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Baudelaire - His Commitment to Ambivalence…

Baudelaire, in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, is Janus- like. He looks forwards, and he looks backwards. His verse forms are, on the whole, traditional- there is something mechanical yet macabre about his alexandrines, their eerie precision being intended to eat away, even painfully, into the consciousness. His form, his style, may be said to be of the past, but the actual content, with its explosive decadence, linked to a poisonous ambivalence, has its foot ferociously in the future- reminding one of movements in both art and poetry to come, of symbolism, even surrealism. Baudelaire was an art critic in addition to a poet, and one feels his ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ is a canvas on which all sorts of colours are on display. It is as if he paints his metaphors and similes with a fine- haired brush- they seem so detailed and elaborate. He believed, after the fashion of a synesthete such as the composer Scriabin, in ‘correspondances’- in sounds, perfumes, hues, all intermingling and coinciding.

‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ could be described, in addition, as wildly equivalent to a Catholic High Altar at which the dizzy perfumes of the incense, the atmosphere of (a twisted) worship, pervade line after line. Baudelaire then becomes an eerie poet- priest, albeit one presiding (with some half- truthful solemnity) over perversion and rebellion.

It was October 13, and the chill of autumn was seizing the air as if our very breath had the sensation of being frozen in a vice. .. ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, which has gripped the hearts of readers with all its now sincere, now spooky passions, was discussed under the aegis of a moderator from the Centre for Modern Languages in the University of London. Someone in the audience referred to the underlying Catholicism of Baudelaire, in terms of his pervasive guilt with reference to dangerous themes such as beauty and sexuality. The moderator explained that her speciality was literature from the Francophone Levant, but she had been asked by her colleague, Dominic Glynn, to lead this inevitably difficult discussion in the Salons of the French Institute about this tragic and self- destructive poet, this rebel against the Second Empire, this Baudelaire who managed to be both romantic and repulsive at the same time.


This is poetry intended to bruise the reader with its inveterate sense of indolence, ease, and, simultaneously, corruption in the midst of comfort. The formal discipline of a Ronsard that Baudelaire puts on display, which might strike one as unadventurous at first, the possibility that the accuracy of the alexandrines could become tedious, will in fact contribute to the ambience of nightmarish repose, of sensuality undermined by itself.

This is work elaborately, often maliciously, concocted in part for the concept of woman as pure princess, a reverie of an icon, but also for the whore, the prostitute, the courtesan, the lesbian. Womanhood is here to be worshipped in its all- devouring near- bestial reality as well as something unreachably spiritual. The female here becomes like a sensual animal- animal imagery abounds with a teasing viciousness, above all involving the cat, but more exotic species too- tiger or snake, or indeed the mythical vampire. In the ‘Sapphic’ poem, ‘Delphine et Hippolyte’ (Number 81), Delphine is described with tender brutality as:

‘Comme un animal fort qui surveille une proie,

‘Apres l’avoir d’abord marquee avec les dents.’

One might note that this piece, while it was condemned under the bourgeois intolerance of the Second Empire, no doubt for its lesbian content, has what could be termed a moralizing ending, with the two female lovers being condemned as victims destined for Hell, for darkness, for condemnation:

‘Et votre chatiment naitra de vos plaisirs’.

‘And your punishment will be born of your pleasures.’

An unconscious reference here, perhaps, to Baudelaire’s own syphilis?


Baudelaire, the same as Rimbaud after him, could have almost a quaint, even traditional, ambience. One should consider moreover the fragment of verse that is placed at the start of the volume, a quotation from D’ Aubigne, who urges us not to bury vice by forgetting it, but to actually study sin, for the sake in fact of virtue. Louis Napoleon’s regime under which Baudelaire suffered was a hypocritical entity that was bound to be shocked by Baudelaire’s unsettling and acidic honesty. It was Baudelaire’s mockery rather than his (alleged) obscenity that so upset the commanding frauds of the Second Empire.

Is Baudelaire implying that whatever we humans enjoy is necessarily evil? Does he desire ambivalence at its most deliciously demonic? He often reminds us that every pleasure must have its price; the alleged tenderness of love may soon be associated with a dull, stabbing cruelty.

