Baudelaire as the Birth of Modern Poetry
Harrowing. There is an unspeakable quality to Baudelaire’s poetry, the substance of which seems so inexplicably fantastic and yet hauntingly sympathetic. His life is my life. It’s no less than apropos that this prodigious creature, a product of 19th century French culture, still looms so large over literature–over us. He is, in fact, the first modernist, and it’s this fact that infirmed his being.
In January of this year (2022), right after moving from New Jersey to Florida, I visited a local book store in Fort Lauderdale, looking for some hidden gems. Perusing the shelves, waiting–not to pick up a book–but for a book to choose me, to call to me. Such as it was with Les fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire. The collection also included his Poems in Prose and Little Poems in Prose. While time does not permit me to get off a full review or critique, I’m behooved to at least speak a little to a couple of the shorter poems that spoke to me with the intention of doing a subsequent review and critique on my favorite, albeit longer, poem from the collection.
THE SKY (excerpt) The heaven above? A strangling cavern wall; The lighted ceiling of a music-hall Where every actor treads a bloody soil— The hermit's hope; the terror of the sot; The sky: the black lid of the mighty pot Where the vast human generations boil!
The human predicament has not changed. Is it ironic or pathetic? “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). It matters not if you are of wealth or of poverty, from a god or from the devil. Indeed, we actors are all on the same damned stage of life, ostensibly bumbling about through life, intoxicated by all that shines and promises any vestige of happiness or, even worse, any lasting meaning. Baudelaire’s metaphor is strikingly rich here. The sky, the ever expansive blue mystery during the day, and that black mystery that envelops us in terrible nightmares when the sun has set, is the enormous lid of the pot of the damned. Even still, we look up! The sinner in horror and the saint in hope. For we are all waiting, unawares, as the pot moves from a simmer to a roaring boil. Such is our current predicament in 21st century America as it was in 19th century France.
THE CORPSE (excerpt) Remember, my Beloved, what thing we met By the roadside on that sweet summer day; There on a grassy couch with pebbles set, A loathsome body lay. The swarming flies hummed on the putrid side, Whence poured the maggots in a darkling stream, That ran along these tatters of life's pride With a liquescent gleam. And you, even you, will be like this drear thing, A vile infection man may not endure; Star that I year to! Sun that lights my spring! O passionate and pure! Then, O Belovèd, whisper to the worm That crawls up to devour you with a kiss, That I still guard in memory the dear form Of love that comes to this!
Baudelaire’s prose effortlessly moves from the social critique reminiscent of the best of in his cultural line (think the acerbic satire of Voltaire combined with the wit and cunning of François de La Rochefoucauld) to the self-conscious story telling of the artist teetering on madness. In fact, it was Baudelaire who first translated Edgar Allen Poe’s works into French: spiritual brothers both infatuated with the macabre.
The corpse is a beautiful poem. Precisely because its content is the disturbing imagery of the fate of all mankind: death. Not only death (abstractly or theoretically conceived), but death as it actually is. The decaying of a corpse. The bloating of the stomach with putrid gasses and bile. The feast of the maggots on the lifeless matter and the swarming of flies.
This is the form of love that nevertheless lives on in memory. That is yet precious, that is meaningful, that should be guarded, embraced and cherished. The image of the worm crawling up to devour the rotting corpse with “a kiss” is evocative and terrifying. These same worms devour the bodies of the wicked in hell; the wrath of God is upon them. “Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,” Says the prophet Isaiah against the oppressive tyrants of Babylon in their ostentation and decadent indulgence, “the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers” (Is 14:11).
Reading Baudelaire was a respite to my weariness. Someone who was equally disgusted yet exhausted with not only his vain and materialistic society, but with life itself. Here again, we see the banality of evil, the terror of realty, and the suffering that is existence. While it can be hard to catch the hopeful, aestetic glimmer, I believe that Baudelaire wants to encourage us to neither fall into a noxious fatalism nor a presumptions nihilism, but to see the beauty where beauty genuinely exists. As flowers, in our garden of evil.
Why? Because it’s the only one we’ve got