Wine And Hashish

by solitary walker

“It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.” Baudelaire

For Baudelaire, art and beauty were like wine, or the hashish he smoked with Honoré de Balzac and Théophile Gautier (Gautier — who popularised the idea of “art’s for art’s sake”): they got you high, but they could also crash you into the depths of despair. This sense of ambivalence, this interplay of opposites, pervades the whole of Baudelaire‘s life and the whole of his brilliantly innovative collection of poems, Les Fleurs Du Mal. In his life Baudelaire vacillated between his carnal, creole mistress Jeanne Duval, la Vénus Noire, and his unattainable muse Apollonie Sabatier, la Vénus Blanche. In Les Fleurs Du Mal he differentiated between “Spleen”, the everyday world of ennui, melancholy and imperfection, and “Ideal”, the immaterial world of spirit, of unsullied beauty.

Nowhere is this dichotomy, this complementarity, better shown than in Baudelaire‘s great poem Hymne A La Beauté (Hymn To Beauty) from Les Fleurs Du Mal. He directly and intimately addresses the personification of Beauty: “Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme, /  Ô Beauté? Ton regard, infernal et divin, / Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime, / Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.” (“Come you, o Beauty, from the sky profound / Or the abyss? Infernal and divine, / Your glance sheds sin and blessing, and confounds, / And you can be compared in this with wine.” Note the contrasts between the sky and the abyss, the divine and the infernal, the sin and the blessing — and the comparison with wine, Baudelaire‘s favourite intoxicant.

The poem continues in this paradoxical way for six more stanzas: “Tu contiens dans ton œil le couchant et l’aurore; / Tu répands des perfums comme un soir orageux; / Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore / Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.” (“Your eyes contain the dawn and crepuscule, / You scatter fragrance like a stormy eve, / Your mouth’s an amphora, your kiss a phial / Which makes the hero shy, the infant brave.”)

“An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion.” Baudelaire

(The translation of Hymn To Beauty is by Joanna Richardson from her book Baudelaire: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1975.)