Tag Archives: Flowers of Evil

“The Enemy” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

My youth was but a tempest, dark and savage,
Through which, at times, a dazzling sun would shoot
The thunder and the rain have made such ravage
My garden is nigh bare of rosy fruit.

Now I have reached the Autumn of my thought,
And spade and rake must toil the land to save,
That fragments of my flooded fields be sought
From where the water sluices out a grave.

Who knows if the new flowers my dreams prefigure,
In this washed soil should find, as by a sluit,
The mystic nourishment to give them vigour?

Time swallows up our life, O ruthless rigour!
And the dark foe that nibbles our heart’s root,
Grows on our blood the stronger and the bigger!

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

So the first thing I would like to discuss regarding this poem is the title, which in French is “L’Ennemi.” I think this is one of those times where something key is lost in translation, because the word “ennemi” seems too similar to ennui for coincidence, in my opinion, especially considering how prominent ennui is in many of Baudelaire’s poems. I should note that in my version of The Flowers of Evil, the translator, Robert Lowell, translates the title as ‘The Ruined Garden,” which I feel is a less accurate translation, at least regarding the title of the poem.

The sonnet begins with Baudelaire describing his youth, which is depicted as troubled and painful. The garden is symbolic of his mind and the source of his artistic expression. But this garden was not able to produce when he was young. It was only later in life that the “new flowers,” or poems, grew from the ailing and damaged garden bed.

It is in the last stanza that the mysterious enemy appears, described as “the dark foe that nibbles our heart’s root.” I believe that the enemy is ennui, slowly eating away at the poet’s heart. He knows he has “reached the Autumn” of his life and that he must express himself now or he never will. There is a palpable sense of urgency in his words. But ennui is ever there, gnawing at him, seeking to destroy his creative urge.

For those of you who are interested, there is a great website that has multiple translations of this poem, as well as the original French. I encourage you to read some of the other translations to get a better feel of this great sonnet. Cheers!

fleursdumal.org

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“The Wicked Monk” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire2

Old cloisters, on their mighty walls, displayed
In tableau, scenes of holy Verity
Which warmed the pious entrails and allayed
The chill of cenobite austerity.

When the seed of Christ flourished long ago,
Many a monk, of small renown today,
Using the churchyard for his studio,
Glorified Death in all simplicity.

My soul’s a tomb which, wicked cenobite,
I wander in for all eternity;
Nothing embellishes these odious walls.

O slothful monk! When shall they learn to make
Of the live pageant of my misery
My hands their labor, my eyes their delight?

(translation by Barbara Gibbs)

This is an extremely dark sonnet where Baudelaire contemplates the darkness within his own consciousness. In the first two stanzas, it sounds as if he is criticizing the Church and the monastic order; but by the time we reach the third stanza, it becomes clear that the monk is a symbol for his introspective thoughts, silently analyzing the darker aspects of his soul, or psyche. With this in mind, the first two stanzas take on a different meaning.

A tableau is “a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene from a story or from history.” Considering that this is a self-reflexive poem, the cloister then represents the poet’s memory. The scenes depicted on the walls are memories that he cannot escape, since the truth of these memories is clear to him. And these memories cause anguish, because Baudelaire cannot deny the dark aspects of his being. One must admire his level of acceptance to embrace that part of himself that he finds repulsive, “odious.”

Although the past is dead, Baudelaire is still trapped within the tomb of his memories. He continues to relive the misery of his past, forever contemplating the hidden parts of himself, silently, as a monk, pondering how his soul became so corrupt and diseased.

I cannot help but wonder if Baudelaire was going for the cathartic experience when he wrote this. I get the sense that he wants to be free of his inner monk, to step out of the dark cloister of his past and bask in the beauty of the sunlit world.

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“The Venal Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

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.

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“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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“Destruction” by Charles Baudelaire

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.

Knowing my love of Art, he snares my senses,
Appearing in woman’s most seductive forms,
And, under the sneak’s plausible pretenses,
Lips grow accustomed to his lewd love-charms.

He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue into
The wilderness of Ennui, deserted and broad,

And into my bewildered eyes he throws
Visions of festering wounds and filthy clothes,
And all Destruction’s bloody retinue.

(Translated by C. F. MacIntyre)

This sonnet describes Baudelaire’s source of inspiration in the decadent and decayed. In the first stanza, he addresses his artistic desire as a demon, something that haunts him and lures him down dark pathways in search of inspiration. He continues in the second stanza, acknowledging that his love for artistic expression is what tempts him to succumb to his physical desires, seeking to capture that carnal feeling in his poetry.

In the third stanza, he describes himself as entering the “wilderness of Ennui.” I love this metaphor. Through the lens of ennui, the world around him seems bleak and deserted, void of beauty and lacking spirituality. I also see the wilderness as a symbol of our subconscious mind, or the shadow part of ourselves. Baudelaire is probing the darker regions of his psyche in search of inspiration. And he finds this in the images of decay and destruction in the final stanza.

It’s important to note that the horrific visions that Baudelaire describes are sources of beauty. Just like the Phoenix rises from the ashes, as life grows from the dead and decaying, and as the old must be destroyed to create the new, so the destruction he sees is the first stage in the birth of new artistic expression.

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“Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Since there are various translations of this poem, I am including the one by Roy Campbell, which is the version in my book.

Above the valleys and the lakes: beyond
The woods, seas, clouds and mountain-ranges: far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares or boredom hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

This is a great poem and has some amazing symbolism woven in. It basically attempts to describe the ecstatic feeling associated with shifting consciousness and then drawing artistic inspiration from that experience.

In the first stanza, the spirit (consciousness) of the poet rises above the earthly confines and floats upward into the cosmos. This represents the psyche transcending its worldly bonds and being freed to explore the vast mystery of the deep subconscious.

In the second stanza, Baudelaire associates the transcendent experience with sexual ecstasy. The spirit moves like sperm toward an egg, the union being the moment of creation. Essentially, when the spirit becomes one with the ineffable form, the result is the spark of creation, just as the sperm reaching the egg is the spark of new life.

The third stanza marks the transition from spark to flame, symbolic of the illumination that one experiences during the state of heightened awareness. It is akin to feeling intoxicated, which is why Baudelaire uses fire and liqueur as metaphors.

In the fourth stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges ennui as his motivation for striving to transcend. It is his boredom and sickness that forces him to seek beyond himself and the mundane. It is his desire to escape what he sees around him that inspires him to elevate his consciousness and explore the realms beyond our everyday experience.

The last stanza is my favorite. As the poet basks in the elevated state, he understands things that are outside the comprehension of ordinary consciousness. It is effortless and it fills him with bliss. “The speech of flowers and other voiceless things” refer to symbols, archetypes, and forms, those things that exist within our subconscious. These symbols have their own language and only one who is elevated above the mundane can comprehend them. The fact that these are described as voiceless implies that Baudelaire will never be able to express them adequately, even through his most inspired verse. At best, he can offer a glimpse of the beauty that exists just past the veil of our world.

The more I think about this poem, the more inspired I feel. I hope you feel the same way. Have a blessed and inspired day!

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“Beacons” by Charles Baudelaire

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

This is a great poem that pays homage to the painters who inspired Baudelaire. It’s fairly long, so I am going to include a link to the poem rather than include it in this post.

http://fleursdumal.org/poem/105

Each of the first eight stanzas is dedicated to an artist and describes their artistic styles and works. The eight artists are Rubens, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. All of these artists are described as drawing inspiration from darker sources, or “Deducing beauty from crime, vice and terror.” Just as Baudelaire was able to use the sick, evil, and decayed as fertilizer to grow his Flowers of Evil, so these artists managed to take the grotesque and perverse and create stunning works of beauty.

After acknowledging these artists, Baudelaire addresses the divine, and in a way, offers thanks for the pain, suffering, insanity, and decadence that sparked the artistic flame, igniting the beacons to shine through the darkness which is the human condition.

These curses, blasphemies, and lamentations,
These ecstasies, tears, cries and soaring psalms —
Through endless mazes, their reverberations
Bring, to our mortal hearts, divinest balms.

A thousand sentinels repeat the cry.
A thousand trumpets echo. Beacon-tossed
A thousand summits flare it through the sky,
A call of hunters in the jungle lost.

And certainly this is the most sublime
Proof of our worth and value, Oh Divinity,
That this great sob rolls on through ageless time
To die upon the shores of your infinity.

In these final stanzas, the hunter is a symbol for the artist, who is pursuing the muse. The jumgle is like the wilderness. It represents the darker and primal aspect of the artist’s subconscious mind. It is here where one must venture in order to find the most powerful sources of creative inspiration. The artist must then share the vision, acting as a beacon and a source of inspiration to other artists and humanity as a whole.

Baudelaire’s work never ceases to amaze and inspire me. He is truly one of the most original and stirring poets that I have encountered. I hope you enjoyed the post. Have an inspired day!

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“The Blessing” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

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.

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“Correspondences” by Charles Baudelaire

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

It was at least 15 years ago that I first read this poem and back then it did not have the impact that it did when I read it today. This proves that as you mature and grow as a reader, literature takes on different meanings. Since the poem is a sonnet and therefore short, I will include the translation by Richard Wilbur so that we are all on the same page.

Nature is a temple whose living colonnades
Breathe forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;
Man wanders among the symbols in those glades
Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.

Like dwindling echoes gathered far away
Into a deep and thronging unison
Huge as the night or as the light of day,
All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.

Perfumes there are as sweet as the oboe’s sound,
Green as the prairies, fresh as a child’s caress,
—And there are others, rich, corrupt, profound

And an infinite pervasiveness,
Like myrrh, or musk, or amber, that excite
The ecstasies of sense, the soul’s delight.

This poem establishes correspondences between objects in Nature and the symbols and archetypes that populate our psyches. Take a look at the first stanza. The “living colonnades” are trees. The imagery evokes a Druid ceremony taking place within a sacred grove. The sound of the wind through the trees helps shift the person’s consciousness so as to be able to perceive the mystical forms around. All types of symbolism are beautifully evoked in this passage. No matter what a tree symbolizes for you individually—strength, spiritual growth, kabbalistic sefiroth—they are all summoned by the words here.

In the second stanza, the senses begin to shift. The echoes and the unison of sound make me think of the collective unconscious. All is connected and there is a shared sense of existence. We are all part of the Divine consciousness.

I really love the third stanza. Here Baudelaire uses synesthesia to describe his mystical experience. I have always found this to be an apt way to describe the ineffable. Scents are likened to sound, color, and touch. I think it works perfectly here.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire expresses a sense of ecstasy as his soul enters a state of bliss as a result of becoming in tune with the infinite, or the Divine. I suspect he realized that, in addition to the correspondence between nature and the realm of symbols, that there is also a correspondence between his soul and the Divine spirit.

I confess that the more I read Baudelaire, the more I appreciate his genius. I think this poem is fantastic and I wish I could read it in French. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to read the translated version again.

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