Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire, translated and edited by Rosemary LLoyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 267 pp. $24.95 Now the general reader can meet a Baudelaire whom scholars and dedicated readers of poetry have often seen gleaming through the murk and perversity of his famous/notorious verse. In reading through these selected letters, edited with maximum exactness and minimum fuss by Rosemary Lloyd, I find corroboration of the quality of ``conscientiousness'' coexisting in contrast with the imagery of sensation for which Baudelaire's poetry is known.
Baudelaire was conscientious as a son, as a friend, as an artist, and simply as a human being who looked on himself as a conundrum. The letters to his mother, tortured and melodramatic, self-defensive and humble, outnumber the others. Bereft of his father when he was small, Baudelaire had a difficult relationship with the soldier his mother married a year later. When this man died, Baudelaire committed himself to his mother's happiness. In vain, for his mother was as shocked by her son as the rest of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century.
But Baudelaire did have friends. There was the beautiful aristocrat Apollonie Sabatier, whom Baudelaire worshipped and broke from for her own good in another example of his conscientiousness. His letters to her are often cover letters accompanied by poems that later ended up in ``Les Fleurs du Mal'' (``Flowers of Evil''); almost cold in their lyrical precision, the poems to Sabatier nevertheless provoked the censors, who evidently cared less about essential morality than the social aspect of poetry -- in this case, the fact that a member of the aristocracy was being addressed and celebrated by a poet of dubious social and artistic standing.
Baudelaire, more than anything else, was conscientious as an artist. His letters show the care he took with all aspects of composition and publication. He wrote to his lawyer from Brussels, ``I'll long be made to suffer for having dared to paint evil with a degree of talent!''
Linked by time and friendship to Victor Hugo and other Romantics, Baudelaire rejected the increasingly irresponsible attitude toward technique typical of his contemporaries. His conscientiousness was seen in a remarkable fusion of artistic self-consciousness and moral awareness in the midst of representing degradation. It was a lifework paradoxical in its strategy -- Baudelaire implies the human good by exposing the depth of the evil.
The letters provide insight into recent poetry. In them we see how profound the urge to confess was for Baudelaire: He rarely writes to his mother without making what looks like a full confession of his sloth and other sins. When Robert Lowell published his versions of ``Les Fleurs du Mal,'' it appeared that Baudelaire would inspire the modern, confessional school. Comparing the letters and the poems, however, we see what Baudelaire's discipline of poetry brings to confession, and note that Lowell's verse lacks the master's finish.
Along with confessions, there are begging letters, letters of literary friendship, and love letters. Still, for all their variety and memorable force, as Rosemary Lloyd points out in her Introduction, Baudelaire did not enjoy letter writing. How could he? In constant turmoil from poverty and illness, from constant financial troubles, and from his own tortured self-consciousness about his dissolute living, Baudelaire had only his dreams to keep him happy, and dreams don't make good letters. But these are good letters. Somewhat like Coleridge, Baudelaire suffered a syndrome which has come to be identifiable as strictly modern: spiritual confusion exacerbated by drugs, often prescribed as medicine. Somewhat more clearly than Coleridge, Baudelaire saw himself in the light of Christian morality for what he was.
In 1924 Paul Val'ery pointed out that Baudelaire was the first French poet to become truly popular outside France. Since then, some literary historians have called him the greatest modern poet. Henry James was shocked by his scandalous imagery and seemingly blasphemous themes; T. S. Eliot embraced him as ``brother, patron, and saint.'' As Patricia Clements shows in her fine ``Baudelaire and the English Tradition'' (Princeton University Press), Baudelaire is a key figure in modern English verse; and in his recent and synoptic ``Bohemian Paris'' (Viking), Jerrold Seigel gives the historians' view that Baudelaire lurks ``behind the modernist avant-garde's later discovery that the boundary between art and the life of art could no longer be maintained.''
John Theobald's translation of ``Le Soleil'' (from ``The Lost Wine: Seven Centuries of French into English Lyrical Poetry'' ) catches some of the urban aplomb that is typical of Baudelaire in a light mood:
While the ferocious sun renews its heat
On town and hedge, on roofs and fields of wheat,
. . . .
I duel alone, fantastic pantomime,
At every corner fencing with a rhyme,
Stumbling on words -- rough curbs to trip a theme --
And strike with lines that flashed once in a dream.
In these lines, as he often does, Baudelaire fuses the poet-figure with mankind's common pleasures and pains. Like the poems, Baudelaire's letters confirm our feelings for him as a human being. Even his physical torment was turned to account; Baudelaire's writings on drugs, inspired in part by De Quincey's ``Confessions of an Opium Eater,'' are an insightful and neglected analysis of modern evil.
``The Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire,'' along with ``Flowers of Evil,'' provide the modern reader with an invaluable source of understanding of the whole man in a day when most poets and philosophers devote themselves to parts.