Category Archives: Week 1 Reviews: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Pater (and some Wilde)

Baudelaire’s Modernizing Influence on Mallarmé

Mallarmé is said to have been heavily influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire, however he is also known for a newer hybridized form, which is that of combining his poems with other arts. Much like Wilde, Mallarmé was concerned with the esthetics of the page, the relationship between the form of his text, its content, but also how the words, spaces between them, and the way in which they were arranged together functioned within the text.  While looking through some of Baudelaire’s works, I was struck by how decadent—although early—Baudelaire truly was. For Baudelaire, literature is “a poetic idea, that releases itself from this operation of movement within the lines, it is the hypothesis of a vast being, immense, complicated, but eurhythmic, of an animal full of genius, suffering and sighing all of the sighs and all of the human ambitions.” (Fusées, XXII*) Baudelaire is somber and writes sinister texts, he even goes so far as to say that one must  « inspire disgust, and universal horror. » (Fusées XVII) If Mallarmé is to have been influenced by Baudelaire, we are not surprised then when we see an almost suffocating sky in L’Azur.  This sky that in the stead of being liberating in its vastness, is actually haunting and tormenting to the poet. In the 6th stanza Mallarmé says “-The Sky is dead.- To you I run, Oh matter! […]” The poet is a martyr (Baudelaire emphasizes this too), so much so that he must run to actual concrete matter to feel comforted. We spoke this week in class, about a movement from decadence towards modernism within the work of André Gide. Mallarmé too has made a literary shift here: by concerning himself with the urban languor that so disturbs Baudelaire, but also by wanting to integrate the esthetics of his pages within the realm of form and art, he has managed to reach towards a slightly different genre in which he will so famously remain a pivotal member for.

Original French-Baudelaire’s Fusées

*« une idée poétique, qui se dégage de cette opération du mouvement dans les lignes, c’est une hypothèse d’un être vaste, immense, compliqué, mais eurythmique, d’un animal plein de génie, souffrant et soupirant tous les soupirs et toutes les ambitions humaines. »

**«inspirer le dégoût et l’horreur universelle. » (Fusées XVII)




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The Idea of Beauty and The Baudelairian Bestiary

(Written by a Stanford student–RC)

In a Selection of Les Fleurs du Mal

Both bohemian and dandy, Baudelaire is and remains a literary UFO: Is he a Romantic poet, or rather a product of the nineteenth-century Parnassianism, as his famous dedication to Théophile Gautier (the “poète impeccable,” “parfait magician ès lettres françaises,” “très-vénéré Maître et ami” etc.) in the very first pages of Les Fleurs du Mal suggests? By analysing some poetic schemes, semantic fields, and literary topoi in a short selection of poems, I propose to put forward one of the reasons that makes Baudelaire hardly classified within the main streams of the nineteenth-century French poetry. Indeed, on one hand Baudelaire could be brought close to the Romantic of the first and second generation (e.g. Lamartine, Hugo, Musset, and Nerval) because Baudelaire carries a self-evident spleen, that is a sort of existential malaise also called melancholia (cf. Victor Hugo’s famous word: “La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste”), and therefore he meets the cliché of the suffering Romantic poet. On the other hand, however, Baudelaire’s poetry builds on what one could call ‘the dialectic of the Poet and the Muse,’ moreover he draws his inspiration from the Greek and the Pagan mythologies, which are common features of the Parnassianism, and more generally the Symbolism of the late-nineteenth-century poetry (e.g. Mallarmé, Valéry, Verlaine, and Rimbaud).

In the short selection of poems taken into consideration for this blog entry, I will argue that a certain kind of “Baudelairian bestiary” is used by the poet in order to depict some of the features of what he calls: “Beauty.” The impossibility to describe Beauty properly—even by using a peculiar symbolism inspired by animals and fairy-like creatures—will eventually appear as an important cause of the poet’s sufferings.

In “J’aime le souvenir…” a wolf is mentioned although “Beauty” does not seem to be directly present in the poem. Cybèle (Ancient Mother Goddess) is associated with a “wolf full of common tenderness.” Yet, the name of the goddess could be objectively seen as a French homophone for: “Si belle” (so beautiful). Cybèle, and by extension, Beauty are thus associated with a “wolf full of common tenderness.”

In “La Beauté,” it is Beauty who is speaking: “Je suis [si] belle, ô mortels!” She (Beauty) is the goddess who inspires the poet. She is also characterized as a “sphinx incompris,” a “cœur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes.” In “La Géante,” the poet explains that, back in the old days, Nature was conceiving “each day a hatch of monstrous spawn.” Among those horrific creatures, there was the giantess. In a nice metaphor, the poet explains that he would like living near a young giantess, “comme aux pied d’une reine [the giantess] un chat voluptueux [the poet].” Here, the monstrous creature is also associated with a certain type of beauty. It seems that the notion of beauty is starting to evolve and mutate since the giantess is alternately referred to as “monstrueuse” (monstrous, hideous) and “magnifique” (magnificent, beautiful).

