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Thursday 30 October 2008

The Flowers of Evil.

(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:

The Ideal

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 Carcass

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!


The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Dave for the tour of Beaudelaire - I think he was one of the first poets to "tell it as it is". Before him romanticism had rather gone overboard and glossed over the imperfections. I love that last poem. I haven't read it before. It is certainly down to earth in all senses of the words. Glad I am able to leave a comment again. Sometimes google is a bit frustrating.

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass
I, too, am glad you were able to leave the comment. I think Baudelaire impresses me more every time I go back to him, which is increasingly often these days, though I did neglect him for a long time.

Anonymous said...

You have just been awarded a Blogging Friends Forever award... Collect it and pass it on.

Jim Murdoch said...

He's not a poet I know but I appreciate any poet who tells it as it is. I enjoyed what you included of 'The Carcass' but the whole poem was a bit long-winded for my tastes. I can probably understand why he chose to dwell in the moment but I didn't need it all. He's not a poet I've ever read, not even in passing.

J. C. said...

Beaudelaire, what to say... I was also a teenager when I first discovered his flowers, and got poisoned and intoxicated ever since.

Dave King said...

Fine... but how? Where from?

Dave King said...


I also find 'The Carcass' a bit long winded, and can appreciate that he would not be everyone's poet. It took a long time before I got round to appreciating him.

Dave King said...


Welcome. Great to have your feedback.

That sums it(him?) up very nicely, I think.

swiss said...

eh? what's the story dave? my comment's disappeared! lol oh well never mind

and what's this? baudelaire? longwinded? criticising a 19th century poet for being longwinded in our tv/radio/xbox/internetted atrophied minds is like criticising the sky for being too blue!

Anonymous said...

The power of this poetry, and the poet himself, is NOT in its representation of the world of its time, but in its imaginative projection of a reality to come. Decadence, expressed passion in rich language, these are always things of the future, and this is why Baudelaire still resonates. He is prophetic, not at all a reporter exposing the truth of his day. It is all imagination, and up to those who read him to decide whether they want to imitate the behavior he has, in his Victorian prudence, imagined and framed in these actually timid, choked up stanzas. We rewrite the biographies of these poets to make them wilder than they were, so that we can indulge the danger and the pleasures they suggest--all to fit the times which they have invoked and projected. So much do we want continuity with the past. We live in a book.

Dave King said...

Sorry you've had problems. Not sure what's going on.
Once you've got into Baudelaire and acclimatised, as it were, it all seems quite natural, but I do recall the days before I was completely won over, before xbox/tv/internetted atrophied minds even, when I found him to be quite interminable. Poets, like all artists, I guess, change their complexion according to where you are viewing them from.

Dave King said...


Thanks for that. There's a lot to chew over in what you say. I think it may take some time to digest, but I will work at it.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Wonderful and informative as usual, Dave! My own imagination is always fired by coming here.

Art Durkee said...

Baudelaire was prescient, as Lloyd says, and in the ways he says, but one must also remember that in the context of his time, a staid poetry dominated in French by the Alexandrine metric line, his poems were shocking. They were shocking in terms of their subject matter, but also because they were breakout in terms of form. Baudelaire broke away from the Alexandrine, he wrote prose-poems, following Lautremont, his own life was a mess (also like Rimbaud and Valery's messy lives) and he seemed to embody the archetype of the decadent, degraded genius-poet. (Not somebody you want to hang out with in "polite society.") We get our modern archetype of the Decadent Poet from Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, and ther ilk. Baudelaire was also the first translator of Poe into French, and Poe's critical champion in Europe. Charles openly admitted to the strong influence that Edgar Allen had had on him, and on his writing.

Baudelaire wrote actually pretty compressed poetry, in context. If he seems long-winded at times now, that's because our sensibilities have changed, not his. It was another point on which he was controversial in his time: he wrote directly, and bluntly, relative to most of his poetic context. These poems are actually not that long.

Baudelaire is one of the pillars of the modern sensibility in poetry. You are quite right to point out that he was one of the first.

Dave King said...

Pamela Terry and Edward

Thanks for that.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

Thanks for that. I hadn't realised how avant garde he was in terms of form. Still, it was not for his form that he was prosecuted. I am sure his dissolute life was more to the point so far as his reputation was concerned. There, too, we have moved on: Dylan Thomas, for example, led such a life and was maybe looked down upon by the general public, but not quite in the way that Baudelaire was - but then Thomas's content was not comparable to Baudelaire's. I agree that Baudelaire's poetry was reasonably compressed, but today it does strike as long-winded - though there surely are worse crimes.

The Solitary Walker said...

Jesus, Dave, those translations would put anyone off Baudelaire for life! And the same is true of so many translations into English of European verse - and prose.

Incidentally, there is, thank God, a new artistic wave of translation fever about - try, for example, David Constantine's translations of Goethe and Holderlin - or Edith Grossman's fantastically readable Don Quixote.

Marion McCready said...

I've never been able to get into Baudelaire, perhaps I need to wait for the right time to try him again.

Dave King said...

Solitary Walker

I happen to be one of those who thinks that poetry cannot be translated, that what you end up with is a new version, even a new poem.

I have never read Holderlin, though I have meant to since way back when I first encountered references to him in the poetry of Edwin Muir. Any suggestions as to where I should start?

Dave King said...


Is it the form or the conent that pus you off? I have a feeling that you perhaps need to be either pubescent or very mature... being very polite. I was crazy about him as an adolescent and I have now picked him up again in my dotage.

The Solitary Walker said...

Of course, that's true - but there are 'good' new versions and 'bad' new versions.

David Constantine's 'Friedrich Holderlin: Selected Poems' (Bloodaxe) may be a good place to start - than later there's a huge 800 page 'Friedrich Holderlin: Poems and Fragments' translated by the much-missed Michael Hamburger (I remember reading his book 'The Truth Of Poetry' MANY years ago!)

Just a gentle word of caution re Holderlin - I think it may be beneficial to prepare oneself a little by reading around him and his life first, and maybe to brush up on Greek and Roman mythology - also perhaps to have some knowledge about German Romanticism(I was lucky in that my degree was in German, and Constantine himself was one of my lecturers and tutors!)

If you are interested, see the couple of posts I did on DC on my blog (includes a video of him reading one of his own poems)...

Incidentally, he and his wife Helen also edit the excellent magazine 'Modern Poetry In Translation' - well worth a look.

The Solitary Walker said...

When I was a mobile librarian in Buckinghamshire in the late 70s, s strange, half-starved, stick-thin, wild-eyed man used to come onto the van every fortnight - more for an intellectual chat than to borrow any books. I learnt later he was Alan Hull Walton, author of a mystical book called 'The Sword Of Destiny' - and also a translator of Baudelaire. God knows if his translations were ever published - or if they were any good. He invited me into his house once - in a tiny village hidden away in the Chiltern hills - and there were thousands upon thousands of books mouldering away on floor-to-ceiling shelves, and the whole place stank of urine. Ah, the literary life!

Dave King said...

Solitary Walker
Thanks for both contributions. I shall certainly investigate friend Holderlin, so very grateful for the steers in what I am sure will be the right directions.

Fascinating little vignette of Alan Hull Walton. I am sure I have heard of him from somewhere, but the penny hasn't dropped yet.

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