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Les fleurs du mal, suivi de Mon coeur mis à nu [PDF]

by Charles Baudelaire

Here's a recent essay on Baudelaire from the trusty, always-interesting online mag The Millions:

So as to try to follow that, I've got to disclose a bit of an embarrassment.Baudelaire was, for me, the kind of poet only certain kinds of people liked. By this I don't mean Francophiles or the merely pretentious but there was something that set a devotee of C.B. apart from your average earnest, quavering, verbose, nervous poet or poetry fanboy.

It's hard to put it into words- maybe you know it when you see it- but there was something sort of...elegant...and...removed...and...cynical about somebody who felt like carting around this haunted menagerie everywhere they went, the way you just do with your favorite poets...

I'm no stranger to French poetry or literary bleakness, believe you me, but there was always something slightly creepy about Baudelaire, I could never put my finger on why I recoiled from it and what this meant.

There's the languid, morbid Romanticism, fond of grand statements and magnificent imagery; the surgically precise mastery of rhyme and meter (I don't speak more than toddler's French but you can pretty much get a good sense of this stuff with the original text facing the English translations); the utterly bleak yet exotic, nigh- perfumed insights, metaphoric associations and twists of phrase; the poet's own (and those of his poetic subjects) addictions and rhapsodies; the deep, indescribable longings muddled with spleen; the detestation of smug comfort and propriety with the love of the 'perverse', the 'occult' and the melodious rumination mixed with ominous, pervading ennui...

Well, call me a hardheaded New England Pragmatist, but there was something sort of suspiciously sickly about this guy.I mean, here I am, 11:22pm, feasting on my pauper's pleasures of potato salad, a rather stale corn muffin and a can of Sprite.I'm very ok with this.Not necessarily dying to be anywhere else or doing much else.I'm content, in my clean, well-lighted place down the street from the apt. I mean, haunted wonderlands are all well and good but in the words of Peter Griffin, SOMEBODY THROW A FREAKING PIE!

My oldest friend, a fine poet and a dedicated teacher and a loving husband and father, just loved this stuff when we were growing up.Still does, in fact.It inspired him.I never quite got it- I mean, there's plenty to take from the poems AS poems but really, where does one relate?

I wasn't outraged by Baudelaire, I was given the willies. I was just pretty definitively turned-off by an elaborately detailed, mockingly erotic poem about finding a maggot-teeming corpse, spreadeagled, in the middle of a spring stroll with your lover...I get it, I get it, but I'm gonna start slowly backing away now, ok?...

I didn't get it, and I didn't even really want to.

Now that's totally changed.I don't quite know why.

I think it's got something to do with reading Walter Benjamin's interesting take on Baudelaire's style and literary achievement on a bus on the way to visit said friend.Nothing I like better than a fine and appreciative literary assessment.And I really love it when someone's insights turn my own around...

So that planted the seed, as did time and experience.

I'm not the same person I was when I first encountered poetry, not to mention life itself, and my tastes haven't changed in the sense of the old favorites, the lodestars, but they've definitely widened and evolved and been enriched and (I think) deepened.

I think I'm aware of ironies more than I ever was, and unfulfillment, loss, dead air and lights that turn off.I've been dealing with a long string of anguish, disappointment, despair, confusion and frustration.Time has worn away some of the gilding from the world, and this is what some like to call 'experience'.Ok, well, sure, but so what?

Well, Baudelaire's one of the so-whats.I never understood what his kind of visionary poetics really meant, what it did and where it brought the craft of poetry and the interested, open-minded reader.

I think in some ways this is the kind of poetry that you need to grow into.Rimbaud works just fine when you're pissed off and rebellious and Promethean and you're 16, but he was a genius and his work survives real scrutiny and lasts after the humidity of adolescence cools off...

Baudelaire (a poet Rimbaud admired, btw, no mean feat in and of itself) requires a little more out of you to really start to absorb, I've found.Everybody knows by now that he was into hashish and absinthe and that he had plenty of torrid affairs and that he blew through most of his inheritance on the finest linens and dandied it up something fierce...

He also had quite the lover/mistress/muse/femme fatale, as The Daily Beast makes clear: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles...

What I think I missed out on initially was the old soul that shifts and speaks within these tortured, skeptical, vivid, tastefully arranged and somehow gruesomely challenging poems.

Baudelaire isn't interested in pissing off the stuffy, conventional reading public because he's a spoiled, creepy, brat it's because he has a vision of life (his own, his city's, etc) that just couldn't come across in any other guise.

I'm making an ass of myself now, as per usual, so I'm going to stop bumbling down the explication road and just quote this poem in full.I'm not an expert or anything, but I definitely think that this poem is essential:


Angel of gladness, do you know of anguish,
Shame, of troubles, sobs, and of remorse,
And the vague terrors of those awful nights
That squeeze the heart like paper in a ball?
Angel of gladness, do you know of pain?

Angel of kindness, do you know of hatred,
Clenched fists in the shadow, tears of gall,
When Vengeance beats his hellish call to arms,
And makes himself the captain of our will?
Angel of kindness, do you know revenge?

Angel of health, are you aware of Fevers
Who by pallid hospitals' great walls
Stagger like exiles, with the lagging foot,
Searching for sunlight, mumbling with their lips?
Angel of health, do you know of disease?

Angel of beauty, do you know of wrinkles,
Fear of growing old, the great torment
To read the horror of self-sacrifice
In eyes our avid eyes had drunk for years?
Angel of beauty, do you know these lines?

Angel of fortune, happiness and light,
David in dying might have claimed the health
That radiates from your enchanted flesh;
But, angel, I implore only your prayers,
Angel of fortune, happiness and light!

I was reading this at work, looking out through the big windows and watching cold night full of pissing rain trembling in the puddles on the corner of the opposite side of the street, sky all black, stained yellow streetlights, city spaces, melancholic, churning...

I think I get it now.

Sometimes you have to pick the flowers yourself.

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1 comment

1. Persia Emily | 17.02.2018 17:33

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Thank you! Great book!

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