(This post was written by a Stanford student–YG.)
Baudelaire’s “The Sick Muse” presents a fear so thick that it prevents peace and elevated thought. Words that illustrate a fear as strong as terror inundate the first two stanzas. The first stanza allows fear to creep in, with the words “haunt” and “shadings,” which escalate to “madness and horror.” The second stanza complicates fear with the line “poured on you fear and love out of their urns.” By mixing fear and love, the fear becomes more powerful since “love” evokes such strong emotions. Love tainted by fear makes the love juicy, wretched and tormented, because love in the presence of fear is rarely fulfilling or peaceful. “Pour” entices the reader to visualize fear as a liquid, something tangible that can seep into crannies, or stain, or scald, or drown. After all, this liquid fear is not described as a drink at dinner or a waterfall, but rather as the potion of an imp and succubus, which allegedly haunt sleeping people. This image is immediately followed by the word “nightmare,” which by this point in the poem has an “unruly grip,” suggesting that fear is a prison and a limitation.
The “wretched muse,” is the captive of this prison of fear, but it is also the speaker who is captive, for it is the speaker who “discern[s]” the “madness and horror,” and who fails to be inspired into “health” and “great thoughts” by the muse.
The final line of the second stanza begins with the word “sunk,” a word key to this poem. The first two stanzas, heavy with their descriptions of a terrible, complex fear, sink the muse, the speaker, and the reader.
It is from this depressed viewpoint that the final two tercets can be understood. The speaker “wishes” for the loveliness of “varied sounds of ancient syllables” and “the scent of health.” However, these blissful ideas are above reach from the sunken muse, for they exist in the sky, with Apollo. Therefore, when the poem turns into lighter descriptions, the muse cannot follow along, but rather must watch these wishes from the sunken standpoint. Fear ties the muse down, preventing the actualization of the enticing descriptions of the final two stanzas.
The second two stanzas of “I love the thought…” lend insight into the fear described in “The Sick Muse,” by indicating a possible source of the fear, and emphasizing the difficulty of attaining the loveliness described in the final half of that poem. In the second stanza of “I love the thought…” the speaker describes a poet’s fear as “a chill of hopelessness before this terrible and bleak tableau.” The tableau – the full scene before the speaker – is full of vividly depicted “monstrosities,” “bodies grotesque,” and “poor twisted trunks.” In some ways this stanza is similar to the first stanza of “The Sick Muse,” for both present fear set inside a terrifying world.
The last stanza of “I love the thought…”, like the final two stanzas of “The Sick Muse” present a much more welcoming picture, which is unattainable. In “The Sick Muse,” the lovely daydream is merely a wish; in “I love the thought…” it is a memory. In “I love the thought…”, the “visages gnawed by sores of syphilis…the sickly modern crew…[give] youth their deepest bow.” Youth is the positive contrast with the sickly horrors described in the second stanza. Youth possesses “smooth untroubled brow” and “sweet vitality.” However, one cannot reverse time and return to youth, so the speaker, making note of youth’s beauty from the standpoint of the second stanza’s squalor, cannot actualize that loveliness any more than can the wishing speaker in “The Sick Muse.”
Understood in light of certain aspects of “I love the thought…”, the imprisoning, limiting fear depicted in “The Sick Muse” is the passage of time, the loss of youth, and the completeness of the horrors that arise in life. -YG