Other Literary Forms

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Collections of Charles Baudelaire’s essays on literature, art, aesthetics, and drugs appeared under the titles Les Paradis artificiels (1860), Curiosits esthétiques (1868), and L’Art romantique (1868). Baudelaire also published translations of several volumes of the prose works of Edgar Allan Poe. The most convenient edition of most of his works is the Pléiade edition, Œuvres complètes (1961), edited by Yves Le Dantec and Claude Pichois.

Achievements

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Although Baudelaire is sometimes grouped with the Symbolists, a movement that constituted itself more than a decade after his death, Baudelaire himself neither belonged to nor founded a school. It is probably fair, however, to designate him as one of the earliest exponents of modernism. He constantly sought, in both literature and painting, works that expressed a beauty specific to the reality of the moment, even if that reality was unpleasant or bizarre. His corrosive irony, his suggestive understatement of the metaphoric sense of his images, and his aggressive use of material drawn from the prosaic side of life have had a lasting success and influence. Movements as diverse as Symbolism, Dadaism, and the Italian neorealist cinema have claimed descent from his work.

Suffering

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Suffering, inflicted on others or on oneself, is a frequent theme in Flowers of Evil and is linked to learning and self-awareness. In “Heautontimoroumenos” (a Greek term for “the executioner of oneself,” borrowed from a comedy of Terence), the speaker declares himself a “dissonance in the divine symphony” on account of the irony that eats away at him. In the most remarkable stanza, he declares in part, “I am the wound and the knife!/ I am the blow and the cheek!” In the poem immediately following, “L’Irrémédiable” (“The Irreparable”), after briefly tracing the fall of an ideal being from Heaven into Hell, Baudelaire evokes a “Somber and clear tête-à-tête/ A heart become its own mirror!” This division of the self into two sides, each looking at the other, is then described metaphorically as a “Well of truth, clear and black/ Where a pale star trembles.” Although, here, knowledge is stressed more than the pain that is so fiercely displayed in “Heautontimoroumenos,” pain must be the outcome of self-examination in this “well of truth” because the inward discovery is the sentiment of a fall from a higher state, an “irreparable” decadence. Yet, there is a tension here between the claim to total clarity and the image of the well, for the latter promises depths which can never be coextensive with the mirroring surface. Working back from this tension, one can see that the whole poem is full of terms for depth, darkness, and entrapment. The lucidity toward which the poem tends will never be complete, for consciousness can only discover the extent, apparently infinite, of its deprivation.

“The Trip”

The concluding note of Flowers of Evil, the section called “Death,” is a reminder of this perpetual quest for new discovery, even at the price of horror. In fact, the last stanza of the concluding poem, “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), is based on the concept of depth that had already appeared in “The Irreparable”: “Plunge into the deeps of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, that difference/ Into the depth of the Unknown to find something new!” Here the preoccupation with boredom as supreme evil in “To the Reader” appears coupled with the themes of knowledge and discovery that constitute much of the other sections. “The Trip” is a kind of summary in dialogue of Flowers of Evil, beginning with the childlike hope of discovery in the exploration of the real world. When asked later what they discovered, the travelers say that no city they discovered was ever as interesting as the cities they imagined in the shapes of clouds. Then, in passages that seem to recall the “Parisian Pictures,” “Wine,” and “Rebellion,” the world of human sin is sketched out as a monotonous mirror in which man sees his own image, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!” The only hope is in death itself, addressed in the last two stanzas as a ship’s captain. He alone holds out a balm for our boredom, which itself results from an unresolvable tension between the aspirations of the heart and the outside world, ostensibly a mirror but actually an incomplete reflection because it can capture only actions and not intentions.

Paris Spleen, 1869

Baudelaire’s collection of prose poems, Paris Spleen, 1869, is thematically very similar to Flowers of Evil. The prose pieces, however, have greater means to establish a situation for the poetic speaker and to accumulate aspects of life that seem “realistic” but serve ultimately to reveal figurative meanings in the most ordinary surroundings, a process sometimes called “correspondences” after the title of one of Baudelaire’s verse poems. Frequently, as in “Le Gâteau” (“The Cake”), Baudelaire dramatically alters the situation of the poetic speaker so that he is not a representative of dissatisfaction with the world but an amazed spectator of the subjectivity of desire. In “The Cake,” a traveler finds himself in a country where his plain bread is called “cake,” unleashing a fratricidal war for its possession. In “Le Joujou du pauvre” (“The Poor Child’s Plaything”), he discovers two children playing on opposite sides of a fence. One child is rich and has a meticulously crafted doll while the other holds his toy in a little cage. It is a living rat. Although these texts include elements of diction, characterization, and setting typical of fiction in the realist or naturalist vein, Baudelaire always suggests a larger significance that makes the scene or incident figurative. In “The Poor Child’s Plaything,” the fence between the children is referred to as a symbolic barrier, and the rat is described as a toy drawn from life itself. Baudelaire specifies the metaphoric meaning much less in the prose poems than in his verse. One can, however, easily view the rat as a synecdoche for Baudelaire’s aesthetic, based on drawing beauty from those aspects of life that are most repulsive.

Discussion Topics

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Consider the aptness of Charles Baudelaire’s metaphor “forests of symbols.”

Baudelaire was very interested in the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Which seems more important to Baudelaire, Poe’s musicality or his own use of symbols?

How evil are Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil?

How does a symbol differ from an allegorical image?

The idea that nature is a temple is often found in the work of early nineteenth century poets. Distinguish Baudelaire’s natural temple from those of American poets such as William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Bibliography

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Blood, Susan. Baudelaire and the Aesthetics of Bad Faith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Examines the role of Baudelaire in the history of modernism and the development of the modernist consciousness. Detailed analysis of the poetry, especially its relationship to Baudelaire’s writings on caricature and the problem of its “secret architecture.” Also examines the nature of Baudelaire’s symbolism.

Evans, Margery A. Baudelaire and Intertextuality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Study of Paris Spleen, 1869, which validates its reassessment as a work that rivals the success of Flowers of Evil. Sees these prose poems as hybrid works that set themselves up for comparison with the novel as much as with lyric poetry.

Hyslop, Lois Boe. Charles Baudelaire Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Useful and uncomplicated general introduction to the life and work of Baudelaire. Sees Baudelaire as transforming his emotional torment into aesthetic form, and as finding both beauty and spiritual revelations within the dark side of modernity. Discusses Paris Spleen, 1869 and Flowers of Evil as major works and pays much attention to Baudelaire’s theories of art. Includes a chronology and bibliography.

Leakey, F. W. Baudelaire: “Les Fleurs du mal.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Thorough, appreciative, and thoughtful introduction to Flowers of Evil, with particular attention to the sociopolitical context in which the poems were written. Includes a detailed discussion of individual poems and a bibliography.

Richardson, Joanna. Baudelaire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A reliable and well-documented biography.

Thompson, William J., ed. Understanding “Les Fleurs du mal.” Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997. Collection of sixteen essays by various authors on Flowers of Evil, with the express purpose of giving students a clear, scholarly introduction to the poems. Each essay selects one particular poem for detailed discussion, and the analysis may be theoretical or textual. Essays represent a variety of critical perspectives, including feminist, Jungian, sociopolitical, and structuralist.

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