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.