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Baudelaire and the English Tradition

Baudelaire and the English Tradition

by Patricia Clements

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This study of Baudelaire and English modernism observes his protean influence on poets from Swinburne, who wrote the first English review of Les Fleurs du Mai, to T. S. Eliot. Documenting Baudelaire's impact on Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, Arthur Symons, Aldous Huxley, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, D. H. Lawrence, the Imagists, John Middleton Murry, Eliot, and others,


This study of Baudelaire and English modernism observes his protean influence on poets from Swinburne, who wrote the first English review of Les Fleurs du Mai, to T. S. Eliot. Documenting Baudelaire's impact on Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, Arthur Symons, Aldous Huxley, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, D. H. Lawrence, the Imagists, John Middleton Murry, Eliot, and others, Patricia Clements describes the Baudelaire who is the creation of the English poets and identifies some major lines in the development of modernism in English literature.

Originally published in 1986.

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Baudelaire & the English Tradition

By Patricia Clements


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06649-3




When Swinburne recognized Baudelaire as his elder "brother," he changed the course of the main current of the English tradition, altering in a most unusual way the ideal order against which the individual English talent must define itself. In this history of Baudelaire's affiliation by English poetry, Swinburne has the importance not merely of a beginner, but of a powerful originator. He opened the long conversation with a statement so enduring that when Eliot came to describe his Baudelaire, several generations later, it was to Swinburne he turned as antagonist. If Baudelaire is, as Michel Butor says, the pivot around which European poetry turns to become modern, then in England he shares the pivotal place with Swinburne.

Swinburne's admiration for Baudelaire has commanded attention since soon after publication of Poems and Ballads, in 1866, even though the documents that record it officially constitute a slim file. Swinburne left his review of the poems, his only public speech, "Ave atque Vale," admiring comments in his Blake and other critical works, and affectionate and respectful remarks in letters to other people. Baudelaire left only signs of gratitude for Swinburne's review: the inscribed copy of Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris that Swinburne prized, a letter the English poet never received, and references to the review in a letter to his mother and in one to Whistler. In addition to these bits there is some much-speculated-on information about "messages and courtesies" passed between the two poets by mutual friends ("the admiration of some years," Swinburne said in a note in his Blake, "brought me near him by way of written or transmitted word") and there are some compelling and much-repeated stories: of Swinburne rising at the Royal Literary Fund Dinner for 1866 to declaim in passionate staccato his admiration for a condemned French poet; of the photographer Nadar, charged with delivering Baudelaire's letter to Swinburne, deciding at the last moment to go to Brussels instead, so that the letter lay in a drawer until after both Swinburne and his "poor Baudelaire" had died; of Hutton, the editor of The Spectator, detecting Swinburne's attempt to slip past him as modern French writers his own inventions Cossu and Clouet ("Or is it Clouet?" he wrote), whose imitations of Baudelaire, as Enid Starkie said, were "scabrous"; of Swinburne, having been misinformed by the papers, starting to compose his most famous elegy before its subject had died. There is more solid information, and less anecdote, about Swinburne's lifelong admiration for Hugo, which can be examined in their considerable correspondence as well as in Swinburne's fulsome poetic and critical praise of his "beloved Master," and even his association with Mallarmé is more amply recorded than that with Baudelaire. Yet it is Swinburne's interest in Baudelaire that continues to fascinate.

That is partly because Swinburne's Baudelaire is one of his major achievements. This has not always seemed true, and the slow shifts of comment on his sympathy with the "sweet strange elder singer" are illuminating. They trace his own rise and fall on the waves of official criticism at the same time as they sketch the changing shapes of English attitudes toward Baudelaire during the periods in which poetry became "modern." Swinburne's earliest critics, both his friends and his enemies, rushed to see Baudelaire's "influence" as the cause of his "faults." William Michael Rossetti, writing to defend Poems and Ballads from the outrage they had provoked, regretted the traces in them of the French "Mephistopheles," and Robert Buchanan, crusading against the "fleshly" poets, made no attempt to restrain his horror about Swinburne's poems, patronizingly attributing their faults to the same source, which he too recognized easily as "Mephistopheles." The lawyer who represented Buchanan in his 1867 suit against the Examiner (a consequence of Swinburne's counterattack) told the court that Swinburne had degraded his poetry "by loading it with a beastly sensualism, and by adopting the indecent garbage of the French Baudelaire," and when Taine met the poet in 1871 he saw him as "un visionnaire malade" whose poems "sont dans Ie genre de Baudelaire et de Victor Hugo."

