Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

Tag: Charles Baudelaire


The roots of “Symbolism” can be found in Baudelaire, but this style of French poetry found its apogee in later poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolist poets rejected plain meanings and matter-of-fact descriptions, and commonly used dream-like images in order to express the spiritual or the Ideal. These writers were often “Decadent” poets too, or poètes maudits — cursed, lonely, self-destructive, and obsessed with death and decay.

As well as poetry, music also was undergoing radical changes. It may seem difficult to believe now, but Claude Debussy‘s impressionistic compositions were completely revolutionary at the end of the nineteenth century. (Incidentally, his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by  one of Mallarmé‘s poems, and his piece Clair De Lune by one of Verlaine‘s.) Music and poetry — and indeed painting — were very much interlinked in the salons of the Symbolists.

Another Symbolist preoccupation was with synesthesia, or the intertwining and deliberate confusion of the senses — a process no doubt aided by drinking copious amounts of absinthe, that deadly and mind-altering alcoholic bomb widely available at the time. Baudelaire‘s poem Correspondences drips with synesthesia: “Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies…” (“There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh, / Sweet like oboes, green like meadows…”)

However, the wildest and most original poet of them all, who led the most extraordinary life and wrote two of the most startling poems to emerge from that time — Le Bâteau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) and Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) — was Arthur Rimbaud. But more of Rimbaud in the next post…

Partir Pour Partir

One of the finest poems in Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs Du Mal, and certainly one of my own favourites, is his poem Le Voyage. In it Baudelaire writes that our travels through life, even travels to far and exotic places, ultimately leave us bored, despairing and disillusioned, and full of bitter wisdom (amer savoir). We can never find the ideal in life; we can only find it in death. Yet the very beauty of Baudelaire‘s stanzas show us that art, at least, may help us along this fraught earthly path strewn with chimerical wonders and examples of flawed and cruel mankind.

I love the fifth verse, which describes the true way to travel: “Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent / Pour partir; cœurs lègers, semblables aux ballons, / De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent, / Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!” (“But the real travellers are only those / Who leave for leaving’s sake; hearts light as air, / They never do their destiny oppose; / Not knowing why, they always say: I dare!”

(Translation by Joanna Richardson.)

Wine And Hashish

“It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.” Baudelaire

For Baudelaire, art and beauty were like wine, or the hashish he smoked with Honoré de Balzac and Théophile Gautier (Gautier — who popularised the idea of “art’s for art’s sake”): they got you high, but they could also crash you into the depths of despair. This sense of ambivalence, this interplay of opposites, pervades the whole of Baudelaire‘s life and the whole of his brilliantly innovative collection of poems, Les Fleurs Du Mal. In his life Baudelaire vacillated between his carnal, creole mistress Jeanne Duval, la Vénus Noire, and his unattainable muse Apollonie Sabatier, la Vénus Blanche. In Les Fleurs Du Mal he differentiated between “Spleen”, the everyday world of ennui, melancholy and imperfection, and “Ideal”, the immaterial world of spirit, of unsullied beauty.

Nowhere is this dichotomy, this complementarity, better shown than in Baudelaire‘s great poem Hymne A La Beauté (Hymn To Beauty) from Les Fleurs Du Mal. He directly and intimately addresses the personification of Beauty: “Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme, /  Ô Beauté? Ton regard, infernal et divin, / Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime, / Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.” (“Come you, o Beauty, from the sky profound / Or the abyss? Infernal and divine, / Your glance sheds sin and blessing, and confounds, / And you can be compared in this with wine.” Note the contrasts between the sky and the abyss, the divine and the infernal, the sin and the blessing — and the comparison with wine, Baudelaire‘s favourite intoxicant.

The poem continues in this paradoxical way for six more stanzas: “Tu contiens dans ton œil le couchant et l’aurore; / Tu répands des perfums comme un soir orageux; / Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore / Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.” (“Your eyes contain the dawn and crepuscule, / You scatter fragrance like a stormy eve, / Your mouth’s an amphora, your kiss a phial / Which makes the hero shy, the infant brave.”)

“An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion.” Baudelaire

(The translation of Hymn To Beauty is by Joanna Richardson from her book Baudelaire: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1975.)


One journey ends; another one begins. Though all journeys are related, and one journey amplifies another. My new literary journey will take me back to the France of the nineteenth century, the era of Romanticism. I’ve travelled there before, but paths already taken become new paths when walked again. There are often so many new things to discover that the journey seems completely fresh. Such is the constant fascination and appeal of landscape and literature, of life and living.

Romanticism dominated French literature during the first half of the nineteenth century — and not only French but British and German literature too. The towering literary figure in France at that time was Victor Hugo. However I’m going to skirt gingerly round this monumental genius for the moment, and start with the sensitive and dissolute Charles Baudelaire, who shook Romanticism and turned it on its head. Baudelaire — one of the greatest and most influential of all French poets. Although essentially “romantic”, he mixed romanticism with naturalism, developing a new aesthetic creed which took in not only the sensual and the exotic, but also the sordid and the corrupt. He recognised that all these opposites  — good and evil, the sublimely spiritual and the grotesquely physical, the sacred and the profane — were equally part of life. There was no getting away from it. Except in death.

Baudelaire’s whole life and work can be seen as a spiritual odyssey. And the culmination of this spiritual odyssey was his collection of poems Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire‘s masterwork.