The artist’s life and work can become interwoven, and, with Baudelaire, they are unusually inextricable. Baudelaire’s poetry was a disturbing mirror to what he was doing, or to his enthusiastic idleness, to the way he was treated, or rather abused, by French society- though the moderator argued that modern criticism does not emphasize so much the poet’s life. But Baudelaire’s life- or lack of it, in terms of money and hope- did concern members of the audience. Baudelaire was felt by them to be at the heart of what it is to be modern. If he was a ‘declasse’, he needed to be one, for the poet must fail who does not have the benefit of being the outsider, looking askance at the Establishment, the Establishment’s malice, the Establishment’s two- faced malice.

Baudelaire’s parentage was moulded by the Revolution that had turned France upside down. He reflected in his verse deciding to welcome the Devil, in his moral inversions, in his at times gentle, at times sadistic, sensuality- a France that had abandoned its Catholic compass, and was embarking on a very Republican voyage towards out and out secularism. The Baudelaire who was losing himself was wrapped up in a France that was losing itself. God had gone, and what could replace God?


The life of Baudelaire, his family above all, would be impressed upon his deliberately disturbing poetry. The upbringing of the poet reminds one perhaps of a nightmarish Oedipus Complex, with all the deformations and distortions of the Freudian mind- set being introduced into and embedded in often acrid verse. As far as this angle of the Oedipus complex is concerned, one must recall that Baudelaire’s resentment was, of course, against his step- father rather than his natural father, who had died. Would he have disliked his ‘real’ father as much as his ‘replacement’ step- father? Aupick was an imposter and interloper, the poet felt- and this tension between a step- father and a child, which is not uncommon, is an unfortunately simple phenomenon compared to the dark psychological labyrinth of the Oedipus Complex.

Raised in the upper bourgeoisie, Baudelaire had roots in the Ancien Regime and the Revolution, both. The biological father was a priest who taught the children of a duke, who helped the duke’s family even though becoming an official at the Napoleonic Senate. Aged 60, he married Charles Baudelaire’s mother when she was only 26 (1819). He died, to be replaced by Aupick, a stiff soldier of Irish extraction, an Orleanist, nonetheless accepting, and being accepted by, Napoleon III.


Baudelaire was suspicious of Aupick as a tyrant who had stolen his mother from him. His passion for his mother was matched only by his resentment of his step- father. His reaction to Aupick’s stiffness would make him write in 1851: ‘How many philosophers has the seminary bred? How many rebellious natures have come to life with a cruel and punctual soldier of the Empire! Fecund discipline, how much we owe to you songs of liberty!’ Baudelaire’s insight is, as usual, mischievous, indeed malicious.

It is strange to muse that Aupick’s rigidity may have provoked and formed poetry that turns so much against convention and morality. Baudelaire was not, in the end, political, though he flirted with the Left in the 1848 revolution, but, as a poet, he had a need- an affectation?- to rebel. His ultimate distancing himself from politics is perhaps not surprising. Poetry- all art- should seem linked to eternal themes, whereas politics is often about the ephemeral and the transient. No one remembers Aupick today as General, Senator and Ambassador, but only as the embodiment of ‘respectability’ opposed to Baudelaire’s doomed brilliant wildness.

His step- father wanted him to study law, but Charles preferred the Bohemian sections of Paris. Paris would be his second mother, the ‘Paris of artists and poets’, and he contributed to Paris his love and his hatred. Expelled from Louis- le- Grand, despite being a prize- winner there, he had set himself in the mould of malcontent and dissident. It was almost his duty, if we may use the cliché, ‘epater le bourgeoisie’- ‘to shock the middle class’.

But, however much he cultivated blasphemy and sensuality, one guesses that Baudelaire never escaped his upbringing, in the heart of what might be termed the French Establishment- above all, his Catholicism continued to cling to him, even as he mocked the Old Testament in ‘Abel and Cain’, and the New in ‘Le Reniement de Saint Pierre’, or praised Lucifer in ‘Les Litanies de Satan’. One feels the all too pungent incense as in a Church rise up around oneself in these poems, only now in the form of the excessive perfume in a tart’s boudoir, and the worship, rather than of the Virgin Mary, is of some courtesan or mistress, preferably some exotic Creole, who ostentatiously relaxes on a sofa.

He is trying to invert the old dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, and to find a compromise between sensuality and spirituality. The Catholic obsession with icon and image, with what Laud described as the ‘beauty of worship’ in reference to the High Church, the robes and the incense, lie behind our difficulty of knowing, with Baudelaire, where the Madonna ends and the whore begins. For Baudelaire, all women- from his unimaginative patrician mother to the beautifully dark- skinned Jeanne Duval, full of lust and danger- were conflated into one. Possibly Baudelaire transferred the worship of God to the worship of women. As a lady in the audience explained in French, it was the ideal of woman, rather than the reality of women, to which Baudelaire addressed himself. She also referred to General Aupick as someone not able to understand Baudelaire, though I will set up a half- defence of the maligned step- father later. She moreover mentioned the financial leash- the ‘conseil judiciaire’- on which Baudelaire was placed, as essentially restricting him, crippling the poet. But Baudelaire was extravagant to the point of stupidity, and he was forced to budget, as it were, for his own sake.

Baudelaire managed to be terribly bitter and sarcastic about women and romance and sex amidst his poems dedicated to the feminine principle. Women were God to him, for whom his verse should be seen as a quasi- religious ritual.

There is much acidic irony, of course, in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’- and, not infrequently, about women. Consider ‘Ciel Brouille’ (‘Blurred Sky’), which seems more effective to me than his perhaps maudlin praise for woman elsewhere. He compares the eyes, and eventually the soul, of the beloved to an uneasy, disturbed sky, and the last stanza is frighteningly acerbic:

O femme dangeureuse, o seduisant climats!

Adorerai- je aussi ta neige et vos frimas,

Et saurai- je tirer de l’ implacable hiver

Des plaisirs plus aigus que la glace et le fer?

Baudelaire adored women, or, to repeat, he worshipped an ideal of womanhood removed from any trace of common sense. He could not bring himself, in the end, to abandon his concept of female transcendence, even if he questioned it, even if rejection, disappointment and exploitation should have taught him that women were not all madonnas. His long- term partner, Jeanne Duval, to whom he showed a touching loyalty, in his own way, leeched money from him, to the shock of his mother, who moreover could have feared that, for Baudelaire, Jeanne was usurping her in his poet’s heart.

Baudelaire’s acerbic and pungent tones ring out for life in general, for its ‘ennui’ that he dreads, for the Paris that inspires and haunts him, and, above all, for himself. Maybe the core of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ is the poet’s determined, obsessive, self- loathing.

And why should Baudelaire have detested himself? Why should he have flagellated his own soul, and denounced pleasure as simply the equivalent of tedium in the end? His life, its overwhelming vileness, is the key to his work, which can seem so sublime. His desire to be a poet with his own voice led to inevitable poverty, and to reliance for money on his mother, his begging letters to whom are scarcely edifying. His very respectable step- father, Aupick, was eventually- let us repeat the titles- General, Ambassador and Senator in the Second Empire. While claiming the status of soldier and patriot, Aupick, possibly cynically, altered his allegiance according to whatever regime was in command- Louis Phillippe or Louis Napoleon.


Baudelaire’s hazardous commitment to poetry remained until his death, although his penniless loyalty to his ballads and sonnets resulted in a fundamentally nasty existence in one seedy set of rooms after another, in his being a prey to creditors and to poverty. Women, in the end, as much tormented as consoled him, whether in the form of Jeanne Duval, a ‘lady of the night’ always wanting his money, or his ultra- bourgeois mother, lacerating his heart too, who, albeit for his own sake, relied on legal means to restrict Baudelaire’s remittances. Financial dependence is never likely to produce gratitude; it can smack too much of servitude, and Baudelaire certainly resented having to plead so frequently for funds, with his mother, Mme Aupick, and the ‘conseil judiciaire’ she appointed, under M. Ancelle.