But Swinburne's declaration of common cause with Baudelaire came gradually to be seen as evidence of his critical powers. At about the turn of the century, one writer heard "the three names of Baudelaire and Swinburne and Immortality sound as one"; a few years later, another said that Swinburne's accomplishment had been the introduction into England of "something entirely new" in poetry and "the carrying into perfect practice" of Baudelaire's theories; and in 1917, the year Prufrock saw print, Arthur Symons praised Swinburne lavishly because his early poem "Cleopatra" was "steeped deep in the spirit of Baudelaire." That same year, Edmund Gosse, recording the major facts about the poets' association, maintained that Swinburne's support of Baudelaire required "high intellectual courage," and the Mercure de France, a journal read with respect by the emphatically modern, praised Swinburne's ability to penetrate the romanticism of Les Fleurs du Mal, to detect their chosen, masterly simplicity, to identify what in them is profoundly and broadly classical.

Swinburne's admiration for his elder "brother," however, and especially his claim of consanguinity, drew altogether sharper comment from a younger generation of writers, who wanted to dissociate him, with whom they said they had little in common, from Baudelaire, with whom they considered they shared much. Harold Nicolson, who wrote an eminently anti-Victorian Life of Swinburne, told the Royal Society of Literature in 1925 that Swinburne was a mere imitator, that comparison between the two poets showed only that "Baudelaire, for all of his sardonic reticence, was profound," while "Swinburne, for all his ebullient brilliance, was superficial." He wrote later that Swinburne was constitutionally incapable of perceiving Baudelaire profoundly: "who could contend," he demanded, "that [the Pre-Raphaelites and Baudelaire] penetrated to his inner consciousness or created any permanent attitude?" John Middleton Murry and T. S. Eliot joined in denial of Swinburne's seriousness. Murry saw him as a posturer: "It is as though some Falstaff hit you in the small of the back with a flagon of sack and roared: 'I'm a pervert, I am, my old buck!'" Eliot said that Swinburne's view of Baudelaire was "childish," and he resented what he saw as Swinburne's flamboyant appropriation of the French poet: "Such rugs and jugs and candle lights!" By the time Eliot wrote, the pattern of comment on the relationship between the two poets had come full circle and achieved an ironic completeness. Swinburne's elder "brother," having changed by slow degrees from a "Mephistopheles" to a "Poet and Saint," had become the semblable, the frère, of a new generation; and Swinburne, who had been condemned for his submission to the poet of vice, was now accused of not perceiving Baudelaire's merits, damned for his failure to be influenced enough, and blamed for damaging by association the reputation of the poet he had introduced to English readers. In England, Eliot wrote in 1930, it had been Baudelaire's "misfortune to be first and extravagantly advertised by Swinburne."

Swinburne, it is true, did much to discourage belief in his seriousness. He told Gosse, for instance, and Gosse repeated these words on every possible occasion, that he had composed his review of Les Fleurs du Mal — in which he said that they had the "languid lurid beauty of close and threatening weather" — in a Turkish bath in Paris, and at the same time as he was composing his measured critical praise of Baudelaire's "perfect and careful poetry" (CB) and subscribing faithfully to the articles of his aesthetic, he was confecting the mock salacity of Cossu and Clouet, parodies that could only, if published, have undercut the praise. But Swinburne was serious, and he was self-aware. Baudelaire was for him the most consequential aspect of an exploration of French literature that served his major poetic purposes. The comments of his critics reflect clearly, though in an oblique mirror, not only relations among generations of English poets but also those between national literatures, and they show a steady shifting of the context in which English poets worked. To Rossetti, Baudelaire's mere Frenchness was exotic; to Murry and Eliot, his exemplary modernity was the first and his nationality only the second fact about him. For them, he was "notre Baudelaire," and that fact, though they failed to say so, was brought to birth partly by Swinburne.

Like many later poets — Aldington or Sitwell or Pound or Eliot, for instance, who made their search for progenitors a critical theme — Swinburne sought to be influenced, and he said so. He recorded obligation to Arnold, for instance, "as to all other real and noble artists whose influence it was my fortune to feel when most susceptible of influence, and least conscious of it, and most in want." When, later, he met Baudelaire's work, he was no longer unaware either of what he wanted to express or of the fact that the "taste" and the "tradition" of the time denied him freedom to express it. He made no secret of his regard for Baudelaire as a poet and critic from whom English poets could learn: it is apparent in practically everything he wrote about him, whether for private or public consumption. The clarity of its expression is a measure both of his boldness (the antithesis of Pater's careful removal from The Renaissance of phrases that might suggest to a hostile public the presence there of the French master of the "fleshly school") and of his critical self-consciousness, the contrary of the "childish" obliviousness to the "real" for which he was dismissed by his early twentieth-century critics. When he defended his own poems against attack, as well as when he wrote on Blake or Shakespeare or Rossetti, Swinburne "turned to" Baudelaire not merely with respect, but with all "confidence" and "reverence." In Baudelaire, he says more than once, his readers will find, more perfectly expressed than in his own work, precisely what he had himself aimed to say. Swinburne's "turning to" Baudelaire predicts the turning away of the whole of modern English literature from some of the confinements of its own tradition, narrowly defined. For Swinburne, as for Eliot, Baudelaire's achievement did not diminish the possibilities for poetry, but enlarged them. From the beginning, Baudelaire appears in England as influence. Swinburne made him available, proposed him as a shaping force.

