Emile Deroy, Portrait de Charles Baudelaire,  1844,Oil on canvasPalace of Versailles

A poet’s correspondence ought to have a special interest, a superior quality—or so we tend to feel. And yet how often does great poetry go with great letter writing? One thinks of Byron, whose letters, for most of us, amount to something more than his poetry. But then Keats’s letters stay with us, lodge in the memory just as much as the best of his poetry. Goethe, I believe, is famous for his beautiful letters, unread and unreadable by me. But then, once German poets are mentioned, Rilke comes to mind as the most dedicated letter writer of them all. In his case, to an even greater degree than with Keats, whose passion and strength of feeling he cannot emulate, Rilke’s letters are a cocoon for his sensibilities. A typical letter of Rilke is meant to reward the recipient and to ward him off, in equal degrees—to secure distance and a certain carefully judged intimacy at the same time.

What is it that makes for, that creates, the starkness of contrast between the letters of such poets and those of Charles Baudelaire? A recent edition of Baudelaire’s letters, published by the University of Chicago Press, gives us some clues.1 The differences are not of temperament or personality—or rather these count for very little compared with the material difference of circumstances. Rilke and Keats both had private incomes, modest enough in the case of the latter but sufficient or more than sufficient to remove any immediate cares about the financial future; whereas Baudelaire’s entire career was tormented and riddled with daily anxiety and worry about money, about how to make ends meet, how to raise a modest sum on written work yet to be completed, how to counter a pressing demand for payment on a debt by incurring a further debt in a different quarter. Throughout the twenty-odd years of his writing life, the spells of relief from the nightmare of money worries can only have been brief and illusory.

What is it that makes for, that creates, the starkness of contrast between the letters of such poets and those of Charles Baudelaire?

Baudelaire’s own father had died at age sixty-eight in 1827, when the boy was barely six years old. His mother remarried in the following year, her bridegroom this time a military man, Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick. The stepfather, assuming parental responsibilities, took over the choice of schooling for the boy, and in later years Baudelaire commented with hatred on how disastrous this was. He was never happy at any of his schools, though his schoolboy letters show him anxious to please, and even to like his stepfather. Both were to prove impossible tasks. Finally, in 1839, after three years at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, he was expelled, which put an end to his formal education at the age of eighteen. On reaching his majority at twenty-one, he came into a patrimony of a hundred thousand francs from his late father’s estate. He had not long before returned from a sea voyage (parentally devised to take him away from the charms and temptations of city life), which he cut short at Mauritius instead of the intended destination of Calcutta.

Once at home and in command of his own small fortune, he began to spend it at a rate which filled his mother with alarm; and within two years, with the help and advice of her husband, and as a result of a family council, Charles’s modest fortune was sequestered in perpetuity by means of a Conseil Judiciaire, the appointed trustee of which would pay Charles a tiny pension at fixed intervals. Now, whatever the dictates of prudence might be from the parents’ point of view, it seems it was impossible for them to see the cruelty and stupidity, and the lifelong grinding sense of humiliation, which their pious intentions inflicted on their youthful victim. The following year he even attempted suicide, so hopeless did he feel his victimization to be. And in 1861 he could write to his mother:

I implore you, think of the Conseil Judiciaire! It has been devouring me for seventeen years. You have never been able to believe or understand the evil it has done me from every point. of view. What I say may be offensive to your own idea of the matter. In any case it is, for the moment, irremediable.

It was to remain irremediable for the five-year moment of life still left to him. And at his death, more than a quarter of his small fortune still remained untouched with the trustee.A letter to his friend and part-time publisher, Poulet-Malassis, written in 1861, gives us the nightmarish pattern of his days:

I want to add a word or two, the sort of thing I can say to you alone. For a long time now I've been on the brink of suicide. What holds me back has nothing to do with cowardice or even regret. It’s my sense of pride, which prevents me leaving my affairs in a mess. I’ll leave enough to pay my debts. For the last two months in particular I've fallen into an alarming listless-ness and despair. I've felt myself attacked by the kind of illness Gérard [de Nerval] had, that is, the fear of being incapable either of thinking, or of writing a single line .... My debt . . . it’s constantly increasing, and at far too fast a rate. But I return incessantly to my obsession, that of letting the debt lie by paying regular interest. Do you know that every two months, or two and a half months, I have a flood of errands, a forced dilapidation of time and money, a palpitation of all my will power, a real anguish every time I turn a door handle? Moreover this debt, which I incurred essentially to install myself at Honfleur, now prevents me from doing so, as I have to be in Paris, and always on my guard.

