On Baudelaire’s two-hundredth Birthday I am with my mother-in-law for our weekly French lesson. It is her birthday too, today. As the occasion demands, we read a few passages from ‘Spleen’, which was first published in Fleurs de Mal [Flowers of Evil] in 1857.
Baudelaire wrote on the cusp of literary modernism—one hand in velvet-strewn Gothic Romanticism infused with Poe’s influence and symbolism, and the other in realist naturalism: documenting life as it really was in almost medical detail. His use of form too is caught between two movements. Baudelaire, the inventor of the prose poem, evolved his use of long lines from the alexandrine; the alexandrine was to French literature what iambic pentameter was to English verse—ubiquitous poetic signature of a nation, but also the prosodic status quo: the old poetry of an old world.
The blending of Gothic and Naturalist imagery can be observed on the following passage, from the third part of ‘Spleen’:
—Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune, Où comme plus de morts se traînent de longs vers Qui s’acharnent toujours sur me morts les plus chers.
—I am a graveyard by the moon abhorred, where, creeping, like remorse, the long worms spread their train to feast upon my dearest dead.
Here, the symbolic moon and the graveyard set the gothic scene followed by the bathetic realism of the corpse-eating worms below. But reading this in French drew my attention to something new—something I had never noticed in translation. The phrase ‘longs vers’ first read to me as ‘vers’ as in ‘vers libre’ and not ‘vers’ as in worms. Could it be that the poem metatextually reflects on its own composition on this double-sensed ‘vers’? In this metaphor for poetics itself, the persona becomes the landscape, the graveyard (I am a graveyard/ Je suis un cimetière) and the long lines(verses) feast upon the dead which all together divulge a cryptic allusion to a self-conscious shift from the Gothic Romanticism (the graveyard, the dead) via Baudelaire’s innovative ‘long lines’ freed from their alexandrine constraint, and towards a new poetics–towards modernism.
is the 200th anniversary of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire – a poet
associated with the emergence of literary modernism and the figure of the urban
wanderer; the flaneur.
flâneur is the prime urban walker and
recorder in literature. The flâneur’s impression of the city is
formed through walking and is thus shaped at street level, through the
confusion and immediacy of the urban sensual phenomena of the crowd. From the crowd emerge the individual ‘urban
types’ that populate Baudelaire’s Les
Fleurs du Mal (1857). Baudelaire’s
poetry is that of the flâneur (along
with other marginal figures), who has, in some form, inhabited the city in
literature since Edgar Allan Poe. One of
the most famous statements on modernity and the modern metropolis is in Baudelaire’s
essay on the artist Constantin Guys in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: ‘modernity is the
transitory, the fugitive, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other half
being the eternal and the immutable’.
Baudelaire isolates the ragpicker and the flâneur (along with the prostitute) as
types with whom he associates himself as a poet. The ragpicker is the epitome
of human misery in the city, collecting rags to be used in industrial processes. The affinity between the ragpicker and the
poet arises from a coincidence of activity – as Baudelaire also sees himself
collecting social refuse from the city street and fashioning it into a
occupies a very particular time and place and is of a class that is able to
indulge in strolling as a pastime. His
arena is initially that of the boulevards, but with the advent of the arcades
he finds his perfect environment. Here
he can be an observer, and a peruser of the commodities in the arcades, as well
as a commodity spectacle to be observed.
He is a man, according to the 20th century critic Walter
Benjamin, who goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt’ and who is at home in the street.
Baudelaire’s poem ‘To a Passer-by’
invests the crowd with a potential to offer exciting but fleeting metropolitan
encounters. The poet describes a brief
and anonymous encounter with a beautiful widow who is borne to him and away
from him by the crowd.
about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;
graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.
flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?
far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library
‘What this sonnet communicates is simply
this:’ Benjamin writes, ‘far from experiencing the crowd as an opposed,
antagonistic element, this very crowd brings to the city dweller the figure
that fascinates. The delight of the urban poet is love – not at first sight,
but at last sight’. The way in which the
crowd conveys this mysterious beauty to the gaze of the poet illustrates both
the anonymity and the fascination of the crowd.
However, Baudelaire’s attitude to the crowd as ambivalent. It is
Baudelaire’s very status as a poet that prevents him becoming fully immersed in
the city; both his class position and his professed role as dispassionate
observer must separate him from the mass.
The complexity of an environment
emerging from these conditions requires a mode of expression equal to its
volatility. Consequently, Baudelaire’s
poetic project was to create a prose adequate to the metropolis of his
age. Baudelaire as a poet, seeks an
urban poetics adequate to both the rational and the phantasmagorical elements
of urban experience. In an echo of the
two parts that constitute modernity, he wrote of his own poetry:
Who among us
has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose,
musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to
the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and the sudden
leaps of consciousness. This obsessive
idea is above all a child of the experience of giant cities, of the
intersecting of their myriad relations.
Baudelaire seeks is a mode of representation that engages with the eternal and
(seemingly) immutable physical metropolis in terms which at the same time are
able to capture the ephemeral and fugitive interrelations he finds so