Baudelaire perfectly expressed the horrors of life in mid 19thcentury Paris: the downsides of the industrial revolution. He was the first truly modern poet.
Before Baudelaire, poets and artists were seen as prophets or seers who guide us towards a higher spiritual life. After him, they became outcasts doomed to misery, poverty and an early death.
Baudelaire’s defining feature is how be blends scenes of the sordid with idealistic yearnings. Most people see him as a pessimist – but I think of him as reacting to the grimness of his world and balancing it with the positive aspects of humanity.
Let’s take a look at one of his most beautiful and approachable poems from Fleurs du mal(The Flowers of Evil) – The Sun and look at how he blends things.
The invaluable website below contains the original with three English translations.
On a first reading this is an innocuous urban scene. At its most basic level, the poem blends two ‘mental spaces’ – that of the sun, and that of the poet.
The sun/poet/king lights up castles, disease, vile things and hidden lust. Here Baudelaire sets out his core poetic vision – to ennoble things that we may think of as vile.
In the first stanza the sun is cruel, whereas in the second stanza it is benign. In the second stanza there is a pun in French – “les vers” is both “the earthworm” and “lines of poetry”. The poet, like the earthworm, is both a catalyst for good, and someone who works underground, possible subversive.
The sun, the poet, kings, worms. There is probably also a dig at Napoleon III here. He commissioned the grand reconstruction of Paris (seeking to bring light to the city) and was seen as both a tyrant and a benefactor.
TS Eliot called Fleurs du mal the greatest example of modern poetry in any language. It certainly repays serious study, and I’m just scratching the surface here. More to follow.