General Aupick had died in the spring of 1857, and his widow had moved to a small house on the coast at Honfleur. She wanted her son to join her there, and Baudelaire certainly felt that this could be a heaven-sent refuge and change for him, if only his finances would give him peace and quiet to do his real work. But this was simply never to be. Disappointments, failures, and debts, debts, debts were to continue their relentless pursuit. And there was always his mother to continue her forlorn litany of laments and reproaches, and total failure to understand. Why couldn’t dear Charles be respectable and prosperous, like some of the very best writers? As a lonely widow, like many another at the time, she naturally found comfort in the friendship and counsels of her cure, to whom she naturally confided her worries about her son. At the curé’s request, Charles sent him a precious copy of the deluxe edition of Les Paradis artificiels—which the priest, after due consideration, ceremonially burned.

It is easy to dismiss some of the poet’s later ventures toward furthering his career as rash and ridiculous: his candidature for election to the Acadèmie, for instance. How was that haven of staid respectability to be expected to open its gates to the poet whose chief claim to literary distinction was based on a book notoriously banned? The whole exploit was clearly based on desperation—a wish to please his mother, a forlorn conviction that his work had real merit, far exceeding the work of the academic elect. In retrospect, the irony is that nearly-all the names of the important academicians whom he canvased for votes—Lamartine, Viennet, Legouvé, Sandeau—are forgotten or of far less account now than that of the forlorn and ridiculous applicant, to whom a number of the most “important” Académie refused even to open their doors. Such being the reactions of the Immortals, as they are still nicknamed with just a hint of seriousness, it’s hardly surprising that Baudelaire gave up his electoral campaign after eight weeks or so: a very brief business compared with what some other writers have made of it, including Paul Valéry.

By this time, Baudelaire was developing a conviction that his native country had become his natural enemy. Everyone in France, he declares in one of his notebooks, bore an ever-increasing resemblance to Voltaire! It was this that drove him to the idea that Belgium, a neighbor country whose principal language was French, might prove a kindlier and more rewarding audience for his work. His plan was to deliver readings of and lectures on his own works and those of some of his eminent contemporaries: a sound and interesting proposition in itself. But everything would depend on the size and the responses of the hoped-for audiences, and these proved tiny and negative. And the whole exploit, much longer than his venture on academe, virtually consumed the last two years of his life.

Along with two other French poets, Villon and Rimbaud, Baudelaire offers us a peculiarly individual challenge: in all three cases it is a challenge to identify with their lot, their fate being inalienable from their genius. Rimbaud in his Lettre du Voyant defines the terrors of the lot of the Seer Poet, a role which he had chosen for himself. Villon was haunted by the threat of the rope, or the cold hell of the underground dungeon. It was in response to his study of Baudelaire’s poetry, life, and career, and to his closer experience of the character and fate of Rimbaud, that Verlaine was prompted to create the concept of the “poète damné,” the doomed poet, an apt enough symbol and title which leaves open the question of to what extent the poet’s fate is a matter of choice, and whether it is equally a matter of being chosen.

Of the three poets, Baudelaire is perhaps the least difficult to identify with; after all, his career was typically that of the never quite successful literary man, constantly driven to one money-catching chore after another—translating, reviewing, writing a labored critique of the annual offerings of paintings at the Salon. But behind the miseries and despairs of the years that followed the suppression of Les Fleurs du mal in 1857, there was a steady creative drive, a strengthening of the poet’s skill in a whole series of new poems. In the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, no less than thirty-five poems out of a total of about a hundred and thirty are completely new to the volume. Many of these new additions are among the finest and most memorable of the poet’s output. And besides this, many of the poems already existing in the 1857 edition have been radically strengthened and transformed. One needs to keep this in mind while traversing the daily, dreary landscape of the letters.

The present selection of Baudelaire’s letters can be divided into two groups: those to his mother, and those to his friends, cronies, enemies, and business acquaintances. Of the second group many appear here for the first time in English translations. A virtually complete edition of the poet’s letters to his mother, in Arthur Symons’s fine and spontaneous translation, appeared much earlier in this century. The same terms don’t quite apply to the present English versions. As will be seen from the quotations given here, they have a certain pallor as well as uncertainties of style and meaning about them. But the selection on the whole is sound, and cuts out most of the trivia. It includes, for instance, the poet’s forthright account of one of his dreams, which generated a small volume of commentary and elucidation from a Freudian analyst; but a writer who could be so casually frank about the sexual particulars of his dreams would have had little need of the psychiatrist’s couch. Posthumously, of course, he has been a famous and a favorite specimen for psychoanalytical treatment. A dead man, with such a voluminously morbid record, is the ideal patient for the process. He can even be completely cured, being in no position to continue the course, and quite unable to answer back.

Disappointments, failures, and debts, debts, debts were to continue their relentless pursuit.

Nor would he have deigned a reply to Sartre’s indictment, at one time famous if largely on account of its author’s conspicuous prestige at that period, though even then it was seen by some as a somewhat extravagantly erratic outburst. But Sartre was —fashionably—the would-be philosophical and political law-giver of his time, founder of a system of belief with all the unquestionable dogmas of a religion, including a catechism which could infallibly sort out the lost from the saved. Sartre’s rhetoric, whether praising or accusing, has for me quite a rich comic flavor. It suggests the gesticulations of one of Daumier’s lawyers, arms waving, gown sleeves flailing as the prosecution rises to its climax and the accusing counsel hovers like a raven over the cowering victim in the dock. In Baudelaire we see before us (according to the infallible existentialist decrees) not only a writer who was a contemptible failure in his chosen work, who was guilty of bad faith (mauvaise foi), and totally deficient in commitment (engagement), but a writer (and here we come to the peak of the indictment) who throughout his brief and inglorious career had before his eyes a shining example of those virtues he so signally lacked in himself. Who was this exemplary figure? None other than George Sand!—a lady whom Baudelaire singles out in one of his notebooks and describes as a “latrine,” “a stupid ponderous babbler,” “an ageing ingénue who cannot quit the boards.” This is certainly an equally prejudiced portrait of a famous and successful writer, a wealthy châtelaine, and an intermittent political activist whose heart was at one with the workers (except when she came into personal contact with a worker who simply ignored her orders and roused her to all the fury of an insulted grande dame, as she narrates herself in A Winter In Majorca). Sartre’s lengthy diatribe is simply an act of would-be demolition. As such it is a very nineteenth-century work and portrays the poet as he was conventionally viewed in his own day, which is no doubt why it reverts to an equally dated view of George Sand. It is based on the bourgeois view that financial success in any enterprise, including writing, is a virtue, and that financial failure, of which Baudelaire is a classic exemplar, must be a contemptible vice.

“Baudelaire est au comble de la gloire,” exclaims Paul Valéry at the outset of an address on the poet in 1924, nearly sixty years after its subject had ingloriously died of a stroke from the effects of syphilis, overwork, and despair. Retrospectively, most things can be taken for granted, but to understand the past we have to be capable of finding it surprising where it was so. In this sense very few books can have had a more peculiar career than Les Fleurs du mal, in its early days at least. At its first appearance it was judged to be not scandalous but simply dirty, obscene, and this was the repute that rubbed off on its author. As he recounts in a letter to Sainte-Beuve dated January 1861, he had heard himself described as “a werewolf ... in a malicious paper I read a few lines about my repulsive ugliness .... One day a woman said to me ‘It’s odd, you are very respectable. I thought you were always drunk and smelled ….'” This he wrote in the midst of his candidature for the Académie. No wonder he gave it up. The same ill repute may have clung around his name in Belgium and made his lecture tour there such a failure.

Meanwhile readers here and there, in ones and twos, were coming upon the new 1861 edition, expanded and transformed, and finding in it something totally new and yet instantly familiar, a sense of the banality of their own lives and surroundings here transfixed and transfigured, a frisson of recognition unified with a sense of the strange. And one or two of these discoverers were geniuses themselves. Mallarmé recounts how the volume came into his life and transformed his perspective on the craft of poetry, which he had been practicing since childhood. The same thing must have happened to the young Rimbaud when he was barely twelve, with even more decisive results.

Much as he had longed for recognition, and the praise and rewards it would bring, Baudelaire was somewhat taken aback by its first appearance. An admiring article by Verlaine made him feel at once that he did not want to be seen as the founder or leader of some new school of poetry. As a writer he wanted to remain alone. But time was to show, and with gathering speed after his death, that his creative influence would only increase, even across the barriers of language, just as Cézanne’s influence and example was to spread throughout European painting. The book has imperfections in plenty, but it still commands a position unmatched by any other volume of poetry of its day, or since, or from long before its day. From being dismissably dirty and shameful, it became the poetry vitally necessary to every European language, even if only by way of translation. Tennyson, with certain unease, labeled it “a poisonous honey brought from France.” The land of Shakespeare was too enrapt in its own past achievement to be able to credit anything phenomenal coming in another tongue. And so the influence failed to permeate the English world until the Pound-Eliot partnership introduced it in their own work in a very mitigated form, chiefly based on the verse of Laforgue, who can be fairly described as the Musset of the Symbolist movement. But Laforgue’s influence and example proved a vitalizing force in the earlier work of Eliot—and his best. As for Pound, much as he preached the virtues of the example set by recent French poetry in his campaign of “make it new,” he curiously avoided almost any mention of Baudelaire, fount and origin of it all. Did he share something of Henry James’s pudeur with regard to the poet’s themes? Eliot’s short essay on Baudelaire is marked by a certain “pilgrim-father” primness with regard to this not very well-behaved subject, whose poetry he finds to be full of echoes of. . . Racine! Well, I suppose if you isolate the two in a void of all other French poetry, they would be seen to employ the same alexandrine, with the same classical rigor. But as for “echoes,” we can only recall that Eliot himself is a poet compact of echoes, and here shows an aptitude for finding them where they are not.


  1.  The Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire, translated and edited by Rosemary Lloyd. University of Chicago Press, 268 pages, $24.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 3, on page 78
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