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Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Flowers of Evil - Les Fleurs du Mal

Baudelaire has been called "the founder of modern poetry". No less a person than T.S.Eliot said of him that, "Baudelaire is indeed the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have experienced. But his renovation of an attitude towards life is no less radical and no less important."

On that analysis Baudelaire is the giver both of a new sort of poetry and a new life - perhaps I could say a new life form, one that has come to be termed modern. Certainly in his domestic arrangements he showed a clear break from the past. His predecessors, Victor Hugo and William Wordsworth, to take just two examples, had presented themselves - and therefore the figure of the poet - as something akin to today's authors and artists, men whose views on public matters might be sought and trusted. That could never have been so for Baudelaire, who struggled to make ends meet, consorted with prostitutes and other undesirables, was often on the run from creditors or the worse for alcohol.

So what was it that took him to the forefront of modern poetry? The answer to that question is what will put off many - indeed, has put off many - who will not follow to see where it leads.. The truth is that we are talking about the banal as subject matter - and not just the banal, the disgusting. The dregs of society, the worst degradations of the modern world were given a poetic function that they had never had before. What had been regarded as the very antithesis of poetry was what typified the modern world to him and was therefore not to be excluded from its literature. So he could praise his beloved's saliva as easily as her eyes or her ruby (Poison), and he could suggest that we are apt to become as wedded to our feelings of remorse as beggars are to their lice. (To the Reader) Many will find his images harsh and discordant, grating on their sensibilities. They were meant to. They are intended as models for dealing with the modern world's cacophonous and inchoate experiences.


Wine knows how to adorn the most sordid hovel
With marvellous luxury
And make more than one fabulous portal appear
In the gold of its red mist
Like a sun setting in a cloudy sky.

Opium magnifies that which is limitless,
Lengthens the unlimited,
Makes time deeper, hollows out voluptuousness,
And with dark, gloomy pleasures
Fills the soul beyond its capacity.

All that is not equal to the poison which flows
From your eyes, from your green eyes,
Lakes where my soul trembles and sees its evil side...
My dreams come in multitude
To slake their thirst in those bitter gulfs.

All that is not equal to the awful wonder
Of your biting saliva,
Charged with madness, that plunges my remorseless soul
Into oblivion
And rolls it in a swoon to the shores of death.

and from: Preface
Envy, sin, avarice & error
These are friends we know already —
Feeding them sentiment and regret
I'd hoped they'd vanish.

But wrongs are stubborn
We have our records
and tho it can be struggled with
There's no soft way to a dollar.

On the bedroom's pillows
The leisure senses unravel.
It's too hard to be unwilling
When there's so little to amuse.

The devil twists the strings on which we jerk!
Objects and asses continue to attract us.
Each day it's closer to the end
Without butter on our sufferings' amends.

Like some poor short-dicked scum
Biting and kissing the scarred breast
Of a whore who'd as soon
Drive nails through his nuts
We breath death into our skulls
Afraid to let it go.

Not entirely disconnected from the above is the fact that Baudelaire was first and foremost a poet of the city. He took as his subject the life of the large cities with its flux and flow, the shallow and transitory nature of its relationships, the lives lived among daily strangers. It is a floating, subterranean world of ne'er do wells and the down-trodden, but it is not a descriptive exercise, he does not glory in the muck and evil. Indeed, there is a section called Parisian Scenes which does b begin with a descriptive passage, though not one such as my remarks above may have led you to expect.

This from Spleen from Parisian Scenes

'M like some king in whose corrupted veins
Flows agèd blood; who rules a land of rains;
Who, young in years, is old in all distress;
Who flees good counsel to find weariness
Among his dogs and playthings, who is stirred
Neither by hunting-hound nor hunting-bird;
Whose weary face emotion moves no more
E'en when his people die before his door.
His favourite Jester's most fantastic wile
Upon that sick, cruel face can raise no smile;
The courtly dames, to whom all kings are good,
Can lighten this young skeleton's dull mood
No more with shameless toilets. In his gloom
Even his lilied bed becomes a tomb.
The sage who takes his gold essays in vain
To purge away the old corrupted strain,
His baths of blood, that in the days of old
The Romans used when their hot blood grew cold,
Will never warm this dead man's bloodless pains,
For green Lethean water fills his veins.

And this from Dusk:

Meanwhile, corrupting demons of the air
Slowly wake up like men of great affairs.
And, flying, bump our shutters and our eaves.
Against the glimmerings teased by the breeze
Old Prostitution blazes in the streets;
She opens out her nest-of-ants retreat;
Everywhere she clears the secret routes,
A stealthy force preparing for a coup;
She moves within this city made of mud,
A worm who steals from man his daily food.
One hears the hissing kitchens close at hand,
The playhouse screech, the blaring of the band.
The tables at the inns where gamesmen sport
Are full of swindlers, sluts and all their sort.
Robbers who show no pity to their prey
Get ready for their nightly work-a-day
Of cracking safes and deftly forcing doors,
To live a few days more and dress their whores.

One of the great strengths of Baudelaire's poetry lies in the confrontations that the narrator of the poems has with the evil and sinister denizens of the city, confrontations in which he struggles to find meaning or to uncover the mysteries surrounding them. He sees them rushing like lemmings to their own destruction, yet with such "morbid gaiety" that he is left wondering whether he should not be envying them.

Already hinted at above, is another aspect of Baudelaire's modernity - his rejection of the sentimental, both in theme and image.

There is, though, an aspect that would seem to rule him out as being wholly modern: his use of - even apparent fondness for - the devil.

Truly the Devil pulls on all our strings!

and from To the Reader:

On evil's pillow lies the alchemist,
Satan Thrice-Great, who lulls our captive soul,
And all the richest metal of our will
Is vaporized by his hermetic arts.

Baudelaire said: "Everyone feels the Devil, but no one believes in him. Baudelaire was a Catholic, but an unusual one, to say the least. He seems to have considered the Devil to be some kind of force that influences us to do things against our will. In this he is close to Freud with his Unconscious or Id which impels the conscious to do what, left to its own devices, it would reject as unacceptable. Baudelaire did, though, also write about the great attraction of sex being the absolute certainty it gives that one is doing evil.

There is one oddity, perhaps worth mentioning, about this collection: Baudelaire's first title for it was The Lesbians. There were 149 poems in the first addition. Another 14 were added in the third. Of the 149 only three could be said to fit a general title of the Lesbians. One of these is in fact called Lesbos, the other two Condemned Women: Delphine and Hippolyta. No more were included in the extras added to the third edition. So why would he have thought to use them as a title for the whole collection? It is not believed that he wrote others which he then chose not to include, though it could possibly be that he had intended to write more, but then did not do so. The only theory I have heard raised which I have found at all convincing was that he found it easier to raise certain issues of general applicability under the cover of a group who were generally regarded as living outside the mores of society as a whole.

Finally, one that is a great favourite of mine:

The Soul of Wine

One night, the soul of wine was singing in the flask:
"O man, dear disinherited! to you I sing
This song full of light and of brotherhood
From my prison of glass with its scarlet wax seals.

I know the cost in pain, in sweat,
And in burning sunlight on the blazing hillside,
Of creating my life, of giving me a soul:
I shall not be ungrateful or malevolent,

For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labour;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.

Do you hear the choruses resounding on Sunday
And the hopes that warble in my fluttering breast?
With sleeves rolled up, elbows on the table,
You will glorify me and be content;

I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife,
And give back to your son his strength and his colour;
I shall be for that frail athlete of life
The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles.

Vegetal ambrosia, precious grain scattered
By the eternal Sower, I shall descend in you
So that from our love there will be born poetry,
Which will spring up toward God like a rare flower!"

And if all this has sounded vaguely familiar, it may be because I have posted on The Flowers of Evil before (2008), though in rather different terms I think. I may even not yet be finished with Baudelaire, though I have no thoughts about any more flowers of evil.


Gwei Mui said...

I can not thank you enough Dave, I'd always struggled with Baudelaire. Sadly I think he was misrepresented by the English teachers I had and I just never understood or got on with the poetry. Your post has unblocked much and allowed me to understand and appreciate Bauderlaire

Anonymous said...

