BAUDELAIRE. Flesh and Spirit. By Lewis Piaget Shanks. Illustrated. Little Brown and Company. Boston. 1930. Price $3.50.
THE PROGRESS of youth through the realm of literature is dated by the discovery of the figure which lurk behind each turning in the path. Just as Shelley and the author or "The Way of All Flesh" point the way at certain crossroads, so the smooth-shaven and deeply lined face of Charles Baudelaire at its appointed time looms up like certainty for those who follow the orthodox road to literary sophistication. As the author of this most recent life of Baudelaire notes in his introduction, the "poet maudit" generally appears on the horizon of his American readers during their college years.
Baudelaire has been described as "a Prometheus who celebrated the vultures that plucked at his spiritual entrails" and as "a hermit of the Brothel". He has been compared to Dante, to Laforgue, to Swinburne, to Blake, and to a long, long list of other poets. But such clever descriptive phrases as those quoted above from the essays of Mr. De Casseres and Mr. Symons fail to catch the whole man, they fail just as any single attempt at comparison fails. For a true understanding of this most important of all French poets one must turn to his greatest work, "Les Fleurs dn Mal"--a collection of poems in which he himself confessed there was "all my heart, all my affections, all my religion all my hatred." In fine, all of himself. It is perhaps because Mr. Shanks realized this when he says, "a poet's life is work, far more than the adventures of his body" that his "Baudelaire" is, next to the poets, own writing, the best single interpretation.
At seven, upon his mother's second marriage, Baudelaire found himself a mystical Hamlet turned out into the harsh reality of a cruel school life. When he became of age he abandoned the ambitions of his family and became dandy living a life before a mirror with a mistress Americans would describe as a "yella girl." From then until his death the poet carried on a long and weary struggle with debt, disease, wine, opium, and impotence. Through it all he kept up his unending search for the "Ideal Beauty". His life was a duel between Catholicism and Paganism, between flesh and the spirit. He died a failure, yet his poetry lives today as some of the most beautiful that the French nation has produced.
Mr. Shanks' biography traces Bandelaire's life and work from his pre-natal influences to the grave. Every step of the way the author follows the guidance of Baudelaire's poems or letters. The biography has the ring of authenticity on every page, a the same time it has all the freshness and realism which the most careless member of the ultra-modern biographical school can boast.
If one has any fault to find with Mr. Shanks it is in his use of "the defective method" so popular now with teachers of literature. At times it seems that he is a little too anxious to discover just what particular poems were influenced by a particular does of laudanum. But this is a literary game highly enjoyed in some of the best company, and at worst, a small point. If reading a biography can approach the benefit of reading the original, this book does. It is a fascinating account of one of the most fascinating figures in literature.