Whenever I read Baudelaire, I’m reminded about why I am so fascinated by his poetry. His poems are dark and light, beautiful and hideous, spiritual and earthly, all at the same time.
This morning I read “The Blessing,” which is the opening poem in Bile and the Ideal. It’s a fairly long poem so I am only including sections of it in this post. There are several good translations available online. The translation I read is by David Paul and is included in the print version of The Flowers of Evil edited by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews.
The poem opens with the poet’s birth into a world of ennui. He is immediately rejected and cursed by his mother, who directs her anger at God for bringing this child into the world. She sees his birth as punishment for giving in to her sexual desires.
When, by decree of the sovereign power,
The poet makes his appearance in a bored world,
With fists clenched at the horror, his outraged mother
Call on a pitying God, at whom these curses are hurled:
“Why was I not made to litter a brood of vipers
Rather than conceive this human mockery?
My curses on that night whose ephemeral pleasures
Filled my womb with this avenging treachery!
She resolves herself to taking out her anger on the child poet, punishing him for what she sees as a curse from God.
I will torture this stunted growth until its bent
Branches let fall every blighted bud to the ground!
What is most interesting about this image is that the blighted buds may fall to the ground, but it is implied that from them new growth will spring, and this new growth is Baudelaire’s poetry. His poems are the beautiful which rise from the sick and the suffering.
As the poet grows, he finds himself the focus of people’s disdain. He sees beauty in the sickness of the world around him, and as a result, those with whom he associates try to poison his mind and drag him down to the place of despair where they are trapped.
They mix ashes or unspeakable filth with the bread
And the wine of his daily communion, drop
Whatever he may have touched with affected dread,
And studiously avoid wherever he may step.
The poet then discovers his muse, which is essentially his soul, his subconscious, and his anima. He refers to her as his mistress, implying that there is a sexual passion associated with the act of creating art. But as is the case with most artists and poets, the real demons and the torture are all internal. For Baudelaire, he is tortured by his inner self. Like a harpy, his mistress threatens to rend his heart and rip out whatever joy remains.
And when I am sick to death of trying not to laugh
At the farce of my black masses, I try the force
Of the hand he calls ‘frail,’ my nails will dig a path
Like harpies’, to the heart that beats for me, of course!
Like a nestling trembling and palpitating
I will pull that red heart out of his breast
And throw it down for my favourite dog’s eating
–Let him do whatever he likes with the rest!
The poet, realizing that his soul is as corrupt as the world around him, turns his gaze from within and looks to Heaven for inspiration. He envisions a realm of intense beauty and ecstasy, which he can only reach through his poetic genius. He sees that only through art can one express and grasp the true beauty and essence of life and of the Divine.
A serene piety, lifting the poet’s gaze,
Reveals heaven opening on a shining throne,
And the lower vision of the world’s ravening rage
Is shut off by the sheet lightnings of his brain.
“Be blessed, oh my God, who givest suffering
As the only divine remedy for our folly,
As the highest and purest essence preparing
The strong in spirit for ecstasies most holy.
I know that among the uplifted legions
Of saints, a place awaits the Poet’s arrival,
And that among the Powers, Virtues, Dominations
He too is summoned to Heaven’s festival.
I know that sorrow is the one human strength
On which neither earth nor hell can impose,
And that all the universe and all time’s length
Must be wound into the mystic crown for my brows.
While I concede that suffering is not the only source of artistic inspiration, it is certainly a powerful one. For me, poetry is one of the best ways to convey deep emotions that are difficult to express through other means. Baudelaire explored his emotions, which were associated with sickness, decay, and suffering, and used those feelings as inspiration to create something beautiful and inspiring. This poem gives us insight into his creative process, which provided us with a wealth of amazing poetry.