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.