Charles Baudelaire was born two hundred years ago this year, on April 9 1821, one month after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. He still stands out as the major trend-setter of contemporary French poetry. Victor Hugo is famous, of course; he was carried straight into the Pantheon in what could be, all things being equal, the largest public funeral ever granted to a French civilian. Yet, none of Hugo’s direct imitators made it enduringly into French textbooks. I would gladly give away all of Hugo’s poetry (I’d hold on to that pile of novels and plays, however) in exchange for the single collection Baudelaire published in his lifetime, Les Fleurs du Mal, and of his posthumous prose poems, ‘Le Spleen de Paris.’
Baudelaire still shares his mother and stepfather’s grave in the Cimetière de Montmartre; yet his heirs are innumerable among the decadents, the symbolists, the surrealists, and even among Finnish goth and Russian pop bands. How could the same writer inspire the surrealists’ rejection of any institutional religion, and simultaneously be a founding figure for the French Catholic revival of the 1910s-1940s, and a timeless dandy-poet?
Les Fleurs du mal — the flowers of evil, or of pain — is the most famous and scandalous oxymoron of French literature. Flowers are linked to the inherent goodness of nature; but what fruit would a deep dark and fiery red flower of evil bear? When Les Fleurs du mal was published in 1857, Baudelaire went on trial for its sexual and irreligious content. Some poems were censored and never published again in his lifetime. Works describing the passionate, yet unfulfilled, desires of lesbians, the saggy breasts of old prostitutes, or the body of a woman beheaded by her lover, were not likely to chime with the moralistic temperament of the French Second Empire. However, anticlerical and pornographic novels abound in the era. The trouble was that Baudelaire’s crude images were set, as venomous gems, in the most ornate and elegant poetic style.
Baudelaire was perhaps the first to claim the right to speak about horrid things in beautiful words. In ‘Une charogne‘ (‘A Carrion’), the speaker warns his beloved that one day her beautiful body will be like the rotting carrion they are walking by. Through the unappetising images of buzzing flies and of worms crawling in and out of dead flesh, Baudelaire claims poetry is the only way out of our condemnation to corruption.
Until the end of the eighteenth century the cohabitation between the living and the dead was deemed normal. After the French Revolution, and as early as the excavation of the Cimetière des Innocents, argues Philippe Muray in Le 19e siècle à travers les âges, (The Nineteenth Century Through the Ages) France developed a severe aversion to incarnation. The theory of miasma and contamination made people increasingly cautious about the hazard represented by central cemeteries. Major Parisian necropoles were emptied, and nightly processions would carry the dried bones to the Catacombs.
Baudelaire’s contemporaries painstakingly attempted to convince themselves that physical and political constitutions are not meant to sink into decay and oblivion. While the beheaded ghost of France wandered between empires, republics, and monarchies, the spirits of the great men were honoured in the Pantheon, formerly known as the Église Sainte-Geneviève. The departed were exiled from the world of the living, or only tolerated as ghosts.
Baudelaire’s images of decaying flesh, sarcastic skulls, and unsatisfied desires were not quite to his era’s taste. While Victor Hugo, exiled in Guernsey, was trying to reach the spirit of his dead daughter, Léopoldine, Baudelaire banished himself to Belgium through the 1860s and until his death in 1867, fleeing his debtors and his literary flops. He held fast to the inevitability of death and to the separation between flesh and spirit. This painful contradiction is seized in another oxymoron of his, ‘Spleen et idéal’, the title of a section in Les Fleurs du mal. He uses the English word ‘spleen’ referring to the black bile secreted by the organ. An excess of black bile was thought to be the source of melancholy, which causes, among other unpleasant symptoms, a peculiar perception of time.
Unlike Hugo, Baudelaire did not fall for the idea of progress. Time is the adversary neither body nor mind can fight. Even if poetry can offer a brief remission. As Baudelaire writes in ‘La Chambre double’:
‘Le Temps règne ; il a repris sa brutale dictature. Et il me pousse, comme si j’étais un bœuf, avec son double aiguillon. — “ Et hue donc ! bourrique ! Sue donc, esclave ! Vis donc, damné !”’
[‘Time rules; he has resumed its brutal tyranny. And he pushes me as though I were and ox, with his double goad: — “Go on, you ass, sweat on, you slave!”’].
The splenetic poet however is blessed with the gift to see beauty where no one else could: ‘Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.’ (‘You have given me your mud, and I have turned it into gold’). But he is also cursed. He knows his talent is a mere trickster’s artifice. In ‘Bénédiction‘, the poetic voice strives to make himself a crown covered in gems more beautiful than God’s. Yet he sets himself up for failure against the only adversary worthy of his ambition: the Creator himself.
The section ‘Révolte’ in Les Fleurs du mal depicts the violent screams of one who has lost trust in an absent, silent deity – a Good Friday with no hope of resurrection. Baudelaire, the son of a priest who abandoned his ministry after the French Revolution, can be seen as the French founder of the Byronic, Luciferian hero. Yet to Catholic writers as intransigent as Léon Bloy, Georges Bernanos, or François Mauriac, Baudelaire is an eminently Christian poet.
