Last year was the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Baudelaire’s birth. We now have new translations of his poetry and prose, and a reissue of the essays that revolutionized art criticism. This trio of works leapfrogs from The Salon of 1846 to the first and second editions of Les Fleurs du mal (1857–1861), to the frightening, unpublishable prose fragments from the last five years of his life. Among these late writings we find a letter Baudelaire wrote to the editor of Le Figaro raging against the celebration of Shakespeare’s three hundredth birthday: he accused the organizers of using the occasion for political purposes, to gild their own reputations and dishonestly recast the Bard as a prototype of the egalitarian, humanitarian, proletarian artist.
No such apologia can be made for Baudelaire, who was nonetheless the greatest poet-critic of his time and who will remain a titan for as long as there is literature. Defending Les Fleurs du mal from the charge of immorality brought against it in criminal court, Baudelaire argued that his poetry was not corrupting, but that even if it were, the scope of its influence would be limited by the perfection of his verse, which sailed over the heads of the masses.
Indeed, the trial in 1857 brought him closer to fame, or rather infamy, than his art did: indebted to his publishers, shunned by the Académie française, self-exiled in 1864 to Belgium, which he loathed, debilitated by addiction and syphilis, and left aphasic by a stroke, in 1867 he died utterly wretched, in relative obscurity, at the age of forty-six. What would he make now of Dana Gioia’s inventory, in his introduction to Aaron Poochigian’s translation of Les Fleurs du mal, of “Baudelaire coffee mugs, T-shirts, and caps…posters, pillowcases, corsets, hoodies, socks, and beach towels…plaques, statues, rings, and medallions”? Not to mention the shot glass bearing his exhortation to enivrez-vous sans cesse!
The answer likely would not be flattering to the consumer. “Merch” is not in any aesthete’s vocabulary, and Baudelaire was a devoted acolyte of l’art pour l’art. He is likely to have classified all that as chic and poncif, the two damning words he defines in The Salon of 1846:
The word “chic”—a dreadful word of modern invention, which I do not even know how to spell correctly, but which I am obliged to use, because it has been sanctioned by artists in order to describe a modern monstrosity—the word “chic” means a total neglect of the model and of nature….
The meaning of the word “poncif” has much in common with that of the word “chic.”…
When a singer places his hand upon his heart, this commonly means “I shall love her always!” If he clenches his fists and scowls at the boards or at the prompter, it means “Death to him, the traitor!” That is the “poncif” for you.
We could substitute “meme” for poncif. Baudelaire’s nemesis was stupidity, la bêtise, cognate with bête, beast, and redolent of cattle: the herd. “God, I thank thee for not having granted me the bêtise of Victor Hugo,” he wrote of his wildly popular, populist contemporary.
Baudelaire was a Romantic: Romanticism, he declared, “is precisely situated…in a mode of feeling.” As Michael Fried points out in his introduction to The Salon of 1846, Romanticism was old news; realism à la Courbet was about to overturn it when the twenty-five-year-old poet came charging at the art world full tilt, extolling Delacroix (twenty years his senior) and declaring that a painter’s work should have the quality of “naïveté and the sincere expression of his temperament,” while criticism should “be partial, passionate, and political.” The eighteen treatises that bear out his critique of establishment art are frequently ecstatic reveries: on color, on the erotic, on models and portraiture, vividly aphoristic (“A portrait is a model complicated by an artist”). The artist is heroic in service of an ideal: “Drawing is a struggle between nature and the artist.”
The critic, too, is in service of an ideal. It follows that to love strongly one must also hate strongly, and the paeans to Baudelaire’s loves are accompanied, dialectically, by excoriations of his hates: after defining the chic and the poncif, he offers us a taste of brimstone in his takedown of M. Horace Vernet, whose roughly sixteen-by-thirty-four-foot painting of the Battle of Isly (where French troops routed the Moroccans in 1844) gives him fits:
M. Horace Vernet is a soldier who practices painting. Now I hate an art which is improvised to the roll of the drum, I hate canvases splashed over at the gallop, I hate painting manufactured to the sound of pistol shots, since I hate the army, the police force—everything, in fact, that trails its noisy arms in a peaceful place.
Baudelaire doesn’t just hate Vernet’s painting; he hates that Vernet is a nationalist and that he is popular. It is an indictment of the French that they can enjoy this stuff:
Who knows better than he the correct number of buttons on each uniform, or the anatomy of a gaiter or a boot which is the worse for innumerable days’ marching, or the exact spot on a soldier’s gear where the copper of his small arms deposits its verdigris?
