Hello and welcome to WORDS, please enjoy this thoughtful article about revolutionary French poet, Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire: The Revolutionary of Modern Literature

By Jim Merrill

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821, his first published work was a translation of Edgar Allan Poe into French, before he made a monumental contribution to modern poetry in 1857 with The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal). You might be aware of another crucial figure at this time, his protégé, Arthur Rimbaud. But why is Baudelaire worthy of a look back at his influence on our modern sensibilities?

 

MEDITATION

      by Charles Baudelaire.

Wise up, Sorrow. Calm down.

You always lay claim to twilight. Well, here it is, brother,

It descends. Obscurity settles over the town,

bringing peace to one, worry to another.

The restless crowd, whipped on by pleasure—

our dogged torturer—carry their hearts’ raw

remorse with them as they serve their vapid leisure,

while you, my Sorrow, drop by here, take my hand, and draw

me apart from them. We watch the dying years

in faded gowns lean out from heaven’s balconies, as Regret rears,

smiling, out of the deep dark where the dead ones march.

Dragging its long train—now a shroud—from its early light

in the East, the sun goes to sleep under an arch.

Listen, Sorrow, beloved, to the soft approach of Night.

 

First, he wrote at a time when he felt it was necessary to bare his soul in response to his home country’… passing through a period of vulgarity’.  Another salient quote that rings true: ‘Everyone smells [the devil] and no one believes in him’. In his introduction to Flowers of Evil he asks, ‘What is poetry; what is its aim?’ And his answer: ‘adapting style to subject’.

Baudelaire was the first poet to write in his own voice without the alibi of outside inspiration. He was:  ‘the first to openly submit his private dirt to the most meticulous art’, that of poetic expression. But how did he come to such a brazen, bold manifesto? He lived in and wrote of Paris when it was a cauldron of social upheaval; he spoke of it as, ‘an everyday damned being of a capitol’. This was at a time when the great hopes of the French Revolution had failed to produce any utopia; instead Napoleon co-opted the movement for his own fame and glory.

Baudelaire may well be considered the ‘original dharma beatnik’. This is because his style  of prose-poetry is recognized as acutely suited to expressing the metaphysical in the present moment. According to his greatest critic, Robert Calasso, he had, ‘the stunning capacity to perceive that which is’, ‘Prior to all thought, what is metaphysical in Baudelaire is the sensation, the pure comprehension of the moment’. In other words, Baudelaire almost single-handedly rescued poetry from the expression of lofty but impossible ideals and pure philosophy, to what we now know of as: the expression of sensations; the immediate perceptions and emotions of the individual in response to his or her life.

It was Baudelaire who coined the phrase for poets, ‘the painter of modern life’. But what does it mean for the poet to abandon the old ‘inspired style’? In the end, the tone of his confessional style was frequently that of a character wounded, melancholy or gruesome material; what we would probably call the individual against the mean streets of city life. Pick up a copy of The Flowers of Evil to find what is both unique and universal about Charles Baudelaire’s “new style” — some hundred and sixty years after it was published!

‘Get Drunk. To escape the tyranny of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish’.     Charles Baudelaire.