“Paris wasn’t then what it is now,” Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1861, “a welter and waste, a Capernaum, a Babel populated by idiots and incompetents, undiscriminating in how they kill time and absolutely deaf to literary pleasures.” That sentence, larded with Old Testament hyperbole, appears in Baudelaire’s essay on the poet Théodore de Banville (1823–1891), one in a series of encomiastic considerations of his contemporaries. Baudelaire’s now was the period immediately following the publication of his Les Fleurs du mal in 1857, years when he went from being an art critic of small but serious influence whom the right people considered a genius to being a poet readers knew for the wrong reasons—shocking! depraved! banned!—and certainly not yet famous for the originality of his style, its rigor, its sincerity, its tenderness, its humors. Baudelaire’s then was 1841, when the 19-year-old Banville published his first collection of verse, Les Cariatides.
“Back then, Paris was made up of men who shape opinions,” Baudelaire continued,
an elite who, when a poet is born, know it first. So of course they hailed the author of Les Cariatides as a man with a long career ahead of him. Banville arrived with a remarkable mind, the kind which finds poetry the easiest language to speak and from which thought flows, on its own power, to its own rhythm.
Back then: for the Romantic (which is to say the depressive), there is always a Golden Age, a moment missed by a historical hair or, if lived, misremembered for the perfection it never actually attained. Baudelaire’s auric then and his leaden now cleave his period of early striving from his period of late arriving; these temporal markers segregate the era when the ideal was his polestar from the phase when spleen was the new world.
Then, now: no intervening process, no road between romance and ruin, only rupture.