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Charles Baudelaire: France’s Metaphysical Poet
With a life marked by depression, illness, and scandal, the nineteenth century French poet Charles Baudelaire is not often associated with metaphysical poetry. His reputation as a visitor of prostitutes, dabbler in Satanism, drunkard, and an opium user has tainted him since his death. Baudelaire and his poetry are more than details of love affairs and blasphemy. As T.S. Eliot said of Baudelaire in his essay on the metaphysical poets, Baudelaire was one of the “most curious explorers of the soul" and his works are metaphysical in quality.
Born in April of 1821, Baudelaire experienced trauma early in his life with the death of his father at the age of six years old. His mother’s remarriage to Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick was not a good match for Charles. His step-father’s military discipline did not live at ease with Charles’s artistic leanings. Sent to school in Lyon, his studying was inconsistent, but he managed to gain his degree in 1839. Spending time in the Latin Quarter during the early 1840s, he lived a bohemian lifestyle, while mingling with other like-minded individuals. In the mid-1840s, Baudelaire’s literary career began to pick up as he became a critic, gaining notoriety as a critic of the Romantics. During this time he began writing the poems that would show up in his famous work Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), which would not published until 1857. During the early 1850s, he began his translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work into French, viewing him as his American counterpart. Baudelaire’s translations would make Poe famous throughout Europe. In 1857, his masterpiece, Les Fleurs du Mal, was published and caused quite the scandal in the French Empire. Baudelaire was brought to trail and was fined, along with his publishers, the total of 400 Francs. The six poems that were censored by the government were not reinstated in France until 1949. By the end of the 1850s, Baudelaire’s health was in decline and his demise was accelerated by his excessive drinking and use of opium. After suffering from a stroke in 1866, Baudelaire spent the rest of his life in a paralyzed state until his death in August 1867.
Baudelaire’s life span causes problems when trying to categorize him with a literary movement. He was too young to be a Romantic. By the time he began his literary career as a critic of them, the Romantics were dead and the Victorian Age was underway. His work had a great influence on the Symbolists and Modernists in his native country and abroad, but this influence would not come until decades after his death. His reputation in France was marred by the scandal following the release of the 1st edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. Poems to Satan and themes of decadence and eroticism shocked readers and the authorities. Some his poems about women might seem to portrayed women in a negative light, but he is not the only poet to take such a cavalier attitude towards women in youth. His reputation would need time to recover from the scandal. Baudelaire’s poetry was seen in a new light by T.S. Eliot in his essay on Metaphysical Poetry. Eliot saw past the praises of Satan and the poems of lust to find a great explorer of the human soul. Beyond blasphemy, lust, rebellion, and admiration for his various muses, is a man concerned with deep spiritual matters. He makes use of metaphysical poetical qualities such as dramatic openings, introspective qualities, colloquial language, and dissimilar images to reflect upon the fallen state of man, the influence of Original Sin, man’s relationship to God and the perception of reality.
In the poem, “Elevation”, the world of the divine and the world of man interact. It possesses the introspective and meditative qualities common of metaphysical poetry by focusing of the nature of the soul in relation to the human world. The separation of the body and the soul is used to inform upon the perception of Original Sin and the human condition. The soul rises above to gain a new perspective of the order of things. The world of man in its physical state is the place where Heaven and Hell collide, causing the soul to reach to new heights away from the tainted world of the Fall. The opening lines: “Above the valleys and the lakes, beyond / The woods, seas, clouds, and mountains, far / Above the sun, the ethers silver-swanned, With nebulas, and the remotest, star” (1-4) evoke natural images of the earth. The images conjured up are peaceful and beautiful locations but only when the perception is downward looking. It is even above the earth and into the cosmos. There is a strong longing to reach the heavens beyond and touch the divine. The abandonment of the earthly realm seems to be a longing to break free from man’s fallen state. The fallen state of man is something that the poet believed in. In his journals, Baudelaire wrote that “all mankind…is so naturally depraved” (Intimate Journals 20) and in “Elevation” the natural depravity is rebelled against by seeking that which is higher up.
In the second stanza, the “spirit, with agility [it] move[s] / Like a strong swimmer with the seas fight, / Through the blue vastness furrowing [its] groove / With an ineffable and male delight” (4-8). Using dissimilar images, the spirit is likened to a physical being, a swimmer, contrasting the concreteness of the human world with the divine nature of the soul. The spirit also shows its power as it fastens marks in the “blue vastness.” There is a strong determination on the part of the soul continue it actions.
