Open Forum: Baudelaire

Our first week is over already!  Baudelaire was the focus of most of our in-class discussions this week, and you (the Stanford students) had so much to say, and such good things, I might add, that I thought it would be fun to continue our thinking here, if you like.  Any and all thoughts and questions on Baudelaire (and any of the other texts we read in conjunction with Baudelaire this week) are very welcome, as short or long as you like.  Let’s respond to one another here, too, so this is not just a one-way conversation.

Online visitors, please use the Comments section, and we will read your post and respond to you as well!

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We didn’t get to talk much about “The Wretched Monk” (“Le Mauvais Moine”) in class on Wednesday, but this sonnet is really sweet and sad. It’s a bit different in tone than most of the others we read, except for the similar “The Enemy (“L’Ennemi”).  I think about the discussions around remorse and nostalgia we had in class.  The soul as a tomb, inescapable, forever, a “sad shrine” that doesn’t have a religious referent.  If we had had the time in class, I would have asked you what you make of the last triplet (last stanza), especially the reference to the “labour of my hands, my eyes’ delight.”   -petradt



Thoughts on Baudelaire’s “The Wretched Monk,” WildeFranc

The century that preceded Baudelaire brought drastic change—a break from tradition, and our understanding of our place in society. The Catholic Church had been denigrated in Parisian eyes; Monarchs crumbled as the Bourgeoisie rose to power. In the aftermath of all this change, Baudelaire engages modernity head on. Through his series of poems in The Flowers of Evil, we relive his experiences and get a glimpse into Baudelaire’s psyche. With modernity afoot, Baudelaire stumbles, falls and rises through what sometimes appears as a lawless and faithless time— a time that questions all known things, but seems to resolve nothing. A time period, in France in particular, as Walter Pater claimed, which brought an end to the Renaissance and its ideals. The city of Paris, is physically and visually growing and changing as fast as industry permeates its borders. Reading Baudelaire’s poems imprints in our memory these changing moments in history. Through Baudelaire’s words we “see” and “feel” the world as individuals, not influenced by any other governing thought, but only as an impression of a past time.

In The Wretched Monk, for example, we can feel and visualize how Baudelaire observed religion and the city of Paris in that exact moment and time — as Walter Pater states, a moment in our collective memories which is “unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burns and [is] extinguished with our consciousness of [it]…”


Old monasteries under steadfast walls

Displayed tableaux of holy Verity,

Warming the inner men in those cold halls

Against the chill of their austerity


To Baudelaire the great cathedrals of Paris stand as ancient monuments of the past. Monasteries are like museums which display art objects, but need identifying tags which tell us of their past meaning. These holy objects are enshrined in past beliefs that modernity questions and can only vaguely perceive. Within these monasteries we are reminded of salvation, redemption and the promise of eternal happiness — the holy ideal that had governed Parisian thought in previous centuries. To Baudelaire these symbols are cold, lifeless – emblematic of grand repression, and isolation from reality. To the modern world of Baudelaire, old Catholic dogma is nothing more than obscure faith, which leaves one cold in its prodigious promises.


Those times, when seeds of Christ would thrive and grow,

More than one monk, now in obscurity,

Taking the graveyard as his studio

Ennobled Death, in all simplicity.


Religion, which once flowered, giving strength and power, had become a rare and dead dream. Its dedicated servants are in limbo and pray to an abandoning god who promises only a quiet, lifeless existence and death. The monk is a “solitary prisoner” of a bygone era.

—   My soul’s a tomb that, wretched cenobite,

I travel in throughout eternity;

Nothing adorns the wall of this sad shrine.


Abandoned by God is the devout monk who dwells in these deserted tombs.


O slothful monk! Oh, when may I assign

This living spectacle of misery

To labour of my hands, my eye’s delight?


Baudelaire yearns to live — to see and touch life, which is fleeting and quickly burning away before him. The great beauty of these religious shrines bedazzles him, but they inspire no movement, no thrust forward. That which once held the power to assuage pain, to heal a wounded soul, forever eludes his grasp.

Perhaps Walter Pater’s observations in his Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance best reflect these moments: we live life in opposing intervals, sad/happy, “listless…/high passion,” etc. The wiser of us will spend our thoughts in “art and song,” but to the Poet — “the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has…” from Pater’s perspective, the highest quality of life. A poet transfers his visual experience of the world into words, which evoke thought and feeling in his/her readers. The words become symbols of life. We live, we love (if we’re lucky), we die. Baudelaire reminds us of the beauty in all life and the emotions, which it stirs in us. As in Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, “this stormy life [gives us] neither inward peace nor outward repose.” Life is a gem to be enjoyed while we can.  Baudelaire cautions his reader not to be “ a wretched monk.”  The austerity and coldness of such a “slothful” life is nothing compared to a life spent in labor, love and delight in life itself.  WildeFranc

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