de vers luisants;
Sur le bord du torrent qui jaillit en blanche écume au front des pins, et qui bruine en grise vapour au front des chateaux:
Une foule se rassemble innombrable, que le vieux bucheron attardé par les sentiers, sa charge de bois sur le dos, entend et ne voit pas:
Et de chêne en chêne, de butte en butte, se répondent mille cris confus, lugubres, effrayants: 'Hum! hum! — schup! schup! — coucou! coucou!'
C'est-ici le gibet! – Et voilà paraître dans la brume un juif qui cherche quelque chose parmi l'herbe mouillée, à l'éclat doré d'une main de gloire."


[515] This book is simply the ne plus ultra of word-painting, a tour de force of the most wonderful kind, executed in most attractive manner, and with matchless felicity and taste, but still a tour de force. What is the province of one art is ipso facto not the province of another art, and this Baudelaire's finer literary sense enabled him to perceive. There is accordingly in the Petits Poëmes en Prose much less of the merely pictorial, and much more appeal to the intellect and the imagination. He has also rejected the division into staves or fragments. Every one of the Petits Poëmes is a strictly proper and legitimate piece of prose, in which no ornament or device of an unusual or unprosaic kind is employed. But it is prose employed to serve a new purpose, the presentation of a definite and complete image, thought, or story in a definite, complete, and above all, brief form. The precise presentation within contracted limits, and the employment of an extraordinarily refined and polished style, are the sole differentiating factors, but the variety and originality which their introduction produces are unmistakable. Such pieces as Un Hemisphère dans une Chevelure, and Les Bienfaits de la Lune show what prose can do, if not to the utmost extent possible, certainly to the utmost extent known to the present writer. Others, as La Belle Dorothée and L'Invitation au Voyage, have an additional interest, because we can compare them with the poet's own treatment of the same subjects in verse. But all, with hardly any exception, display the same extraordinary supremacy of composition and the same mastery over language. Indeed it is not unusual to find persons of no inadequate cultivation who actually prefer these prose pieces to the author's poetical works, though the preference is probably in some measure due to the curious secret repugnance to French poetry which prevails so largely and to which I have already alluded. But there can be no doubt that the Petits Poëmes en Prose are of almost equal merit with the poems proper, and deserve almost equal attention.

The question of the relation of Baudelaire's poetry to morals is one which were it not forced upon me I should either not treat at all or pass over very lightly. For by so doing I should best express my most hearty concurrence with those who deprecate entirely the introduction of such questions into matters of literature, and who deny ab initio the jurisdiction of the court. For my own part I have little or nothing to add to the arguments which have already been produced on a subject where the argument is on one side and the authority on the other. It is sufficient for me, that the introduction of morality is a μετάβασις ἐς ἄλλο γένος a blunder and a confusion of the stupidest kind. But Baudelaire's position in regard to this matter is so strange that it is impossible to pass it over. The author of a condemned book — condemned under a régime which has [516] justly or unjustly become almost a by-word for the lax morality in conduct and language which it permitted if it did not actually encourage — he has naturally seemed to virtuous men of letters a perfectly safe figure, when they happen to be in need of a vituperative parallel. But if these virtuous persons, in quest (of course only in the pursuit of knowledge) of inspiriting indecency, should happen to invest in a copy of the Fleurs du Mal, even with the condemned pieces attached, we are afraid they will meet with a disappointment similar to that which Mr. Charles Reade has described so graphically in It is never too late to mend. Indeed, on reading the book it is impossible not to understand and sympathize with the poet's astonishment at the prosecution and its result. The pervading tone, from a moral point of view, is simply a profound and incurable discontent with things in general, a discontent which may possibly be unchristian, but which is not yet an indictable offence in any country that I know of. Among some two hundred poems there are barely half-a-dozen the subjects of which come in any way within the scope of that elastic but apparently delicate commandment, infringements of which (or rather incitements to infringements of which) put legislators and moralists so terribly on the qui-vive. We all know of course that you may write about murder as often as you like, and no one will accuse you of having committed that crime. You may depict an interesting brigand without being considered a thief. Nor in either case will you be thought an inciter to either offence. But so soon as you approach the other deadly sin of luxury in any one of its forms, instantly it appears self-evident that you not only do these things but also take pleasure in those who do them. In Baudelaire's case the immorality is, as Gautier says, "si savante, si abstruse, si enveloppée de formes et de voiles d'art," that it might surely have been regarded as comparatively harmless. But indeed any Philistine may be met on this head with the words of a prophet of his own — even Lord Macaulay. The delicacy which can be offended with Baudelaire is "a delicacy which a walk from Westminster to the Temple is sufficient to destroy."

