The gray trances and suspended animation of Swinburne’s poetry owes more to Baudelaire than the chintzier trappings of forbidden love, vampires, and death that are sometimes associated with “decadence.” In other words, Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine” is a better touchstone for English readers of Baudelaire than the poems where the decadent furniture is on view; in it, we find a pale, watery reflection of Baudelaire’s sense of “evil” as a negation of creation. At the same time, Swinburne is ultimately inadequate, as all English poets are, for understanding how Baudelaire’s poems negate creation. In Swinburne, negation is a suspension of life, the summoning of dream-state and wraith-region, where desire for death is erotic desire of sleep. The diffusion of language (c.f. T.S. Eliot’s essay) and decomposed similes (c.f. William Empson on Swinburne’s ambiguity) are the technical inventions in service of the vision. In both vision and technique, Baudelaire does something else entirely.

In Baudelaire’s poetry, the negation of creation manifests as boredom and desire, both terms given new semantic charge owing to their reach over existence. Boredom and desire are both, in Baudelaire, forms of emptiness, and also two sides of the same coin. Desire delights in what is present and immediate only to digest it into a fantasy of what it is not, into something absent or other for which it stands in; hence Baudelaire’s return to prostitutes, whose sensual embrace and adornments are not ends in themselves, and are only valued as they are for recalling something that is not, that perhaps can never again be or that never could be. Boredom refuses satisfaction offered by whatever is present; it includes something in Baudelaire’s poetry that might be thought of as “disgust” but that, being without fear and without moral censure, is instead a cold representation of deformity, taken as further proof of creation’s failure to sustain itself or satisfy. Both attitudes are “evil” because, in their different ways, both deny the worth of creation, and so, of God (nor do they bemoan that creation is fallen, other than its original pure self, finding in it the absence of a perfection that God can ensure; that fantasy is not entertained).

The “flowers” (in Les Fleurs du Mal) are the poems that take as their subject matter the poet’s own desire or boredom: the poems really imagine boredom and desire as they are, to believe in them and their negation of creation, their refusal of it. But in doing justice to boredom and desire, and doing justice to their rejection, the poems create. The poems imagine an emptiness that, paradoxically, begets a fullness of language. The pleasure Baudelaire takes in such an imagination is not pleasure at suffering or corruption, but at what he can make of negation without—and this is most crucial—claiming to redeem it or transform it so as to overcome it. The poems do not want a way out of negation; they dwell there.

Whereas in Swinburne’s decadence, the similes erode, in Baudelaire’s the similes extend to baroque intricacy, so that we lose sight of what is ground and what figure, or what is point and what counterpoint; the poems are fuller and more refined, their chaos a consequence of their elaborated clarity. The relevant contrast among British poets is Hopkins. His poetry attends to the inscape of creation with reverent care, and which is often brought up short, the weight of the world sometimes failing to calibrate, sometimes miraculously aligning, with the weight of the words. On such occasions, the syntax and semantics of the poetry is disrupted by shocks of recognition and blindness that have been described, taking up Hopkins’ own language, as “abrupt.”

Baudelaire’s verse is rarely abrupt syntactically, but frequently abrupt semantically, and as a consequence we are made to feel that Baudelaire is in complete control of himself even when he imagines what is most estranging. He maintains, that is, the rhetorical and syntactical sublimity of a hero in classical French tragedy, strong and active and capable of rising above the scene of his own psyche, which is also the scene of the era in which he lives.

To explain what I’m saying in reference to texts, I’ll include a brief anthology of poems that seemed to most directly lead to these thoughts:

 

Je te donne ces vers afin que si mon nom

Je te donne ces vers afin que si mon nom
Aborde heureusement aux époques lointaines,
Et fait rêver un soir les cervelles humaines,
Vaisseau favorisé par un grand aquilon,

Ta mémoire, pareille aux fables incertaines,
Fatigue le lecteur ainsi qu’un tympanon,
Et par un fraternel et mystique chaînon
Reste comme pendue à mes rimes hautaines;

Être maudit à qui, de l’abîme profound
Jusqu’au plus haut du ciel, rien, hors moi, ne répond!
— Ô toi qui, comme une ombre à la trace éphémère,

Foules d’un pied léger et d’un regard serein
Les stupides mortels qui t’ont jugée amère,
Statue aux yeux de jais, grand ange au front d’airain!

 

For You This Poem: If My Name Should Reach

For you this poem: if my name should reach
Favoured by mighty gales, to far-off times,
Like a proud vessel sailing to the beach,
To stir the brains of humans with my rhymes —

Your memory, uncertain as a myth,
Will tire the reader like an endless gong,
And be a mystic, kindred chain wherewith
He’ll hang suspended to my towering song:

Curs’d soul to whom (from the supernal sky
To hell’s abysm) none responds but I!
O you, who like a fleeting shadow pass,

Spurn with light foot and with serenest gaze
The stupid mortals who have grudged you praise,
O jade-eyed statue, angel browed with brass!

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952))

Réversibilité

Ange plein de gaieté, connaissez-vous l’angoisse,
La honte, les remords, les sanglots, les ennuis,
Et les vagues terreurs de ces affreuses nuits
Qui compriment le coeur comme un papier qu’on froisse?
Ange plein de gaieté, connaissez-vous l’angoisse?

Ange plein de bonté, connaissez-vous la haine,
Les poings crispés dans l’ombre et les larmes de fiel,
Quand la Vengeance bat son infernal rappel,
Et de nos facultés se fait le capitaine?
Ange plein de bonté connaissez-vous la haine?

Ange plein de santé, connaissez-vous les Fièvres,
Qui, le long des grands murs de l’hospice blafard,
Comme des exilés, s’en vont d’un pied traînard,
Cherchant le soleil rare et remuant les lèvres?
Ange plein de santé, connaissez-vous les Fièvres?

Ange plein de beauté, connaissez-vous les rides,
Et la peur de vieillir, et ce hideux tourment
De lire la secrète horreur du dévouement
Dans des yeux où longtemps burent nos yeux avide!
Ange plein de beauté, connaissez-vous les rides?

Ange plein de bonheur, de joie et de lumières,
David mourant aurait demandé la santé
Aux émanations de ton corps enchanté;
Mais de toi je n’implore, ange, que tes prières,
Ange plein de bonheur, de joie et de lumières!

Reversibility

Angel of gaiety, have you known anguish,
Shame and remorse, tears, boredom, and dismay,
Vague horrors of the nights in which we languish,
Which crumple hearts like papers thrown away?
Angel of gaiety, have you known anguish?

Angel of kindness, have you met with hate?
Fists clenched in gloom, eyes running tears of gall,
When Vengeance beats his drum to subjugate
Our faculties, the captain of them all?
Angel of kindness, have you met with hate?

Angel of health, have you beheld the Fevers?
Across pale walls of wards they limp and stumble,
Like exiles wan, with agues, chills, and shivers,
Seeking the scanty sun with lips that mumble.
Angel of health, have you beheld the Fevers?

Angel of beauty, do you know Old Age,
The fear of wrinkles, and the dire emotion,
In eyes we’ve pierced too long, as on a page,
To read the secret horror of devotion?
Angel of beauty do you know Old Age?

Angel of goodness, radiance, and delight,
The dying David would have begged to share
The emanations of your body bright.
But all I wish to ask of you is prayer,
Angel of goodness, radiance, and delight.

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952))

Le Possédé

Le soleil s’est couvert d’un crêpe. Comme lui,
Ô Lune de ma vie! emmitoufle-toi d’ombre
Dors ou fume à ton gré; sois muette, sois sombre,
Et plonge tout entière au gouffre de l’Ennui;

Je t’aime ainsi! Pourtant, si tu veux aujourd’hui,
Comme un astre éclipsé qui sort de la pénombre,
Te pavaner aux lieux que la Folie encombre
C’est bien! Charmant poignard, jaillis de ton étui!

Allume ta prunelle à la flamme des lustres!
Allume le désir dans les regards des rustres!
Tout de toi m’est plaisir, morbide ou pétulant;

Sois ce que tu voudras, nuit noire, rouge aurore;
II n’est pas une fibre en tout mon corps tremblant
Qui ne crie: Ô mon cher Belzébuth, je t’adore!

