"The Lesson of Baudelaire"


T.S. Eliot


About the work:

This webpage presents "The Lesson of Baudelaire," one of the two short essays by T.S. Eliot that appeared in the "Notes on Current Letters" section of the first volume of The Tyro (Spring 1921). The essays were classified as work C119 by Donald Gallup in his bibliography of Eliot's works.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French poet, critic and translator. According to Eliot:

All first-rate poetry is occupied with morality: this is the lesson of Baudelaire. More than any poet of his time, Baudelaire was aware of what most mattered: the problem of good and evil.


The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture and Design was the short-lived (two issues) magazine founded and edited by Eliot's friend (Percy) Wyndham Lewis.

The other Tyro essay by Eliot is titled "The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism." Also published in the first issue of The Tyro was Eliot's poem "Song to the Opherian" (pseudonymously attributed to Gus Krutzsch.) Both the essay and the poem can be read online at this website.

Eliot's essay ends in a few French words: Vous, hypocrite lecteur . . . . Eliot is alluding to the last line of Baudelaire's poem "Au Lecteur" ("To the Reader") which served as the preface to his collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). The line is "Hypocrite lecteur, -- mon semblable, -- mon frère!" and a translation of it is "Hypocrite reader, my double, my brother!" Eliot was to reuse this line in The Waste Land (Part I, line 76).

Lawrence Rainey has also republished Eliot's Tyro essays in an annotated edition of The Waste Land. The essays have also been annotated by him and the three paragraphs of "The Lesson of Baudelaire" have a page and a half of notes (although, oddly, the page number that the essay was printed on is lacking.)

This webpage has used a copy of the essay as published in The Tyro as its source, not the version as printed in the book Rainey edited.


Eliot, T.S.   "The Lesson of Baudelaire",   Tyro,   vol. I,   Spring 1921,   p. 4

Eliot, T.S.   The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose,   Lawrence Rainey, ed.,   New Haven: Yale University Press (2005)   pp. 144-5, 214-5

Gallup, Donald.   T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition.   New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)   p. 207

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Revision date: January 7, 1999
Viewed: May 22, 2006

About the copyright:

It is my understanding that this work is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.

About this webpage:

Revision date (y/m/d h:m:s):
$Date: 2006/11/13 23:07:58 $
Rickard A. Parker    (raparker@theworld.com)

Hyperlinked table of contents to Eliot's text


Paragraphs in the text below have been anchored and can be linked to individually with these anchor names: #pp-1, #pp-2, #pp-3, #pp-4, #pp-5,

Other useful anchors are: #top, #introduction, #anchors, #text

The Lesson of Baudelaire

With regard to certain intellectual activities across the Channel, which at the moment appear to take the place of poetry in the life of Paris, some effort ought to be made to arrive at an intelligent point of view on this side. It is probable that this French performance is of value almost exclusively for the local audience; I do not here assert that it has any value at all, only that its pertinence, if it has any, is to a small public formidably well instructed in its own literary history, erudite and stuffed with tradition to the point of bursting. Undoubtedly the French man of letters is much better read in French literature than the English man of letters is in any literature; and the educated English poet of our day must be too conscious, by his singularity in that respect, of what he knows, to form a parallel to the Frenchman. If French culture is too uniform, monotonous*, English culture, when it is found, is too freakish and odd. Dadaism is a diagnosis of a disease of the French mind; whatever lesson we extract from it will not be directly applicable in London.

Whatever value there may be in Dada depends upon the extent to which it is a moral criticism of French literature and French life. All first-rate poetry is occupied with morality: this is the lesson of Baudelaire. More than any poet of his time, Baudelaire was aware of what most mattered: the problem of good and evil. What gives the French Seventeenth Century literature its solidity is the fact that it had its Morals, that it had a coherent point of view. Romanticism endeavoured to form another Morals--Rousseau, Byron, Goethe, Poe were moralists. But they have not sufficient coherence; not only was the foundation of Rousseau rotten, his structure was chaotic and inconsistent. Baudelaire, a deformed Dante (somewhat after the intelligent Barbey d'Aurevilly's phrase), aimed, with more intellect plus intensity, and without much help from his predecessors, to arrive at a point of view toward good and evil.

English poetry, all the while, either evaded the responsibility, or assumed it with too little seriousness. The Englishman had too much fear, or too much respect, for morality to dream that possibly or necessarily he should be concerned with it, vom Haus aus, in poetry. This it is that makes some of the most distinguished English poets so trifling. Is anyone seriously interested in Milton's view of good and evil? Tennyson decorated the morality he found in vogue; Browning really approached the problem, but with too little seriousness, with too much complacency; thus the " Ring and the Book" just misses greatness--as the revised version of "Hyperion" almost, or just, touches it. As for the verse of the present time, the lack of curiosity in technical matters, of the academic poets of to-day (Georgian et cætera) is only an indication of their lack of curiosity in moral matters. On the other hand, the poets who consider themselves most opposed to Georgianism, and who know a little French, are mostly such as could imagine the Last Judgment only as a lavish display of Bengal lights, Roman candles, catherine-wheels, and inflammable fire-balloons. Vous, hypocrite lecteur . . . .


* Not without qualification. M. Valéry is a mathematician; M. Benda is a mathematician and a musician. These, however, are men of exceptional intelligence.

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