Algernon Charles Swinburne

 

 

[Rezension]

 

CHARLES BAUDELAIRE: LES FLEURS DU MAL.

 

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It is now some time since France has turned out any new poet of very high note or importance; the graceful, slight, somewhat thin-spun classical work of M. Théodore de Banville hardly carries weight enough to tell across the Channel; indeed, the best of this writer's books, in spite of exquisite humorous character and a most flexible and brilliant style, is too thoroughly Parisian to bear transplanting at all. French poetry of the present date, taken at its highest, is not less effectually hampered by tradition and the taste of the greater number of readers than our own is. A French poet is expected to believe in philanthropy, and break off on occasion in the middle of his proper work to lend a shove forward to some theory of progress. The critical students there, as well as here, judging by the books they praise and the advice they proffer, seem to have pretty well forgotten that a poet's business is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remould society. No other form of art is so pestered with this impotent appetite for meddling in quite extraneous matters; but the mass of readers seem actually to think that a poem is the better for containing a moral lesson or assisting in a tangible and material good work. The courage and sense of a man who at such a time ventures to profess and act on the conviction that the art of poetry has absolutely nothing to do with didactic matter at all, are proof enough of the wise and serious manner in which he is likely to handle the materials of his art. From a critic who has put forward the just and sane view of this [999] matter with a consistent eloquence, one may well expect to get as perfect and careful poetry as he can give.

To some English readers the name of M. Baudelaire may be known rather through his admirable translations, and the criticisms on American and English writers appended to these, and framing them in fit and sufficient commentary, than by his volume of poems, which, perhaps, has hardly yet had time to make its way among us. That it will in the long run fail of its meed of admiration, whether here or in France, we do not believe. Impeded at starting by a foolish and shameless prosecution, the first edition was, it appears, withdrawn before anything like a fair hearing had been obtained for it. The book now comes before us with a few of the original poems cancelled, but with important additions. Such as it now is, to sum up the merit and meaning of it is not easy to do in a few sentences. Like all good books, and all work of any original savour and strength, it will be long a debated point of argument, vehemently impugned and eagerly upheld.

We believe that M. Baudelaire's first publications were his essays on the contemporary art of France, written now many years since. In these early writings there is already such admirable judgment, vigour of thought and style, and appreciative devotion to the subject, that the worth of his own future work in art might have been foretold even then. He has more delicate power of verse than almost any man living, after Victor Hugo, Browning, and (in his lyrics) Tennyson. The sound of his metres suggests colour and perfume. His perfect workmanship makes every subject admirable and respectable. Throughout the chief part of this book, he has chosen to dwell mainly upon sad and strange things – the weariness of pain and the bitterness of pleasure – the perverse happiness and wayward sorrows of exceptional people. It has the languid lurid beauty of close and threatening weather – a heavy heated temperature, with dangerous hothouse scents in it; thick shadow of cloud about it, and fire of molten light. It is quite clear of all whining and windy lamentation; there is nothing of the blubbering and shrieking style long since exploded. The writer delights in problems, and has a natural leaning to obscure and sorrowful things. Failure and sorrow, next to physical beauty and perfection of sound or scent, seem to have an infinite attraction for him. In some points he resembles Keats, or still more his chosen favourite among modern poets, Edgar Poe; at times, too, his manner of thought has a relish of Marlowe, and even the sincerer side of Byron. From Théophile Gautier, to whom the book is dedicated, he has caught the habit of a faultless and studious simplicity; but, indeed, it seems merely natural to him always to use the right word and the right rhyme. How supremely musical and flexible a perfect artist in writing can make the French language, any chance page of the book is enough to prove; every description, the slightest and shortest even, has a special mark on it of the writer's keen and peculiar power. The style is sensuous and weighty; the sights seen are steeped most often in sad light and sullen colour. As instances of M. Baudelaire's strength and beauty of manner, one might take especially the poems headed Le Masque, Parfum Exotique, La Chevelure, Les Sept Vieillards, Les Petites Vieilles, Brumes et Pluies; of his perfect mastery in description, and sharp individual drawing of character and form, the following stray verses plucked out at random may stand for a specimen: –

"Sur ta chevelure profonde
Aux âcres parfums,
Mer odorante et vagabonde
Aux flots bleus et bruns,

Comme un navire qui s'éveille
Au vent du matin,
Mon âme réveuse appareille
Pour un ciel lointain.

Tes yeux où rien ne se révèle
De doux ni d'amer
Sont deux bijoux froids où se mèle
L'or avec le fer.
            – – –
Et ton corps se penche et s'allonge
Comme un fin vaisseau
Qui roule bord sur bord et plonge
Ses vergues dans l'eau."

