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Frank Hilton, Baudelaire in Chains: A Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict, Peter Owen

In a way, Charles Baudelaire was an under-achiever. An under-achiever, that is, if, say, Arthur Rimbaud, Keats and the Beatles were under-achievers. Born in 1821, it is likely that most of his poems existed as drafts before Baudelaire was 25, although they were properly published only in 1857. A leading French newspaper Le Figaro, unconsciously recognising the youthful, often sexual, themes, said of the iconoclastic work that collected these poems, Les Fleurs de Mal: “Nothing can justify a man of more than thirty years of age in publishing such monstrosities”. Although he wrote more verse for an expanded edition, including the longish poem “Le Voyage”, when he died in 1867, even if some would later regard him as the greatest French poet of the nineteenth century, no-one could say he had fulfilled his early promise.

Copies of the first edition of Les Fleurs de Mal were duly seized by the police, six particularly offending poems were ordered to be suppressed, and Baudelaire had to pay a fine. Although the recipient of a handsome private income, Baudelaire was a dandy and a spendthrift. The fine was probably his most serious public humiliation since his allowance had been wrested from him by his mother and advisors over a decade earlier, appointing a legal representative to control his already much-dwindled fortune. A sickly individual, Baudelaire has traditionally been seen as a lifelong sufferer of a debilitating sexually transmitted disease, contracted in his late teens, but this very readable study emphasises another element in what appears, whichever way you look at it, to have been a largely miserable life.

It is surprising that drug addiction’s effect on Baudelaire has not had the scrutiny it now has here. Other critics have referred to his taking of opium, in the liquid form of laudanum, but have tended to see this as occasional behaviour or even as simply the partaking of a conventional medicine of the day. Some commentators have shown more interest in a theory of syphilitic decay rather than decline through narcotics abuse, a fact that might suggest an in-built prurience within academe. The today shocking footage of the latterday rebel Alex Trocchi injecting himself with heroin on a post-war television show is a stark reminder of how recent opium and its derivatives were in any case legal, and perhaps this has steered literary critics away from the topic in the French poet’s case.

In this new study of Baudelaire’s life, Frank Hilton takes the few examples where the poet according to his own letters is known to be taking laudanum, moments which are separated by many years, and he convincingly constructs a pattern of longterm addiction. This certainly makes better sense of Baudelaire’s extraordinary debts, his sometimes rather violent, sneering poems (despite poems about cats and owls, it is difficult to say that you can warm to his poetry), and his wheedling and manipulative correspondence. These are not character qualities solely or even necessarily glued forever to a drug addict stereotype, and Hilton is no moral policeman, but there is surely some truth in these traits as far as addicts are concerned when they in the grip of their drug. Indeed, if anything, Hilton underuses the evidence of the poetry. After all, in “Le Voyage” Baudelaire puts opium-users in a privileged position, slightly above everyone else. To roughly translate: “Not so stupid, bold friends of Dementia / flee Destiny’s vast cattle pen. / They’re safe now in opium’s adventure / and that’s the world, tonight’s eternal bulletin.”

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