Yet one should surely exhibit some sympathy for the Aupicks. They were becoming elderly, yet the hedonistic adult Baudelaire never stopped importuning his mother. Baudelaire regarded himself as a martyr, but a less charitable verdict on him might have him viewed as a reckless drop- out and low life parasite. His demands on his mother for 100 francs or 500 francs, and so on, could not have elevated his precarious self- esteem, and mark out both his fragility and a certain wheedling selfishness.

The contradiction remains in Baudelaire of his adoration of the female, combined with his contempt or even fear, the latter feelings perhaps most savage in two poems, ‘Un Voyage a Cythere’ and ‘Une Charogne’. Each maps out the theme of ‘Liebestod’- Love and Death combined. In ‘Un Voyage a Cythere’, Baudelaire’s heart travels to the island of Venus, in vain expecting beauty and perfume and repose; what actually confronts any onlooker is a corpse on a gibbet, being hacked apart by birds from above and scavengers on the ground. Venus, the so- called goddess of love, provides in the end only humiliation, death and sacrilege. Baudelaire identifies with the swaying corpse, the victim, and the final stanza unites, with a gruesome significance, his distrust of physical love and his unremitting self- loathing.

‘Dans ton ile, o Venus, je n’ai trouve debout

‘Qu’ un gibet symbolique ou pendait mon image…

‘-Ah! Seigneur! Donnez- moi la force et le courage

‘De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans degout!’

‘Une Charogne’ also delights us with a corpse as the image of love. Again, the carcass, seen ‘this fine

Sweet summer morning’, is being attacked by a host of unpleasant creatures, and, again, physical love is associated (most viscerally) with the hideous remnants of a life. The aggressive vermin assaulting the dead form may be a symbol of the syphilis of which Baudelaire knew he was a victim.

Disgust with himself, disgust with sex as an irrational physical blot on anyone’s existence, the view of woman as an animal on the one hand, and an angel on the other- all these were the motives and themes for his poetry. Art is not often spawned from happiness, but it could be described as a haven from the prosaic unhappiness of the everyday- whether imposed from outside, or created within- and it does seem a shelter for those who cannot bear life and life’s ‘ennui’.

The writhing self-loathing of Baudelaire is expressed with terrible candour in ‘La Cloche Felee’, a grim intricate sonnet that once more has a corpse as theme, and the lovely yet despairing piece indicates the distancing of Baudelaire from religious rather than sexual consolation. In it, Baudelaire refers to the peal of bells during winter while one is by the hearth. The bells, though old, sing out God, like an old soldier who keeps watch in a tent.

This homely ambiance in the initial octave is shattered in the concluding sestina, where the poet’s soul is condemned as cracked, sounding like the death- rattle of a wounded man forgotten and motionless under a heap of bodies. This is a poem about Baudelaire, about France too, a France having lost its old Catholic certainty, a medieval sureness of faith to be replaced by what some feared was a modern void- Baudelaire’s nihilistic ‘ennui’. The reference to the old soldier reminds one of General Aupick. Did Baudelaire at times envy the stern step- father his obvious certitude?

Though, as Madame Line Playfair pointed out, very little in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ could be seen as overtly religious, there is nonetheless an undertow of Catholicism. This lurking religiosity has already been suggested with the emphasis in the work on perfume and incense, the not infrequently sinister drive of the Alexandrines and the interwoven rhymes possessing the character of ritual. The poet’s worship of woman could claim indeed Marian connotations. Again, the use of death and love, coupled in imagery that can be brutal, recalls the Mass, with the body of Christ consumed by the communicant as an act of love. Masses for the dead, the Catholic appreciation of relics- there are ghoulish echoes of these in Baudelaire.

Aupick, the step- father, would have regarded himself as a Catholic and a patriot. But maybe he prostituted himself politically. Aupick was destined to switch allegiance with periodic predictability- from Napoleon to the Bourbons, from the Bourbons to the Orleanists, from the Orleanists to Louis Napoleon (though it should be acknowledged he refused to become the Second Empire’s ambassador in London because he did not want to spy on the Orleanist family in exile there). He was a placeman seeking patronage, and a political chameleon, in the eyes of posterity…

Whereas Baudelaire, for all the seediness of his life, did display loyalty- to the prostitute he had befriended in youth, Jeanne Duval. Madame Line Playfair in the audience counter- argued that Baudelaire was not faithful to Jeanne, in a sexual sense, in that he continued to visit prostitutes on the side. And, of course, there were his grand rival passions, for Madame Sabatier and Marie Daubrun.


These three women- Duval, Sabatier, Daubrun- were the trinity of love for whom he chiselled out of the combination of mud and marble constituting his heart various poems in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. They were his inspiration and damnation, for women were like a flame to which this particular moth of a poet was attracted only to incinerate his wings. Sabatier appeared a solid sophisticated lady to whom he looked up as his ‘Venus Blanche’ or his ‘Madonna’- someone not to feel mere sexual passion for, but a cultured female to be lifted up on a pedestal and be ‘worshipped from afar’, to employ that trite romantic phrase.

It was Jeanne Duval, exotic and at times pitiless, to whom, pace Madame Line- Playfair, he did indeed show a fallible, peculiar loyalty. Duval was his (diabolical?) muse, and, over the years, however much she hurt him by her demands from him for funds, he was- albeit turbulently- faithful to her, after a poet’s fashion. When she grew ill, possibly from the same syphilis that would kill Baudelaire, he manifestly did all he could to care for her. Syphilis and tuberculosis were the two ‘romantic’ ailments of the 19th century. TB did for Keats, and syphilis carried away Schubert. Antibiotics had not yet arrived to save Baudelaire.

If Duval was his ‘Venus noire’, delightfully low and inevitably unstable, then Madame Sabatier- Apolline- was his ‘Venus blanche’- the high creature of whom he dreamed and whom he idealized as she conducted her ‘salons’ with a grace verging on the patrician. She was ‘la Presidente’- woman as goddess in the skies- and the recipient of adoring verse from him, anonymously at first. When she at last told him she loved him, was he actually surprised and taken aback? Did he need her to be distant, unattainable, untouchable? He was subsequently unable to consummate the bond between them. He would dispatch letters to her by post, he would fantasize about her apparent elegance and perfection, but he could not consider anything sexual with regard to his ‘Venus blanche’. As his tragic and tortured verse indicates, he considered sensuality as something in itself verging on the verminous. Possibly his own self- disgust meant he felt he could not qualify as ‘Apolline’s’ lover in bed. Maybe the cutting truth was that he had, in the end, committed himself to his ‘Venus noire’. There may have been other women for Baudelaire, such as the actress, Marie Daubrun- and, of course, Jeanne Duval, hardly coy and timid, had other men. But the two were ultimately bound together. She tormented him, and he produced his consequently tormented poetry in recognition of her. Madame Aupick was outraged by Duval’s incessant desire for money from Charles. Baudelaire, in choosing to co- habit with a greedy prostitute, doomed himself. But perhaps she provided him with the dangerous emotion, the electricity of street sex, all the rawness he would have lacked in the bourgeois milieu of his upbringing.


Baudelaire regarded himself as cursed because he was a poet. The first poem of ‘Spleen et Ideal’ is entitled, with a typical combination of nasty irony and touching sincerity, ‘Benediction’- ‘Blessing’. He describes the poet as rejected by his mother, misused by his wife, and persecuted by people in general. The poet nonetheless gains, in return for his martyrdom, a crown of ‘pure light’. The poet is Christ- like, he is similar to all prophets, in that he is hounded in this world, but seems accepted in Heaven. Baudelaire was obviously an adherent of salvation through poetry, even as his commitment to ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ made the Second Empire prosecute him, even as his clothes, grimly recycled from the pawn brokers, became makeshift, and even as his health fell victim to the agonies and disfigurements and humiliating incapacitation of syphilis.

One stanza in ‘Benediction’, in which the wife of the poet is speaking, highlights, through the wife’s arrogance, how Baudelaire rendered his devotion to womanhood quasi- religious. Indeed, Baudelaire here suggests that the feminine principle ‘usurps’ the divine one:

‘Et je me soulerai de nard, d’ encens, de myrrhe,

’De genuflexions, de viands, et de vins,

‘Pour savoir si je puis dans un coeur qui m’ admire

‘Usurper en riant les hommages divins!’

Another poem that concerns the status, or rather lack of status, of the poet is ‘L’Albatros’- ‘The Albatross’. In this, the albatross, looking supreme in the sky, is seized by the crew of a ship, and, on the deck, the huge wings that appeared so graceful above immediately make it all to clumsy as it hobbles with a terrible awkwardness. It is made fun of by the sailors. One might detect quite a hint of the ‘Ancient Mariner’ by Coleridge, with here, of course, the curse being that of the poet. There is also, perhaps, something precious about the description of the poet as always suffering, in that the poet is seen as an ‘elevated’ individual being mocked by the mob, by ‘common people’, as it were.

General Aupick would have been very probably unimpressed by Baudelaire’s whining about the pain (‘la douleur’) of poetry, the step- father having actually to fight on the battlefield (Aupick was maimed just before Waterloo, and the wound caused him agony throughout his life). Aupick must have viewed his wayward step- son- a prodigal step- son who never returned- as all too artificial, an excessive aesthete sponging off an overindulgent mother (his wife). Aupick was the descendant of Jacobites- he was of Irish Catholic descent; his struggling ancestors had rebelled against all they thought was wrong about British rule. France, whether Napoleonic, Bourbon, Orleanist or Imperial, had given him a position he could not have dreamed of when he had been born- when the native Irish could not even vote. He had become General, Ambassador and Senator. As another member of the Cercle de Lecture in front of me had said, Aupick could not understand Baudelaire’s suicidal longing for ‘rebellion’. Aupick may have resented his step- son, the tragic poet, as a proto- hippie, a drop- out, and a drug- taking parasite. To judge Aupick as the respectable soldier who destroyed a genius is probably not to recognize just how difficult Baudelaire could be.

But, in referring to Baudelaire and ‘rebellion’, one again comes across this persistent theme in him- of ambivalence. As was pointed out in the Reading Group, he mixed flowers with evil, spleen with idealism. Baudelaire, the ‘rebel’, actually craved the Legion d’ Honneur! The Second Empire’s fury surrounding ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ would have prevented his obtaining that, and he then sniffily affected not to want it any more because it had been given to others who were inadequate men. Just as improbably, Baudelaire sought a seat in the Academie Francaise (!) His early socialism having dissipated into apathy about the to and fros and roundabouts of power, he made, concerning the Legion d’ Honneur and the Academie Francaise, a quarter- flirtation with the Establishment, only to be rebuffed. He must have known ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ would engender a scandal, and, to be cynical, notoriety can seem at times beneficial for an author. In 1866, the French State made a small grant- not the pension requested- to Baudelaire, who, even in his extreme illness, appeared pleased with this indication of official recognition.

Then it was the poems themselves which were read out- by a member of the audience with that tense rapidity so typical of the French, and so bewildering to foreigners attempting, usually in vain, to understand. The moderator said her favourite poem in the cycle was ‘Le Cygne’, which, she noted, was dedicated to Victor Hugo- with whom, typically, Baudelaire had an ambivalent relationship. Baudelaire saw Hugo as a genius and an idiot simultaneously. ‘Le Cynge’, in considering how Paris had changed during Baudelaire’s era, deals with the themes of nostalgia and exile. Baudelaire feels exiled from his past, and compares himself to a swan, escaped from a menagerie, that plods along the dusty pavement while dreaming of his ‘beau lac natal’- ‘beautiful native lake’. As in ‘L’Albatros’, Baudelaire again uses the melancholy image of a large bird, its wings sadly trailing, that is out of place, hobbling on the ground. How strange and interesting- and indeed ambivalent- that Baudelaire should here be focused on the past, whereas he also seemed to be the prophet of the godless future, with decadence replacing divinity!

I compared Theophile Gautier to Charles Baudelaire. The latter dedicated his ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ to the former, but Gautier is by far the inferior poet, full of wheedling, commonplace emotions; Gautier is pedestrian and predictable next to Baudelaire. I contrasted ‘L’Aveugle’ – ‘The Blind Man’- from Gautier’s collection, ‘Emaux et Camees’, with Baudelaire’s treatment of the theme of blindness in his ‘Les Aveugles’, a devastating, cutting sonnet in ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ (a section of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’). Gautier’s piece is full of nasty pity and near- poisonous condescension towards the blind. Gautier feels the blind are no better than prisoners in a dungeon, rendered mad in the darkness. Baudelaire’s sonnet, in its initial octave, echoes Gautier, in referring to the blind as frightening for others, as directing their useless, squirming eyes always to the sky, and not to the ground. In the sestina, however, Baudelaire proceeds to his real target- he hits Paris at its very heart, as a city that is obsessed with- blinkered by- pleasure to the point of horror, a town laughing and singing and bellowing-and, by implication, worse than the blind, Paris finding in decadence only oblivion, Paris unable to see the reality of its own debasement. Such a poem, attacking the hypocrisy of the capital of the Second Empire, would have angered the French Establishment as much as Baudelaire’s alleged immorality. Baudelaire’s verse- forms seem to owe much to Gautier, even if the latter’s ideas, emotions, turn of phrase, are so much less interesting. Perhaps one regrets that Baudelaire’s alexandrines are not so muscular as Rimbaud’s- Rimbaud revelled in a less mellifluous approach to poetic structure, to a certain raucous approach to the twelve syllable line. Baudelaire appears refined, where Rimbaud is raw. Baudelaire criticizes Christianity as an abstraction, whereas Rimbaud actually takes us into a Church, with its poor on the pews, its mumbling priest, its cruel banality.


Rimbaud depended a lot on Baudelaire, extended Baudelaire. Themes such as the carcass hanging from a gibbet appear in both Baudelaire and Rimbaud. One should mention Baudelaire’s use of the prose poem, where Baudelaire adopts a framework of sentences in a plain, even mild, manner, to convey burning feelings and incendiary concepts. Again, the ambivalence of Baudelaire, in prose or poetry- the content is obviously revolutionary, but the style is rather conventional. With his ‘Season in Hell’, Rimbaud would give the prose- poem a fiery, furious ambience.

Let us return to a poem already discussed-‘La Cloche Felee’- ‘The Cracked Bell’- which I asked to be read out. Baudelaire’s eventually twisted affection for ambivalence rings out in the first line:

‘Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’ hiver’.

‘It is bitter and sweet, during the nights of winter’

This piece, the same as ‘Le Cygne’ is nostalgic and resentful at the same time. Resentful, because

Baudelaire regrets the disappearance, as if in a fog, of the bucolic past, when the carillons echoed through a winter landscape, full of the bell’s ‘cri religieux’ (‘religious cry’). Baudelaire’s modernity becomes simply a feature of defeat. Is Baudelaire referring once more to a France that, having forfeited its old Catholic convictions, is lost and maimed amidst its republican freedoms. More disillusion? More ‘ennui’? More ambivalence?

The next poem recited, because it is situated next to ‘La Cloche Felee’ in ‘les Fleurs du Mal’, was ‘Spleen’ (Number 59). This devilish sonnet, with its full- throated symbolism, is Baudelaire in sinister mode, and, again, he emphasizes the poet as outsider and victim:

‘L’ame d’un vieux poete erre dans la gouttiere

‘Avec la triste voix d’ un fantome frileux.’

‘The soul of an old poet wanders in the gutter

‘With the sad voice of a chilled phantom.’

‘Ennui’ is another leitmotiv in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, and one individual commented on how Baudelaire wallows in this damned ‘ennui’ of his.

The Reading Group ended. I approached the moderator, and showed her the ‘Reve d’ un Curieux’, ‘Dream of the Curious’, where a man upon his death- bed is compared to a child waiting for the curtains to be lifted at a theatre… and is there only nothingness behind? Is this spirituality, or skepticism? Is this Baudelaire being ambivalent again?

I left the Salons. It was dark outside. Perhaps there was a hunched figure, with a shock of white hair and eyes like flame, staring upwards at the Institut and reciting lines from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. It crept away; the apparition disappeared. I proceeded to the Underground Station, full of manifest gleaming modernity, and hastened away.

Zekria Ibrahimi


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