The whole poem is worth study for its vigorous beauty and the careful facility of its expression. Perhaps, though, the sonnet headed Causerie is a still completer specimen of the author's power. The way in which the sound and sense are suddenly broken off and shifted, four lines from the end, is wonderful for effect and success. M. Baudelaire's mastery of the sonnet form is worth remarking as a test of his natural bias towards such forms of verse as are most nearly capable of perfection. In a book of this sort, such a leaning of the writer's mind is almost necessary. The matters treated of will bear no rough or hasty handling. Only supreme excellence of words will suffice to grapple with and fitly render the effects of such material. Not the luxuries of pleasure in their simple first form, but the sharp and cruel enjoyments of pain, the acrid relish of suffering felt or inflicted, the sides on which nature looks unnatural, go to make up the stuff and substance of this poetry. Very good material they make, too; but evidently such things are unfit for rapid or careless treatment. The main charm of the book is, upon the whole, that nothing is wrongly given, nothing capable of being re-written or improved on its own ground. Concede the starting point, and you cannot have a better runner.

Thus, even of the loathsomest bodily putrescence and decay he can make some noble use; pluck out its meaning and secret, even its beauty, in a certain way, from actual carrion; as here, of the flies bred in a carcase.

"Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague;
    Ou s'élançait en pétillant.
On eût dit que le corps, enflé d'un souffle vague,
    Vivait en se multipliant.

Et ce monde rendait une étrange musique,
    Comme l'eau courante et le vent,
Ou le grain qu'un vanneur d'un mouvement rhythmique
    Agite et tourne dans son van."

Another of this poet's noblest sonnets is that A une Passante, comparable with a similar one of Keats, "Time's sea hath been five years at its slow ebb," but superior for directness of point and forcible reality. Here for once the beauty of a poem is rather passionate than sensuous. Compare the delicate emblematic manner in which Keats winds up his sonnet to this sharp perfect finale: –

                                    "Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici, trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
0 toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!"

There is noticeable also in M. Baudelaire's work a quality of drawing which recalls the exquisite power in the same way of great French artists now living. His studies are admirable for truth and grace; his figure-painting has the ease and strength, the trained skill, and beautiful gentle justice of manner, which come out in such pictures as the Source of Ingres, or that other splendid study by Flandrin, of a curled-up naked figure under full soft hot light, now exhibiting here. These verses of Baudelaire's are as perfect and good as either.

" – Tes sourcils méchants
Te donnent un air étrange,
Qui n'est pas celui d'un ange,
Sorcière aux yeux alléchants
*       *        *       *       *

"Sur ta chair le parfum rôde
Comme autour d'un encensoir;
Tu charmes comme le soir,
Nymphe ténébreuse et chaude.
*       *        *       *       *

"Le désert et la forêt
Embaument tes tresses rudes;
Ta tête a les attitudes
De l'énigme et du secret.

"Tes hanches sont amoureuses
De ton dos et de tes seins
,
Et tu ravis les coussins
Par tes poses langoureuses."

Nothing can beat that as a piece of beautiful drawing.

It may be worth while to say something of the moral and meaning of many among these poems. Certain critics, who will insist on going into this matter, each man as deep as his small leaden plummet will reach, have discovered what they call a paganism on the spiritual side of the author's tone of thought. Stripped of its coating of jargon, this may mean that the poet spoken of endeavours to look at most things with the eye of an old-world poet; that he aims at regaining the clear and simple view of writers content to believe in the beauty of material subjects. To us, if this were the meaning of these people, we must say it seems a foolish one; for there is not one of these poems that could have been written in a time when it was not the fashion to dig for moral motives and conscious reasons. Poe, for example, has written poems without any moral meaning at all; there is not one poem of the Fleurs du Mal which has not a distinct and vivid background of morality to it. Only this moral side of the book is not thrust forward in the foolish and repulsive manner of a half-taught artist; the background, as we called it, is not out of drawing. If any reader could extract from any poem a positive spiritual medicine – if he could swallow a sonnet like a moral prescription – then clearly the poet supplying these intellectual drugs would be a bad artist; indeed, no real artist, but a huckster and vendor of miscellaneous wares. But those who will look for them may find moralities in plenty behind every poem of M. Baudelaire's; such poems especially as Une Martyre. Like a mediæval preacher, when he has drawn the heathen love, he puts sin on its right hand and death on its left. lt is not his or any artist's business to warn against evil; but certainly he does not exhort to it, knowing well enough that the one fault is as great as the other.

But into all this we do not advise any one to enter who can possibly keep out of it. When a book has been so violently debated over, so hauled this way and that by contentious critics, the one intent on finding that it means something mischievous, and the other intent on finding that it means something useful, those who are in search neither of a poisonous compound nor of a cathartic drug had better leave the disputants alone, or take only such notice of them as he absolutely must take. Allegory is the dullest game and the most profitless taskwork imaginable; but if so minded a reader might extract most elaborate meanings from this poem of Une Martyre; he might discover a likeness between the Muse of the writer and that strange figure of a beautiful body with the head severed, laid apart

"Sur la table de nuit comme une renoncule."

The heavy "mass of dark mane and heap of precious jewels" might mean the glorious style and decorative language clothing this poetry of strange disease and sin; the hideous violence wrought by a shameless and senseless love might stand as an emblem of that analysis of things monstrous and sorrowful, which stamps the whole book with its special character. Then again, the divorce between all aspiration and its results might be here once more given in type; the old question re-handled: –

"What hand and brain went ever paired?
What heart alike conceived and dared?"

and the sorrowful final divorce of will from deed accomplished at last by force; and the whole thing summed up in that noble last stanza: –

[1000] "Ton époux court le monde: et ta forme immortelle
    Veille près de lui quand il dort;
Autant que toi sans doute il te sera fidèle,
    Et constant jusques à la mort."

