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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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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 4

Ulysses_M

This episode corresponds with Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey. It is also where we first meet Mr. Leopold M. Bloom, the “hero” of Joyce’s novel. For those of you who need a refresher, “Calypso was a nymph in Greek mythology, who lived on the island of Ogygia, where she detained Odysseus for several years.” In this episode, it is Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, who symbolizes Calypso.

The episode begins with the giant letter M beginning the phrase “Mr Leopold Bloom.” One must assume that there is some symbolism here. It may be that the M represents that Part II of the book is the main or middle section (note that there are three parts). It may also represent Leopold himself, M being the first, last, and middle letter in his full proper name: Mr. Leopold M. Bloom. If you remember back to the first part, which began with a giant S, the main figure in that part was Stephen Dedalus, whose name also begins and ends with the oversized letter. And yes, there is another very intriguing interpretation for which I will abstain from sharing at this point until after we complete the book, since it ties in with greater themes and the overall structure which is better addressed later on. Anyway, something to keep in the back of your mind as you read the book.

As I mentioned earlier, Molly is the archetype of the nymph. She is depicted as very sensual and it appears that she is involved in a clandestine affair with Blazes Boylan. To add to this imagery of Molly, there is a painting above their bed of the Bath of the Nymphs and Leopold likens Molly to the naked nymphs in the painting.

The Bath of the Nymphs over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: Splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece: and for instance all the people that lived then.

(p. 65)

Painting by Gérard de Lairesse

Painting by Gérard de Lairesse

There is also some triple goddess symbolism in this episode. The triple goddess symbolizes the three stages of the female life cycle which combined form the Divine Feminine. The three stages are Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Leopold interacts all three aspects of the goddess. He encounters the Maiden at the butcher shop and silently lusts after your youthful beauty.

A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand. Chapped: washing soda. And a pound and a half of Dennny’s sausages. His eyes rested on her vigorous hips. Woods his name is. Wonder what he does. Wife is oldish. New blood. No followers allowed. Strong pair of arms. Whacking a carpet on the clothesline. She does whack it, by George. The way her crooked skirt swings at each whack.

(p. 59)

The Mother aspect of the Goddess is obviously Molly. The Crone Leopold encounters after leaving the butcher shop.

No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world.

(p. 61)

On pages 64 and 65, there is discussion regarding metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul. Simplified, this is the Greek philosophical version of the concept of reincarnation, where the soul, being divine, continues to exist after physical death and can be reborn in a new physical form. As I read this section, which is too long to include here, I thought about how this ties in with the book. I believe that Joyce is implying that the soul, like an archetype or a trope, is destined to be resurrected as it migrates along the path of human existence. The souls, the symbols, and the stories that originated with Homer continue to be reborn and in Joyce’s case are manifest in his book. If I remember correctly from when I read this book 20 years ago, I think this is a theme that recurs throughout the book.

I want to end this post by saying that I found this episode to be pretty funny. There are lots of sexual puns woven in, which work well with the episode’s theme of the nymph. For example, there is the image of the woman “whacking it” that appears in one of the previous quotes. Another example is when Molly makes a sexual joke about someone’s name.

—Yes. Get another of Paul de Kock’s. Nice name he has.

(p. 64)

For those of you reading along, next week I will cover episode 5, which ends on page 86 in my version with the phrase: “…a languid floating flower.” Read on!!


Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3


References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calypso_%28mythology%29

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section4.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_Goddess_%28Neopaganism%29

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 1

Ulysses_S

The first three episodes focus on Stephen Dedalus, who is the protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This correlates with the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus is the focus. Stephen is a young, aspiring poet who is in mourning over the death of his mother. He is generally considered to be James Joyce’s alter ego.

The first thing to note about this episode is the giant S at the beginning. As with anything symbolic, there can be any number of interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. For example, it could simply imply that Stephen is the focus of the first episode. Possibly, it is an allusion to alliteration that will appear throughout the text, the ess sound being predominant in the name Ulysses. One could argue that it represents the (s)ymbolism found in (s)tories. I personally have my own theory, but I am not going to share it just yet. I will do so at the end of this blog series, since I feel it is part of one of the larger themes in the book. (Note: This was the topic of my college thesis on Ulysses, which I will try to locate in the attic before we finish the book.)

Early in the episode, Stephen says, “I’m not a hero, however.” (p. 4) I see a double entendre here. On one level, Joyce is making it clear that Stephen is not the hero of the book; hence he is not representative of Odysseus. But I think this is also a reference to Joyce’s then unpublished manuscript of Stephen Hero. This was an early version of a manuscript that would later become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As the story goes, it was rejected by the publisher and Joyce ended up throwing into the fire. It was secretly retrieved and published posthumously.

Similarities are established between Stephen and Hamlet. Buck Mulligan accuses Stephen of brooding, in the same way that Claudius chides Hamlet.

—Don’t mope over it all day, he said. I’m inconsequent. Give up the moody brooding.

(p. 9)

Stephen is then described as being haunted by his mother’s ghost, similar to Hamlet being visited by the ghost of his father.

In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off the odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down.

(p. 10)

Earlier in the post, I had mentioned alliteration. This is a literary tool that Joyce uses well and there is a great example in this episode where he uses words beginning with the letter “W” to evoke the sensation of waves and water.

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast from the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstraings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

(p. 9)

Martello tower, the setting for this episode, figures prominently. It is likened to Elsinore, which supports the connection between Stephen and Hamlet.

—I mean to say, Haines explained to Stephen as they followed, this tower and these cliffs here remind me somehow of Elsinore. That beetles o’er his base into the sea, isn’t it?

(p. 18)

I also see a couple other connections with the tower image. First, I suspect it is meant to serve as a reference to William Butler Yeats, whose poem “Who Goes With Fergus” is quoted by Mulligan. (p. 9) While Yeats’ “The Tower” wasn’t published until 1928, after Ulysses, Yeats was residing at Thoor Ballylee (the tower that would become the symbol in Yeats’ poem later on) at the time that Joyce was working on his book. Secondly, I see a connection to the Tower card in the tarot deck. The Tower, for those who know tarot, is about the worst card you can get. It foretells a catastrophic, unexpected event. This seems to be in keeping with Odysseus’ ill-fated journey home, where he faces one unexpected disaster and danger after another. The cards are stacked against him, so to speak.

The very end of this episode really solidifies the connection between Joyce’s novel and The Odyssey, while at the same time reinforcing the connection between Stephen and Hamlet. There is imagery of not being able to return home, of being out at sea. Also, there is an emphasis on the archetype of the usurper, which can be interpreted as both Penelope’s suitors and Claudius, who usurped Hamlet’s throne.

The priest’s grey nimbus in a niche where he dressed discreetly. I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.

A voice, sweettoned and sustained, called to him from the sea. Turning the curve he waved his hand. It called again. A sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round.

(p. 23)

This is extremely dense text, and I could certainly write much longer, picking apart the minutia. But that’s not my goal. I want to hit on some of the big themes and the symbolism that resonates with me personally. That said, if there is anything you want to add, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I will cover Episode 2 which ends on page 36. The last line of that episode is: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Dedalus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telemachus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/characters.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoor_Ballylee

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“Sonnet 2: When forty winters shall beseige thy brow” by William Shakespeare

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt

When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

This is a continuation of the themes of beauty and procreation expressed in Sonnet 1. It appears that the woman who is the focus in this sonnet is endowed with physical beauty, which, Shakespeare points out, will be gone by the time she reaches 40. So again the issue of procreation is brought forth, as a way to pass on one’s beauty and keep it alive.

While this seems to be the main concept in the poem, I see another interpretation that I think is far more interesting, at least from a writer’s perspective. I see the child as a symbol for something you create, and for a poet, that would be a poem. How does beauty transcend the ravages of time? Through art. Every time I have crafted a poem or written a story, it was like giving birth to an idea or vision which I had. I cannot say that this was what Shakespeare had in mind when he penned this sonnet, but I can definitely see the child as a metaphor for an artistic creation.

One of the cool things about Shakespeare is that his work really does transcend the ages. His words are universal and I believe that 100 years from now, people will still be reinterpreting what he wrote.

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“Infant Joy” by William Blake

InfantJoy

I have no name;
I am but two days old.
What shall I call thee?
I happy am,
Joy is my name.
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee.

This is a very simple and loving poem, and there is really not a whole lot that needs to be said about it. It is an expression of a mother’s joy as she beholds her newborn infant. There is one bit of symbolism that is worth pointing out, though, and that has to do with Blake’s illustration.

In the illustration, the mother and child are resting within the blossom of a flower as an angel attends them. I see the blossoming flower as the loss of virginity, so it appears to me that the young woman was blessed with a child upon offering up her virginity. It is also possible that the infant is the baby Jesus. One could certainly interpret the symbolic combination of flower, mother, infant, and angel to be representative of the Immaculate Conception.

There isn’t anything else I have to say about this poem, but if you have other thoughts or interpretations, please feel free to share them.

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“To My Mother” by Edgar Allan Poe

EdgarAllanPoeThis was not the poem I intended to read this morning. I wanted to read something by Poe and was planning to read “The Conqueror Worm,” but as I was flipping through my volume of The Complete Tales and Poems, I came across this sonnet. The title caught my eye, particularly since it was Mother’s Day recently. I decided to read this one instead.

The rhyming scheme of the poem is that of a Shakespearean sonnet: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g; with the last two lines forming a rhyming couplet. Since it is short, I figured I would include the poem in the blog post rather than link to it.

Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of “Mother,”
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you—
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother—my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.

This sonnet is directed toward Poe’s mother-in-law, the mother of his wife Virginia. Poe’s birth mother died early and it seems that he viewed his mother-in-law as the one who filled that maternal void in his life. He also expresses gratitude for the fact that she brought Virginia into the world, the person who is dearest to his soul.

I can relate to this poem. My mother died young and her passing left an empty space in my being. Anyone who has experienced the death of a mother knows that this loss is not something that heals quickly, nor can it be immediately filled. But it seems that Poe found someone who was caring and nurturing enough to fill that void. I guess that it was no coincidence that I discovered this poem today.

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