If realism is not yet in Baudelaire’s vocabulary, literalism, at least, is anathema: mindless and petty—mere journalism.
This impatience with his countrymen is the focal point of his sardonic preface to the Salon, “To the Bourgeois”: “You, the bourgeois—be you king, law-giver, or businessman—have founded collections, museums, and galleries.” They, naturally, are looking for dividends from their investments—Baudelaire mocks their language with relish:
Enjoyment is a science…when you have given to society your knowledge, your industry, your labor and your money, you claim back your payment in enjoyments of the body, the reason, and the imagination.
This tone, while jeering, is not yet curdled; the poet is strong-minded but imbued with youthful optimism. Young Baudelaire will be recognizable in late Baudelaire, but stripped of politics (after the defeat of 1848, he was “depoliticized”) and hope.
Looking at art was for the young Baudelaire what it would be for Rilke half a century later—an apprenticeship to poetry. A year before The Salon of 1846, he had published his first poem, “À une dame créole,” dedicated to his girlfriend, the French Haitian dancer and demimondaine Jeanne Duval. He was working on a poetry collection with the title Les lesbiennes, and other writing projects—some fiction, a collection of aphorisms. He was also living a lifestyle that rock stars a century later imitated. It began in earnest after he passed his baccalauréat exam (though he was expelled from his lycée) and enrolled in law school. Richard Sieburth puts it pithily in his extensive chronology at the end of Late Fragments: “1840…First poems. Debts. Prostitutes. Syphilis.”
At their wit’s end, his mother and his stepfather, General Jacques Aupick, sent the twenty-year-old Baudelaire to Calcutta on a steamboat; he hopped off at Mauritius and Réunion before wandering back to France. Following that, he came into his father’s inheritance and started squandering it immediately on a fancy address, to which he brought Duval as his mistress, treating her and his cohort to all the perks of the high life in Paris. The Aupicks came down on him again—this time naming a notary, one Narcisse Ancelle, as the trustee of Baudelaire’s estate. He was, in modern terms, placed under conservatorship, which remained until his death. But this did nothing to stop Baudelaire’s profligacy. In defiance of Ancelle, parents, society, and even the syphilis that was wrecking his health, he persisted in his habits and merely racked up debt, which tormented him and led him down a treacherous path of evasions and double-dealings.
By 1857 Les lesbiennes had evolved into Les Fleurs du mal, exactly one hundred poems in five thematic sections, meticulously assembled and organized, assiduously copyedited, formally perfected. Baudelaire, now thirty-six, had been working on these verses since he was twenty-one. The book was brought out by an anarchist publisher, Poulet-Malassis, in an edition of 1,300 copies. Shortly after, the Ministry of the Interior brought both poet and publisher to trial on charges of obscenity and blasphemy, and won its case. Only partly, though: the book was allowed to stand if six particularly egregious poems were excised (they were not reinstated until 1949). Even this was a crushing blow: it maimed the architectural and numerical perfection of the book. The notoriety resulting from the trial did not translate into sales, and Les Fleurs du mal was a commercial failure.
Baudelaire embraced his aesthetic martyrdom. He continued to add to the book, publishing a second edition in 1861, with a sixth thematic section, Tableaux parisiens, including new poems written during a creative storm at his mother’s house in Honfleur, on the Normandy coast. These poems are notable for what Sieburth calls Baudelaire’s “evolution toward the prosaic,” away from Romanticism and into the modern.
In Honfleur he produced one of his most powerful and tender poems, “Le cygne.” Its thirteen quatrains, whose alexandrines are almost bursting with imagery too newfangled for them to contain, toggle between a Paris in the throes of Haussmann’s modernization schemes and Andromache after the fall of Troy. Andromache is a figure of exile; in the Aeneid, she builds a “toy Troy” and feeds its river, the Simoïs, with her tears. Baudelaire, too, is in exile, as the medieval warrens of his youth are demolished: “The old Paris is gone.” He sees, incongruously, a swan in the street where a menagerie once stood (here in Poochigian’s translation):
a swan, who had somehow found freedom, passed
clumsily, wings laid flat, along the walk.
His wealth of feathers draggled in the dust.
Right by a ditch, he opened up his beak.
Flapping excitedly, wings on the ground,
heart roused by lakes he once was giddy with,
he said, “Come on and rain, sky! Thunder, sound!”
I see him as a strange and fatal myth.
