When I first read some poems by Baudelaire at the age of sixteen I became very curious about him as a man. I imagined him as a fiery revolutionary with wild hair and a desperate look in his eyes. For a long time all I knew about him were his poems and his surname. When I discovered that his first name was Charles, my image of him took a bit of a knock. It was too ordinary a name. He should have been called Théophile or Rémy, I thought, something unmistakably French. That’s if he had a Christian name at all. Later, at university, I bought a new edition of his poetry and there was a photo of him inside the front cover. It was this photograph by Félix Nadar.
Once again I had to rethink my image of him. At first I was disappointed. I thought he looked more like a lawyer than a poet. Looking at the picture again now I can’t understand how I thought so. Did I miss that narcissistic gleam in his eye, the obstinate, cruel set of his mouth or his exquisite cravat? Surely I didn’t fail to notice that extravagant overcoat, its collar turned up rakishly and the poet’s hand thrust inside with Gallic hauteur? Probably I didn’t miss them. I just didn’t want to see them. The Baudelaire I imagined wasn’t like this. He was sensual but not cruel, wild but not vain, determined but not arrogant.
There are other photos of him where the qualities that come across in his poems are even more evident. You get a sense of his reckless vanity, his defiance, his anger, his desperation and his intellectual fastidiousness. In the biography by Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler there’s a photo by Etienne Carjat where he even looks vulnerable and sensitive, which I can’t find on the internet.
But, although I never realised it at the time, it was the cruelty, the vanity and the arrogance that made Baudelaire’s poetry so compelling. It isn’t enough for a poet to be sensitive. Baudelaire eviscerated everything that had gone before him and defined, with his works, a completely new aesthetic.
He is famous for his decadence. He had a lazy, self-indulgent lifestyle. He was a dandy who took arsenic to make his complexion fashionably pale. He wrote poems about prostitutes, drunks and beggars. He even found beauty in the corpse of a dog that was left at the side of the street. Anyone can write about these things. Anyone can be indolent. What sets Baudelaire apart is the discipline and beauty of his language, those long, flowing and perfect alexandrines that can never be properly translated, his eye for the telling detail and his ironic intelligence.
What I loved about his poems, though, was that he found beauty in the turmoil of chaotic emotions and confusing desires. This was very attractive to me when I was sixteen and being brought up, like him, under a very strict moral code. But then, what sixteen-year-old can resist the undying lure of the vampire?
Toi qui, comme un coup de couteau,
Dans mon coeur plaintif es entrée;
Toi qui, forte comme un troupeau
De démons, vins, folle et parée,
De mon esprit humilié
Faire ton lit et ton domaine;
— Infâme à qui je suis lié
Comme le forçat à la chaîne,
Comme au jeu le joueur têtu,
Comme à la bouteille l’ivrogne,
Comme aux vermines la charogne
— Maudite, maudite sois-tu!
J’ai prié le glaive rapide
De conquérir ma liberté,
Et j’ai dit au poison perfide
De secourir ma lâcheté.
Hélas! le poison et le glaive
M’ont pris en dédain et m’ont dit:
«Tu n’es pas digne qu’on t’enlève
À ton esclavage maudit,
Imbécile! — de son empire
Si nos efforts te délivraient,
Tes baisers ressusciteraient
Le cadavre de ton vampire!»
— Charles Baudelaire