Dozens of English poets, including some who dismissed Swinburne on the least critical and most patronizing of grounds, were glad to take up his suggestion, and so Baudelaire, who in France had seemed to father symbolism, came eventually, by a process that is one of the subjects of this book, to support English poetry against that school. Swinburne's acknowledgment that he used what he read, however, that he really did learn from it, together with his unusual talent for parody, has from the beginning done great damage to his own reputation. Robert Buchanan pounced on it, and ran up the rough structure of an argument against influence. "Imitation," he said, both in his anonymous review of Poems and Ballads and in his damaging "Fleshly School" pieces, was proof of "insincerity" and "insincerity" a category of "immorality." He presented this argument, he said, on literary grounds; but later, in "The Monkey and the Microscope," he did not hesitate to use it for personal insult:

    A clever Monkey! — worth a smile!
    How really human is his style;
    How worthy of our admiration
    Is such delicious imitation!

More recently, Swinburne's acknowledgment of influence has been a central point in a claim that he had no serious attitude of his own (no "internal centre," Meredith said)20 and that his work need therefore compel no serious attention. "Poems and Ballads were the effervescence with which a quick and shallow nature responded to a certain influence issuing partly from the Greek and Latin classics, partly from medieval legend, partly from the French literature of the nineteenth century," wrote A. E. Housman. Even critics who defend Swinburne's "individuality" have felt obliged to assert it as a paradox, to see him as an original copier. The "Assimilative or Reproductive in point of literary form," said W. M. Rossetti, is "one of the most curious specialties of Mr. Swinburne's writings"; what is remarkable about his poems is that they are "exceedingly fine pieces of work, exceedingly like their adopted models." Alice Meynell wrote in 1909 that upon Mazzini, Shelley, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne "sustained, he fattened, he enriched his poetry"; and the introduction to a modern selection of Swinburne's poems perpetuates both the point and the figure: Swinburne's imagination, says Robert Nye, "fed on books, it feasted on other men's wits." It is contrary to our expectations, he says, that "pastiche" should be good poetry, but "in Swinburne it is."

The argument about imitation and influence in Swinburne's case was hotly political, on more than one ground. The issue was not, though it claimed to be, whether Swinburne might imitate other writers and still be thought worthy; it was what other writers Swinburne might without offense imitate. As his early, hostile critics saw, Swinburne intended to induce some shifts in the English tradition, and the argument about his imitation was, in its beginnings, a line of defense for his opponents. The question of imitation remained a strain of debate during the whole period in which modernism was taking shape, working out its history as the international line from Poe to Valery. It surfaces brilliantly in Wilde, who made it a main preoccupation of his criticism, and who, as the author of a column called "Dinner and Dishes," made the analogy between feeding the imagination and feeding the stomach serve the purposes of critical satire. On the subject of his own imitations, Wilde pleads magnificently guilty, like Bourget insisting that the book is the great initiator, and it is impossible to argue that his imitations were blind. Swinburne's cultivation of influence, however, has often been the subject of facile psychologizing. He is, we are told in the familiar argument, a case of arrested development, a man who, "at a comparatively early age," became "strangely impervious to any new idea or any fresh experience." His reading, as a consequence, was a refuge from life, his literary experience necessarily "unreal," the stuff of his poetry merely imitated. His verse, Eliot said (perhaps intending to outrage), is "not morbid," "not erotic," "not destructive": "These are adjectives which can be applied to the material, the human feelings, which in Swinburne's case do not exist." Criticism of Swinburne drowns too often in a light wash of psychology; a reductive argument about his life becomes an evasive comment on his work. We are invited to see him as a poet who was almost entirely unselfconscious, or, at most, as one whose self-consciousness was merely technical. He could count, he knew his numbers, but in almost everything else his work was in one way or another the product of the dark dreams of his childhood, mere fantasy. Swinburne's attitude toward Baudelaire, or toward any other writer he admired and learned from, is seen as evidence of his "two dominant and conflicting impulses, namely, the impulse towards revolt and the impulse towards submission." From that point of view, poetic influence is submission; the art-for-art's-sake theory is revolt (but submissive because borrowed); and Swinburne's essay in The Spectator for 6 September 1862, the first notice in England of Les Fleurs du Mal, a principled, perceptive, elegant essay and a new departure in the history of English poetry, can be shrunk to the size of a "piece of daring" intended to thrill its writer and "épater le bourgeois." It is sometimes tempting to see criticism of Swinburne's work as the most complete, the ideal gratification of his masochism.


Excerpted from Baudelaire & the English Tradition by Patricia Clements. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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