Even if Baudelaire’s lyrics are accepted as a symptom of modernity (but what great poetry written in the 19th century could not be?), the title of the collection, Les Fleurs du Mal, is not only statement of novelty. In an earlier post, I wrote that Baudelaire’s poems are cultivated from a rejection of creation in the form of boredom and desire—to which the skeptic ought to ask: “but hasn’t a great deal of poetry always been written thus?” But that is to embrace Baudelaire’s sense of the world: human dissatisfaction, either desiring more than can be present or rejecting the possibility of satisfaction, is perennial, and is often the condition for art. Baudelaire’s originality lies not in bringing “evil” or boredom or desire into poetry, but in bringing into his poetry the distinct 19th-century conditions of boredom and desire—without cluttering his poetry with “reality effects” of his Paris and France, they are perfumed by the material of his world, not least in the mentions of perfumes themselves (“modernity” in Swift, Baudelaire, and even T.S. Eliot, is gendered feminine). Even where the poetry is staged against a shabby exotic backdrop, it lets us know that this is the sort of shabby backdrop that one would find in Paris circa 1855.The rejected title of the collection, The Lesbians, speaking more clearly to the Second Empire’s self-image of transgression (reflected, after the fall of the Second Empire, in Zola’s uneven La Curee), addresses also the ambition to revive a lyric tradition founded on Lesbos. In both titles, then, there is recognition of what endures and awareness that to endure is to change in some respects, and that modernity, rather than simply breaking with the Classical past of poetry brings with it further evolution, or devolution, of its feelings of revulsion for creation and yearning for something that creation cannot provide.
(My leaning so hard on the word “creation” is necessary, I think, because it gets “sin” into the poetry without thinking of specific deeds or making it seem like Baudelaire is merely writing about naughty urges in order to shock and titillate; those are part of something bigger, when they are present, which isn’t all of the time.)
The poetry, at any rate, is modern in its understanding of the panaceas that the 19th century offered for those filled, as many were, with something like emptiness and anomie: the exotic, Empire, consumption, drugs, and urban glamor that promises perpetual renewal without fulfillment, and with consequent displacement. It is very near to what the social analyst Wolfgang Streeck identifies as the threefold solace of our late capitalist existence in the early twenty-first century: doping, hoping, and shopping.
Robert Lowell’s thought that Alexander Pope was a relevant English touchstone for the translator of Baudelaire is helpful, albeit for reasons other than Lowell gives: it is not Pope’s Classical rhetoric, but his sense (evident also in Swift’s poetry) of how people become deformed and hollowed-out versions of themselves as they pursue their will o’ wisp satisfactions and ambitions…though Pope’s diagnosis of the condition does not suggest it is as widespread as Baudelaire’s does; the disease had perhaps not spread, or else Pope inherited an ideological faith in a bulwark of civilization. Baudelaire has lost that.
But Baudelaire also possesses, what Pope lacks, a Romantic faith in, and surrender to, the reverie that is close kin to the churned up desires and ambitions of Paris and the Second Empire; at what point is a daydream about a glorious paradise the stuff of a Romantic poem and at what point is it an eloquent impulse to be very rich and not work? Baudelaire suggests that the question is not so easily answered, and in the poems, he indulges in the boredom and desire that is part and parcel with the empty ambitions, torrid consumption and exotic fantasies that he diagnoses as symptoms of what is most corrupting and corrupted in his time—but Baudelaire does not have his cake and eat it too. He does not condemn in order to indulge, or even indulge in order to condemn; instead, he redeems the boredom and desire, the whole sense of dissatisfaction his modernity fosters, by writing reveries that go somewhere else…that, by the force of words, are estranged from their base conditions, become alien and harmonious forms of life (the flowers), growing and hanging from the negation of his world, like orchids without soil.
How does it happen? It turns, often, on the relation of the first-person to his own thoughts. Where the first-person speaker is mired in, a source and target of, boredom and yearning, the speech, directed outward, follows a trail of simile, metaphor, and address that usually eclipses the speaker; and so desire and boredom are subsumed by what they have spawned. It is not dissimilar from having a child.
This might sound haphazard: “the reverie drifts away from a speaker and a poem blooms!” It’s no such thing. In fact, reverie is a fairly sticky thing, as anyone who has heard a dream recounted knows: what the speaker assumes to be fanciful and remote from their own reality is in fact entirely, solipsistically bound up with them. Baudelaire’s reverie pursues his feelings of negation and boredom, but it pursues them as they exist apart from him, in the atmosphere around him. The reverie is taloned and keen to seize on something that is more miasma than creature. What at first seems the freedom and perverse whimsy of the poetry, its soaring in circles and surprising by its turns and descents, is, on further examination, a controlled pursuit of evasive states of mind and mood, which are themselves capable of alighting on any number of objects, occupying any number of spaces. Not “je est autre” but knowing the self means knowing something that is not self, more evasive even than self, both dissolving and dissolved in it.
In imagining boredom and desire as he does, Baudelaire plays a neat trick with Romanticism: he takes the atmospheric historicism of Scott, Delacroix, Chateabriand, and he transfers it to a mental state—or the opposite could be said. He takes his mental state and transfers it to an atmospheric historicism (this is what he celebrates in painters in the poem “Les Phares”). In either case, what is psychological is projected outwards as history; what is historical is internalized as psychology. The metaphors for the outer world take on inner significance and vice-versa. Were I looking to enumerate “characteristics of modernity” in Baudelaire’s poetry, this would certainly be one, possibly only after Romanticism, but not fully exploited by the Romantics (the psychological and historical remained separate, if continuous, for them).
What I’m describing can be found in any number of poems in Les Fleurs du Mal but among the most famous of them serves as a very good example:
La Cloche fêlée
II est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume.
Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!
Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
II arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie
Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.
The Cracked Bell
It’s sweet and bitter, of a winter night,
To hear, beside the crackling, smoking log,
Far memories prepare themselves for flight
To carillons that sound amid the fog.
Happy’s the bell whose vigorous throat on high,
in spite of time, is sound and still unspent,
To hurl his faithful and religious cry
Like an old soldier watching in his tent.
My soul is cracked, and when amidst its care
It tries with song to fill the frosty air,
Sometimes, its voice seems like the feeble croak
A wounded soldier makes, lost in the smoke,
Beneath a pile of dead, in bloody mire,
Trying, with fearful efforts, to expire.
— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)
The reverie here seems to possess a rationale that is more controlled than a dream, and that seems instead like lucid dreaming, and the rationale cannot be worked out by thinking of the speaker alone, since the wounded soldier, the lost battle, and the church bell, all also demand attention, the scene eclipsing any of its parts. Where the first person enters, a hinge on the turn into the final sestet, it feels empty of significance but also crucial, an anchor to keep the rest of the ship in place on the sea of figurative possibilities. It’s violent but calm, involuted but lucid, desperate but detached, intimate but heroic, historical but also on the margins of some great event; it’s suggestive of more than it could possibly contain, but contains enough symmetries and balances to attain a harmony of its own; a perfect little poem. It cannot demonstrate all that I’ve claimed for Baudelaire here, but it provides an aroma of the landscape.