The Poet Who Died for Our Sins: On Charles Baudelaire

April 11, 2013 | 6 10 min read


The figure of Baudelaire — dandy, rebel, enfant terrible, hysterical hypochondriac — compels such fascination that it’s almost possible to forget he wrote a few poems too. In fact, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book-length critical study (Baudelaire, 1950) that barely took notice of a single poem. To Sartre, Baudelaire was not so much a poet as an episode in the history of consciousness. Suffice it to say that Sartre did not find in his protagonist a paragon of existentialist engagement. You can open the book almost at random and find such judgments as: “he was nothing but a gaping wound;” “his bad faith went so deep that he was no longer master of it;” “he never progressed beyond the stage of childhood;” “He was an eternal minor, a middle-aged adolescent who lived in a constant state of rage and hatred, but under the vigilant and reassuring protection of others.”

coverIt’s true that Baudelaire seemed less interested in finding reasonable solutions to his many problems than in cultivating his hysteria. For that we must be grateful. Rage, resentment, and infantilism might have gone into the poems, but what came out of them was a majestic representation of heightened states of consciousness. Sartre was right — he was a “gaping wound,” as the abject, beseeching letters he wrote to his mother make all too clear. I don’t say that deep within we’re all as screwed up as Baudelaire was, yet even the healthiest and happiest among us owe him a debt. All that darkness and perversity that he sang so beautifully form the permanent substratum of our psychic lives. After all, we’re still reading these poems long after they’ve ceased to shock anyone — except maybe, in the deepest and most salutary sense, ourselves.

covercover If Baudelaire were around today and, fed up as usual with his mistress Jeanne Duval, decided to try his luck on an online dating site, he’d never get far enough to meet any woman for coffee at Starbucks. Every prospective date would say precisely the same thing: “You’re so negative!” In that context it would avail him nothing to protest that his negativity was a complex dialectic that allowed for the discovery of beauty and value against social norms that had cheapened them. Since, however, we’re reading Baudelaire rather than dating him, we can see, as a prospective girlfriend might not, the morality beneath the negation. Or some of us can. Martin Turnell considered “The Little Old Women” (“Les Petites Vielles”) a “bitter little comedy” in which the poet feels only “faintly sorry” for the “repugnant” and “monstrous” old women who are the subject of the poem (Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry, 1972). Given that “The Little Old Women” is one of Baudelaire’s longest poems and occupies a critical place in the “Parisian Scenes” section of Flowers of Evil, it might be worth a closer look to see if Turnell is right.

A cursory reading of the poem (in Richard Howard’s translation, the closest thing to a standard one) would seem to confirm the judgment that Baudelaire’s unhappy dating prospects might have rendered — it’s pretty negative all right. The harshness of the language will not be palliated. “These travesties were women once” (“Ces monstres disloqués furent jadis des femmes”) is not the way most of us would like to think of our grandmothers. “Decrepit,” “broken,” “shriveled” (“décrépits,” “brisés,” “ratatinées”): nor are the adjectives exactly euphemistic. Nevertheless, “The Little Old Women” brims not with brittle mockery, but with pathos. In the first stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges that his “fatal humors” govern his unholy fascination. “The Little Old Women” is the 93rd poem in Flowers of Evil; by now we have a pretty firm sense that the author of this book does not incline to sunny appraisals of his or anyone’s psychic condition. Against this dark subjectivity any expression of tenderness or pity will carry disproportionate weight. Sure enough, the pathos overwhelms the mockery. Baudelaire enlists our compassion by looking at — not away from — a despised and dishonored old age in the unforgiving Paris of the Second Republic. After witnessing the children mocking them and the derelicts taunting them with obscenities, we are with the poet whose “fatal humors” salvage a nobility from what the workaday world recognizes only with scorn or sentimental evasions:

But I who at a distance follow you
and anxiously attend your failing steps
as if I had become your father – mine
are secret pleasures you cannot suspect!

I see first love in bloom upon your flesh,
dark or luminous I see your vanished days –
my teeming heart exults in all your sins
and all your virtues magnify my soul!

Flotsam, my family – ruins, my race!
Each night I offer you a last farewell!
Where will you be tomorrow, ancient Eves
under God’s undeviating paw?

coverRoberto Calasso said, “only Baudelaire had access to a region of the purest pathos, unscathed by any sentimentality, that of ‘Les petites vielles’ and ‘À une passante’” (La Folie Baudelaire, 2012). Not quite true. Alexander Pope got there before him, and on the same subject — despised and forgotten old women. Pope depicts his dowagers with a similarly heartbreaking mixture of harshness and pity:

Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their honour dy’d.
See how the world its veterans rewards!
A youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards;
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend;
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

The comparison with Pope is not so farfetched as might appear. Both poets were dyed in the wool classicists. Pope couldn’t have expressed his seething resentments without the ordering discipline of the closed couplet, and Baudelaire’s psychic turmoil needed the formality of the alexandrine line to achieve its maximum coherence. The poet of whores, opium, and lowlife Paris, as the world thinks of him, brought to his work all the orderliness and mastery so conspicuously lacking in his private life. “All his poetry,” wrote Calasso, “seems translated from Latin.”

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” advised Flaubert. Baudelaire did precisely the opposite. The chaos of his life fueled the grandeur of his work, and that grandeur makes him more rather than less accessible. Since his style abjures all avant-garde dislocations, he remains well within the reach of readers (like me) considerably less than fluent in French. Apart from the vexing problem of rhyme, Baudelaire lends himself reasonably well to English translation. Even better, his originals can be read without too much difficulty using the translations as cribs. As startling as his imagery often is, he typically employs the simplest of epithets. In “Correspondences,” for example, the key adjectives “longs,” “profonde,” “vaste,” and “riches” might be roughly translated as “long,” “profound,” “vast,” and “rich.” Sometimes the largest realities require the plainest language, and the realities “Correspondences” point to are very large indeed: “les transports de l’esprit et des sens,” as the last line has it. No summation could possibly do justice to the indeterminate character of this sonnet. Is this poem about nature? Or is it a part of nature itself? The disconcerting thing is that if we’re looking hard at the forests of symbols, interpreting them as we interpret this poem, the forests of symbols are looking right back. We will be worth the look only if nature finds in us a corresponding openness to sensation, not excluding, if we’re honest about it, an openness to corruption and other less sanctified predispositions:

The pillars of Nature’s temple are alive
and sometimes yield perplexing messages;
forests of symbols between us and the shrine
remark our passage with accustomed eyes.

Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else
into one deep and shadowy unison
as limitless as darkness and as day,
the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond.

There are odors succulent as young flesh,
sweet as flutes, and green as any grass,
while others – rich, corrupt and masterful –

possess the power of such infinite things
as incense, amber, benjamin and musk,
to praise the senses’ raptures and the mind’s.

Such undisguised Platonism sits easily with the maggots, bats, serpents, and putrefying corpses that haunt Baudelaire’s poetry. A wounded idealism underlies his putative “decadence,” and although that decadence occasionally strains for effect (as in “Carrion” [“Une Charogne”], which almost achieves the tastelessness of his revered Edgar Allan Poe), the decadence too is ethical. Baudelaire conceived of Flowers of Evil as an antidote to the false and shallow meliorism of modern culture. It still is.

coverSimilary, his idealism is quite at home with allegory, another tendency of his thought that seems shockingly conservative. In the proem that opens the book, “To the Reader,” la Mort and l’Ennui are capitalized as they might be in a medieval morality tale, and La Beauté, l’Horreur, le Temps, and la Vie stalk through the whole book. What we get, rather than distancing abstractions, is the best of both worlds: the particulars of a place and time that Baudelaire perceived not only with a great eye but even with a great nose (Baudelaire’s, wrote F.W. Leakey in his study Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal, “must be the most receptive and unforgetful nose in all poetic history!”) as well as the concentrated speculations of a fearless intellect. “The Swan,” for example, is a big poem about a big subject: exile, and its congeries of loss, longing, and memory. With its vision of displacement in urban squalor, the poem prefigures the scenes of refugee camps that have come to seem a permanent feature of modern life. We know the phenomenon all too well. Baudelaire takes us inside the experience that has almost become for us a numbing cliché of newsreel photography. How better to convey the agony and humiliation of exile than by allegorizing a swan?

one cold morning – with the sky swept clean,
the ground, too, swept by garbage-men who raised
clouds of soot in the icy air – I saw

a swan that had broken out of its cage,
webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,
white feathers dragging in the uneven ruts,
and obstinately pecking at the drains,

drenching its enormous wings in the filth
as if in its own lovely lake, crying
‘Where is the thunder, when will it rain?’
I see it still, inevitable myth,

Like Daedalus dead-set against the sky –
the sky quite blue and blank and unconcerned –
that straining neck and that voracious beak,
as if the swan were castigating God!

It’s possible that Baudelaire did in fact see an escaped swan dragging its dirty wings through the construction site that Baron Haussmann was then making of the Tuileries Garden, or maybe he merely read about the four wild swans that bad been stranded there some years before. In any case, the imagery is expansive enough to convey a sense of the universal pain of exile and precise enough to convey a sense of the sufferings of a real animal — once again, the best (or worst) of both worlds. And later in the poem, how like Baudelaire, when most Europeans would have regarded as barbaric or childishly “exotic” anything having to do with Africa, to take as a symbol of grieving humanity a black woman in Paris “starving / and consumptive in the muddy streets, / peering through a wall of fog for those / missing palms of splendid Africa.”

covercoverFrankly, I’ve never understood why readers of self-help books waste time on frauds like “Dr. Phil.” If self-help is what they want, the book they should be reading is Flowers of Evil. Unlike the Dr. Phil sort, it has the advantage of not glossing over horror and despair, so that instead of telling readers how they should feel, it tells them how in all likelihood they do feel or anyway how they feel in some of their most vulnerable moments. This quality is also known as courage, but not for this alone does Flowers of Evil support and solace the soul. At the bottom of Baudelaire’s metaphysics of despair lies a depression that might be described as clinical. There may or may not be a way out of such depression (for Baudelaire, there wasn’t), but surely the necessary first step for dealing with it, in literature as in life, is to acknowledge it. Baudelaire’s acknowledgement took the form of certain key poems in Flowers of Evil and certain prose passages in Paris Spleen. These are landmarks in the representation of depression, no less central to their time than Albrecht Dürer’s print “Melancholia” or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Depression assumes multiple guises in Flowers of Evil, but achieves its most concentrated expression in the dozen or so poems that conclude the first section, “Spleen and Ideal.” “Craving for Oblivion,” “Sympathetic Horror,” “Alchemy of Suffering,” “The Irremediable:” we’re a long way from Dr. Phil and even from the somewhat milder treatment of ennui that had figured earlier in the book. Each of the four poems titled “Spleen” displays sovereign control over volatile subject matter, but the best may be the last, if only for its technical brilliance. Its five quatrains consist essentially of one bravura sentence structured as a series of subordinate clauses resolved grammatically — and only grammatically — in the two concluding stanzas. All the Baudelairian music is there: the languorous alexandrines that enforce a funereal rhythm, the perfect interlocking rhymes suggesting confinement, the touch of onomatopoeia in “S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide.” The wonder is that poetry this sonorous can induce in the reader (as it does in me) a feeling near to physical illness. Maybe spiders in the head (“infâmes araignées / Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux”) will do that every time. The fears that the imagery raises concerning the violation of bodily integrity aren’t just depressing; they’re sickening:

When the skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams;

when rain falls straight from unrelenting clouds,
forging the bars of some enormous jail,
and silent hordes of obscene spiders spin
their webs across the basements of our brains;

then all at once the raging bells break loose,
hurling to heaven their awful caterwaul,
like homeless ghosts with no one left to haunt
whimpering their endless grievances.

— And giant hearses, without dirge or drums,
parade at half-step in my soul, where Hope,
defeated, weeps, and the oppressor Dread
plants his black flag on my assenting skull.

Can anything be salvaged from such despair? Yes, if not exactly triumphantly. The soul survives this assault on its integrity because, in the first place, there is a self to assault. Racked by ennui and despair, the self that Baudelaire depicts is in some respects a most unattractive one, yet it remains whole. Rather like Milton’s Satan, whom he rightly considered the tragic hero of his own destiny, Baudelaire preferred reigning in his own private hell to serving in anyone else’s heaven or even in the purgatory of gainful employment.

Faced with such misery, a little spiritual compromise doesn’t look like such a bad thing. That Baudelaire was incapable of such compromise was his undoing and our good fortune. Like a blasphemous Jesus, he took on our worst sins — pride, sloth, envy, lechery — and turned them into art. T.S. Eliot and others have found in him a profound religious yearning beneath the blasphemy. I, on the contrary, find blasphemy beneath the blasphemy. Baudelaire’s “business” was not, pace Eliot, to “assert the necessity” of Christianity. He asserted, if anything, the necessity of belief in a self that, threatened from forces within and without, might remain whole and integral, if only through the consciousness of its own suffering. Even so, it’s impossible not to be moved by Eliot’s essay on the poet, which concludes not with the expected apportions of praise and censure but, astonishingly, with this prayer: “Baudelaire was man enough for damnation: whether he is damned is, of course, another question, and we are not prevented from praying for his repose.”

Extraordinary as Eliot’s benediction is, Baudelaire didn’t hold out for prayer. He had work to do. Tormented, slothful, and sickly, he managed to produce masterpieces in every genre to which he turned his hand: metrical verse, prose poetry (which he more or less invented), translation, and art criticism. I think of Baudelaire at work much as he depicted his loved and hated city in the last stanza of his magnificent aubade “Twilight: Daybreak” (“Le Crepuscule du Matin”). It’s a Baudelairian dawn. Whores, beggars, the debauched and the dying fitfully awaken to a cold and damp morning — not a promising start to the day. And yet this city will clothe itself in beauty and get to work:

Shivering dawn, in a wisp of pink and green,
Totters slowly across the empty Seine,
and dingy Paris – old drudge rubbing its eyes –
picks up its tools to begin another day.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is the author of the memoirs College and Library. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.