restricted access Baudelaire in our Time
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[ 71 Baudelaire in our Time1 Mr. Symons has made a good translation, in the Symons style.2 If our point of view to-day was the point of view of thirty years ago, or even of twenty years ago, we should call it a good translation. To read Mr. Symons now, is to realize how great a man is Baudelaire, who can appear in such a different form to the ’nineties and to the nineteen-twenties. In the translation of Mr. Symons, Baudelaire becomes a poet of the ’nineties, a contemporary of Dowson and Wilde. Dowson and Wilde have passed, and Baudelaire remains; he belonged to a generation that preceded them, and yet he is much more our contemporary than are they.3 Yet even the ’nineties are nearer to us than the intervening generation – I date in literary generations; and the fact that they were interested in Baudelaire indicates some community of spirit. Since the generation – the literary generation – of Mr. Symons and the ’nineties, another generation has come and gone – the literary generation which includes Mr. Bernard Shaw, and Mr. Wells, and Mr. Lytton Strachey.4 This generation, in its ancestry, “skipped” the ’nineties: it is the progeny of Huxley, and Tyndall, and George Eliot, and Gladstone.5 And with this generation Baudelaire has nothing to do; but he had something to do with the ’nineties and he has a great deal to do with us. But the present volume should perhaps, even in fairness, be read as a document explicatory of the ’nineties, rather than as a current interpretation of Baudelaire. In an interesting preface – too short – Mr. Symons avows that theFleursdumal“inregardtomyearliestverses,wasatonceafascination and an influence, and because from that time onward his fascination has been like a spell to me, and because that masterpiece has rarely, if ever, been equalled, has rarely, if ever, been surpassed” [v]. Mr. Symons is himself , we must remember, no mean poet; he is typical of the ’nineties; this influence of Baudelaire upon Mr. Symons was manifestly genuine and profound . Why is Baudelaire so different now? We can learn something about Baudelaire, and about the ’nineties, and about ourselves. Mr. Symons’s preface is very interesting: it is perhaps the most important part of the book. What is interesting is the attitude, so completely of his epoch, toward “vice.” For Mr. Symons there is, at least en principe, a ritual, 1927 72 ] an hierarchy, a liturgy, of “vice” or “sin.” Here is a whole paragraph so significant that I beg to give it entire: In the poetry of Baudelaire, with which the poetry of Verlaine is so often compared [i.e. compared by Mr. Symons and his friends – we no longer find much in common], there is a deliberate science of sensual and sexual perversity which has something curious in its accentuation of vice with horror, in its passionate devotion to passions. Baudelaire brings every complication of taste, the exasperation of perfumes, the irritant of cruelty, the very odours and colours of corruption, to the creation and adornment of a sort of religion, in which an Eternal Mass is served before a veiled altar. There is no confession, no absolution, not a prayer is permitted which is not set down on the ritual. . . . ‘To cultivate one’s hysteria ,’ I have written, ‘so calmly, and to affront the reader (Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère)6 as a judge rather than a penitent; to be a casuist in confession; to be so much a moralist, with so keen and so subtle a sense of the ecstasy of evil that has always bewildered the world, even in his own country, where the artist is allowed to live as experimentally as he writes. Baudelaire lived and died solitary, secret, a confessor of sins who had never told the whole truth, le mauvais moine of his own sonnet, an ascetic of passion, a hermit of the Brothel.’7 This paragraph is of extraordinary interest for several reasons. Even in its cadences it conjures up Wilde8† and the remoter spectre of Pater. It conjures up also Lionel Johnson with his “life is a ritual.”9 It cannot get away from religion and religious figures of speech. How different a tone from that of the generation of Mr. Shaw,10 * and Mr. Wells, and Mr. Strachey, and Mr. Ernest Hemingway! And how different from our own! Mr. Symons seems to us like a sensitive child, who has been taken into a church, and has been...


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