Finally, in “Hymne à la Beauté,” the true nature of Beauty is disclosed at last. Beauty is a “monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu!” While trying to characterize beauty once and for all, the poet gets lost: “De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène, / Qu’importe, […] – fée aux yeux de velours.” Beauty is neither a heavenly creature nor a creature coming straight from hell. She is not an Angel either. A chimera such as a mermaid (both an earthy and a watery creature) would be closer, but that’s not quite it, the poet says. A fairy with “velvet eyes?” Above all else, Beauty is a fairy-like creature belonging to a different world: the Platonic world of Forms (εἶδος) and Ideas (ἰδέα). She manifests herself through different forms: as it is the case in “La Muse malade,” by appearing as a “green succubus” or as a “rosy imp” in the oneiric world of the dreams and nightmares. Beauty disrupts the muse’s slumber. The Muses—who are both the goddesses of the inspiration for the poet and, to some extent, the embodiments of Beauty—cannot compete when confronted with the pure Idea of Beauty. In other words, even the most beautiful women who ever lived on earth would appear ugly if compared with the Idea of Beauty itself. -R.C.

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On Baudelaire’s “The Venal Muse”

This post was made by Stanford student-MG

On “The Venal Muse”

When reading the poem “The Venal Muse”, it can be established almost immediately that the poet Charles Baudelaire, or rather, the speaker of the poem, has an incredibly complicated relationship when it comes to his literary muse(s).  The pairing of the words “venal” and “muse” as used in the title is indeed unusual, as the world “venal” typically carries quite negative connotations. For most people, “venal” conjures up images of manipulation, corruption, and money, whereas “muse” is one associated with meditation, peace, and inspiration. This stark contrast seems to accurately reflect the speaker’s attitude towards his muse as somewhat conflicted. In the first stanza, the speaker asks his muse a question—during the cold, dark winter, when I have nothing, will you be there to warm me up?  This strongly implies a begrudging sense of dependence on the muse, which further sets the mood of ambivalence that continues on for the rest of the poem.

As discussed in class, there often seems to be a sense of nostalgia present in Baudelaire’s works. “The Venal Muse” is no exception, and phrases such as “knowing your purse and palette are both dry”, “half-burned logs”, “starving clown”, and “meagre evening bread” make further reference to Baudelaire’s crippling poverty with a tone of wistfulness. Although Baudelaire makes no reference to the past in this specific poem, his obvious frustration and anger in the present along with the references to his impoverished state make it clear that he would rather be in a different time.

The last line of the poem, “to bring amusement to the vulgar crowd”, was also quite interesting. Of course, “The Venal Muse” is obviously a translated version of the original French poem, so not all English versions will have this line. Either way, “vulgar” seems an odd way to describe a crowd, unless the spectacle itself was something negative. I as a reader was left confused as to which “crowd” Baudelaire was referring. This lack of clarity (at least for me) in the closing of the poem left me to reconsider the overarching meaning of the poem as a whole, along with the senses of ambivalence, melancholy, and nostalgia, common to Baudelaire’s poetry. -MG

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One Analysis of Baudelaire’s “Hymn to Beauty”

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

Baudelaire’s representation of beauty and art in his poetry is quite peculiar in the way it embodies the ideals of the French decadence. In his paradoxical representation and overall personification of beauty in Hymn to Beauty, we can understand art more fully.

I will argue that Baudelaire’s reason for his juxtapositions in Hymn to Beauty to the point of paradoxes is for the reader to understand that beauty can be found in all forms of being:wretchedness and well-being as well as badness and goodness to name a few. In this way, Baudelaire is trying to show how beauty’s purpose should not be concerned with the form it takes, rather the immediate experience of it that makes life essentially better.

The first sentence of the poem begins by asking beauty itself whether it comes from heaven or hell. This line’s significance comes from the use of “or” as a disjunction or alternation between the two possible origins of beauty. In fact, Baudelaire uses “and” for all his representation of beauty in the remainder of the poem excluding the final two stanzas, which state the irrelevance of the comparisons. Then, in the last line of the stanza, Baudelaire states that it “bestows both kindnesses and crimes” and therefore “acts on us like wine”, representing beauty as both fickle and unpredictable.

The following four stanzas list the paradoxical ways in which beauty works. By stating “your eye contains the evening and the dawn” Baudelaire is showing how time does not affect beauty because it is present both day and night. Furthermore, the line “that can make heroes cold and children warm” works to show that it can give mercy to the helpless, yet wear away at the powerful.  This effectively utilizes imagery to present the wide spectrum of beauty’s whim.

The fourth stanza is dedicated entirely to beauty’s awful ways. The purpose of this is most likely to profoundly present beauty in a way that is often unassociated with beauty–that beauty isn’t simply a thing found in good but also in evil and delving deep into the latter form.

The fifth stanza is rather interesting. It presents two moments of death, which would be associated with the more horrible side of beauty but then explains them with poetic imagery and deeper meaning. First, with the mayfly’s demise being “in flames, blessing this fire’s deadly bloom”, the image of a candle momentary bursting in light gives a meaning to the mayfly’s death. The second, with a “the panting lover bending to his love” which shows beauty in the love or bond the lover has with the departed person by stroking the corpse of his lover “like a dying man who strokes his tomb.” Once again giving meaning and significance to an awful moment.

Finally the final two stanzas explain how the broad range of forms beauty can take does not matter, declaring “what difference, then, from heaven or hell.” Whatever form beauty is experienced through by a person, its purpose is to “make The world less dreadful, and the time less dead.” which makes logical sense in that beauty’s form in darkness makes it a horrible moment less so and meaningful.

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Fear in “The Sick Muse” and “I love the thought…”

(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

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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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‘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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