restricted access The Lesson of Baudelaire
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306 ] The Lesson of Baudelaire1 The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Design, 1 (Spring 1921) 4 With regard to certain intellectual activities across the Channel, which at the moment appear to take the place of poetry in the life of Paris, some effort ought to be made to arrive at an intelligent point of view on this side. It is probable that this French performance is of value almost exclusively for the local audience; I do not here assert that it has any value at all, only that itspertinence,ifithasany,istoasmallpublicformidablywellinstructedinits own literary history, erudite and stuffed with tradition to the point of bursting . Undoubtedly the French man of letters is much better read in French literature than the English man of letters is in any literature; and the educated English poet of our day must be too conscious, by his singularity in that respect, of what he knows, to form a parallel to the Frenchman. If French culture is too uniform, monotonous,2 * English culture, when it is found, is too freakish and odd. Dadaism is a diagnosis of a disease of the French mind; whatever lesson we extract from it will not be directly applicable in London.3 Whatever value there may be in Dada depends upon the extent to which it is a moral criticism of French literature and French life. All first-rate poetry is occupied with morality: this is the lesson of Baudelaire. More than any poet of his time, Baudelaire was aware of what most mattered: the problem of good and evil. What gives the French Seventeenth Century literature its solidity is the fact that it had its Morals, that it had a coherent pointofview.RomanticismendeavouredtoformanotherMorals–Rousseau, Byron, Goethe, Poe were moralists. But they have not sufficient coherence; not only was the foundation of Rousseau rotten, his structure was chaotic and inconsistent. Baudelaire, a deformed Dante (somewhat after the intelligent Barbey d’Aurevilly’s phrase), aimed, with more intellect plus intensity , and without much help from his predecessors, to arrive at a point of view toward good and evil.4 Englishpoetry,allthewhile,eitherevadedtheresponsibility,orassumed it with too little seriousness. The Englishman had too much fear, or too much respect, for morality to dream that possibly or necessarily he should [ 307 The Lesson of Baudelaire be concerned with it, vom Haus aus, in poetry.5 This it is that makes some of the most distinguished English poets so trifling. Is anyone seriously interested in Milton’s view of good and evil? Tennyson decorated the morality he found in vogue; Browning really approached the problem, but with too little seriousness, with too much complacency; thus The Ring and the Book just misses greatness – as the revised version of Hyperion almost, or just, touches it.6 As for the verse of the present time, the lack of curiosity in technical matters, of the academic poets of to-day (Georgian et caetera) is only an indication of their lack of curiosity in moral matters. On the other hand, the poets who consider themselves most opposed to Georgianism, and whoknowalittleFrench,aremostlysuchascouldimaginetheLastJudgment only as a lavish display of Bengal lights, Roman candles, catherine-wheels, and inflammable fire-balloons.7 Vous, hypocrite lecteur . . . .8 T. S. Eliot Notes 1. This was second of the set of two essays (with “The Romantic Englishman,” 302) that TSE published in the first issue of Wyndham Lewis’s The Tyro. 2*. TSE’s note: “Not without qualification. M. Valéry is a mathematician; M. Benda is a mathematician and a musician. These, however, are men of exceptional intelligence.” 3. The avant-garde artistic and cultural movement Dadaism began in Zurich in 1916 but came to Paris under the leadership of Tristan Tzara in Jan 1920. The most recent public event was the appearance of the manifesto Dada soulève tout [Dada Stirs Up Everything], published to coincide with the Dadaist protest at a lecture by futurist Filippo Marinetti on 15 Jan 1921. TSE reviewed Tzara’s vingt-cinq poèmes in 1919 (66). 4. Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808-89) makes the comparison in an untitled defense of Les Fleurs du mal: “Il y a du Dante, en effet, dans l’auteur des Fleurs du mal, mais c’est du Dante d’une époque déchue, c’est du Dante athée et moderne, du Dante venu après Voltaire, dans un temps qui n’aura point de saint Thomas” [There is something of Dante, indeed, in...