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  • Drinking Rules! Byron and Baudelaire
  • Joshua Wilner (bio)

This essay 1 takes up two nineteenth-century texts on the theme of intoxication in which the poetic word can no longer, if it ever could, stably figure itself as the metaphoric other of the drug, that is, as a legitimate means of imaginative transport, and in which the writer’s enthrallment by the transporting substance of words shows us its addictive and, one might say, prosaic face.

The first of these pieces is a pair of stanzas from Canto II of Byron’s Don Juan, the other, Baudelaire’s brief prose poem “Enivrez-vous,” pieces that Jean Pommier [341] and, following Pommier, Robert Kopp [314–15] have suggested may be connected, though neither reader enters into much more detail than to note that both bits of writing, in Kopp’s words, “chant[e] l’ivresse.” Now the praise of drunkenness is of course a poetic commonplace, and the mere fact of its appearance in these two bits of text argues about as intimate a bond of kinship as that involved in pointing out that you and I are both Noah’s children. But there are, I would argue, compelling reasons for looking at these pieces in relation to one another and to which I believe Pommier was responding.

That Byron mattered to Baudelaire is attested to by a number of references scattered throughout the latter’s work and letters, references which, while faulting Byron for garrulousness, praise him for having the thing that makes poets: “une diabolique personnalité” [OC 2: 232]. Perhaps the most interesting of these references occurs in a well-known letter that Baudelaire wrote to his mother in July 1857, shortly after Les fleurs du mal had been published and while the storm of controversy that was to culminate in the prosecution and expurgation of the collection for obscenity was rapidly gathering:

On me refuse tout, l’esprit d’invention et même la connaissance de la langue française. Je me moque de tous ces imbéciles, et je sais que ce volume, avec ses qualités et ses défauts, fera son chemin dans la mémoire du public lettré, à côté des meilleurs poésies de V. Hugo, de Th. Gautier et même de Byron.

[CP 1: 411]

[They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even knowledge of the French language. I could care less about all these imbeciles, and I know that this volume, with its qualities and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the [End Page 34] lettered public, along with the best poetry of V. Hugo, of Th. Gautier, and even of Byron.]

The pride of place Baudelaire reserves for Byron in this list was somewhat dated even in its time 2 and odd in other ways, especially given the more qualified expressions of admiration we meet elsewhere in his writings. But it becomes more understandable if one considers that for Baudelaire’s mother, who was of Byron’s generation and had early ties to England 3 (in fact, she apparently taught Charles English during his childhood [E. Crépet 30], making it, strangely enough, part of his “mother tongue”), Byron’s would have been the emblematic case of a writer for whom a reputation for depravity was overtaken by poetic honor, perhaps at the cost of his death in a noble cause.

Apart from this evidence of a felt affinity, there are specific formal grounds for associating the two pieces. Since they are fairly brief, allow me first of all to cite them both. Here are the stanzas from Canto II of Don Juan:

  179 Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;   The best of life is but intoxication: Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk   The hopes of all men, and of every nation; Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk   Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion! But to return, - Get very drunk; and when You wake with head-ache, you shall see what then.

  180 Ring for your valet - bid him quickly bring   Some hock and soda-water, then you’ll know A pleasure worthy Xerxes the...