Baudelaire did not recoil from the mystery of God’s silence, he put it into verse. ‘Réversibilité‘ illustrates the opposition between the speaker, burdened with shame, hatred, and old age, and his addressee, an angelic and youthful figure of beauty, light and joy. The title echoes the reversibility of merits and pains, which is, as Bloy reminds us, another name for the communion of saints. The final stanza evokes the king-poet David, who would have asked the angelic figure for the health he drew from the Shunammite. The speaker, on the contrary, would only ask for the angel’s prayers. In his own private notes, Baudelaire asks for the intercession of his deceased father, of Edgar Allan Poe, and even of Mariette, his long-dead nanny. The poet, the master of words, who could con his audience into seeing beauty in a carrion, resorts to begging someone else to speak on his behalf when the words really matter.
In Les Fleurs du mal, the unnamed, invisible ‘you’ upon whom the speaker calls is the one who can save him. ‘J’implore ta pitié, Toi, l’unique que j’aime’, writes Baudelaire, imitating the opening line of Psalm 50 in a sonnet, entitled ‘De Profundis clamavi’, the incipit of Psalm 129, where the speaker describes himself as cast out in a desert. In other poems, he defines this space of damnation as a gaol or a pit. To anyone able to see it as it is, the interior life is a prison. In ‘Un voyage à cythère’, he writes: ‘Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage/De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!’ [‘O Lord grant me the strength and the courage/to contemplate my heart and my body without disgust’], a line Oscar Wilde quotes from memory when, in Reading Gaol, he composed his Epistula in carcere et vinculis. In ‘La Cloche fêlée‘ [‘The Cracked Bell’], Baudelaire’s singing soul is shrieking from the depths of a heap of dead bodies forgotten on a battlefield. It is this unbearable note that Baudelaire plays that ends up being repeated by poets who faced the absurd violence of 1870 Franco-Prussian war and of the Great War.
This pain would not make sense had there not been an essential agreement between the misery of our fallen nature and an ideal, absent addressee. Following Pascal and Saint Augustine, Baudelaire thinks the very dissatisfaction of spleen proves the necessity of the innate, incorruptible goodness, truth, and beauty for which we yearn. For Baudelaire, if God is remote and silent, it is not because He has abandoned us but because we are self-complacent hypocrites refusing to face our own monstrosity.
One of Baudelaire’s last poems, ‘Mademoiselle Bistouri’ [Miss Scalpel], tells of an encounter between the narrator and a neurotic woman convinced he is a surgeon. She is obsessed with this profession’s right to open bodies and cut through flesh. Her own neurosis awakens the narrator’s cruelty: he cuts through her soul with his words, to reach the root of the evil that she bears. She is unable to voice it; just as the Baudelairean poet is unable to voice the perfect poem. Upon leaving the woman, the narrator throws a trustful song of praise to the God in whom all contradictions make sense:
‘La vie fourmille de monstres innocents. – Seigneur, mon Dieu! vous, le Créateur, vous, le Maître; vous qui avez fait la Loi et la Liberté; vous, le souverain qui laissez faire, vous, le juge qui pardonnez; vous qui êtes plein de motifs et de causes, et qui avez peut-être mis dans mon esprit le goût de l’horreur pour convertir mon coeur, comme la guérison au bout d’une lame; Seigneur ayez pitié, ayez pitié des fous et des folles! O Créateur! peut-il exister des monstres aux yeux de Celui-là seul qui sait pourquoi ils existent, comment ils se sont faits et comment ils auraient pu ne pas se faire?’
[‘The city teems with innocent monsters. Lord, my God, you the Creator, you the Master, you who made Law and Freedom, you the non-interfering sovereign, you the forgiving judge, you who are full of motives and of causes, and who might have put in my mind the taste for horror like health on the tip of a blade; Lord have mercy, have mercy on the madmen and the madwomen! O Creator! Are there any monsters in the eyes of Him alone who knows why they exist, how they made themselves, and how they could have not?’]
Baudelaire fought against agraphia, a loss of the ability to write, throughout his career, and paradoxically wrote some of his most skilful poems about the impossibility of writing while he struggled to make ends meet. One year before his death, as he entered the church of Saint-Loup in Namur, he was struck by a seizure that left him hemiplegic – semi-paralysed. Writing became, literally, impossible. It is said that Baudelaire the master of words and goldsmith of the French verse, could say nothing other than ‘Crénom’ — meaning literally ‘Holy name of God’ but once used widely as an expletive – both a curse and a prayer.
Did Baudelaire bring upon himself the curse he jested about, or were his prayers to his father, to his nanny, to Edgar Allan Poe, and to that absent and achingly present ‘you’, finally heard? I hope all the writers who found, and continue to find, solace in Baudelaire’s poems offer their suffrages for him, and that his aching soul, finally consoled, is contemplating the ideal for which he yearned.