Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography
Baudelaire’s Literary Criticism
Les Fleurs du Mal
T.S. Eliot spoke of seeing Baudelaire as “something more than the author of the Fleurs du Mal.” “He is in fact a greater man than was imagined, though perhaps not such a perfect poet.” This is an odd view, but Eliot was, by 1930, tired of what he called Baudelaire’s machinery (“prostitutes, mulattoes, Jewesses, serpents, cats, corpses”) and anxious to register signs of spiritual struggle wherever he could find them. Baudelaire “attracted pain to himself,” was able to “study his suffering.”
Some seventeen years later Sartre made a passing reference to “Baudelaire’s greatness as a man” but generally saw him as something less than the author of the Fleurs du Mal, as someone who hid in the skirts of a religion he might have rejected, who chose not to choose his vertiginous freedom and converted his life into a lingering figurative suicide. “A hundred removals and not a single voyage”; “he elected to confuse the satisfaction of desire with its unsatisfied exasperation.”
Of course there is no great distance between these pictures of the poet. Only the evaluations differ. What is greatness for Eliot is evasion for Sartre. And the pictures are curiously alike in their unwillingness to focus on Baudelaire’s masterpiece. Les Fleurs du Mal is so disturbing a book, so spectacular and so patchy, so atrocious as Baudelaire himself said, that readers have always been tempted to avert their eyes from it—to prefer the prose poems, for example, or the intimate journals, or to bury themselves in the wretched, posturing letters in which Baudelaire, early and late, tried to persuade his mother that he really was the little boy she had always wanted, “that he was working hard,” as F. W. J. Hemmings nicely puts it, “and would shortly be at the top of the class.”
To give in to this temptation, though, whatever the charms or virtues of the work it leads to, is to miss the one thing that matters about Baudelaire. He was not a perfect poet—only lesser writers are that, and Les Fleurs du Mal is dedicated to one such “perfect magician,” Théophile Gautier—but a great one. He was not a great man, but a difficult and unhappy one, racked by disease and poverty and the sudden twists of his own temperament. He was neither more nor less than the author of Les Fleurs du Mal.
The three books under review—a biography, a study of Baudelaire’s literary criticism, and a deft and patient new translation of Les Fleurs du Mal—combine to bring out another aspect of the positions of Eliot and Sartre: their striking assurance, their certainty about who and what Baudelaire was. Hemmings has a fine sense of what Baudelaire was not—he was not, for example, a morbid reactionary or a despiser of the people; Rosemary Lloyd has an unusually quick eye for the note of pastiche in his writings, the almost imperceptible grin in the prose; and Richard Howard has sought …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.