401. (Charles Baudelaire)

How to explain the presence of Baudelaire as a defining presence for modernist poetry in English? He is felt, directly and indirectly through his immediate French heirs, not in all modernist poets, but certainly, centrally, in the poetry of Eliot and Stevens. Seeing Baudelaire aright is not to take him as a means for better understanding them, or vice-versa; but finding the common element in the three, and in some poets who came after, is to come closer to the technical achievement and ambition common to all of them.

I take as my starting point a remark in Eliot’s essay on Ben Jonson: “He is no less a poet than these men, but his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” My thesis, to put the matter crassly, is that this determination to write a poetry of the surface is found also in Baudelaire—as well as Eliot and Stevens. And though Baudelaire is invoked nowhere in that essay—and only on one other occasion in The Sacred Wood, when Eliot says in an aside that Baudelaire is “at times as rhetorical as Rostand”—the essay invites us to consider Baudelaire indirectly, in its invocation of caricature to describe Jonson’s dramatic art: “This stripping is essential to the art, to which is also essential a flat distortion in the drawing; it is an art of caricature, of great caricature, like Marlowe’s. It is a great caricature, which is beautiful; and a great humour, which is serious.”

Caricature is one of Baudelaire’s recurring critical preoccupations, both in the essay on laughter and in his remarks on English caricaturists, and, in relation to them, Goya’s etchings. What Eliot says about surfaces is pertinent for these artists, too. But it is also pertinent for thinking of Eliot’s own art around the time of The Sacred Wood, and for appreciating how Eliot’s responsiveness to Baudelaire, and his debt to Baudelaire, might have to do with Baudelaire’s poetry recovering for Eliot what a poetry of surfaces could be.

This post will be on Baudelaire, but suffice to say that the modernist recovery of surface can be related to its attitude to ornament, not a simple rejection, but a dislike for ornament that covered rather than ornament that revealed the surface as surface, or that took the surface itself as ornament (we see versions of these in Wallace Stevens); it can be seen in the embrace of the mask in primitive art and the fascination with the formal flatness of the archaic; and it can be seen in the sense that rhetoric need not be rejected, so much as, like ornament, appreciated when it was an acknowledgment of, a self-conscious apprehension of, the outward visage of self-dramatization, rather than a testimony to depths of being.

Baudelaire’s poetry of the surface is not to be confused with empiricism; in his poetry, surfaces are extended to cover (as it were) abstractions and moods, the inner life as well as the facades of cityscapes; in Baudelaire’s poetry, reverie lives along, and testifies to, the hardness of a surface; and surfaces are encountered not to frustrate sympathy, or to dramatize the limits of the sympathetic mind, but because of the feeling they, and they alone bring; to feel is to feel along surfaces, and the tension of the poetry is the determination to remain there.

In his remarks on Daumier, Baudelaire writes: “The quality that completes Daumier’s remarkable character, and makes of him an outstanding artist belonging to the illustrious family of the masters, is that his drawing, by its nature, has colour. His lithographs and his woodcuts arouse the idea of colour. His pencil contains something else besides the black necessary for drawing outlines. It enables you to guess the presence of color as well as the thought; that is the hallmark of the finest art, one that intelligent artists have clearly seen in his works.” (“Some French Caricaturists,” 1857) “By its nature, has colour,” and “arouse the idea of colour: even though they are often without color; this is a remark on what is brought into being on the surface of “the masters,” a color that is the surface most itself.

The dedication to surfaces—the discipline of surface—does not mean that Baudelaire eschews interiors—but that he explores them for the surfaces they contain, so that he always stands at a remove that allows him to feel along, even when he seems that he should be feeling in, or “feeling in.” His is not a poetry of empathy or sympathy, even when it moves with pathos:

“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 “moi” is the stable center of the poem, first taking in the impressions of the landscape, the bell chiming through the bitter winter mists, the sound penetrating the distance and shrouded landscape, and in so doing only establishing their expanse and inaccessibility; when it reaches the poem it does not open itself to reveal anything hidden, but instead suggests another scene from which the poet stands apart as a spectator, that of the old soldier who wakes to cry out; the sound itself runs along, and carries the poem along, the images, without an invitation to participate or enter. Then the first person chimes, and what was an impression of the senses reaching out instead turns inward, but here too, remarkably, we are not given depth but another expanse, the soul as a broken bell, a double of the first that the poet has heard, itself own feeble voice in turn compared to a double of the first soldier, the wounded by the bloody lack, dying beneath a pile of the dead, unable to move, despite his great efforts. One set-piece resembles another set-piece, resembles another, and the soul is made to stand not outside—this not being a matter of denying interiority or insisting on exteriority—but to be known from without, the poet looking in, at a vantage that precludes participation or egress, that places him as voyeur (not here flaneur) of himself. But the spectator’s viewpoint is made possible by sound, intimate, inward in its reach and route, and this it is that creates the resistance against which the poet works; to set himself at a remove from what feels innately near. The image of the final lines, of the soldier struggling, dying, without moving, despite efforts, does insist that we enter within the felt experience of another, but one of stasis, oppressed by force from without, the smothered weight of bodies that themselves are inert, as our own fades to inertness; as much as “d’immenses efforts” flashes out with the apprehension of a struggle lived along muscle and mind alike, it is a struggle to push against that which pushes too much upon the body, and which itself emanates only in a sound, which, seeming the sound of his broken soul, Baudelaire’s poem would not allow to press too closely upon his sense of self, “moi” not just in apposition to “mon âme” but held apart from it.

Take a poem that is overtly about the “depths,” “De Profundis Clamavi”:

J’implore ta pitié, Toi, l’unique que j’aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C’est un univers morne à l’horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l’horreur et le blasphème;


Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C’est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!


Or il n’est pas d’horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;


Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l’écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

It’s not just that he is not fallen into the abyss—that instead his heart is fallen there, that he stands apart from it—but that from where he stands, it is a landscape that spreads out, and not the depth of the abyss that seems to matter at all (we see something similar in the “Spleen” poems), and in fact where depth is invoked, it is in envy of the brutish animals who can fall (“se plonger”) into the stupor of sleep, but that is their depth, and what he is left with is instead a sense of time’s thread unwinding through his fingers; the sense that everything becomes external to him, a ground to walk upon, a place of exposure, icy petrification, and dark night that is apart not only in its immensity but in its resembling Chaos, all of this converts the abyss and depth to a set of planes and solids.  Even time is held in his hands; he envies the beasts not only their obliviousness to its slow passing, but their being able to dive, to plunge, into anything at all, and not to feel time as a tawdry thread coming undone beneath his fingers. We feel here also the strange effect of rhetoric in Baudelaire’s verse: a rhetoric that sets things on a stage not to insist upon their importance, but to insist upon their being masked and to relate himself to them as if he were himself masked. His rhetoric makes surface obtrusive, and the self-dramatization is a casting of a mask for oneself in the writing of the poem.

In “La Chevelure,” Baudelaire finds an object of depth that is simultaneously all surface—each thread of hair contributing its perfectly smooth surface to a body greater than any one strand:

Ô toison, moutonnant jusque sur l’encolure!
Ô boucles! Ô parfum chargé de nonchaloir!
Extase! Pour peupler ce soir l’alcôve obscure
Des souvenirs dormant dans cette chevelure,
Je la veux agiter dans l’air comme un mouchoir!


La langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique,
Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque défunt,
Vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique!
Comme d’autres esprits voguent sur la musique,
Le mien, ô mon amour! nage sur ton parfum.


J’irai là-bas où l’arbre et l’homme, pleins de sève,
Se pâment longuement sous l’ardeur des climats;
Fortes tresses, soyez la houle qui m’enlève!
Tu contiens, mer d’ébène, un éblouissant rêve
De voiles, de rameurs, de flammes et de mâts:


Un port retentissant où mon âme peut boire
À grands flots le parfum, le son et la couleur
Où les vaisseaux, glissant dans l’or et dans la moire
Ouvrent leurs vastes bras pour embrasser la gloire
D’un ciel pur où frémit l’éternelle chaleur.


Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d’ivresse
Dans ce noir océan où l’autre est enfermé;
Et mon esprit subtil que le roulis caresse
Saura vous retrouver, ô féconde paresse,
Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!


Cheveux bleus, pavillon de ténèbres tendues
Vous me rendez l’azur du ciel immense et rond;
Sur les bords duvetés de vos mèches tordues
Je m’enivre ardemment des senteurs confondues
De l’huile de coco, du musc et du goudron.


Longtemps! toujours! ma main dans ta crinière lourde
Sèmera le rubis, la perle et le saphir,
Afin qu’à mon désir tu ne sois jamais sourde!
N’es-tu pas l’oasis où je rêve, et la gourde
Où je hume à longs traits le vin du souvenir?

More clearly here than in any of the other poems I’ve quoted, the insistence on depth becomes a revelation of further surfaces, as insubstantial as dreams, but inseparable from the sensuous immediacy of the head of hair. But the effect is not to deny depth, but to redefine it: the capacity to encounter, dream, and imagine surfaces becomes a measure of what depth is, not the concealment of something other than surfaces, but the proliferation of them, each growing into, yielding, another, like fractals emerging with each additional magnification. The poem yields to reverie, but the reverie is disciplined by the edges it yields under the pressure of the poem’s form.

Like sound in “The Broken Bell,” smell in “La Chevelure” is invasive and intimate, insisting on the depths of inner spaces but also pulling Baudelaire out of them, into scenes and amidst objects that he treasures from without. Smell, more than sound, dominates Baudelaire’s imaginations, where “dominates” is not a casual term, but is intended to convey the force of this most diffuse and evasive of sensory collisions. It seems at first to have no surface—but then it has no depth either; it is in one sense all surface, and in another it renders irrelevant the distinction of surface and depth; it does not itself contain, but is present and emanates, and not from within, but from objects themselves, so that it testifies to the external presence of things, and could be said either to dissolve the space between subject and object, or to serve as an extension of the membrane of the object itself, coming into contact with the perceiving subject.

In “Petits Poèmes en Prose,” Le Spleen de Paris, scent resolves to time, by way of the temptation of laudanum, and time in turn resolves into a figure capable of standing forth, apart from Baudelaire, a body of its own:

Et ce parfum d’un autre monde, dont je m’enivrais avec une sensibilité perfectionnée, hélas! il est remplacé par une fétide odeur de tabac mêlée à je ne sais quelle nauséabonde moissisure. On respire ici maintenant le ranci de la desolation.

Dans ce monde étroit, mais si plein de dégoût, un seul object connu me sourit: la fiole de laudanum; une vielle et terrible amie; comme toutes les amies, hélas! féconde en caresses et en traîtrises.

Oh! oui! le Temps a reparu; le Temps règnes en souverain maintenant; et avec le hideux vieillard est revenue tout son démoni  aque cortège de Souvenirs, de Regrets, de Spasmes, de Peurs, d’Angoisses, de Cauchemars, de Colères et de Névroses.

Je vous assure que les Secondes maintenant sont fortement et solennellement accentuées, et chacune, en jaillissant de la pendule, dit: “je suis la Vie, l’insupportable, l’implacable Vie!”

Il n’y a qu’une Seconde dans la vie humaine qui ait mission d’annoncer une bonne nouvelle, la bonne nouvelle qui cause à chacun une inexplicable peur.

Oui! le Temps règne; il a repris sa brutale dictature. Et il me pousse, comme si j’étais un boeuf, avec son double aiguillon. “Et hue donc! bourrique! Sue donc, esclave! Vis donc, damné!” (“La chambre double”)

In this passage, and elsewhere in Le Spleen de Paris we can see Baudelaire as an engraver, not the artist of caricature, but the Goya of Los Caprichos, whom Baudelaire praises at length in his 1855 essay on English caricaturists, as a master engraver. In another passage in Le Spleen de Paris, “Chacun sa Chimère,” the presence of Goya is even more discernible:

Mais le monstrueuse bête n’était pas un poids inerte; au contraire, elle enveloppait et opprimait l’homme de ses muscles élastiques et puissants; ell s’agrafait avec ses deux vastes graffes à la poitrine de sa monture, et sa tête fablueuse surmontait le front de l’homme comme un de ces casques horribles par lesquels les anciens guerriers espéraient ajouter à la terreur de l’ennemi.

In both of these passages, Baudelaire presents what others would insist upon as an interior experience, akin to revelation, self-accusation, or guilt, into what he refers to as a grotesque, not an imitation or caricature of a person in the world, but a creation, bodying forth, in its own right; and it is crucial that it is not felt as allegory, any more than Goya’s etchings are felt as allegorical, that they make creatures abstract as much as they make abstractions creatural.

Baudelaire’s references to demons ought to be understood along these lines, but not along them in just the same place. They’re not a means of courting shock and controversy or intended as surrogates for cosmic evil. But they are intended to seem a bit like caricatures, fabricated grotesque, all the more a grotesque in seeming fabricated for Baudelaire’s purposes. They place on a stage, in the self-avowed artifice of bodily representation, what Baudelaire would deny to interiority. In Le Spleen de Paris when contemplating the mysterious sources of volition, the thought of a demon is means of encountering and making solid and external what must otherwise be rendered an unknowable product of incoherent depths:

Un autre, timide à ce point qu’il baisse les yeux même devant les regards des hommes, à ce point qu’il lui faut rassembler toute sa pauvre volonté pour entrer dans un café ou passer devant le bureau d’un théâtre, où les contrôleurs lui paraissent investis de la majesté de Minos, d’Éaque et de Rhadamanthe, sautera brusquement au cou d’un vieillard qui passe à côté de lui et l’embrassera avec enthuousiasme devant la foule étonnée.

Pourquoi? Parce que…parce que cette physionomie lui était irrésistiblement sympathique? Peut-être; mais il est plus légitime de supposer que lui-même ne sait pas pourquoi.

J’ai été plus d’une fois victim de ces crises et de ces élans, qui nous autorisent à croire que des Démons malicieux se glissent en nous et nouse font accomplir, à notre insu, leur plus absurdes volontés.

Demons are not an arbitrary figure, so much as they are a figure for the arbitrary: if asked what inner process they stand in for, a reader of this passage has to confess to coming up empty. They are invoked because we do not know and cannot know, so what we sense instead is their shape and form, providing a presence but not answer. To introduce them is an evasion of the language of introspection but also a testament to shrewd self-study.

Unsurprisingly, Baudelaire’s sense for surfaces is most acute when he writes about the city and the opportunities it affords for anonymous observation:

            Multitude, solitude, termes égaux et convertibles par le poète actif et fécond. Qui ne sait pas peupler sa solitude ne sait pas non plus être seul dans une foule affairée.

La poète jouit de cet incomparable privilege, qu’il peut, à sa guise, être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans les personage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant, et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux ells ne valent pas la paiene d’être visitées.

Le pronemeur solitaire et pensif tire une singulière ivresse de cette universelle communion. Celui-là qui épouse facilement la foule connaît des jouissances fiévreuses, dont seront éternellement privés l’égoiste, fermé comme un coffre, et le paresseux, intern´comme un mollusque. Il adopte comme siennes toutes les professions, toutes les joies et toutes les misères que la circonstance lui présente.

Ce que les hommes nomment amour est bien petit, bien restraint et bien faibles, comparé à cette ineffable orgie, à cette sainte prostitution de l’âme qui se donne tout entire, poésie et charité, à l’imprévu qui se montre, à l’inconnu qui passe.  (“Les Foules”)

Baudelaire takes the poet-flaneur as the object and specimen, so that the feverish joys are admitted and admired but not apprehended in the language itself. Though Baudelaire writes that the poet plays with this incomparable privilege of being both himself and another, Baudelaire, as he writes, is fully neither, and the perspective is itself as disembodied as the soul that seeks out a body to enter—except that Baudelaire, in these lines, seeks no such body. There is a peculiar doubleness to the notion that, for him alone (only, but also when he is alone, in a crowd, perhaps), everything is empty and vacant: he seeks a body that is itself but a membrane or shell, and not one that is full of a conscious, fully-inhabited life. Even entering within another, and experiencing the drunkenness of the universal communion, the sense of another is strangely superficial; though he is not closed off like a cupboard or a mollusk, when he gives himself to the thought of being another, it involves something akin to an encounter with either, since for both the cupboard and mollusk, what is of enduring presence is the door and frame or shell, the clothes or materials within the one and the animal life, barely registering as alive, in the other, dispensable, disposable to the essence of what it is. The soul gives itself entirely to what is encountered in passing, and what is passed along: the unanticipated that reveals itself, the unknown other who cruises by—and it remains of the essence of their appeal, their invitation to the poet’s soul, that they remain unanticipated and unknown, not superficially available, but available because of their superficiality. But in all of this, Baudelaire watches not the faces in crowds, but the soul itself, the word “âme” in the passage becoming itself a face in the passages of Paris, an entity in a crowd that contains, in the moment of passing, nothing but an invitation to be seen.

 Baudelaire’s poetry of surfaces implies, as Jonson’s does not, a metaphysics and ethics both: it affirms something about the nature of what is in the world, as well as something about how we must relate to the world if we are to grasp this nature. Because it is a poetry of surfaces rather than essences, it does not need to oppose nature and artifice, abstraction or concretion, emotion and eros, provided it can feel along them—and the control of language, that taut measure, restrained and supple in response to what it encounters, is what does so. The discovery of the poetry, in verse or prose, is that all of these can be felt along, that poetry does not only feel with, or feel in, or feel for, or even simply feel, but feels upon, along, and against. It converts, before it had fully known itself, the charge of superficiality into a redeeming experience of modernity, an experience that can be extended beyond luxury, consumption, and prostituted sexuality, and that can train us, if we let it train the imagination and nerves, in an experience of the fullness of life and the world, fleeting as it is; it is a recovery of aestheticism to its roots in the senses, opening the senses beyond the realm of empirical observation.


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