Baudelaire and the Petrarchan Sonnet

(This post was written by a Stanford student–A.A.)

In “Ill Fortune,” one of the Les Fleurs du Mal poems, Baudelaire laments the brevity of time and drudgery of life, but also uses the poetic form of a sonnet to make a larger aesthetic point.

From the very first stanza, he sets up a central conflict: “Time is fleeting, and Art is so long!” With this exclamation, Baudelaire introduces the contrast between the rhythmic, dull progression of time through ordinary life – conceived of as his “funeral march to the grave” – and the counteracting effects of Art. Only Art, he suggests, can alleviate the tedium of life. However, the way in which portrays this contrast between Art and life is perhaps more interesting than the contrast itself.

Baudelaire structures “Ill Fortune” as a Petrarchan sonnet: it can be essentially divided into two main sections. The first section, an octave, consists of the first eight lines and traditionally acts as the space in which a problem, conflict, or tension is introduced. In this case, of course, Baudelaire’s problem is the issue of enduring the weight of the world and the dullness of ordinary life. The second section of the poem, a sestet, consists of six lines and traditionally comes after a volta, or “turn,” that seeks to resolve the issue presented in the first half of the poem. It breaks the tension of the preceding lines, signals a change in tone, and offers resolution to the conflict. In Baudelaire’s case, however, the turn from the octave into the sestet does not give readers this obvious, definitive resolution. Instead, it maintains what is at first a perplexingly ambiguous tone until the end of the poem.

Baudelaire signals the turn with a dash before beginning the sestet. What follows, however, offers equivocal comfort to tedium problem presented in the beginning. Take, for instance, these lines:

“—But sleeping lies many a gem

In dark, unfathomed caves,

Far from the probes of men”

It would seem that the beauty of “gems” and the existence of “dark, unfathomed caves” offers the respite the poet is searching for. But what does it mean that these things, these Romantic places and visions, lie “far from the probes of men”? It would appear that the respite from tedium, the artistic salvation of man’s dull life, is actually unreachable. The gems lie undisturbed, the caves are far from men, and, in the following stanza, flowers “waste” away in “desert solitudes.” A note of despair, then, colors these lines. Baudelaire yearns for the Beauty of these visions, but cannot actually see them. Nor, he suggests, can any man.

The fact, however, that these lines are placed after the sonnet’s turn, suggests Baudelaire’s point goes deeper than this. In a traditional Petrarchan sonnet, these lines are located where the poet would normally offer a resolution to his initial conflict. As such, they deserve a second look through that lens.

Upon closer this examination, a reader can realize that, in a way, Baudelaire has gained accessed these places of Beauty – but through poetic imagination and Art rather than through ordinary life. The poem, in its capacity as a poem, enables him, and us, to imagine the deep caves and wasting flowers that are not directly perceivable by man. In fact, the  poetic representation of these items is perhaps more powerful by virtue of the fact that they cannot be accessed in any other way. A traveler of the world, for instance, could not easily reach down into unfathomable caves or explore the places of nature inaccessible by men. The poet’s mind, however, can absolutely conceive of these places. Thus, Baudelaire’s poem is a testament to the power of Art and the poetic imagination over that of reality.

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Filed under Week 1 Reviews: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Pater (and some Wilde)

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