The depravity of man and the drive to be able to worthy of touching the divine is shown is the third stanza. The spirit is ascending and is “Far from these fetid marshes, be made pure / In the pure air of the superior sky, / And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur / The fire that fills the lucid realms on high” (9-12). The fetid marshes are the kingdom of man. They are fetid because of Original Sin. It is an undesirable place needed to be escaped from. There is an awareness of man’s fallen state and this awareness drives the soul toward a more ideal state. The “exquisite liqueur” acts as a type of potion that lights the soul afire, giving it the strength to go on. The spirit must be made pure in order for the ideal state to be realized, which conjures religious and sacramental imagery. It is a type of Baptism that washes the soul and cleanses it of the evil that blemished it while on earth.
The soul, now made pure, continues its transcendence to a higher plane. It moves “Beyond where cares and boredom hold dominion, / Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen, / Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion / Can seek those fields so shining and serene” (13-16). The physical and mental ills that were so damaging on earth are swept away. The soul damaging boredom, or ennui, is sharply contrasted with the “happy” spirit. The spirit has new the energy to overcome any type of listlessness. It rebels against its “fogged existence,” rejecting the grasp of sin, showcasing the new found strength of the spirit.
The complete transcendence of the spirit can finally be seen in the last stanza as the spirit’s “thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze, / Who fans the morning with his tameless wings, / Skims over life, and understands with ease / The speech of flowers and other voiceless things!” (17-20). The physical imagery and the religious sensibility come together to provide an uplifting experience for the soul. The spirit’s “skim” of life reveals to him a new understanding of the natural world.
Baudelaire’s concern with religious imagery and values is apparent in “The Cask of Hate,” as he continues his commentary on the human soul. His preoccupation with evil “is an indirect affirmation of the good, a product of partial belief” (Hannoosh 348). The opening is abrupt as it is declared that “The Cask of the pale Danaides is Hate. / Vainly Revenge with red strong arms employed, / precipitates her buckets, in a spate / Of Blood and tears of the dead, to feed the void” (1-4). Hate is compared to the ingenious punishment of the mythical Danaides. It is a masterful line showing of the use of dramatic opening, wit, and the combination of dissimilar images, Hate and a jug. The Danaides were the 50 daughters of Danaus, who slaughtered their husbands. Their punishment in Tartarus was to carry water in a jug in order to fill a bath where they would cleanse themselves of their sins. However, the jugs were full of holes causing the water to leak out making the task impossible to complete as Hate is an entity that cannot be satisfied yet continues to consume. The vivid imagery lets the reader visualize the grotesqueness of Hate. This grotesque nature is harmful and can be detrimental to the soul.
There is great awareness of the conflict within man. The introspective soul helps to showcase the struggle for the soul. In his journal, he writes that “There are in every man, always, two simultaneous allegiances, one to God and the other to Satan. Invocation of God, or spirituality, is a desire to climb higher; that of Satan, or animality, is “delight in descent” (Intimate Journals 30). In the second stanza, delight in descent is present with the Demon reviving the victims “in order to bleed them once again” (8). It is a perverse nature that does this because the torment is part of allegiance to Satan, but where there is Satan, God can be found. This is shows the introspective quality of the poem with commentary of man’s fallen state and fight for the soul. The nature of hate is destruction, as it continues to eat at a man’s soul.
The powerful image of Hate from the first half of the poem is replaced with a more sobering image. The mighty Hate is reduced to “a drunkard in a tavern staying, / Who feels his thirst born of its very cure, / Like Lerna’s hydra, multiplied by slaying” (9-11). Showing off masterful wit, the actions of Hate are self-defeating. His efforts to relieve to his anguish are the cause of the problem. The thirst bringing cure is full of irony as there is no escape from the cycle. Hate is self-defeating, a cancer of the soul.
There is still hope for the soul. The image of the “gay drinkers” clashes with the pitiful Hate, who “is doomed to a sad fate, unable / Ever to fall and snore beneath the table” (12-14). Hate receives no rest like the victims tormented by the Demon. With the inability to fall asleep, Hate gains no comfort. Hate’s persistent state of being awake becomes his punishment much like the futile bath-filling actions of the Danaides. In its sad state, Hate is weak and open to defeat. The defeat of Hate opens the soul to Love or at least the possibility of love. Despite not being mentioned by name in the poem, God and His power lurk in the background as Hate receives no glory. The allegiance to God, that desire to climb higher, pierces through.
