Muse of my heart, lover of grand chateau,
When January unleashes storm and sleet,
Through the black dreary evenings when it snows,
Will you have coals to warm your violet feet?
With gleaming starlight that has pierced the blinds
Will you reanimate your shoulders’ cold
Marble? Your palate dry, your purse unlined,
From vaults of azure will you harvest gold?
To earn your evening bread you’ll have to swing
the censer like a choirboy, and sing
Te Deums of which you don’t believe a word,
Or, starving clown, show off your charms, your smile
Wet with tears that none see, to beguile
and cheer the sick spleen of the vulgar herd.
(Translation by C. F. MacIntyre)
I struggled with this poem, because I essentially see two interpretations, which I will explain below. But first, I want to provide the official definition of venal from Merriam-Webster: “capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.”
So the first impression I had of this poem was that Baudelaire was writing about a prostitute and his desire to find artistic inspiration through procured sex. The imagery of the muse being cold and poor certainly lends itself to this interpretation. But as I read it again, I became less confident about this was the only meaning of the poem.
I think it was the image of the incense censer and the singing of “Te Deum” which caused me to consider another possibility. I looked up the words to “Te Deum,” and thought the opening was relevant:
We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :
As I read this, I began to envision Baudelaire supplicating to a fickle muse, making prayers and offerings in the hopes of gaining artistic inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to achieve artistic insight, and Baudelaire was willing to make those sacrifices to his muse as payment for the reward of inspiration.
In the end, I suspect both interpretations are valid. That’s the thing with symbols and metaphors; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations.