A review of Baudelaire and the Symbolists: Five Essays, by Peter Quennell
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[ 11 A review of Baudelaire and the Symbolists: Five Essays, by Peter Quennell London: Chatto & Windus, 1929. Pp. xii + 221. The Criterion: A Literary Review, 9 (Jan 1930) 357-59 Mr. Quennell has done for his generation what Arthur Symons did many years ago with his Symbolist Movement in Literature.1 I am not disposed to disparage Mr. Symons’s book; it was a very good book for its time; it did make the reader want to read the poets Mr. Symons wrote about. I myself owe Mr. Symons a great debt: but for having read his book, I should not, in the year 1908, have heard of Laforgue or Rimbaud; I should probably not have begun to read Verlaine; and but for reading Verlaine, I should not have heard of Corbière.2 So the Symons book is one of those which have affected the course of my life.3 Nevertheless, it was time that a new book on the same subject should be written, omitting, as does Mr. Quennell very rightly, Maeterlinck.4 Whoever reads the one book ought to read the other, certainly; but we are no longer in a flush of discovery: the poets of whom Mr.QuennelltreatsarenowasmuchinourbonesasShakespeareorDonne:5 the need is for what is called appraisal. The chief fault I have to find with Mr. Quennell’s book is the form, five essays. One anticipates – five essays, essays as Mr. Symons wrote them, starting afresh and with fresh enthusiasm on each author. But these are not really five essays; they are five chapters in one whole essay on a part of the great subject of Post-Romanticism.6 I found Mr. Quennell’s first essay, that on Baudelaire (the key poet not included in Mr. Symons’s volume, and a poet whom Mr. Symons has fumbled more badly than the minor successors )7 the least satisfactory on first reading. For there is a great deal more to be said about Baudelaire than Mr. Quennell has said. On the other hand, Baudelaire is so much greater a man than all of his successors, that he cannot be confined, as can they, within one essay. Therefore the difficulty of a scheme such as Mr. Quennell has adopted, is that a master like Baudelaire must be reduced to those aspects in which the least among his significant disciples can be profitably compared with him. Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 12 ] With this reservation, – or making on Mr. Quennell’s behalf a statement which I feel he should have made for himself, – the essay on Baudelaire is an admirable study, and except for the studies of Laforgue and Mallarmé, really the best in the book. It is the first of a sequence of studies in the postmortem of Romanticism, and in the insurgence of something which can hardly be called classicism, but which may decently be called CounterRomanticism . The difficulty is that the minor men can be wholly, and even more than generously, confined within what can beyond question be called literary criticism; whereas any adequate criticism of Baudelaire must in­ evitably lead the critic outside of literary criticism. For it will not do to label Baudelaire; he is not merely, or in my opinion even primarily, the artist; and if I compared him with anyone in his own century, it would be to Goethe and to Keats – that is to say, I should place him with men who are important first because they are human prototypes of new experience, and only second because they are poets. I think that Mr. Quennell is not unaware of this, for in one of his best sentences on Baudelaire he says: He had enjoyed a sense of his own age, had recognised its pattern when the pattern was yet incomplete, and – because it is only our misapprehension of the present which prevents our looking into the immediate future, our ignorance of to-day and of its real as apart from its spurious tendencies and requirements – had anticipated many problems, both on the aesthetic and on the moral plane, in which the fate of modern poetry is still concerned. [64] This affirmation is, I believe, certainly true: it is this “sense of the age” that is important about Baudelaire, and is what he imparted, in varying fractions , to his minor successors. And a “sense of one’s age” implies some sense of other ages; so that Baudelaire’s sense of Racine is integral with his sense of his own age.8 Of course...