Baudelaire in Chains by Frank Hilton

Those enticing angels of evil
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The Independent Culture

The most romantic image that we have of Baudelaire is that memorable portrait-in-words by his friend and admirer, the poet Théodore de Banville, in the original Introduction to Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Banville describes Baudelaire as a spiritual aristocrat, a dandy and boulevardier, enjoying a private income, living in his exquisitely decorated 17th-century apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis overlooking the Seine. Here he would sit for days at a time, "in chairs as deep as the tomb", dressed "in customary suits of solemn black" like his beloved Hamlet, with only a few rare and precious volumes of Latin poetry for company. And here, in silence and solitude amid the hubbub of the Paris of Louis Philippe, "with the accents of a wounded swan, he sang his mysterious grief".

No greater contrast between Romantic and Modern could be found than in Banville's portrait, and that of Frank Hilton, in his new study, Baudelaire in Chains. For Hilton shows us instead a feckless, sponging, emotionally manipulative ingrate, a lifelong opium addict as well as heavy drinker, indolent, immature and sly and, like all addicts, monstrously self-pitying and self-deceiving.

The denigration of a great man is always satisfying to the mean and pygmyish side of our brains, but is it fair? Baudelaire the Junkie rather than Baudelaire the Dandy? Surely the truth lies somewhere in between?

It is this refusal to countenance a more complex Baudelaire that is Hilton's weakness. For him, the key to all mysteries is papaver somniferum, the opium poppy; and to presume to "explain" France's greatest lyric poet in such terms is reductionism of the grossest kind.

Nor is Hilton's evidence the kind that would stand up in court. In his letters and journals, Baudelaire castigates himself for his "tendency to reverie", which for Hilton signifies opium dreams. Well, maybe; maybe not. And then, Hilton tells us, addicts are famously "hounded by time". Baudelaire, too, wrote about being hounded by time; therefore Baudelaire was an addict. This is not a syllogism that bears any examination. In poverty-stricken later life, Baudelaire was reduced to begging pitifully small sums of money from friends: 20 francs, for instance, "the price, in all likelihood, of a three or four weeks' supply of laudanum". Or a little bread and cheese? Another "proof" is Baudelaire's "chronic self-deception". This is a characteristic of human beings, not drug addicts.

Then there is the stomach ache, the constipation and the poor work-rate, even though Baudelaire reproached himself constantly for this, remorsefully comparing his own output to that of Balzac. This is never a good idea for any writer, who alongside Balzac will always feel pretty much like a weedy little waterfall next to Niagara. Hilton's evidence is not only weak, it is also superfluous and feels like padding. The fact is that we know Baudelaire used opium a good deal, because he says so in a letter. "In the past I used opium over a long period." Et voilà. No need to dwell on the poor man's bowel habits after all. The argument is not whether Baudelaire used opium - of course he did, as did Coleridge, Dickens, Berlioz and Queen Victoria. Opium was the 19th century's Nurofen. The point is, was Baudelaire an addict? The evidence is thin.

Nevertheless, there remains something refreshing about Hilton's anti-romantic realism, his irreverence for the black-clad, solemn, self-dramatising figure of the poète maudit; for Baudelaire the Damned could also be a very silly man. (Auden on Yeats: "You were silly like us.") There is something about the whole tenor of late Romanticism that strikes us as ridiculous: Baudelaire, when he writes that his beloved is "more enticing than the angels of evil", and likewise Verlaine, Lautréamont, artists such as Félicien Rops or Gustave Moreau, and even Oscar Wilde, the posturing ninny, in the essays or in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These dandyish men of letters playing with the idea that evil could be glamorous, subversive, or even spiritually liberating, seem embarrassing and childish to us now. A thousand shaky newsreels tell us, prove to us finally, that evil is just banal, squalid, and soul-destroying. No flowers there.

Baudelaire's last years were also banal, squalid and soul-destroying. Like a character in a Posy Simmonds strip, he raged at the sight of the rubbish on sale in bookshops when many of his own works were out of print. He survived on hand-outs. His health was terrible. Eventually he went to live in Brussels, hoping to eke out a living from lecturing, but he found the Belgians "brutal, stupid and ignorant", and chastity was easy because the women were all so ugly. At least, that's what he told himself. In March 1866 he suffered a stroke, and by April he was half-paralysed and aphasic: meaning a total loss of all linguistic and verbal ability. A poet could hardly suffer a crueller blow. One French critic has theorised that this was self-willed, "a deliberate choice of silence". But that's French critics for you.

It is true that Baudelaire had a genius for making a bad situation verse, and after too much of him one feels strongly in need of some Tennyson: like a bracing walk on the Isle of Wight downs, after spending a bit too long in a Parisian brothel. But the feeling one gets from Baudelaire in Chains is of a biographer who took a writer as his subject, and then realised about half-way through the undertaking that he really can't stand the man.

Writers are no more likeable than most, it is true, and sometimes a good deal less; but for all his faults, Baudelaire clearly also had brilliance and charm in abundance, as well as a cruel perceptiveness about his own and other people's weaknesses. Hilton does not do justice to the better Baudelaire, who was, after all, among the greatest of poets; even if, like pretty well every French writer except Goscinny and Uderzo, his work is less well-known this side of La Manche than it ought to be.