Prose from Poetry Magazine

All My Pretty Hates

Reconsidering Charles Baudelaire.

by Daisy Fried

I’m writing this in Paris, so, from my many poetic aversions (“all my pretty hates,” to quote Dorothy Parker): Charles Baudelaire, oozing with decay, pestilence, and death. Baudelaire, tireless invoker of  muses, classical figures, goddesses, personifications: O Nature!...Cybele!... 
Sisyphe ... O muse de mon coeur! Baudelaire, who makes an old perfume bottle an invocation of the soul wherein

A thousand thoughts were sleeping, deathly chrysalids,
trembling gently in the heavy darkness,
which now unfold their wings and take flight,
tinged with azure, glazed with pink, shot with gold*
             — From The Phial

Anyone ever counted how many times “azure” shows up in Les Fleurs du Mal?

When she had sucked all the marrow from my bones
And I languidly turned to her
To give back an amorous kiss, I saw no more.
She seemed a gluey wine-skin full of pus.
             — The Vampire’s Metamorphosis

I’m not one to criticize poems about blowjobs but Really, Charles? My fourteen-year-old self might have been impressed. Ew, gross. Then again, shouldn’t one be aware of not reading through one’s fourteen-year-old eyes? After all, he and Poe invented poetic goth. It’s not Baudelaire’s fault his modern-day followers are goofballs. And not their fault I’m a boring middle-aged American.

The main trouble is that English is a mash-up of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and other languages, while French, like all romance languages, is more purely Latinate. I think, feel, imagine, and dream in twentieth-century English. Different associations and emotions attach to Latinate versus Anglo-Saxon synonyms. Latinate words seem inflated and emotionless; Anglo-Saxon alternatives are, for me, concrete, emotional, complex. I can stumble along in Baudelaire’s French, and know enough of the language to argue with translators. Carol Clark turns “L’Art est long et le Temps est court” (“Le Guignon”) into “Art is long and Time is fleeting.” Why not the sonically similar “short”? She makes Cybele’s “tétines brunes” in the untitled third poem of Les Fleurs du Mal literary and Eliotish — “brown dugs” — 
instead of “brown tits.”

In “The Venal Muse,” Baudelaire describes the muse of his heart, a lover of palaces, warming her frozen purple feet during the “noirs ennuis” (black boredom) of snowy evenings. Next he asks her: “Récolteras-tu l’or des voûtes azurées?” Azure again. Carol Clark translates this line: “Will you gather gold from the vaults of heaven,” leaving out the explicit sky color and adding a religious whiff with “heaven.” But even in more literal translation, “Will you reap gold from the azure vaults,” thud goes the poem. Of course, this poem’s interest and innovation is partly structural: the thrill ride from register to register, palaces to purple feet to sky blue vaults. Baudelaire conformed to many of the straitjacket conventions of nineteenth-century French poetry: strict syllabics, indefatigable personifications, classical references. In her excellent introduction, Clark explains that his wedging of the hideous, erotic body into those strictures was radical. And yet: gold, azure, vaults — I just don’t like this poem’s escape into the windy figurative.

But. As I reread and edge closer to feeling the French late in my two-month Paris trip, I start to find Baudelaire... lovable. Not only that, but a good model. In the Cybele poem quoted above, Baudelaire imagines a lost arcadia, “époques nues” when men and women “jouissaient sans mensonge et sans anxiété.” Jouissaient: 
“enjoyed each other”  — fucked, presumably — “without lying or 
anxiety.” Sentimental? Maybe. But then he contrasts that dream-age to modern diseased, debauched nineteenth-centry women:

And you, women, alas, pale as church candles, fed and gnawed away by debauchery, and you, virgins, dragging along the inheritance of your mothers’ vice and all the hideous appurtenances of fecundity! (Clark)

Never mind that “hideous appurtenances of fecundity.” Finally, the disgust is glorious, vivid, diagnostic. Objections to sexism in this passage are anachronistic; Baudelaire’s always most revolted by himself.
We in America could use more romantic self-disgust. (Frederick Seidel thinks so. Ooga Booga is the Fleurs du Mal of our time.)

Or take the great poem “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”) in which Baudelaire compares drastically-changing Paris of  the mid-nineteenth century to a swan escaped from its cage, rubbing webbed feet on dry pavement, dragging plumage on rough ground, opening its beak near a dry gutter, bathing wings in dust, dreaming of  home, a beautiful lake, and of water, water. Look up the original. There’s seldom been in 
poetry anything so terribly dry and so full of yearning.

In “The Swan,” Baudelaire invokes Andromache several times. Elsewhere his classical references can seem perfunctory. Here, Hector’s widow injects, finally, an enormous sorrow into the poem, and provides a segue near the end to a strange, and strangely relevant, intrusion:

I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive, trampling in
the mud and looking with wild eyes for the missing coconut
palms of proud Africa behind the immense wall of the fog;
     Of whoever has lost what can never be found. (Clark)

It’s true, Baudelaire can be awfully windy. But I apologize to my 
editors. I’ve developed an aversion to my aversion. If that’s wind, well, sometimes you have to listen to the wind.

 

* This and some other translations are prose ones by Carol Clark, from Penguin’s Selected Poems, hereafter designated “(Clark).” Where I make no citation, I’ve cobbled together versions from Google Translate, Clark, and other translators, with apologies and no blame.

Originally Published: January 2, 2013

COMMENTS (2)

On January 3, 2013 at 11:59am M. G. Stephens wrote:
In her Baudelaire essay, Daisy Fried writes: "The main trouble is that English is a mash-up of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and other languages, while French, like all romance languages, is more purely Latinate." English, if anything, is French with an accent. Sixty percent of English derives directly from the French. In fact, England was once France, which explains why they had that nasty war in the 11th century to settle their differences (cf: Agincourt).

On January 3, 2013 at 12:02pm Anthony White wrote:
You are too kind by far, particularly concerning the French literary tradition and its Francophonic obsessions.
Having lived in France for more than twenty and having discussed and argued the point(s)frequently with poet friends and aquaintances, I can affirm that the obsessions are still alive and well!
Since I have to live these anachronistic and elitist values I react badly. (I live far from Paris, near Montpellier. One feels the weight of Paris here, but it is all the cumbersome for being so distant.)
My preferred target is the soft latin underbelly of the French language. The French were ... Franks, Germans. The attempt to become "latins" is part of a conscious effort to avoid being part of the cultural entity that defeated the French nation in several wars. The French language has less latin in it than English. I studied latin myself. English news papers frequently use latin, they quote court procedures verbatim. The French Academy is so dogmatically French that even latin is finely filtered.
Like any language, French is a bastard. It is Mediterranean if anything. But no more latin than South America is "Latin America" (I have read that this was a fancy of Napolean III's, taken from a Jesuit treatise).
I think it is revealing that the word vernacular exists only as an adjective in French (vernaculaire):with its links to slave-talk it has no right to become a full noun, even though its origins are Latin!

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2013

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Biography

Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded Poetry’s Editors Prize for Feature Article in 2009.   

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