FAMOUS POETS: Baudelaire
Updated: May 2
'An ironic beacon, from Hell,
Torch of Satanical graces,
And a glory in consolation,
-Evil aware of itself!'
First published in 1861, proud heir to the darkest art forms of Romanticism and announcing, in many ways, Symbolism, 'The Flowers of Evil' by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is one among the most melancholic pieces ever written. Dedicated all to Théophile Gautier, 'the impeccable poet', yet not forgetting Victor Hugo -him who had claimed this bunch of striking verses to be 'a new thrill'- here's a shock and a shudder that cannot leave indifferent.
'The Flowers of Evil' are indeed more than a few highly tormented poems, bold, sensual, haunted, addressing the blackest parts of our psyche and unafraid at times of making the reader quite unease. They are, above all, a whole new matrix - the foundation stone to a new meaning and place given to poetry.
'The Poet is a kinsman in the clouds
Who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day;
But on the ground, among the hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.'
For this reason alone, Baudelaire could be considered as the father of modern French poetry. He was born too late, too early, and, yet, at the right time to embody a whole new zeitgeist - not only that melancholy, this 'spleen', hovering over his generation, but, also, convey the changes and their impacts affecting then society.
His 'Parisian Scenes', shrouded with a biting irony, are famous for beautifully expressing that sense of alienation coming with living in an estranged but thriving city. Far more striking however is the rest of this collection, dealing with something more ambitious, deeper and darker, but to which we can all connect if daring enough - namely and shamelessly, 'to extract beauty out of evil', especially the evil nesting within us all. On that score indeed, the poet, bold, is neither a fool nor an hypocrite. He bluntly admits that Man is not naturally good:
'Folly and error, stinginess and sin
Possess our spirits and fatigue our flesh.
And like a pet we feed our tame remorse
As beggars take to nourishing their lice.'
('To the Reader')
After all, don't we all shelter, deep within, a terrible abyss peopled by dark and cruel shadows lying in wait? Well, here we are! This abyss, nightmarish pit of Hell that many would deny themselves even just a gaze at, the poet reflects it back to us. He grabs us by the hair and drags us onto its edges to force us to contemplate it. More than that, he then throws us right into it! Fall. Dive. Sink. And, finally, wake up to be fully aware of how rotten our souls might be:
'My heart is lost; the beasts have eaten it.'
Brutal? Perhaps. But how enjoyable such a blunt and blasphemous universe is! How addictive the putrid relents of such a sad and horrifying bouquet, deliciously stinking of Hell! Enjoying 'The Flowers of Evil' is indeed to joyfully embrace damnation, and never regret it.
'The Fiend is at my side, without a rest;
He swirls around me, like a subtle breeze;
I swallow him, and burning fills my breast,
And calls me to desire's shameful needs.'
We know, because too new, too audacious, too 'depraved' (to use that typical holier than thou sort of labels) only one publisher, Poulet-Malassis, will be courageous enough to publish the opus. Scandalous, hated by some yet greeted by others, the battle between pros and cons will end up in front of the tribunals in one of the most famous literary trials ever. The book being accused of being 'an insult to public decency', Baudelaire and Poulet-Malassis would be heavily fined, and, what's more, compelled to amputate the work of six of its most beautiful poems (out of the one hundred it counted in total). Six poems that would be banned in France up to... 1949!
''Who of these mortals can grasp the joke?
The charms of horror only suits the strong!'
And, indeed, 'The Flowers of Evil' was and still is a devilish book speaking to the damned and misfits. It is a rallying call, for all those dissatisfied souls in quest of something new to get drunk on. As perfect as can be, it is, for whose brave enough to dabble into it, the magnificent and putrid guts of French poetry. So go read it (if not already!) but be warned.... You may be damned too!
All translations by James McGowan (Oxford World's Classics, 1993)