‘Out of Time’- Impermanence and Melancholy in Baudelaire’s ‘L’ennemi’

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

The pervasive sense of melancholy that resounds in Baudelaire’s ‘L’ennemi’ is inextricably linked with a corresponding fascination with the impermanence and fragility of Man, encapsulated by the tonal bleakness of ”Le temps mange la vie”, suggestive of a continual cycle wherein Man is unable to ever free himself from the bonds of Time, crucially inhuman in its scope. In turn, it could be argued that this morose acceptance of the supposed ‘state’ of Man results in the desire to make ‘one desperate effort to see and touch’, as Pater states in his ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance’ , as there is a constancy to the reminders that we will fade into ‘l’automne des idées’- ‘the autumn/fall of ideas’, an internal repetition mirrored in the simplistic ABAB rhyme scheme of the poem, where the final word in French is often traditionally melancholy i.e tombeaux, orage, ravage.

As well as this, the direct contrast between stanzas of the ‘ténébreux orage’ of childhood, indicative of a naivety and activity immediately removed by the sedate rhythm and the ‘pelle et les râteaux’ (rakes and spades) of adulthood, seem to mirror the fundamental concept of the ‘interval’ in Pater’s work. If we are to examine Baudelaire as hyper-aware of his place in the world as a human being, then it is clear that the ‘douleur’ to which he refers stems from his ability to recognise the titular obscure ennemi. Here, I would argue is a crucial paradox in this extract from Baudelaire’s work; that he is clearly able to identify the enemy which ‘nous ronge le coeur’ ( here note the universality of the ‘nous’ ) yet wishes to obscure it from the depths of his imagination, possibly indicated by the position of ‘obscur’ directly before the noun of ‘ennemi’. It follows that the hedonistic and controversial tendencies often ascribed to Baudelaire could have stemmed partially out of fear of his own mortality, contextually fitting into Pater’s theory that the endgame of human existence is ‘getting as many pulsations as possible’ into our lives, a desire that cannot exist without the conscious knowledge of an end to the game, so to speak.

I would in fact argue that this poem also forms a major part of Baudelaire’s moral philosophy due to the explicitly stated desire to find the ‘mystique aliment’ = ‘mystical food/nutrition’ that will allow his ideas to transcend conventionally held notions of power and conviction. The use of ‘food/nutrition’ indicates a necessity to this pursuit, and so we see that this need to conquer impermanence is itself a physical and emotional struggle which leads to melancholy, with the readers bearing witness to the metaphorical envelopment of the poem by the ‘Ennemi’, capitalised for additional power and reponsible for the breakdown in fluidity of the final stanza- prevalence of punctuation, especially when considered in light of the traditional fluidity of a sonnet.

And so, of course, it is through impermanence’s consumption that we gain this characteristic melancholy seen in Baudelaire’s work, as in my mind, the true sadness of human existence seen in this poem is that idea that ‘When I was young’ = ‘Ma jeunesse..fut’ is known to humanity, that the past, death and the end exist as pure definites, and so our only recourse is to seek to imbue our lives with as many definite instances of pleasure as possible. Hopefully, both Pater and Baudelaire would agree that getting the ‘highest quality to your moments’ is dependent on an awareness of the ‘awful brevity’ of life.

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

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