Reviews of Nobel Prize winner | Comments on all Shakespeare's plays | Poetry reviews | Multiple reviews of same author | Haiti books |


By Baudelaire, Charles
Translated by Wallace Fowlie
Toronto: Dover Thrift Editions, 1992
ISBN # 0-486-28450-6
54 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2013

These are powerful angry poems of protest and an armory of security from the society of humans. Charles Baudelaire resides in his poetry of protest and denunciation. It is all dark and angry, yet it seems to have been a world which created meaning for Baudelaire himself and has succeeded to do the same for selected readers since.

Life centers in the poets’ and artists’ lives and insights, but life in general is a burden, a beating down, an abyss of meaninglessness. But Baudelaire lashes out at such a world. Alienated, angry, resigned and courageous, he uses his pen as a weapon to lash the life of the everyday and feeds on the food of his own poetry to survive.

Baudelaire is famous, in part, for attacking the standards of poetry as they existed in his time and moving poetry beyond Romanticism. However, even within this vehement revolt his poetry is often quite “old fashioned” in that there are many images and references to the ancient classics in literature, art and even music. Despite the fame of his “revolt,” he was in many ways of his, but in others ways he is, indeed, the famed rebel against the literary standards of his time.

Despite the great success of the latter, it is hard to read him without seeing this conflict or contradiction throughout much of the poetry. He’s both a radical blazing new trails, and one wedded to a tradition that much of contemporary bold poetry doesn’t have anything to do with. It makes reading him quite fascinating.

The fact that Baudelaire doesn’t embrace a metaphysics or religious view of some ordered universe, created by some benevolent process or spirit, allows him to passionately describe everyday life in ways which those who embrace a more standard view of the universe could never embrace or describe.

A large number of his poems are cries of pain and suffering, yet part of what intensifies his pain and suffering is knowing, or at least believing, that somewhere there is some joy, hope, love and satisfaction. There is such hurt and suffering in his poetry.

I was deeply touched by his poems. Like him I’ve chosen to live a life outside the mainstream of both value and practice. I was just never much moved by anger at the world around me. I’ve always been trying, with some success, to find space to live my own life as best I can.

The poem “Morning Twilight” seems quite revealing of all I’ve said above. Where the typical poet celebrates nature and such things as a morning (but never morning as twilight), Baudelaire treats it very differently. It makes this a useful poem to experience the intensity of his negative insights:

Reveille sounded in the courtyard of the barracks,
And the morning wind blew on the lanterns.
It was the hour when the swarm of guilty dreams
Twists dark-haired adolescents on their pillows;
When, like a bleeding eye which throbs and moves
The lamb makes a red spot on the daylight;
When the soul, under the weight of a reluctant heavy body,
Imitates the struggle between the lamp and the daylight;
Like a face covered with tears which the wind dries,
The air is full of the shuddering of things which flee,
And man is tired of writing and woman of smoke.

Houses here and there began to send up smoke.
Prostitutes, with white eyelids,
And opened mouths, slept their stupid sleep;
Impoverished women, dragging their thin old breasts,
Blew on their burning logs and blew on their fingers.
It was the hour when in the cold and stinginess
The pain of women in labor grows greater;
Like a sob interrupted by thick blood
The distant song of the cock ripped through the foggy air;
A sea of fogs bathed the buildings,
And the dying in the depths of the hospitals
Uttered their last rattle in uneven gasps.
The revelers went home, broken by their work.

Shivering dawn in a rose-and-green dress
Slowly advanced over the deserted Seine,
And dark Paris, rubbing its eyes,
Took hold of his tools, a hard-working old man.

The poem “The Voyage” contains some excellent examples of the despair and boredom he finds in the world, yet his search for the new, or for hope of something different and better can be seen as well:

“It is better knowledge one derives from travel!
The world, monotonous, always, shows us our own image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!

Should we leave? or stay? If you can stay, stay;
Leave, if you must. One man runs, the next hides
To trick the vigilant fatal enemy,
Time! the wandering Jew and like the apostles
To whom nothing suffices, neither train nor ship,
In order to flee the infamous retiary; there are others
Who can kill him without leaving their cradle.

. . .

O Death, old captain, the time has come! Let us weigh anchor!
This land bores us, O Death! Let us set sail!
Our hearts which you know are filled with rays!

Pour your poison so that it will comfort us!
The fire searing our brain is such that we want
To plunge to the bottom of the abyss, whether it be Heaven or Hell,
To the bottom of the Unknown in order to find something new!

The poem “Lesbos” is phenomenal. It has a great structure and is a celebration of the ideal of Lesbos as a meaning of life.

In the last few pages there is a poem that is the odd one out. “To A Malabar Girl” is as Romantic as anything the Romantic poets every wrote. He presents a servant girl who lives in Malabar, but wishes she could visit Paris. He describes her menial and unending world of work, yet he denounces the cold and crowded streets of Paris and tries to convince her to avoid Paris for her utopian world. It is a sort of ironic ending to a book of poetry which had mainly stuck to a very strongly anti-Romantic outlook.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett