Dover Book

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    I don't usually procrastinate about writing a review after I've read a book, but I certainly have with this one. It is not that I didn't like it, but because, until I began writing these web reviews, and setting strict goals for reading volumes of books, I really had not explored poetry that much. Of all the genres I read, poetry is probably the one in which I feel least qualified to review, although I have gained much more confidence in the past few years. This collection is so important, however, I wanted to make sure I could devote enough time to do it justice. Of course, Wikipedia is there to help me, but it has always been my policy to express my own opinions in these reviews.
    Charles Baudelaire was born in 1821 and died at the early age of 46, in 1867. Wikipedia lists him as being a member of the Decadent artistic movement, which they define as thus:

The movement was characterized by self-disgust, sickness at the world, general skepticism, delight in perversion and employment of crude humor and a belief in the superiority of human creativity over logic and the natural world.

    Specifically concerning Baudelaire's works, Wikipedia says:

As for theme and tone, in his works we see the rejection of the belief in the supremacy of nature and the fundamental goodness of man as typically espoused by the romantics and expressed by them in rhetorical, effusive and public voice in favor of a new urban sensibility, an awareness of individual moral complexity, an interest in vice (linked with decadence) and refined sensual and aesthetic pleasures, and the use of urban subject matter, such as the city, the crowd, individual passers-by, all expressed in highly ordered verse, sometimes through a cynical and ironic voice.

    Ok, so enough of definitions and Wikipedia.
    Let me first provide a bit about Charles Baudelaire. His father died in 1827, and his mother remarried the next year, which was traumatic to the young boy. He was erratic in his studies and early on developed a taste for prostitutes and wild spending, leaving him often in debt and begging money off his mother. He was sent to study law, and his stepfather attempted to get him employed in law or diplomacy, finally sending him to India to settle him down. That didn't work, but when he returned to Paris, he at least had material to write about. He became involved with Jeanne Duval, who also drained him of his money. He spent his life often in sickness, with uneven literary output. He attempted suicide, was addicted to laudanum (a form of opium) and at one point may have suffered from venereal disease. Not a pretty life, nor a delightful personality, but all this certainly influenced his writing, and much of that was not pretty either, but powerful, and ushered in a new and brutal way to perceive reality. According to the opening Note in this Dover edition:

Not interested in classical pomp or personal histrionics, Baudelaire composed lucidly, and with unwavering frankness, from his own (albeit sometimes hallucinatory) observations. Among prostitutes, drug dens, the suffering poor, and various other examples of Paris' moral ruin, but also in animals, and children, he discovered images of the soul. These he worked into poems of brooding, desire and, at times moving praise for the beauty he believed existed beneath the perversity and corruption of modern civilization.

    So that briefly provides a little background on the poet and his works. Now, I will present some examples from both collections, including my impressions.
    The bulk of the book is taken up with The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal), 1857, to page 74, and the remainder of the text, to page 94, is from Paris Spleen (Le Spleen de Paris), published posthumously in 1869. I actually understood the latter better, perhaps because it is a collection of "Prose Poetry," which, and this is my interpretation, are short poetically descriptive pieces written as prose, almost like little essays. The entire collection consists of fifty works, but only fourteen appear here. I will start with them.
    This one is called Each of Us Has His Chimera. Here are the first three paragraphs:

  Under a wide gray sky, in a big dusty plain, without roads, or grass, or thistle, or nettle, I met several men who were walking bent over.

  Each of them carried on his back a huge Chimera, as heavy as a bag of flour or coal, or the equipment of a Roman foot soldier.
  But the monstrous beast was not an inert weight; on the contrary, it covered and oppressed the men with its elastic, powerful muscles; it fastened itself with its two large claws on the chest of its mount; and its fabulous head rose above the man's head, like one of those horrible helmets by which ancient warriors hoped to instill terror in the enemy.

    The poem then goes on to say that the men did not know where they were going, and neither did they seem to mind that they carried the heavy beast.
    A Chimera is from ancient Greek mythology, a hybrid monster made up of several different animals. But it can also mean "a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve." I found this one particularly interesting because it describes the path humanity is on right now. We are all carrying these horrible monsters on our shoulders: the threat of nuclear war; geoengineering and all its devastating effects: droughts, floods, poisons and disease, an overheating planet; overpopulation.
    Some, like the speaker in the poem, notice the burden, but most people drift on, unaware of all they are carrying, or perhaps refusing to acknowledge the problems which are so heavy upon us.
    I also want to mention that Baudelaire frequently paints a picture of nature in his works, as in the first paragraph. It is a melding of the beautiful or natural, with the ugliness of society.
    The next one praises the state of being drunk, but one can become drunk in many ways. It is called Intoxication, and is only three paragraphs long.