Although Baudelaire thinks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this isn’t Zeus in disguise. This swan with no lake is closely related to an earlier bird in Les Fleurs du mal (there are numerous doubles throughout the collection, reinforcing his theory of nature’s “correspondences”)—the albatross, a symbol for the poet. Graceful and at home in the sky, he is ungainly and out of place on the ship where he lands, exhausted, only to become sport for bored sailors. There, in a precursor of the lines above, he “lets his expansive white wings dangle, like/a pair of oars, clumsily at his side.”
A valediction for Paris, “Le cygne” is also a valediction for Duval, his on-again, off-again paramour, who was, at this point, dying faster of syphilis than he was (he financially supported her, however meagerly, to the end):
I think of a black girl, tubercular,
searching with tired eyes, as she slogs through mud,
for palms she knew in Africa somewhere
behind a massive barrier of cloud.
For Baudelaire, the ideal of beauty will always be punished on this earth. And that is perhaps why, after this final burst of metrical, rhymed verse, he ceased to write it. He turned—to punish himself, or the world?—to the prose poem.
Is there a definitive English translation of Les Fleurs du mal? Richard Howard’s 1982 edition may come close, but it always seems a labor that ever falls short of its ideal. The disparity between English, a rattlebag containing some 600,000 unique words, and French, containing a more mellifluous 100,000, is the first obstacle. If the literary apotheosis of English is Shakespeare, for French it is Racine: Clair, simple et logique—clear, simple, and logical, which may strike an English reader as verses stripped of poetry. Likewise, iambic pentameter doesn’t map onto the French alexandrine at all well.
And then there is the problem of rhyme in modern times—with our ears being so out of tune with it, how can quatrains escape the taint of light verse? There’s nothing light about Baudelaire. Histrionic, indignant, lustful, scathing, and even sometimes, more than sometimes, tender and tremulous—think luxe, calme et volupté—but never light. Ideally, one wants a language austere and chaste to discipline high-pitched tones, vocatives that seethe, imagery that rubs our noses in filth. The danger is that devils and angels and corpses and odalisques inevitably appear anachronistic and poncif to contemporary eyes.
Aaron Poochigian’s translation was written at breakneck speed. “The months I spent summoning and submitting to Baudelaire (the months of March, April, May, and June of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged) were intense and exhausting,” he writes in a translator’s note. The correspondence between a world enveloped in a miasma of disease and Baudelaire’s sickly anthology (a word whose Greek derivation means a floral bouquet) is aptly evoked.
Four months seems a rather short time to translate 133 poems, and Poochigian’s versions do bear the traces of haste. Take the famous prefatory poem, “To the Reader,” a direct address in the manner of “To the Bourgeois” in the Salon. Here is how Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell begin their versions of that poem, both with a hammering:
Ignorance, error, cupidity and sin
Possess our souls and exercise our flesh;
Habitually we cultivate remorse
As beggars entertain and nurse their lice.
Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body’s force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.
And here’s Poochigian:
For all of us, greed, folly, error, vice
exhaust the body and obsess the soul,
and we keep feeding our congenial
remorse the same way vagrants nurse their lice.
Baudelaire’s line “La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine” loses its force in Poochigian’s version, which begins with a weak prepositional phrase that isn’t there in the original. The emphasis on the list is important: it is echoed later in the poem in the lines “Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l’incendie” and “Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,/Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents…” The list is a rhythmic, incantatory device, but the trick is to maintain it within the integrity of the line, as Kunitz’s and Lowell’s translations do. Likewise, the enjambment of the third line—“congenial/remorse” is an infelicity committed for the sake of a weak rhyme.
A similar problem besets another important poem early in the collection. In “Correspondences,” the first line is immediately enjambed and made awkward: “Nature, a temple in which porticoes/are growing, gives at times confounding talks.” Richard Wilbur (God rest his soul!) has it thus:
Nature is a temple whose living colonnades
Breathe forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;…
The mastery of rhythm here—from the trochees that switch into iambs on the other side of the caesura in the hexameter of the first line, to the perfect iambic pentameter of the second, gratifying the ear—suggests to us what Baudelaire might sound like. (As he says in “La Beauté”: “Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes.” Poochigian: “I hate excitement that displaces lines.”)
Occasionally a line struck me as appallingly maladroit. “Sur ce teint fauve et brun, le fard était superbe!” from “Jewels” is rendered, ludicrously, “What great artiste had daubed her outside brown?”(Compare that to Richard Howard’s translation, in which the room’s dim firelight “flushed that amber-colored flesh with blood!”) Call it a first draft that simply needed more time to ripen. Yet the haste with which it was produced, the short, tacked-on afterword by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), and even Dana Gioia’s introduction, which is comprehensive but passionless—left me wondering who this book is for.
In 1861, after publishing the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire did an about-face: he campaigned for a vacant seat at the Academie française. He was deeply in debt, his health was going, and he wanted to redeem himself after the humiliation of his trial and the mangling of his book. He was also fighting, in a way, on behalf of other nonmembers of the establishment who shared Baudelaire’s belief in l’art pour l’art, like Flaubert and Théophile Gautier (to whom Les Fleurs du mal was dedicated). The effort failed miserably, and the poet, waking up to his mistake, wrote, “Today, January 23, 1862, I was given a special warning: I felt the wind of the wing of imbecility pass over me.”
Baudelaire had entered, as Sieburth puts it, his endgame. That is where Late Fragments begins. Composed of unfinished works written after 1861 and appearing in English together for the first time, Flares, My Heart Laid Bare, Belgium Disrobed, and a selection of “late prose poems and projects” deliver what their titles seem to promise: a soul stripped of guises and illusions. They were unpublished in his lifetime, except for the prose poems, which he published (sometimes repeatedly) to generate income. “From the very outset,” Sieburth writes, “Baudelaire conceived the prose poem as a form that emerges after or that belatedly displaces” the lyric.
Baudelaire’s late turn toward the fragmentary—or toward the form of the unfinished, the abandoned, the aborted, the ruined, or the à venir—involved not only a conscious renunciation of his Parnassian aesthetics of perfection and unity but more specifically a desertion of the harmonies of the traditional lyric in favor of the disjunctions of prose.
This is where his theory of les sobresauts, or shocks, comes in: modern life itself, with its collisions and discrepancies, is incompatible with harmony and beauty.
Detailing the poet’s desperate double-bookkeeping, Sieburth connects his “late work” to the fact that “when it came to money matters, he was therefore condemned to being always late—chronically behind on his rent, forever in arrears to his creditors”—which also aligns with Michael Fried’s observation of Baudelaire’s belated relation to Romanticism.
Sieburth’s lengthy introductions to each section carefully prepare the reader for the bombshells that follow. He traces the influences on Baudelaire’s thought, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe: it was around the time that he was writing about Poe’s magazine pieces, “Marginalia” and “Suggestions,” that he started jotting down the entries for Flares (Fusées). Poe’s scorn toward the indifferent American scene, his poverty and addiction and need to write for money, made him Baudelaire’s “semblable,—mon frère.” From the time he first read him in 1847, two years before Poe died mysteriously at the age of forty, he recognized a soul mate, and his translations and commentaries on Poe formed a substantial part of his published oeuvre—the most lucrative piece of it.
Baudelaire may have discovered a path around “high poetry’s sovereign euphonies” (and the compensatory modernity of the prose poem) in the “ironies of la discrépance”—Poe’s “discrepancy,” with its roots in the Latin crepare, “to rattle, creak, or crack.” Emerson was another eye-opening American influence, from whom he stole an opening to a prose poem: “Life is a hospital where each patient is driven by the desire to change beds.”
The French aphoristic tradition was bred in the bone, of course—Sieburth notes that Pascal, Chateaubriand, and La Rochefoucauld were French moraliste models, providing an “inheritance of aphorism, apothegm, epigram, maxim, réflexion, sentence, and pensée”—but it was the Jesuit-trained counter-Enlightenment philosopher Joseph de Maistre and his Les soirées de St. Petersbourg that unleashed Baudelaire’s latent religious fervor: “Religions are the only interesting things on earth.” Writing to his publisher: “All literature derives from sin—I mean this quite seriously.” Sieburth writes that after 1861, “the modes he now favored were rancorous irony, outright insult, or provocative farce (bouffonerie).” They give rise to some of his more radical pronouncements:
There are only three beings worthy of respect:
The priest, the warrior, the poet. To know, to kill, to create.
All other men are mere stable boys doing their master’s bidding, that is, exercising what are known as professions.
As for me, I say that the sole and supreme pleasure of making love lies in the certitude that one is doing evil.—And both man and woman know from birth that it is in evil that all sensual pleasure resides.
Not only would I be happy to be the victim, but I wouldn’t mind being the executioner either—to feel the Revolution from both sides!