The Possessed

The sun in crepe has muffled up his fire.
Moon of my life! Half shade yourself like him.
Slumber or smoke. Be silent and be dim,
And in the gulf of boredom plunge entire;

I love you thus! However, if you like,
Like some bright star from its eclipse emerging,
To flaunt with Folly where the crowds are surging —
Flash, lovely dagger, from your sheath and strike!

Light up your eyes from chandeliers of glass!
Light up the lustful looks of louts that pass!
Morbid or petulant, I thrill before you.

Be what you will, black night or crimson dawn;
No fibre of my body tautly-drawn,
But cries: “Beloved demon, I adore you!”

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952))

Le Flacon

II est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu’ils pénètrent le verre.
En ouvrant un coffret venu de l’Orient
Dont la serrure grince et rechigne en criant,

Ou dans une maison déserte quelque armoire
Pleine de l’âcre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noire,
Parfois on trouve un vieux flacon qui se souvient,
D’où jaillit toute vive une âme qui revient.

Mille pensers dormaient, chrysalides funèbres,
Frémissant doucement dans les lourdes ténèbres,
Qui dégagent leur aile et prennent leur essor,
Teintés d’azur, glacés de rose, lamés d’or.

Voilà le souvenir enivrant qui voltige
Dans l’air troublé; les yeux se ferment; le Vertige
Saisit l’âme vaincue et la pousse à deux mains
Vers un gouffre obscurci de miasmes humains;

II la terrasse au bord d’un gouffre séculaire,
Où, Lazare odorant déchirant son suaire,
Se meut dans son réveil le cadavre spectral
D’un vieil amour ranci, charmant et sépulcral.

Ainsi, quand je serai perdu dans la mémoire
Des hommes, dans le coin d’une sinistre armoire
Quand on m’aura jeté, vieux flacon désolé,
Décrépit, poudreux, sale, abject, visqueux, fêlé,

Je serai ton cercueil, aimable pestilence!
Le témoin de ta force et de ta virulence,
Cher poison préparé par les anges! liqueur
Qui me ronge, ô la vie et la mort de mon coeur!

The Flask

Perfumes there are which through all things can pass
And make all matter porous, even glass;
Old coffers from the Orient brought, whose locks
Grind sullenly when opening the box,

Or, in an empty house, some ancient chest,
Where time and dust and gloom were long compressed,
May yield a flask where memory survives,
And a soul flashes into future lives.

A thousand thoughts, funereal larvae, laid
Shuddering softly under palls of shade,
May suddenly their soaring wings unfold,
Stained azure, glazed with rose, or filmed with gold.

Intoxicating memory now flies
Into the dusk, and makes us close our eyes:
Vertigo draws the spirit which it grips
Towards some dark miasma of eclipse:

Beside an ancient pit he makes her fall,
Where Lazarus, sweet-scented, tears his pall
And wakes the spectral corpse of some now-cold,
Rancid, sepulchral love he knew of old.

So when I’m lost to human memory, thrown
In some old gloomy chest to fie alone,
A poor decrepit flask, cracked, abject, crusty
With dirt, opaque and sticky, damp and dusty,

I’ll be your pall and shroud, beloved pest!
The witness of your venom, and its test,
Dear poison, angel-brewed with deadly art —
Life, death, and dear corrosion of my heart.

(Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952))

 

Baudelaire is often called a poet of modernity. That can mean more than one thing. But I think it clear that he is suggesting that this “modern” world is one that throws us between insatiable desire and existential boredom, that idolizes these states, and most of us, hypocrites that we are, live by desire and boredom alternately, without thinking what that means—Baudelaire offers himself as the hero of this era by suggesting how we can embrace our condition, dwell in it and cultivate beauty in it. If we don’t like the heroism he presents, it is not a failure of the poet or his imagination; it is a failure of the modern world that demands such a heroism—or that can otherwise be met with reactionary despair. The heroism is made to feel ironic because it does not conform with heroism we have learned; but the irony is not lampoon or parody, but is the awareness of how isolating such heroism must be, when the world that demands it in their actions and lives would reject it when it manifests itself.