Some general observations on Baudelaire's poetry
In his ideas on poetry Baudelaire starts from observations of human experience. He sees moments in our lives when our vitality is so intensified that what we look at, however basic it is, seems full of meaning and strikes our senses and opens the flood-gates of ideas. The sense of wonder of a child, or the heightened sensitivity that comes from prolonged nervous tension (eg. after many sleepless nights), or the effects of alcohol and drugs. But, in all of these states the felleing of ecstacy is transitory. So, poetry can deliberately create and prolong the life of this magic sense of intensity and meaning.
But, such moments are rare. In contrast we have "les lourdes ténèbres de l'existence jounalière". Either time crawls by in a meaningless world, or it fles past, making us painfully aware of our inertia and uselessness. In an effort to escape lethargy, man may prefer any stimulus, even horror or disgust, rather than submit to abject acceptance. Baudelaire was to show that even horror, or dsgust, or the contemplation of what we would normally consider as ugly or unwholesome, can be the starting point of poetry.
Baudelaire describes himself as "un parrasseux nerveux", and the core of his poetry is the struggle between appetite and apathy, desire and indifference. (visible in his address to the reader Au Lecteur). The most crucial problem is how to turn the moments of joy or terror that he experiences into poetry. His attempts to create poems are constantly threatened by inertia (i.e. the paralysis of his own will power by some force that affects the poet's inner being), and by the inexorable mechanism of passing time (i.e. the external force over which he can have no control). This is what Baudelaire is referring to when he describes not being able to get down to the task of writing: -
"Quand saurai-je donc faire
Du spectacle vivant de ma triste misère
Le travail de mes mains et l'amour de mes yeux?"
(Roughly translated: "when shall i then know to make the living spectacle of my sad misery the work of my hands and the love of mine eyes?")
A similar anguish, of knowing what needed to be done - but finding oneself incapable of taking action in response, forms the main psychological interest in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is also a predicament familiar to many a student with an imminent assignment and a blank page! ;)
IN his catalogue of vices in Au Lecteur, lethargy is the top of the list, and will power/work are the only effective antidotes. Man's most precious possession is will power. Baudelaire's poetry is full of memorable, even terrifying, images of the theme of the sapping of that will power: either it is stifled, battered, swept off in an avalache, or buried in slime, eaten away and corroded, lulled into indifference, or vapourised into a whisp of smoke.
One could say, in fact, that Baudelaire was the Alfred Hitchcock of poetry. He was preceded by the Romantics, who told nice sappy moralistic tales. Baudelaire's work has meaning, but it does not contain a moral of the story. He set out to shock people. Shock them out of their indifference and get them to think, about themselves and everything around them.
Baudelaire insisted that the poet should express the spirit of his age. In this he was aware of the tragic irony of our ambitious, (sometimes infinite), desires, and the finite, often disappointing reality that life actually offers us. The theme of man's infinite ambitions set against his miserable attemts to achieve them is a major preoccupation in Baudelaire's poetry.
He sees how our appetites seek to go beyond the restricting limits of human existance: what we can achieve is constrained and threatened by the sad fact that we are prisoners of time, space, and our own incommunicable individuality. Baudelaire shows us how we try to escape these limitations and "vivre plusieurs vies d'homme en l'espace d'une heure" (to live many lives in the space of an hour), and to "allonger les heures par l'infini des sensations", to have "dans le présent le passé retrouvé", to penetrate, experience and understand the existence of other people yet remain ourselves. Man seeks to 'attain the absolute': -
"La recherche de l'absolu"
he wants to acqure the abilities of a god, know everything, be everywhere, be everyone, and yet remain himself with his own individual consciousness. This is an old philosophical dilemma, and Baudelaire is aware of the fundamental paradox it contains: -
Les poètes, les artistes et toute la race humaine seraient bien malheureux,
si l'idéal, cette absurdité, cette impossibilité, était trouvé.
Qu-est-ce que chacun ferait désormais de son pauvre moi?"
The individual human condition is imperfection. To have reached infinity would be to lose one's seperate personality. Poetry therefore does not achieve the infinite, nor give metaphysical revelations, nor describe a supernatural paradise. It expresses the dreams and longings of man, warts and all.
In a letter, Baudelaire says of inifinity that the best way of giving an impression of infinite distance is to show the endless depths of the sky framed in a small opening, set between chimneys or seen through the limiting frame of a window or grating. So the sense of ecstacy is conveyed by setting it alongside a reality, from which it is formed and into which it falls back. The best way to give a sense of striving towards perfection is through the suggestive use of trivial, frail and limited objects of the world as we know it.
In a letter to Ancelle, (février 1866), Baudelaire said:
"Faut-il vous dire, à vous qui ne l'avez pas plus deviné que les autres, que dans ce livre atroce j'ai mis tout mon coeur, toute ma tendresse, toute ma religion (travestie), toute ma haine? Il est vrai que j'écrirai le contraire, que je jurerai mes grands dieux que c'est un livre d'art pur, de signerie, de jonglerie, et je mentirai comme un arracheur de dents. "
Who of you can say the same thing about your work?
*Thanks to Professor Leslie Davis, Faculty of Languages, DCU, for his amazing tutelage. He's retiring this year. He'll be missed.