Baudelaire’s interest in religion led him to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Part of Swedenborg’s theology was that the spirit world and the natural are not separate. Swedenborg wrote that “Man is so created as to be at the same time, in the spiritual world and in the natural world. The spiritual world is the abode of angels, and the natural of man” (Mossop 66). This relationship between the human and the supernatural can be seen in “Correspondences.” The connection is made in the opening stanza as “All nature is one temple, the living aisles whereof / Murmur in a soft language, half strange, half understood; / Man wanders there as through a cabalistic wood,/ Aware of eyes that watch him in the leaves above” (1-4). The human and divine intermingle as nature is compared to a temple in its dramatic opening. Being in nature becomes the same as entering into a place of worship. The creation of God becomes the place to revere Him. Also, there is an awareness of the limitations of human nature, as the language cannot be fully recognized or fully understood. The man’s perception is not strong to grasp the all the wonder happening around him. The man is able to feel the presence of the eyes around him, but he cannot see them.
The correspondence between the physical and spiritual worlds becomes clearer and closer in the second stanza. The invisible spiritual world is manifesting itself to the man “Like voices echoing in his senses from beyond / Life's watery source, and which into one voice unite, / Vast as the turning planet clothed in darkness and light, / So do all sounds and hues and fragrances correspond” (5-8). There is still nothing physical for the Man to experience. His experience comes from the world around him through senses of sounds and smells. Full of natural imagery, there is almost a physical form to be seen amongst the sounds and smells. The correspondence between the human and spiritual world is closing in, as the man can at least experience the spiritual in an indirect way.
The experience of the spiritual world by the man is taking to another level in the third stanza. The transcendence of the purely physical world is being realized and about to be reached. The senses become overwhelmed as:
Perfumes there are as sweet as the music of pipes and strings,
As pure as the naked flesh of children, as full of peace
As wide green prairies — and there are others, having the whole
Corrupt proud all-pervasiveness of infinite things,
Like frankincense, and musk, and myrrh, and ambergris,
That cry of the ecstasy of the body and of the soul (9-14)
The natural and spiritual have their ultimate correspondence in their celebration of ecstasy. Their natures are as close to being one as they are going to get. This correspondence creates a new reality for the man. In keeping with the teachings of Swedenborg, the spiritual world and the natural are not separate. The natural world became the instrument in which the spiritual could be reached. Nature and temple have truly become one place ending a most curious exploration of the soul.
With his reputation restored since the scandal of 1857, Baudelaire can be seen for the master that he is. The association with Satan, blasphemy, drugs, and lecherous women was only part of who he was as a man and writer. Other side is concerned with spiritual matters with concern towards the state of the soul, sin, and man’s relationship to the transcendent. Charles Baudelaire is France’s metaphysical poet.
Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées, /Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers, / Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers, / Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées
 Mon esprit, tu the meus avec agilité, / Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l'onde, / Tu sillonnes gaiement l'immensité profonde /Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.
 Envole-toi bien loin de ces miasmes morbides; /Va the purifier dans l'air supérieur, / Et bois, comme une pure et divine liqueur, / Le feu clair qui remplit les espaces limpides.
 Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins / Qui chargent de leur poids l'existence brumeuse, / Heureux celui qui peut d'une aile vigoureuse / S'élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins;
 Celui dont les pensers, comme des alouettes, / Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor, / — Qui plane sur la vie, et comprend sans effort / Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes!
 La Haine est le tonneau des pâles Danaïdes; / La Vengeance éperdue aux bras rouges et forts / À beau précipiter dans ses ténèbres vides /De grands seaux pleins du sang et des larmes des morts,
 Et pour les pressure ressusciter leurs corps.
 La Haine est un ivrogne au fond d'une taverne, / Qui sent toujours la soif naître de la liqueur /Et se multiplier comme l'hydre de Lerne.
 — Mais les buveurs heureux connaissent leur vainqueur, / Et la Haine est vouée à ce sort lamentable / De ne pouvoir jamais s'endormir sous la table.
La Nature est un temple où de vivants pilier / Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles; / L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symbols / Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent /Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité, / Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté, /Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
 II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies, / — Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants, / Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies, / Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens, / Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.
- Baudelaire, Charles. Intimate Journals. Trans. Christopher Isherwood. Beacon Press, Boston: 1999.
- Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. Franklin Mint Corporation, PA: 1977.
- Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. Trans. George Dillon & Edna St. Vincent Millay. Harper, New York: 1936.
- Carter, A.E. Charles Baudelaire. G.K. Hall & Co., Boston: 1977.
- Hannoosh, Michele. “Metaphysicality and Belief: Eliot on Laforgue.” Comparative Literature,
- Autumn, 1987, 39.4: 340-351.
- Mossop, D.J. Baudelaire’s Tragic Hero: A study of the Architecture of Les Fleurs du Mal. Oxford University Press: 1961.
- The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire. Ed. Rosemary Lloyd. Cambridge University Press, New York: 2005.