(To all who were good enough to comment on my Autistic Boy, this is to say that I have now posted a redraft.)
I first saw it in a tray of books outside a secondhand bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, a battered, old, two-language edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. It was the title that caught my eye and fired my imagination. Even today it is my all time most inspired title, by a very long way, but back then it excited by virtue of the clash between those two irreconcilable concepts, flowers and evil, along with all their equally irreconcilable connotations. As Seamus Heaney might have said of them: Like water hitting off granite. I skimmed through a dozen or so pages, but in truth did not get a lot from them, beyond the fact that they might be good for a giggle behind the bike shed at school. (I was of that age - Is there any other?) As it turned out, they were not. Slowly the realisation dawned that that was not what I had. What I had was something more than that. But what?
One of the first that I read (fell for) deeply was the poem called The Ideal. The first section (seventy seven poems, the remaining thirty four being spread through sections two to five) is called Spleen and the Ideal, spleen being a word very much in vogue at the time and used to mean a state of great depression or world-weariness, as we might say today. Here, then is the poem in question:
It's not with smirking beauties of vignettes,
The shopsoiled products of a worthless age,
With buskined feet and hands for castanets —
A heart like mine its longing could assuage.
I leave Gavarni, poet of chloroses,
His twittering flock, anaemic and unreal.
I could not find among such bloodless roses,
A flower to match my crimson-hued ideal.
To this heart deeper than the deepest canyon,
Lady Macbeth would be a fit companion,
Crime-puissant dream of Aeschylus; or you,
Daughter of Buonarroti, stately Night!
Whose charms to suit a Titan's appetite,
You twist, so strange, yet peaceful, to the view.
That is not the translation in which I first read it (that one has, I guess gone the way of all flesh), it is, for me, a more telling translation, but the original one did enough to make me lose all interest in prose for quite a while!
There was some talk on the comments page to my previous post about epiphanies, small and large. Well, this was a small one, but one that was to be instrumental in opening the door to the much larger one of T.S.Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - and to some extent, his Waste Land.
Les Fleurs du Mal was to be my John the Baptist, preparing the way, the lesser soon to be eclipsed by the greater, though these days in my dotage I seem to be turning more often than in my middle years to Les Fleurs du Mal -the World Wide Web having replaced the bike shed, perhaps.
None of which does anything to tell you what it was that I had bought. What I had bought, as I soon discovered, was no giggle book, but a copy of the world's first collection of modern verse by a poet, Charles Baudelaire, who by virtue of having written them has been hailed as the father of modern poetry. Yes, I know, there are other claimants to the title, not least Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but Baudelaire was in there first, and so has a just claim to the title. But on what grounds, for the poems do not look modern in the way that theirs look modern?Les Fleurs du Mal look very unmodern indeed. Their form is traditional, offers no surprises.
This, for example:
I'm fair, O mortals, as a dream of stone;
My breasts whereon, in turn, your wrecks you shatter,
Were made to wake in poets' hearts alone
A love as indestructible as matter.
A sky-throned sphinx, unknown yet, I combine
The cygnet's whiteness with a heart of snow.
I loathe all movement that displaces line,
And neither tears nor laughter do I know.
Poets before my postures, which I seem
To learn from masterpieces, love to dream
And there in austere thought consume their days.
I have, these docile lovers to subject,
Mirrors that glorify all they reflect —
These eyes, great eyes, eternal in their blaze!
So if not by their form, by what do these poems merit such extravagant claims for them - and through them, for their author? It is first of all in the content that the break with the past occurs. In the lengthy first section, mostly love poems, Baudelaire can still extol the beauty of the beloved's eyes, but can as easily enthuse about her saliva. Hardly the traditional talk or subject matter of romantic verse! Anything from common life, no matter how trivial or banal, even repulsive is taken in his stride. The carnal is as likely to be included in his musings on the divine, and the spiritual to be invoked at the very point at which lust or lewdness are at their most base. He is writing about the modern world, of and for modern man, and he is writing in a new way. So, just when his speech is at its most rhetorical, when he is showing his most virulent self, it may well be that there is where he is using his quietest and most tranquil rhythms. Throughout the collection there come the clash of irreconcilable experiences prefigured in the title.
But there is another aspect in which he is the first modern poet: he has moved from the countryside and taken up residence in the city, and he has found it to be a booming, buzzing, chaotic clash of discordant experiences. How should he represent those in verse? He simulates them by juxtaposing images which do not sit happily together, that are difficult to reconcile - and therefore to unlock for meaning.
It was the title that first caught my eye, and it was the title that kept me focussed when at first I could not get hold of the poems, so you can imagine how dismayed I was when I later discovered that Baudelaire had toyed with the idea of calling the collection The Lesbians. I had (and have) no bias against lesbianism, I hasten to add, it was not that I disliked the new title, but mourned the old one. The Lesbians had no meaning for me, whereas The Flowers of Evil I had thought a magic title for the reasons already given. There are three lesbian poems in the collection. They come early in the second of the book's five sections, so the subject would not, on the face of it, appear to be one of the greatest importance - though as we all know, a book may take its title from a single poem, that was not it, for none of the poems are called The Lesbians. Nevertheless, it is obvious from the length of time with which he toyed with the idea, that the subject was important to him. The three poems offer a clue as to why this should be: the women are prospectors, adventurers, exploring unknown territories, driven by forbidden passions to forbidden destinations, wallowing in masochistic pleasures on expeditions that are bound, in the last analysis, to be unfulfilling. This is very much one of Budelaire's general themes, equally applicable to straightforward heterosexual love as to lesbian relationships, but he found it much more difficult to treat in the general context, and used lesbian love as an image for the universal.
Lesbos, where love is like the wild cascades
That throw themselves into the deeper gulfs,
And twist and run with gurglings and with sobs
Stormy and secret, swarming underground.
I cannot finish the post - though I am sorely tempted - without an example of one of the more troublesome poems. On account of this (and several others) Baudelaire and his publishers were prosecuted (as Flaubert and his publishers had just been for Madame Bovary) for offences against public decency and for Religious Immorality. They were acquitted on the latter charges, but found guilty on the former. The title refers to women being damned in the sense of condemned.
Here then are the first two and the last three verses of
The object that we saw, let us recall,
This summer morn when warmth and beauty mingle —
At the path's turn, a carcase lay asprawl
Upon a bed of shingle.
Legs raised, like some old whore far-gone in passion,
The burning, deadly, poison-sweating mass
Opened its paunch in careless, cynic fashion,
Ballooned with evil gas.
Yet you'll resemble this infection too
One day, and stink and sprawl in such a fashion,
Star of my eyes, sun of my nature, you,
My angel and my passion!
Yes, you must come to this, O queen of graces,
At length, when the last sacraments are over,
And you go down to moulder in dark places
Beneath the grass and clover.
Then tell the vermin as it takes its pleasance
And feasts with kisses on that face of yours,
I've kept intact in form and godlike essence
Our decomposed amours!
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