All this and more might be worked out if the reader cared to try; but we hope he would not. The poem is quite beautiful and valuable enough as merely the "design of an unknown master." In the same way one might use up half the poems in the book; for instance, those three beautiful studies of cats (fitly placed in a book that has altogether a feline style of beauty – subtle, luxurious, with sheathed claws); or such carefully tender sketches as Le Beau Navire; or that Latin hymn "Franciscæ meæ:" –

"Novis te cantabo chordis,
O novelletum quod ludis
In solitudine cordis.
Esto sertis implicata,
O fœmina delicata
Per quam solvuntur peccata!"

Some few indeed, as that ex-voto poem A une Madone, appeal at once to the reader as to an interpreter; they are distinctly of a mystical moral turn, and in that rich symbolic manner almost unsurpassable for beauty.

"Avec mes Vers polis, treillis d'un pur métal
Savamment constellé de rimes de cristal,
Je ferai pour ta tête une énorme Couronne;
Et dans ma Jalousie, ô mortelle Madone,
Je saurai te tailler un Manteau, de façon
Barbare, roide et lourd, et doublé de soupçon,
Qui comme une guérite enfermera tes charmes;
Non de Perles brodé, mais de toutes mes Larmes!
Ta Robe, ce sera mon Désir, frémissant,
Onduleux, mon Désir qui monte et qui descend,
Aux pointes se balance, aux vallons se repose,
Et revêt d'un baiser tout ton corps blanc et rose."

Before passing on to the last poem we wish to indicate for especial remark, we may note a few others in which this singular strength of finished writing is most evident. Such are, for instance, Le Cygne, Le Poison, Tristesses de la Lune, Remords Postume, Le Flacon, Ciel Brouillé, Une Mendiante Rousse (a simpler study than usual, of great beauty in all ways, noticeable for its revival of the old fashion of unmixed masculine rhymes), Le Balcon, Allegorie, L'Amour et le Crâne, and the two splendid sonnets marked xxvii. and xlii. We cite these headings in no sort of order, merely as they catch one's eye in revising the list of contents and recall the poems classed there. Each of them we regard as worth a separate study, but the Litanies de Satan, as in a way the key-note to this whole complicated tune of poems, we had set aside for the last, much as (to judge by its place in the book) the author himself seems to have done.

Here it seems as if all failure and sorrow on earth, and all the cast-out things of the world – ruined bodies and souls diseased – made their appeal, in default of help, to Him in whom all sorrow and all failure were incarnate. As a poem, it is one of the noblest lyrics ever written; the sound of it between wailing and triumph, as it were the blast blown by the trumpets of a brave army in irretrievable defeat.

"O toi qui de la Mort, ta vieille et forte amante,
Engendras l'Espérance – une folle charmante!
    O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
Toi qui fais au proscrit ce regard calme et haut
Qui damne tout un peuple autour d'un échafaud,
    O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!

      *           *            *           *           *

Toi qui, magiquement, assouplis les vieux os
De l'ivrogne attardé foulé par les chevaux,
    O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
Toi qui, pour consoler l'homme frêle qui souffre,
Nous appris à mêler le salpêtre et le soufre,
    O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!"

These lines are not given as more finished than the rest; every verse has the vibration in it of naturally sound and pure metal. It is a study of metrical cadence throughout, of wonderful force and variety. Perhaps it may be best, without further attempts to praise or to explain the book, here to leave off, with its stately and passionate music fresh in our ears. We know that in time it must make its way; and to know when or how concerns us as little as it probably concerns the author, who can very well afford to wait without much impatience.

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Spectator.
Nr. 1784, 1862, 6. September, S. 998-1000. [PDF]
URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000639061

Ungezeichnet.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien). Die zahlreichen Druckfehler in den französischen Zitaten wurden stillschweigend korrigiert.

Swinburnes Rezension bezieht sich auf die 2. Auflage von Baudelaires "Les Fleurs du Mal" (Paris 1861; 1. Aufl. 1857).

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

Kommentierte Ausgaben

 

 

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Turquet-Milnes, G.: The Influence of Baudelaire in France and England. London 1913.
URL: https://archive.org/details/cu31924027517758

Walder, Anne: Swinburne's "Flowers of evil". Baudelaire's Influence on Poems and ballads, first series. Uppsala 1976 (= Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia, 25).

Weigand, Wilhelm: Algernon Charles Swinburne. In: Die Gegenwart. Wochenschrift für Literatur, Kunst und öffentliches Leben. Bd. 34, 1888, Nr. 46, 17. November, S. 310-312. [PDF]

Zanucchi, Mario: Transfer und Modifikation. Die französischen Symbolisten in der deutschsprachigen Lyrik der Moderne (1890-1923). Berlin/Boston 2016 (= spectrum Literaturwissenschaft/spectrum Literature, 52).

 

 

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer