Charles Baudelaire: Selected Poems
The poetry of Charles Baudelaire reflects the mind of the wretched genius, one of the most interesting characters in the world of literature. From Marlowe to Poe to Dostoyevsky, the wretched geniuses of every age provide a unique vision of the world, a world stripped of pretense and pomp, revealing the darker side of man's nature, the ugly and the perverse and the dissolute. The wretched genius suffers, suffers intensely, and through his suffering the world is somehow brought into crystal clarity, a focus achieved by no other means than that of the experience of pain.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) led a life filled with extreme mental and physical suffering. A syphilitic, suicidal alcoholic and drug addict, his life and work might seem to us, at first glance, to have been an exercise in pathetic, wallowing self-pity...until we read his poetry. While seemingly obsessed with death, debauchery, and dissipation, the underlying themes of his poems point to an ideal of sublimity, a thirst for what could be and yet never is. One detects a longing for perfection which is, of course, the source of all of Baudelaire's cynical bile.
In the prose poem "The Dog and the Scent Bottle" we see an example of Baudelaire's embittered idealism. A man offering perfume to a dog is a perfect allegory for the artist offering his work to the masses: it is rejected. Not only is it rejected, it is thrown over for the aromatic charms of garbage and excrement. While the subject matter of the piece is essentially base (a dog's preference for the smell of shit), the theme is unmistakable.
Another wonderful example of Baudelaire's use of the profane to point up the profound can be found in "Carrion." Here, the rotting carcass of what appears to be a mule is used to convey the ultimate transience of existence. This theme is universal, writings upon which stretch back into hoary antiquity. The poem is intrinsically Buddhistic: A centuries-old Buddhist ritual for young monks requires visiting charnel houses and graveyards to observe the decaying corpses there and reflect on the ephemeral nature of life. In addition, the poem appears to contain an allusion to Hamlet's soliloquy with the skull of Yorick. Baudelaire's line, "-Yet you will come to this offence," is not far off from "to this favor she must come." The device of couching "Carrion" in the form of a love poem to a beautiful lady only reinforces the theme Baudelaire is exploring.
Occasionally, Baudelaire lets up on his symbolizing and takes time to celebrate his addictions. Such a sentiment can be found in "The Soul of Wine." However, even as he is praising "le vin," admiring the voluptuous contours of the bottle, portraying the ruby liquid as the saviour of mankind, yet there is a more serious tone which underlies the poem, a theme of deception. There is a subtle Satan in that bottle, singing songs of festivity and warmth and, at the same time, demanding tribute. Baudelaire's recurring theme of the vampire appears briefly in the line, "and how much more I relish burial in his hot belly than in my cold vaults." The darker aspect of the poem is so deftly woven into the fabric of the verse that it does not become apparent until one reads it several times. I myself had considered it a trifle, a cheerful salute to Bacchus, until the third or fourth reading, at which point I began to recognize those unmistakable horns poking up through the laurel leaves.
"The Happy Corpse" is an example of Baudelaire's proclivity toward suicide, the ultimate release from "a soulless body deader than the dead." Here, again, the theme is nobler than the subject matter. It is redemption, a cleansing, once and for all, of the accursed flesh, symbol of the poet's besotted life. For this, he calls on crows and worms, foul creatures, to strip every last morsel of said vile tissue from his bones as he reclines languidly in his grave. The images are charmingly repellent and yet the theme is, once again, universal. Who has not felt, at least once in their lives, so debased, so full of self-loathing, that nothing short of total obliteration would suffice? It is a shallow individual indeed who denies it, and, as becomes immediately apparent when reading Baudelaire, this was no shallow individual.
Perhaps my favorite poem of the ones discussed here is "Twilight: Evening." It is populated by the usual inhabitants of Baudelaire's world, the whores, thieves, invalids, workingmen, demons, and, of course, the worms. The poet uses nightfall as the point of departure, or rather descent, into the dark side of mankind. How often have I noticed a subtle shift in my own inner mechanism as the sun goes down, a certain dull dread that in that deepening gloom I might commit some foul act? Man in night is a far different animal than his daylight counterpart, a fact of which Baudelaire was all too painfully aware. He warns himself to compose himself, to ignore the noise and avert his eyes, lest he do...what? Only the poet himself knows for sure. But in admitting his own weakness, he is admitting the weakness of us all, and his honesty highlights our hypocrisy. This is what poets are for.
Lastly, I offer a pair of poems for consideration, "Allegory" and "Metamorphoses of the Vampire." The reason for the pairing is that, together, they illustrate the dichotomy in Baudelaire's mind between the ideal and the real. Each poem describes a woman and each woman is a prostitute. Here, however, the similarity ends. The woman in "Allegory" has somehow retained her purity, her "virginity," while the "vampire" is just that: a vile succubus, a foul temptress sucking the life out of her hapless victims. At first it looks like the poet is falling into the same old madonna/whore complex, and perhaps he is. But in this case it winds up being the madonna-whore/whore-whore complex. Perhaps Baudelaire had become so cynical that he considered all women whores. Or maybe his own self-loathing had escalated to the point where he could no longer allow himself the option of loving any woman who was not a whore. In any case, the poems show us that he had not given up on the ideal of purity, of an impervious, supreme woman, albeit within the body of a prostitute, yet somehow exalted to the point that all of the ugliness entailed in such a life seemed to have left her unscathed. It is clear that he preferred such a whore to the "vampire" variety.
One reason I find Baudelaire so enjoyable is that he seems to be almost an "anti-poet." So much of poetry is concerned with idolizing and describing beauty, of taking joy in the myriad configurations of life, and compared to such poetry, Baudelaire is a breath of foul air. But his ruminations on the base and obscene are just as powerful a tool in pointing out the universal concerns of the poet as is the flowery, sing-song style of poetry. Nay, more, I'd say, for no one values life more than he who is at the end of it. I may curse the world today, but tomorrow, say upon receipt of an unfavorable prognosis, I am sure to recant and find myself weeping into those daisies I once so callously stepped on. This is Baudelaire's gift to us: pushing our noses into the dung until we realize that the perfume smelled much better after all.
Charles Baudelaire's life was a tragic one. Yet in the light of his literary legacy, that tragic life can be seen as the catalyst of his genius. Perhaps we need to reevaluate what we consider "tragic," to consider that it is not so much the quality of our lives that makes us what we are, but the quality of our minds and what we have to offer to our fellow man. No doubt the same people who shunned Baudelaire 150 years ago are today praising his work and drooling over his genius. Who are they shunning today?
Baudelaire's work lives on, not because he wrote creepy poems about vampires and worms, but because he used these elements to skillfully contrast the higher virtues and aspirations. I find it personally gratifying that he has prevailed.
Baudelaire, Charles, Les Fleurs du Mal, Translated by Richard Howard, Boston, MA, David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1982.
Baudelaire, Charles, Paris Spleen, Translated by Louise Varese, New York, NY, New Directions Books, 1947.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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