I would hope not, the biggest lie I ever told made me look worse than the drugs I sold.

banging drugs, or banging strippers?

smoking cock or smoking crack?

since 08 spoke with ruth or matt?

I don't know why (becuase she listened) and nothing rhymes wit cat

Ronda Laveen said...

He gives a fascinating look and feel of our darker side. I really like his work.

Titus said...

Fabulous post Dave. A thousand thank-yous!

Momo Luna said...

Oh yes! I disovered Baudelaire when i was 23 or so, attracted by flowers who seem to be evil. Since then he is (next to Bertus Aafjes) my favourite poet. The rhytm of his poems is like a heartbeat. I think there's beauty too in dark, even ugly things as well. Some of my work is inspired by his intense words. I love to draw or paint malicious angels and innocent devils. That's Baudelaires influence for sure. I made a painting (years ago) inspired by his L'Héautontimouroménos. (the self-tormentor)I'll post it one of these days. The last words of this poem move me deeply and is my favourite phrase of his work:

Je suis de mon coeur le vampire,
— Un de ces grands abandonnés
Au rire éternel condamnés
Et qui ne peuvent plus sourire!

I'm the vampire of my own heart
— One of those utter derelicts
Condemned to eternal laughter,
But who can no longer smile!

That says it all i think.

Thanks for this wonderful post.
The biography of Baudelaire written by Bernard Henry Lévy is great i think.

Jim Murdoch said...

I found this interesting, Dave, and went through it a couple of times. There are some good lines in his poetry but it doesn’t jump off the page and take a hold of me, not like Bukowski’s, who also dealt with a lot of seamy subjects. On the whole though I approve. The thing is, time has moved on and we’re used to more graphic images. A poem like ‘Poison’ has to compete with a song called ‘Poison’ (Alice Cooper) and a perfume called ‘Poison’ (Dior) so it’s perhaps lost its power somewhat. I’m sure at the time it had a similar effect to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I have to say that I’ve only every glanced at Baudelaire’s poetry before.

You might find this site of some interest. It provides multiple English translations of all the poems in Flowers of Evil.

Dave King said...

He's always seemed very unfashionable - especially to schools. I think I see why, but it is a pity. I came top him rather late.

A very warm welcome to you and thank you so much for stopping by to comment.

I think your forst sentence sums him up beautifully.

And thank you so much for that.

Momo Luna
You have the jump on me there: I don't know Bertus Aafjes. Shall have to look him up.
I agree with your remarks, especially concerning the rhythm and I shall look forward to you posting your painting. Thanks for the comment.

A very valid point you make about the loss of power from the word "poison". I am sure it had a very different effet on the people of his day than the one it has now. The real poin t I was trying to get across was just that, though: the effect his poetry had on the poets of his day and immediately after. He had as much effect on the artists, too, and I am planning to post on that anon .

Art Durkee said...

Baudelaire claimed Poe to be the greatest poet, and translated him into French; which is why Poe was so much more popular and famous in France than in the USA for many years. Poe did influence Baudelaire; as did Lautremont. Lautremont and Baudelaire can be considered the inventors of the prose-poem. The other thing they did was break out of the straightjacket of 19th C. formalist poetry in French, which was dominated by the Alexandrine line. There were a lot of technical innovations as well as subject matter, in other words, that B. was involved with.

The quality of the translation is hugely important with Baudelaire in English; and most translations don't capture the sheer hallucinatory rhythm and vibe of the original. It's a music both bright and dark. A couple of more recent translations are among the best ever, which I encourage folks to seek out.

Baudelaire, like Rimbaud, is a poet who teenage boys are often drawn to in the same way, and for similar reasons, that teenage girls are drawn to Sylvia Path or Anne Sexton. The despair, the angst, the alienation, the tantalizing temptations of life's darker sides; not to mention the desire to shock those in authority. All part of exploring the self on the way to adulthood. Probably necessary. Far too many remain stuck in these teenage-poetry years, though, and never really grow up. Hence, lots of bad delirium-derangement-surrealist poetry gets put out there. If Baudelaire had grown up, at least poetically, I wonder who he would have compared to.

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