There’s much agreement that he speaks to and of a modern malaise like no other poet. He seems, at times, like a doctor, with one clammy hand taking the pulse of the sickly arm of modernity and the other lewdly feeling in his own pocket throughout the examination. (One reason that the poems preclude intense prurience is by making further thought of what pleasure the poet derives, and why, so off-putting—and yet maybe he is not about that at all; we don’t know). The diagnosis is itself not the point of the poems so much as the show of the exam—but the diagnoses are supplied elsewhere: alienation, bureaucratic rationality, and disenchantment. They are all there in the poems, along with Imperial trade, urbanization, and consumerism. More interesting is the doubling that Baudelaire achieves so that he is at once doctor and patient (a patient one might suspect of hypochondria, only too glad to feel the doctor’s hand on his arm), and at once scapegoat-poet and aesthete snob. Being both at once might be felt to be a further symptom of alienation, but it is also a doubling that is native to a mode of the poems where Baudelaire’s vision is post fully realized, the “Tableaux Parisiens.”
That mode he announces in the opening poem, “Paysage,” is the mode of the “eclogue”: Pastoral. There it is a conceit comparing the city to the countryside, but it holds throughout and describes the more general structure of the poems. The chief guide here is William Empson, who views pastoral as a mode in which the high and low are brought into harmony. Those educated in a “low” (in terms of social and cultural capital) milieu are revealed to possess an intuitively refined judgment, and unity with the natural world, that elevates them; those educated in a “high” milieu reveal their true strength and independence of judgment when they enter into a “low” world. Hence Prince Hal, Bentley on Milton, the rogues of Beggar’s Opera, and Alice; all of these are educated at a remove from the scenes in which they are called on to think and act, and yet only in those scenes do they show themselves to possess a unity with nature that puts them in reach of judgments that are essential and true.
In Baudelaire’s Parisian poems, the pastoral conceit works similarly: the poet’s education in French rhetoric, and his learning, and his status as a dandy, are set in the squalor and demimonde of the capital. But rather than as a tourist “slumming,” he presents himself as a voyeur of a world that is beyond his full powers of comprehension, charged with corruption before which he is naïve.
From “Le Jeu”:
Enviant de ces gens la passion tenace,
De ces vieilles putains la funèbre gaieté,
Et tous gaillardement trafiquant à ma face,
L’un de son vieil honneur, l’autre de sa beauté!
Et mon coeur s’effraya d’envier maint pauvre homme
Courant avec ferveur à l’abîme béant,
Et qui, soûl de son sang, préférerait en somme
La douleur à la mort et l’enfer au néant!
From “Les Sept Viellards”:
Aurais-je, sans mourir, contemplé le huitième,
Sosie inexorable, ironique et fatal
Dégoûtant Phénix, fils et père de lui-même?
— Mais je tournai le dos au cortège infernal.
Exaspéré comme un ivrogne qui voit double,
Je rentrai, je fermai ma porte, épouvanté,
Malade et morfondu, l’esprit fiévreux et trouble,
Blessé par le mystère et par l’absurdité!
Empson’s examples are helpful in situating Baudelaire’s pastoral identity: he takes on the naïve curiosity of Alice, the misplaced, estranging erudition of Bentley, and the self-effacing self-conscious play-acting of Hal. As with all three of these, we are reminded often of Baudelaire’s “superiority,” in the terms of social and cultural distinction, but which is no such thing in the milieu of his wandering (Alice’s primness is odd in Wonderland; Bentley’s erudition a stumbling block in his reading of Milton; Hal’s royalty is irrelevant for the most part in the house of Mistress Doll)—and yet which nonetheless provides him with the means to ask the right questions, and learn the right lessons, from the Paris in which he walks (Alice’s being a child, Bentley’s erudition, and Hal’s lordly confidence do much the same). Baudelaire most evidently takes his place in this grouping where he asks his audacious questions, which are both highly theatrical and disarmingly naïve. From “Les Petites Vielles”:
— Avez-vous observé que maints cercueils de vieilles
Sont presque aussi petits que celui d’un enfant?
La Mort savante met dans ces bières pareilles
Un symbole d’un goût bizarre et captivant,
Et lorsque j’entrevois un fantôme débile
Traversant de Paris le fourmillant tableau,
Il me semble toujours que cet être fragile
S’en va tout doucement vers un nouveau berceau;
Or at the close of “Les Aveugles”:
Vois! je me traîne aussi! mais, plus qu’eux hébété,
Je dis: Que cherchent-ils au Ciel, tous ces aveugles?
Or throughout “Danse Macabre”:
Viens-tu troubler, avec ta puissante grimace,
La fête de la Vie? ou quelque vieux désir,
Eperonnant encor ta vivante carcasse,
Te pousse-t-il, crédule, au sabbat du Plaisir?
Au chant des violons, aux flammes des bougies,
Espères-tu chasser ton cauchemar moqueur,
Et viens-tu demander au torrent des orgies
De rafraîchir l’enfer allumé dans ton coeur?
Inépuisable puits de sottise et de fautes!
De l’antique douleur éternel alambic!
À travers le treillis recourbé de tes côtes
Je vois, errant encor, l’insatiable aspic.
Pour dire vrai, je crains que ta coquetterie
Ne trouve pas un prix digne de ses efforts
Qui, de ces coeurs mortels, entend la raillerie?
Les charmes de l’horreur n’enivrent que les forts!
But the disjuncture between high and low, and their most beautiful reconciliation, is in the poem that straddles the heroic and the ridiculous, “Le Cygne.” The rhetorical elevation is working throughout the poem to close the gap between the urban scene and the mythological antecedent, but a consequence of that continuing work (at its sharpest pitch when the swan cries out) is a recurring reminder of their misalignment; his own way of speaking and apprehending the changing city justifies his identification with the swan—and Baudelaire, who elsewhere compares the poet to an albatross, may be seen dramatizing his own plight:
Un cygne qui s’était évadé de sa cage,
Et, de ses pieds palmés frottant le pavé sec,
Sur le sol raboteux traînait son blanc plumage.
Près d’un ruisseau sans eau la bête ouvrant le bec
Baignait nerveusement ses ailes dans la poudre,
Et disait, le coeur plein de son beau lac natal:
«Eau, quand donc pleuvras-tu? quand tonneras-tu, foudre?»
Je vois ce malheureux, mythe étrange et fatal,
Vers le ciel quelquefois, comme l’homme d’Ovide,
Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu,
Sur son cou convulsif tendant sa tête avide
Comme s’il adressait des reproches à Dieu!
Like Hal or Alice, Baudelaire’s classicism realizes its greatest potential, and most becomes itself, where it is most isolated from its proper occasion and setting.