The intensity of Baudelaire’s scorn increases with each section. Part 1, containing Flares, Hygiene, and My Heart Laid Bare, reads like a commonplace book: notational, improvisational, perturbing, but with the feeling of the philosophical laboratory to the prose poems. The eleven late prose poems, which were to be published under the title Le spleen de Paris (reprising one of Baudelaire’s crucial words), are more sardonic and scandalous, like “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!” or “Portraits of Mistresses”—they, too, read like thought experiments, but those of a Nietzschean Übermensch seeing how far he can go. Sieburth rejects the notion that Baudelaire “subscribe[d] to all the incendiary bombs,” suggesting that the multiple levels of irony make for multiple readings, from divertissement to parody. (Eliot’s term for this was “entertaining” ideas.) They were written in Belgium, which goes some way toward explaining their invective.
Baudelaire arrived in Brussels in April 1864, lodging at the Hôtel du Grand Miroir and staying for two years, during which he accumulated, in the words of his publisher, “a farrago of notes” about the stupendous bêtise of the Belgians. He hated their mercantilism and materialism: “Everybody in sales, even the rich. Everybody has something they want to unload secondhand.” He hated their spirit of conformity: “Hatred of beauty, to complement the hatred of wit. Not to Conform, the ultimate crime.” He hated their philistinism: “No Latin, no Greek. Professional studies. Hatred of poetry. Education to train engineers or bankers./No metaphysics.”
Reading Belgium Disrobed, I almost laughed in astonishment at the extravagance of hatred Baudelaire lavishes on the little country; the book reads as a reprise of his fury at the French in The Salon of 1846. Belgium is like France, only worse. But what it’s really like is America—now and, apparently, then: “Belgium and the United States. The newspapers’ spoiled brats.” “How, some twenty years ago, we used to chant the praises of the United States of America in all their liberty, glory, and good fortune! Belgium inspires similar idiocies.”
In March 1866, while visiting a baroque church in Namur, in central Belgium, Baudelaire collapsed with a stroke; in the weeks that followed, he descended into partial paralysis and aphasia. He was apparently lucid, but unable to utter anything but Non! and a single swear word, Crénom, an abbreviation of sacré nom de Dieu. (A literary man to the marrow, Sieburth traces Crénom! to “Nevermore!”) More than a year later, still speechless, “suffering from gangrene and bedsores,” Baudelaire motioned for last rites and died in his mother’s arms on August 31, 1867. Among those attending his burial in the Aupick family vault in Montparnasse Cemetery were Félix Nadar, Paul Verlaine, and Édouard Manet, whose unfinished painting L’enterrement is thought to be a recreation of that stormy day.
Baudelaire never forgave America for what it did to Poe. In his “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe” (1859), he wrote:
To burn negroes in shackles, guilty only of having felt their black cheeks flush with the red of honor, to wave revolvers around in the orchestra pits of concert halls, to establish polygamy in the paradises of the West which even the Savages (a term which does them no justice whatsoever) had not yet befouled with these shameful utopias, to place posters on walls, no doubt in order to enshrine the principle of unfettered liberty, advertising cures for nine-month illnesses—these are some of the striking features, some of the moral illustrations of the noble country of Franklin, the inventor of shopkeeper morality, the hero of a century given over to matter. It is worth calling attention to these marvels of brutality, at a time when Americanomania has almost become a respectable passion.
To read Late Fragments is to realize what an impression America made on Baudelaire, via Poe and Emerson; it is also to realize what a Catholic he was, albeit a heretical one—almost gnostic, as Sieburth points out, in his self-canceling antinomies: love and hate, God and Satan, beauty and stupidity, feeling them “from both sides.”
Theory of true civilization.
It does not entail gas, steam, or table-turning; it entails the diminution of the traces of original sin.
Sieburth notes that
Baudelaire will also associate the act of writing with the efficacy of magic or prayer to tap into this higher reservoir of power. Writing here is associated no longer with the accumulation of capital but with archaic ritual, with witchcraft, with the sorcerer’s performative capacity to call up energies and voices at will.
Religion, then, was the solution to la bêtise belge, the cretinism of America, incipient technocracy and self-congratulatory market democracy; it was the solution because it took suffering as axiomatic of the human condition. Writing to a critic who suggested that Heinrich Heine’s miserable death was somehow a comeuppance for the gaiety of his poetry, Baudelaire sputtered:
You are a happy man. I pity you for being so easily happy. A man must fall very low indeed to believe himself happy! Or perhaps this is just a sardonic outburst on your part; perhaps you are merely smiling to hide the fox that is gnawing at your entrails.
In his landmark 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” he had written, “A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer; but in this case he will smile like the Spartan boy under the fox’s tooth.” He signed his letter with a drawing of a badelaire: a scimitar.