  You must always be intoxicated. It is the key to all: the one question. In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time breaking your back and bending you toward the earth, you must become drunk, without truce.
  But on what? On wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But you must get drunk.
  And if at times, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you awaken, and your intoxication is already diminished or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flees, everything that groans, everything that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask what time it is; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will answer you: "It is time to get intoxicated! In order not to be slaves martyred by Time, always become intoxicated! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, as you will.

    This one, as the previous one, stresses the burden of life and offers an escape. Unlike many of these prose poems, it has a more poetic quality: the repetition of phrases and a certain rhythm. Incidentally, "spleen," other than being a bodily organ, can also mean:
The seat of emotions or passions;
Mingled ill will and bad temper;
A sudden impulse or whim.

    The Flowers of Evil was originally published in six sections, although I do not know how many poems in all there were. This volume includes 52, but they are not divided into sections. Here are the original divisions:
Spleen et Idéal (Spleen and Ideal)
Tableaux Parisiens (Parisian Scenes)
Le Vin (Wine)
Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil)
Révolte (Revolt)
La Mort (Death)

    These are a few of the poems in this collection, The beginning one, called To the Reader, speaks of the horrors of life and suffering, but ends with the statement that the worst of all is boredom. Here are some random paragraphs out of ten:

1) Folly, error, sin and avarice
Occupy our minds and waste our bodies,
And we feed their lice.

4) It is the Devil who pulls the strings that move us!
In repulsive objects we find enticing lures;
Each day we go down one more step toward Hell,
Without horror, through the darkness which smells rank.

5) Just as a lustful pauper who kisses and bites
The martyred breast of an aged whore,
We steal, as we move along, a clandestine pleasure
Which we squeeze hard like an old orange.

8) But among the jackals, panthers, bitches,
Monkeys, scorpions, vultures, serpents,
The monsters squealing, yelling, grunting, crawling
In the infamous menagerie of our vices

9) There is one uglier, more wicked and more foul than all!
Although he does not make great gestures or great cries,
He would gladly make the earth a shambles
And swallow the world in a yawn;

10) It is boredom! his eyes weeping an involuntary tear,
He dreams of gibbets as he smokes his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
—Hypocrite reader —my twin —my brother!

    In the next poem, entitled The Enemy, Baudelaire uses natural imagery to compare to aging and the passage of time, with its ravages on the body. It is only four paragraphs long.

My youth was a dark storm,
Crossed here and there by brilliant suns;
Thunder and rain have caused such quick ravage
That there remain in my garden very few red fruits.

Now I have touched the autumn of my mind,
And I must use the spade and rakes
To assemble again the drenched lands,
Where the water digs holes as large as graves.

And who knows whether the new flowers I dream of
Will find in this soil washed like a shore
The mystic food which would create their strength?

—O grief! O grief! Time eats away life,
And the dark Enemy who gnaws the heart
Grows and thrives on the blood we lose.

    Not all of these poems are dismal. Some are about love and romance. Here are a few paragraphs in praise of Her Hair:

O fleece, which covers her neck like wool!
O curls! O perfume heavy with nonchalance!
Ecstasy! Tonight, in order to people this dark alcove
With the memories sleeping in this hair,
I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief!

I shall plunge my head in love with intoxication
Into that black ocean where she is enclosed;
And my subtle spirit which the rolling surface caresses
Will be able to find you again, O fertile idleness!
Infinite rocking of my embalmed leisure!

For a long time! forever! my hand in your heavy mane
Will sow rubies, pearls and sapphires,
So that you will never be deaf to my desire!
Are you not the oasis where I dream, and the gourd
From which I draw in long draughts the wine of memory?

    Though many of these poems range from repugnant to obscene to despairing, they also ushered in the age of Modernism, or "modernity," of which Wikipedia says, "designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and art's responsibility to capture that experience," and are very important in the history of French literature. A number of people have translated various works by Baudelaire into English. This one is by Wallace Fowlie. Baudelaire also translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French.


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