But it may very likely still be asked what the object of the present article is? Baudelaire, it will be said, even granting his merits, is not a writer likely to be at any time popular, while on the other hand those who are akin to him by their tastes and studies are probably already acquainted more or less with his works. It might be answered that the latter point is at least doubtful, and that even were it not so, the purpose of the writer would place it beside the question. To show the value of Baudelaire's work — a value most certainly far underrated in England, and to the best of my knowledge in France also — has been the object of this essay, and if this has been in any measure attained I am content. But there is a col[517]lateral issue of almost greater importance. It is not merely admiration of Baudelaire which is to be persuaded to English readers, but also imitation of him which is with at least equal earnestness to be urged upon English writers. We have had in England authors in every kind not to be surpassed in genius, but we have always lacked more or less the class of écrivains artistes — writers who have recognised the fact that writing is an art, and who have applied themselves with the patient energy of sculptors, painters, and musicians to the discovery of its secrets. In this literary salt of the earth our soil has not been plentiful, and in a transition epoch, when there is nothing very much to say, the want of care in the manner of saying is especially glaring and painful. In this point France has been far ahead of us for the last fifty years, and it is only in the last decade that any effort has been made on our side. With the usual wastefulness of material affluence we have relied on fulness of thought and natural aptness of language to supply the want of careful and tasteful industry. In poetry this reliance has not altogether failed us, and of late Mr. Swinburne and other poets have condescended to take a lesson from the despised neighbours, respecting whom it has long been the conviction of the average Briton that the history of poetry in France is as the history of the Icelandic Owl. But in prose matters have been far different. A hundred years ago style was not an unknown thing among Englishmen; at the present day it would bo easy to count on one hand the living writers who think of anything but of setting down the first words which occur to them as capable of clearly and grammatically expressing their thought. That word and phrase are capable of management till they present a result as different from the first crude jotting as a Vandyke from a schoolboy's caricature, seems to be a truth utterly neglected if not utterly forgotten. Nor can we wonder at this if we look at the singular ineptitude in this matter of the average critic. When professional critics tell us that we must admire a certain writer's poems because he recognises the divinity of endurance, that we must not admire such and such an author's translations because his reading has been desultory, that the Ancient Mariner is defective as a poem because it is inconclusive as a plea against cruelty to animals — we can hardly wonder at the attitude of the general public. What that attitude is may be perhaps pardonably illustrated by an anecdote within the present writer's personal knowledge. Not many months ago a certain person was expatiating on the beauties of Flameng's etching after Herrera L'Enfant à la Guitare. He was met by the remark, "I wonder you like that. I thought you hated babies." That any one should care for form apart from subject was incomprehensible.

To remove as much as possible this incomprehensibility by precept [518] and example, in criticism as well as in original work, is the business as it seems to me of all English artists, and of the English prose writer especially, inasmuch as his own art is in worse case than any. If in matter of prose style "nous avons perdu le chemin de Paros," it must be rediscovered. The slipshod phrase-mongering of the newspaper must be resisted and refused. To the end that this may be done I know nothing more important than the study of those authors, in prose and verse, who have been most careful and most successful in like attempts before us, and of such authors I know none more suitable to the purpose than Baudelaire. His work measured by volume is not great. But in that work there is no line of careless or thoughtless execution, no paragraph where taste or principle has been sacrificed for praise or pay, for fear or favour, no page where the humanist and literary ideal is not steadily kept in view and exemplified. Valuable and delightful as he is for private study with no further end, he should be yet more valuable and productive of multiplied delight as a model and a stimulant. It is reported of a scholar not unknown at one of our universities, that before going to bed he invariably, in conscious or unconscious parody of ancient habits, reads a sonnet of Shakespeare. If this practice should spread, and manuals of devotion become common among men of letters, I know none that I should be tempted to adopt myself, and to recommend to others, in preference to the writings of Charles Baudelaire.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Fortnightly Review.
Bd. 18, New Series, 1875, 1. Oktober, S. 500-518.

Unser Auszug: S. 512-518.

Gezeichnet: George Saintsbury.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien). Korrektur der Akzent-Fehler nicht markiert.

The Fortnightly Review   online





Aufgenommen in





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer