Voyage To Modernity

A Study of the Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Dante et Virgile aux Enfers

‘Ostende’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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Voyage to Modernity presents a new critical interpretation of Baudelaire’s poetry, supported and illustrated by the complete translations of eighty-eight of the major poems from his collection Les Fleurs du mal. The study champions Baudelaire as the first major writer to highlight the schisms in the human psyche created by modernity; that mix of secular thought, social transformation, and self-reflective awareness that characterises life in the post-Enlightenment, and predominantly urban, world.

The study concentrates on key modern divisions explored and expressed by Baudelaire in his life and his verse, for example those between humanity and nature, the city and the individual, and between the sexes. As well as highlighting the recurrent themes, symbols and images of his art, and his largely unacknowledged debt to Dante, this critical approach portrays Baudelaire as a profound moralist in a long tradition, and far from the superficial immoralist he was portrayed as in his own day. It again lays claim to him as the progenitor of modern intellectual poetry, while restating his vital significance in the history of thought, as well as communicating the profundity and beauty of his enduring art.


I: Introduction: The Invitation To The Voyage

Romanticism begins and ends in the Idyll: a voyage from cradle to cradle, from dream to exhausted calm. Romanticism: dissatisfied with its own perpetually thwarted emotions, wearied with the imperfect and frustrating reality. Romanticism: searching for what cannot be found on Earth or in the sky. So the Romantic Mind attempts to construct its own versions of paradise: artificial and delicate of construction, fragile and doomed by time and death, by emotional erosion and internal frailties. So Mind returns, through nostalgia and the evocation of memory, through dream and drug-induced trance, through contemplation and reverie, to its first enchantments: and embraces, with sensitivity and anxiety, the last music of its hard-won artistic creation. Baudelaire, above all, knew and loved Romanticism’s dream, its ‘goût de l’infini’, its longing for the infinite, Baudelaire who gave his life, as he claimed, to the creation of gold from mud, Baudelaire who struck glittering nails into Romanticism’s coffin, even as he mused on its glorious but short-lived existence, a poet who pursued in vain the departing god.

Baudelaire learnt from Dante. The Earthly Paradise, since there is no heavenly one for the adult mind, is entered into, if anywhere, from the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, after the long hard climb. There if anywhere is the gateway to a higher state of being. There the Romantics, and all of us, must go in search: and if the Earthly Paradise is not to be found, if there is no Mount except in the human mind, if where we are is more akin to the Inferno, then mind itself must create its own mountain, fashion its own wings, plant its own Garden, re-win its lost innocence, invoke the Idyll.

Baudelaire is a Dante in whom the Vision fades, for whom the Paradiso is no more than a distant passing gleam, a spirit who has fallen, with Satan the Angel of Pride, into the pit, le gouffre, and must wind his way to Satan’s presence, climb that monster’s shaggy hide in reverse, and then begin the toil of ascending the slope of the self-created Mount but without faith or hope, with no Virgil as companion to lead him to Beatrice. It is a journey of the heart and spirit: it is the voyage of a Ulysses past un-fortunate Isles, the journey of a pilgrim, the stumbling steps of the Individual, under the glare of History, and then no History. It is an endless setting sail, but not towards Byzantium. Here, in Hell, even in the crowd, especially in the crowd, we are alone. Hell is a place where we can go neither forward nor back, where language is corrupted by the swarm, where the voices and cries fail to communicate anything but their madness or pain, where community is lost, and nothing can be given while all must be taken.

Dante et Virgile aux Enfers

‘Dante et Virgile aux Enfers’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

Baudelaire read Dante. And he too is a Classicist: that is an artist who sets his work within the context of symbols derived from past art, and for whom art itself is a means of knowledge and self-justification, beyond mere entertainment. He is a traditionalist too in that his great concern is with the moral centre, with the question of how to live, how to be, in a universe that reveals itself as ultimately intention-less and without recourse. In his hands the mud of despair must somehow be fashioned, through art’s alchemy, into the gold of poetry, the mud of the abyss must somehow become the clear water and green fields of the Idyll, of the childhood paradise, but he is a Romantic first of all, one who has nothing but his own mind and spirit to begin with, and a Modern, perhaps the first true Modern, who has nothing but his own mind and spirit to end with also.

Unlike Dante, Baudelaire is denied an ascent. The old certainties evaporate. It is pointless to claim Baudelaire as a lapsed believer, as a seeker after the faith, temporarily separated from it. What does he himself say, late on in his life (Rockets XXII) ‘As for religion I consider it useless to speak of it, or to search for any remains of it, since in such matters the only thing that nowadays gives rise to scandal is to take the trouble to deny God.’ He may have despised the casual indifference of the freethinkers to faith, his own life may have ended in some kind of ironic Catholicism, but if so, that was a weakness, a failure, not the success of his life. His heart and his mind do not believe, despite his great longing for the lost paradise, the lost solace of the religion of his childhood. His poetry is modern precisely because it rejects that for which there is no evidence. And so, for Baudelaire’s art, in this life there are only the worlds of one’s own creation, never the Empyrean created by another. And ultimately he does not even believe in his own Satan. Earth is not, for him, ruled by some divine manifestation of evil, rather it is a landscape devoid of all divine or satanic meaning. The paradise we long for is not tangible anywhere, the fall we experience is from the flight of our own making for which we finally lack the strength, evil is mere banal repetition, an obsession, an addiction, and purgatory, which is a repetition in the mind of the inferno of actuality, leads not to salvation and paradise but at best to an embittered or exhausted quietude.

If we cannot ascend, we are forced instead (given that we refuse to merely sit still and accept) to make our rounds of the world, the universe, in which we find ourselves. Life and thought is therefore Voyage, Baudelaire’s deepest symbol, the one to which all his poetry returns, since poetry itself, each poem, is in itself a voyage towards a known or unknown creative harbour, and because many of his greatest poems are poems explicitly about voyaging, ‘from the dark sea of the sordid city, towards another sea, a blaze of splendour that is blue, bright, deep as virginity’, towards ‘that sea which is the Infinite’, ‘somewhere out of this world’.

There are many impulses to the voyage, but a deep Romantic restlessness is in Baudelaire the most powerful and ‘the true voyagers are those who leave only to move’, those who give themselves to the winds and the waves, like the great sea-birds or the swans, the voyagers of the sky, like Icarus on the wings that Daedalus made for him, those who fly and are doomed to fall. There are other voyagers too, those Classical travellers, driven by circumstance, Ulysses or Orestes or Aeneas, who are referred to indirectly in the verse, but they are less powerful images for him. His true travellers have no destination other than that evoked by their own dreams and fantasies. They voyage ‘Into the Unknown’s depths, to find the new.’ The word ‘Unknown’ emerges as a frequently repeated key to his poetry. They are travelling beyond the accepted and familiar, into whatever can relieve the pain and monotony of an existence that offers no hope and no salvation. And the Reader must accept the Invitation to the Voyage, just as the beloved he addresses must, as we all must. The Invitation to the Voyage is also the invitation to the Idyll, to the pursuit of the Idyll, the pursuit of paradise, whether it is the paradise of the indolent Lotus Eaters, or the paradise of the dream, whether it is the paradise of the doomed lovers, or the paradise of the ocean calm, or that of the moonlit night when the weary soul achieves momentary rest.

Christ sur ​​la Mer de Galilée

‘Christ sur ​​la Mer de Galilée’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
Walters Art Musuem - Wikimedia Commons

What else does Baudelaire take from Dante? His vision of Hell, yes: but more importantly his moral centre. No vision of the Inferno, such as Dante and Baudelaire possess, is meaningful without extreme sensitivity to pain, to harm, to deathliness, to betrayal, to personal failing, pride, lust, to all the sins and vices, anxieties and fevers. Baudelaire’s hell lacks the feeling of divine retribution and punishment that Dante’s expresses, it is a hell of reality, a hell of the human condition, imposed perhaps, or accidental perhaps, but not infused with divine meaning. If Baudelaire too is a Catholic, he is an immensely strange one. Yet the moral centre is clear. All Baudelaire’s Satanism, his flowers of evil, his toying with vice, sin, the consciousness of the infamous, are trappings, never his essence. His essence is always the search for incorruptible love, for true meaning, for an endless ecstasy of feeling and sensation, for a world of delight that does not exist for us except momentarily, for solace and consolation, for a defence against time, mortality, betrayal, and disappointment.

His sinners are searchers, fleeing from ennui, that spiritual malaise of the superfluous man, fleeing through sin towards the unknown, gripped by fever, tormented by remorse, but forever pure in their vices, forever human as we are. The harm his sinners perpetrate is primarily against the self. Violence, the corruption of others, deliberate offences against our fellow creatures’ spirits, those are aspects of a De Sade, not a Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s sinners are caught in the meshes of obsession and infatuation, their vices are repetitions, almost a definition of sin for Baudelaire as it was for Goethe ‘that which we cannot stop doing’, that which we cannot evade. His sinners are gamblers, petty criminals, faithless whores, self-tormenters, sexual deviants, religious flagellants those who are always trying to satisfy a deeper restlessness through the mechanisms of a surface anxiety or addiction. And they are those with whom we have empathy, because they are, as we are, says Baudelaire, in search of an artificial paradise, a haven, a harbour, blessed by Venus, or Fortuna, by ‘Madonna, Muse or Guardian Angel.’

Baudelaire’s hell is Dante’s without its rationale. But the moral dilemma, and agony, is as valid, even more so. Is there a true equivalent of Dante’s Purgatory in Baudelaire’s writing? To answer that we must revisit Dante’s concept of the universe founded on relationship. His hell is where relationship fails, in the great betrayal and denial of faith, truth, hope, and love. His Purgatory is then a realm where relationship is re-established, where language, fractured, guttural and destructive in the Inferno, is purified and becomes a vehicle of hope. And is not relationship Baudelaire’s fundamental problem, how to achieve relationship, how to preserve it against time and fate, how to understand the relationship between the individual and society, the individual and Nature, how to relate? Because Baudelaire, that hyper-sensitive child was damaged by a close, and subsequently fractured, to him betrayed, relationship with his mother? Because fruitful relationship with women was his great desire, despite his often misogynistic condemnation of Woman, but achieved in only swift flashes of light between periods of darkness? Because, more profoundly for his art, the old relationship with deity, nature and society was broken in his time, and the reality of the human situation flooded in upon us, our spiritual isolation as a species and therefore our loneliness, our separation through consciousness and culture from the nature that spawned us and partially defines us, and our mechanisation of society, the re-definition of work and home, individuality and purpose that the modern industrialised, urbanised world has forced upon us? Baudelaire’s purgatory is this life also, overlapping with his hell. It is the mind re-working its experience in an effort to understand and transmute the real. It is therefore like hell itself a repetition, only this time in the realm of thought and feeling, of the fundamental pain of existence, and its torments are no less severe than the experience of hell itself.

There are reasons for Baudelaire’s alienation from his world, and his search for other worlds, that are attributable to his private life, his childhood, his sensibility. But they are only the pre-dispositions that enable his art and thought: they do not in any way determine or exhaust them. When a world-shattering change takes place in society, intellectual life, and spirituality, a fracturing of old values and old relationships, then it should be no surprise if it is those individuals whose temperament, intellect and early life mirrors aspects of that change, and sensitises them to it, who are most likely to take up the task of understanding and confronting it. But if Baudelaire’s mind had not mirrored what was happening beyond and outside him, then his art would only be of interest to specialists, or to his biographers, not to us all. Likewise, nothing in Dante’s life ‘explains’ Dante in a reductionist sense, but many elements of it go to produce the kind of mind and experience out of which his art emerged.

What else does Baudelaire take from Dante? He takes his sense of destiny, of history, of being at the focal point of a new sensibility, his sense of individuality. Dante is his own protagonist as Baudelaire is, as all profound modern creators are. Dante blends history with mythology, present with past, in the living moment. So does Baudelaire. The Individual, humble, even humiliated, travels forward, as hero or anti-hero, and makes a journey through the universe. Dante’s life, his love, his feelings, his form, goes out into the voyage through the three realms, as ‘one alone’. So does Baudelaire, who sees his own age more clearly, lives it more intensely, and analyses it more fiercely than others. Baudelaire is a supreme individual, as Dante is, and so curiously they become archetypal. No one else lives their lives, or even feels exactly as they do, but they give out the tocsin sound of their age, and send its echoes, resonating, across the streets and fields, across the earth and sea, into the furthest depths of their time. Baudelaire is even more his own voyager than Dante, his own traveller, identifying with all voyagers, all vessels, all wanderers, all exiles, all passers-by, everything that moves, sails, swims, flies, and falls. He attempts the heroic, even though the chances of success in such a world as ours are negligible. The heroic age is past, and yet, he contends, there is heroism in modern life, in facing it squarely, with clarity and courage, with that intellect and full awareness that Baudelaire sought to celebrate.

Baudelaire, without a comprehensive system, nevertheless explores his universe, as Dante explores his system: he watches, waits, listens, longs, hopes, as Dante does. But Baudelaire’s labours can at best aim for some vision of that Earthly Paradise at the top of the Mount of Purgatory, an Earthly Paradise in whose permanence and recovery he hardly believes. So hope is matched by despair, faith is elusive at best, charity often withheld, and love and relationship are fragile, dangerous, and fraught with harm and hurt.

Paradise flees from us, leaving behind its fragments, poems, memories, those feelings and sensations locked within us that can be evoked, re-evoked. For the Classical poet, this world was enough: this world that Greece and Rome celebrate, a world incorporating its gods, not divorced from them. For the Medieval poet the other world was real, and Dante and Petrarch celebrate its reality and its impact on this world. But for the Romantics and for Modernity, this world is never enough, and the paradise that we dream is irretrievably lost, never to be recovered beyond and outside us, only within us, since no external power exists that can restore it, nor are we great enough to create it externally ourselves. Baudelaire, like Shelley, is one of the first great poets of that loss, that isolation, that realisation. It is a realisation that many of us, most perhaps, shy away from. It can itself seem a flower of evil. But to those who are aware in the fully Modern sense, then it is also our reality, and of it we must make what we can.

What more does Baudelaire take from Dante? He takes his vision of hell as a city, the city as hell. For Baudelaire that involves its varied aspects of humanity crammed into a tiny space, its panoply of human behaviour, its existence almost as a living being in its own right, a seething ant-heap, its potential callousness, indifference, insanity, its juxtaposition of human states, its conflict of extremes, wealth with poverty, beauty with ugliness, truth with deceit, kindness with crime, love with hatred. The city is humanity objectified, made the instrument of the market, all the markets where we buy and sell things and ourselves. The city is an ogre, a monster, but also a thing of veils and enchantments, a seductive whore, a theatre, a landscape of arcades and canals, buildings and streets, vehicles and passers-by. Because there is no Mount of Purgatory and no Paradise for Baudelaire except the artificial paradises of his imagination, then the city is, more potently, Hell. There is no City of the Church, no City of God, only the city of Mankind, of Reality. Those relationships that do exist he views within its context. Escape from the city, to search for new possibilities, hopes of relationship, can only be by a voyage of mind or body, even though all voyages disappoint, except perhaps (a vague and unreal one perhaps) the last voyage with Captain Death. The city of hell is Paris in reality, as for Dante it was Florence transposed. But not only are all the sins and vices of hell there, so is the flattened purgatory, the collapsed mountain, because after all in purgatory Dante says that we re-visit the sins of hell in expiation, and what difference is there in Baudelaire’s essentially godless world between suffering the sin, and suffering it again in repetition, in thought, in remorse, in purgation?

Dante’s world is full of political resonance, Baudelaire’s it might seem is not. Where in his city is Dante’s war of factions, his dream of a separated Church and State, the struggle for a return to order, both divine and imperial? Baudelaire is seemingly apolitical. Yet he takes the stance of the non-conformist, he focuses on the private and individual, on sexuality, vice, addiction, dream, on everything that fills the vacuum of days. On the one hand he opposes that meaningless work that the city can exemplify, from which we run for relief to vanities, to personal space: on the other he celebrates true work, the work of the mind even while he despairs of its limitations. He is in the one mode a celebrator, in words, of the strange beauty of the desolate landscape of modernity, on the other an opponent of its objectification, its ruthlessness, its coldness.

In Baudelaire, unlike Dante, politics becomes separated from human aspiration. It is an aspect of the ‘failed’ Revolution, that of the spirit. Political activity is relegated, perhaps for the first time in Baudelaire, to its position of controlling the public mechanisms of our lives, unable in modernity to satisfy our inner aspirations other than momentarily, but whose glitter like a firework, a jewel, a beautiful woman, occupies us, attracts our eyes, and deceives us for a while. Modern politics wields power, but as part of a process with little linkage to the realities of our inner beings. And yet we have long-ago passed beyond primitivism: and the charms of the native and the natural, like the charms of the exotic for Baudelaire, ultimately disappoint. The natives are prone to reveal the same stink, the same immorality, and the same addiction to false gods as we civilised ones betray. There is no way back. That is Baudelaire’s message. There is no way back, only a voyage on into the unknown, if we can find a new unknown to sail towards. So Baudelaire is not possessed as Dante was by political aspiration, and his ‘political’ dimension is precisely that rejection of politics as a means to redemption that its absence in his poetry proclaims. There are no public Utopias at the end of Baudelaire’s tunnels. His paradises are not practicalities, because he knows them to be ultimately unreal.

What else does Baudelaire take from Dante? He takes his vision of Beatrice, of the Ideal beloved, though he cannot import her embodiment or realisation into his world. He can meet her for an instant in purgatory but not be led by her to ‘paradise’, at least not for more than a moment. The purgatorial voyage towards Beatrice over ‘a sea less cruel’ in Dante’s universe, is, in Baudelaire’s, a Voyage to Cythera, to ultimate self-disgust. Yet Baudelaire is a love poet in the deepest sense, in that love, or rather relationship, of which love is the supreme example, is his main theme, his main desire, the object of his primary search, and its lack the reason for his most profound disappointment. It is because he searches for and fails to find an analogue for love and relationship in external reality that he is a modern. It is because the real world fails us in our deepest longing, for ultimate and permanent contact, and not simply because his own insecurities sensitised him to that failure, that Baudelaire is important to us. The Voyage to which he invites us is also our voyage towards Cythera, Venus, and the Ideal.

I here consider his poetry under six main headings, while acknowledging that the themes treated within each are inextricably interwoven with the others. Baudelaire does not set out to be a systematic thinker, a system-builder, he is a witness: his poetry a reaction to his age. So he approaches the same ideas and symbolic meanings from many different directions, and can carry within himself contradictions, unresolved dilemmas, the love combined with hate that is an aspect of our own inner complexity and the complexity of the world it mirrors.

Firstly there is the Vision of Paradise or of the Idyllic that is the deepest impulse in Baudelaire. The real world fails to satisfy, fails to be an arena in which intense permanent relationship can be established, fails to fully engage the intellect imbued with deep feeling, and that lack of engagement engenders spiritual weariness, ennui. We counter ennui by the construction of artificial paradises, by setting out towards the mirages of new virgin paradises, or by attempting to regain those we believe we have lost. Baudelaire’s art reveals many such journeys and attempts.

Secondly there is the Vision of Venus Cytherea, of Ideal Love and its corrupted refractions, of Woman, the potential source of the deepest relationship for the heterosexual male, with Woman as mother, lover, sister, daughter, companion, or an erotic and spiritual mixture of all five. Baudelaire, in tune with his times, but also partially conditioned by his early experiences, is one of those whose view of Woman is frequently polarised, seeing her either as cool, inflexible, superior to man, the chaste Madonna and Ideal Beauty, or as sensual witch, the potential betrayer. Either dimension can itself polarise into refuge or place of torment. As temporary refuge Woman is an aspect of the Idyll, an aspect like Beatrice in Dante’s art and life of Paradise itself, though here a fragile and momentary one. As tormentor, Woman is an aspect of hell, as in Dante’s Purgatorial dream of the Siren. She is then the voice and symbol of unreason and unfaith. Yet Baudelaire sees Woman too in other aspects between the poles, and all the dimensions of his search for relationship with the sex need to be considered.

Thirdly there is the Vision of Hell itself as exemplified in the City. Hell is the crowd, the seethe of experience, the roaring ocean of the illusory samsara, the wind and wave of a new kind of sea exemplified by nineteenth century Paris, the great urban metropolis, a monster, an ogre, swallowing and consuming, filled with savage frenzy, an emblem of the meaningless heave and swell of modern existence, where the Individual may be isolated, exiled and divorced from true relationship. Yet the city too has other aspects, it has its solitudes, its silences: hell too has its charms! If we voyage to escape the crowd, the city of Dis, then the voyage itself returns us to its harbour, what Baudelaire called ‘the intersection of its myriad relations ’.

Port de Bordeaux

‘Port de Bordeaux’ - Édouard Manet (French, 1832 - 1883)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

Fourthly there is the Voyage itself, the great voyage to which his poetry invites us, of thought and feeling, around the world which becomes Modernity, the world of limitation. The dreams of paradise fall apart, the vision of Woman fails to establish the kind of eternal relationship demanded and desired, the city of hell corrupts our sensibilities and dulls our being, Satan palls, and we are without a god, or possessed of a god so remote and dubious, so potentially inimical to existence, that reality becomes the Void. The Voyage into the Void is the Voyage to Modernity.

Fifthly there is its impact on the poet, on the individual human being: there is the self-image created, the awareness of self which results. Baudelaire begins with the attempt to make the poet his own hero, as Dante does, but the ‘heroism of modern life’ demands an effort beyond the abilities of the greatest. How can one mind embrace the multitude, when all is equally valid? Nevertheless the modern mind’s attempt to grasp its world entire is heroic, just as the failure of that attempt is heroic. Does the failure of that effort make a failure of the life? Then we are all failures in modernity, and it is the relative success, the relative achievement that defines us. Perhaps even heroism is no longer the right mode in which to approach reality. Perhaps the failure of heroism is also the failure of Western Civilisation and of all civilisation to provide a means by which its participants can truly come to terms with life in all its absurdity (and not by falsely adopting some exploded myth of the past, with its gods and demons, or some false pseudo-science long superseded). Perhaps in fact Civilisation is a process and not a progress, a context and not an end, richness and not resolution.

Finally we can assess the Vision of Calm that Baudelaire achieves at times in his verse, rarely, but infinitely sweetly when it is achieved. Is it reply or evasion, satisfaction or exhaustion? He finds harbour, and is rocked to rest there. He is carried to the shore of his own sea of thought and activity. Near the end of his creative journey he has glimpses of peace, and even slides ironically, in his weakness, towards the embrace of a devalued religion he desires, but no longer believes in.

Baudelaire’s art, and more than that his life, is an Invitation to the Voyage, to the Voyage that ended in Modernity. And are we beyond Modernity? That remains to be seen.

II: The Idyll (The Vision of Paradise)

The search for the Idyll is ultimately the search for a miracle by which mortality can be overcome: mortality not just of the flesh, our finite lives, but of all experience. Everything ‘action, longing, dream, the Word’ vanishes into oblivion second by second. Who of us has not longed to freeze and hold the moment of transitory pleasure, knowing it will pass? Who has not found the impossibility of doing so, since to live we must really live, not merely imagine ourselves living. In living we cannot observe the moment in all its richness, while in observing we cannot live the essential experience. The desire to catch mortality fleeing is the essence of voyeurism, the sensation that by watching we can capture what it means to experience, since in experiencing we cannot see ourselves vanishing, only feel the flight of time.

And the flight of time is our ultimate tragedy. That is Mephistopheles claim in Goethe’s Faust (Part II, line 11600), ‘Past, and pure nothing, complete monotony! What use is this eternal creation! Creating, to achieve annihilation! “There, it’s past!” What’s to read in it? It’s just the same as if it never lived, yet chases round in circles, as if it did. I’d prefer to have the everlasting void.’ All passes, all vanishes, nothing has permanent value. Firstly the childhood paradise is taken from us, snatched away, as it was from Baudelaire, or so his inner self believed. Then we search to replace it, through love, through action, through dream, through work, through pleasure, through intoxication and trance, through belief, through (above all, and in all these modes) the search for relationship with something outside us that can be relied on, something that roots the self in eternity, floats us above the Void, and creates a harbour where we can return, a spiritual home where we are recognised and can be at peace, we voyagers on the surface of the infinite. Given the lack of the Earthly Paradise, the impossibility of return to it, and through it return to the greater Paradise, we are left to search for what we can. We should examine Baudelaire’s options, because they are also ours.

With memories of his 1841 voyage to Mauritius present in his mind, he holds out for us in his early poetry the possibilities of the exotic as a destination, the seductive dream of some land of pleasure where we will be rocked to sleep in the balm-laden atmosphere of a distant isle, an island of Circe or Calypso, or a shore of the Lotus-eaters, all images from the Odyssey that explicitly or implicitly emerge in his verse. It is ‘a perfumed land caressed by the sun’, ‘a shore of bliss’ an ‘infinite lullaby, full of the balm of leisure’ a land ‘where luxury delights in reflecting itself as order: where life is full and sweet to breathe: from which disorder, turbulence, the unforeseen are banished: where happiness is married to silence:’ Intoxicated there, the spirit is caressed not just by the dream climate, but by the presence of the beloved (unmarred by her reality) that other great destination, Woman. The unfortunate are already exiled from such a delightful far country, they are like the woman of Malabar, or the consumptive negress of The Swan, struggling through the hell of the city, selling their charms in the sullen market of Capitalism. Freedom has become commodity. This imagined woman, exiled, traces of her black ancestry evident, and corresponding to the Jeanne Duval of Baudelaire’s own life, is a prostituted equivalent, a Parisian shadow, of Gauguin’s exotic Eve. She is fallen from every paradise, but precious to Baudelaire for that reason.

The exotic is a means of escape from the real. We love to journey through the countries of our imagination. But later we will find the falseness of our vision of those lands, the enchanted isle is only the isle of Icarus the fallen one, a barren reef, and not the Eldorado promised by destiny, or it is the terrible island of Cythera, of self-disgust, dark and sad, no longer the golden land. Two great poems, Voyage to Cythera and The Voyage, are Baudelaire’s farewell to the dream islands, so that even when he revisits them in his verse again, they are forever lost. The imagery of the voyage enriches his poetry immeasurably, but in the end it is one more series of phantasms, one more elusive veil drawn over the face of our reality.

Ovide chez les Scythes

‘Ovide chez les Scythes’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

Behind the dream island, the enchanted space, lie our memories of childhood, the good memories not the terrors, where innocence plays in a land of plenty, and where beauty is at our command with all its freshness, as yet unrecognised and so a gift not understood, but preserved until later. Baudelaire evokes that world, whose retrieval is in the hands of memory. In his earliest verse he combines the dream of the exotic with this attempt to recapture the ‘young loves, God gives, at the start of our lives’. And again the dream of a ‘far, perfumed paradise’ immediately invokes ‘the green paradise of childhood’s thrill’ in Moesta et Errabunda. Yet Baudelaire writes little about childhood, perhaps because it was too lost a continent, too painful in its associations for him. One clear poem of memory recalls the white house of childhood (at Neuilly in 1827), near to the town, but there is an ominous undercurrent in the poem, and the staring eye of the sun, ‘a huge eye in a curious heaven’ is perhaps doomed to be the stepfather’s eye, the eye of the cold god of inspectors and generals, rather than a loving eye. And remembering Mariette, his old nurse, the ‘great-hearted servant’ now dead, only serves to contrast the past with the present, and speak of spoiled promise, abandoned hopes.

Woman is a potential paradise. Already Baudelaire has coupled the exotic landscape with the erotic woman. This is Woman as object, the strange and quasi-mythological primitive, or the subject of a fetishist commoditisation, her hair, her fragrance an opportunity to invoke the Idyll, to drown in the sea of her body, to conjure, as Proust learned, memory from the senses, or to sink deep into the enchanted spell of her eyes, those other oceans that open not onto Mind, but onto forgetfulness, languor, the embrace of mystery, Night. All these oceans offer a voyage into temporary paradise, all these seas: cloud, darkness, eyes, hair, memory and childhood, where mother and lover are combined, in the sensual waves where new suns might rise.

La Grèce sur les Ruines de Missolonghi

‘La Grèce sur les Ruines de Missolonghi’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

These images are not so much realities, landscapes, women, objects, as atmospheres, media, contexts, for the creation of the Idyll. They are places where we can submerge, like the mother’s dress that the child hugs, they are places of escape, and Baudelaire knows it. After all we have much to escape from. All forms of escape are potential landscapes for the Idyll: they are all potential artificial paradises. So in The Poem of Hashish, in his prose work Paradise by Artifice, Baudelaire offers drugs as a source of escape, preferable to liquor in creating what he calls the ‘artificial Ideal’. The Voyage later calls them the ‘least stupid’ option. We should not however be deceived into considering Baudelaire an addict. He was too mistrustful of all infatuations and addictions to commit to anything that destroyed his ability to create, and the Poem of Hashish as it progresses turns into an indictment of the after-effects, as they appear in Parisian Dream, of drug-induced hallucination, and of the drugs themselves as forms of slow suicide. Above all Baudelaire condemns their moral effect, the enslavement of the addict, the stimulation of the imagination coupled with a weakening of the will that destroys any benefit accrued. ‘One must always be drunk’, he proclaimed in a prose poem, ‘but with what? With wine, poetry, or virtue’: very respectable, time-honoured options.

Remote exotic islands, erotic objectified women, drugs, memories, as an escape from the claustrophobia of pain and mortal sensation, as for example in the poem Harmony of Evening: all the landscapes of paradise: Baudelaire searches always for the possibilities: had not the Voice whispered to him, seduced him, had he not chosen? Correspondences is a poem that suggests that all sensations can be symbolic means of arousing ecstasy, especially perfumes, odours, fragrances, scents. Landscape shows Baudelaire relying on imagination and the power of the artist’s will alone, lifted beyond the mundane, far from the crowd, and this concept of upwards flight he often employs. Flight is at the heart of poems like Incompatibility where the Idyll is muted and ambiguous, Elevation which echoes Correspondences in celebrating thought linked to the depths of the objective world seen as symbolic, andLover’s Wine with its suggestion of sensual, sexual ecstasy as a flight from the tormented world.

What more? Vice, infatuation, lust, avarice, gaming, the darkness of the city, its underworld, they are all means of escape for the masses, but Baudelaire himself does not suggest the many forms of self-indulgence, sin and addiction as true gateways to any even temporarily substantial paradise. They are a sad consequence of our moral corruption and of our search for the false Idyll, and they lead to self-disgust. That will become more obvious as we focus later on Baudelaire’s understanding of modernity itself. His moral power derives from his deep inner moral outrage at what we do to ourselves as human beings, and the city is the landscape in which he addresses the less savoury means of escape from the self. But total escape from the self is not the Idyll. Paradise is not achieved by self-forgetting, only by extreme self-awareness, or it is merely a false freedom. Baudelaire’s attempts at discovering paradise through voyage, Woman, flight, submersion in obsession, while frequently sensual in ambience, are not swoons. They are entries into heightened worlds, where perception is deeper, stranger, richer. And they can be transferred to paper, endowed with vitality. ‘Out of nature has been distilled fantasy’ he states in The Painter of Modern Life.

And when all voyages seem exhausted is there perhaps one more. Perhaps at the end the gates will open, and the angel will appear, as in TheDeath of Lovers, the miraculous inn will be filled with light as in The Death of the Poor, and we will sail on with Captain Death into the unknown, into a further voyage.

The idea of the Idyll, of the distant paradise, is ever-present in Baudelaire’s poems. And if that were all that there was to his life-work, if he had only written poems that encapsulate the Idyll, as a possibly attainable Ideal, then he would remain for us a late-Romantic, chasing Keats’ nightingale, or Shelley’s enchanted isles. It is his ruthless, clear-eyed vision of the modern reality around him that prevented him remaining in that situation, that made him pass on beyond Coleridge’s Abyssinian Maid, to a harsher, fiercer contemplation. Part of that clarity, ruthlessness and harshness, stems from his view of Woman, and his failure to find in relationship with the other sex, as in his relationship with the external world, a permanently consoling resolution of his frustrations.

III: Voyage to Cythera (The Vision of Venus)

In The Painter of Modern Life (X), Baudelaire calls Woman an Idol, a kind of enchantress, ‘the source of the most vivid and also…most lasting delights.’ And yet in his last Brussels notebooks he calls her ‘simultaneously the sin and the Hell that punishes it.’ Does he love Woman or hate her? The answer is both. Perhaps the root of his attitude lies in that relationship with his mother, Caroline, at first idyllic, then shattered, betrayed and compromised in Baudelaire’s terms, by her re-marriage, and ultimately soured and saddened by their tensions over money, and her lack of deep understanding of his needs and his art. However it is facile to try and interpret the power of Baudelaire’s poetry in terms of one relationship: that with his mother. While he plays out the drama of that relationship internally, and in his letters to her, while the ‘betrayal’ of that relationship sensitised him to the potential failure of all relationship, the potential for betrayal always implicit in intense, even excessive, love, that refuses to accept anything less than the Ideal, it also led him towards an adult, not merely an infantile, truth of existence, that all things pass, all is mortal, all that we most rely on is evanescent and liable to ‘betray’ us.

It does not require us to rake over the ashes of his relationship with his mother, for us to be in tune with the disasters of relationship that lurk around us, and that are always in tension with our desire for a perfect love, a deeper paradise, an achieved Ideal, a lasting and unshakeable relationship, where we are always forgiven, and always inspired to exercise our greatest and most creative powers. Baudelaire’s view of Woman is not unusual for its time. And perhaps the deeper source of his attitude is precisely the refusal to treat woman as an equal, an attitude common to his age, but rather to objectify Woman in her archetypal, mythical and classical roles. In his poems he runs through the whole gamut of traditional and accepted feelings towards the women he knew closely, they are Madonnas or witches: enchantresses and betrayers, or spiritual guides and embodiments of the Muse: angelic spirits or demonic phantoms. They can play the function of mother, sister, daughter, and equally that of seductress, lover, Siren, corrupter. Rarely, do they take up the position of friend or companion, and it is revealing that Baudelaire failed in his own life to establish such a lasting platonic relationship with a woman, though he came closest perhaps with Madame Sabatier.

He also dramatised internally the presence of the stepfather, General Aupick, a man both initially loved and admired and yet also hated, a man forming with the mother and himself a triangular situation, that Baudelaire found echoed in literature. Baudelaire too is always a spirit in whom contradiction flourishes, in whom the opposites co-exist. Extreme emotion in him can manifest at either end of its spectrum. The reality is that he was born both highly intelligent, and hyper-sensitive, so that he was enthralled by, delighted by, tormented by relationship with women, and also capable of seeing the literary, and imaginative dimensions of those relationships, into which he transported his many frustrations and his desires for the Ideal, for the paradise garden, for Beauty, the intangible mystery, that could remain above life, unshaken by its instability and transience. The image of his mother is present in the Balcony, that poem D. H. Lawrence quoted and understood so well, where she is lover, queen, sister, though merged with other women. When he sees himself as Hamlet, in Beatrice, then it is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, re-marrying the hated stepfather after Hamlet’s father’s death, who is invoked in the background, a corrupted Beatrice, merging with Ophelia. When he implies the presence of Orestes in mentioning Pylades his friend, and Electra his sister, in the Voyage, then it is the faithless Clytaemnestra who is conjured, marrying her lover, conniving at the father, Agamemnon’s murder, a father avenged by her son.

La Reine s’Efforce de Consoler Hamlet

‘La Reine s’Efforce de Consoler Hamlet’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
Yale University Art Gallery

Baudelaire is not totally dominated by memories of his mother: she is superseded by, or incorporated into other women. Woman could be the exotic, strange seductress, personified in Jeanne Duval. She is realised artistically as The Creole Lady and The Woman of Malabar, the tawny mistress of The Jewels, and the Snake That Dances, the enchanted garden of Exotic Perfume and The Head of Hair, of Afternoon Song, who is also the tormentor and betrayer of Beatrice, and Je t’adore. In that role she is primarily a component of Idyll. Despite his stormy relationship with Jeanne Duval, these are poems of literary transformation, mainly of admiration for Woman as animal, as creature, though also ultimately as cruel, and cold enchantress.

Woman too could be a purified sister or child, the red-headed beggar girl, or the exotic lover with whom he would sail to her native land in The Invitation to the Voyage and its prose equivalent, or the lover of The Death of Lovers, transubstantiated with him. There is a tenderness within these poems that shows Baudelaire’s capacity for affection and respect, that offsets and perhaps belies the compound of disgust, nostalgia and fetishism that his relationship with his mother invoked in him, or the inability to relate sexually and intellectually to Jeanne Duval that shut off from him the often tender poetic world of a Propertius or Ovid, or the interior sacred marriage of a John Donne.

In his relationship with Marie Daubrun, the figure perhaps represented at the end of The Irreparable as the theatrical fairy of gold and gauze who ‘floored the enormous Satan’, she of the green eyes, Woman represents again that tension between the enchantress and the betrayer, between that which might save and that which harms. She is the tender heart of Autumn Song II, but also the dangerous woman, cold and chilled of that same autumn in Autumn Sonnet, and is similarly pitiless and wintry in Clouded Sky and inimical in The Poison. Perhaps Semper Eadem reflects again her ability to soothe him by her presence, in a poem that may equally refer to all the women in his life.

With Madame Sabatier, his admiration becomes more intellectual and refined, as if the closer to the Ideal he travelled, the less sexual closeness was a possibility for him. Her presence arouses a deep self-disgust in him that spills over into imaginary sadism in To She Who Is Too Light-Hearted, and she (rather than Marie, I think) takes up the position of his Guardian Angel and his Ideal in Reversibility, as in Confession, For Madame Sabatier, the Living Torch (her eyes), and Hymn (where she is the immortal idol’). She becomes perhaps an intensified mother-image for him, and so opens the gates of childhood memory in Moesta Et Errabunda, and Harmony of Evening. It should be understood that for Baudelaire the women in his life merge to become a single, multi-faceted representation of Woman, so that attributing one poem or another to a specific woman fails to convey the complexity of allusion.

Sometimes Baudelaire detached himself from the specific and addressed the intellectual Ideal in pure Romantic fashion. So in Sorrows of the Moon, and the Moon Offended, that cold Ideal of Beauty softens and weeps over the lost child, the ruined century. Beauty in anything, specifically beauty in woman opens potential gates for Baudelaire, frees his mind and emotions for voyage into the ocean that soothes the bruised heart and the shattered nerves, but the spectre of sexuality, that which drags the spirit towards the animal, is the force that he can neither deny in himself nor reconcile with his Ideal. Beauty is forced then to reveal itself as a mirror-like emptiness, a gaze of stone or metal, a guarded remoteness to which Baudelaire cannot aspire (In fact eyes appear in many of his poems as the symbols of the mood he is seeking to express, their gaze obscure, or penetrating, fixed or mobile, from the ‘familiar looks’ of Correspondences, to the fixed stare of the Satyresses, from the sweet, tender eyes of Bertha, to the eyes of Beauty ‘bright with eternity’.) He must push Beauty away from himself in order to protect it from degradation.

The depth of disgust with himself that this lack of resolution and reconciliation stirs, may derive from the psychical relationship with his mother, and from Catholic teaching, it is true, but it also taps into the ancient enmity between Man the transient force, and Woman the eternal womb, it evokes the dance of the sexes, and illustrates the harmful rather than helpful roles of the woman, her ambiguity as a lover. Madonna, Angel, Muse are positive aspects of Baudelaire’s attitude towards her: the roles of sister, and daughter, are more tranquil middle-grounds between two extremes: while the supposedly benign mother, and the tender lover are more difficult roles for him, merging easily with the erotic witch and enchantress, the seducer to excessive love, and the ultimate betrayer. The self-disgust of a great poem Voyage to Cythera, can seem to sound the key-note of Baudelaire’s failure to relate to Woman. In some respects its greatness belies its narrowness and limitation as a work, carrying him back towards conventional religion, portraying him as a sexual failure, or misogynist, a man whose failure in relationship soured his view of existence.

Yet that self-disgust perhaps intensified by his breaking away from Jeanne Duval is not the whole story of Baudelaire, any more than are the difficulties of the relationship with his mother. The sensitivity, the potential for that disgust was born in him, intellect finding disappointment in reality, mind dragged down to body, desire and tenderness thwarted by reticence, and apparent betrayal. We are all, if we are truly aware, sensitised to the difficulty of modern existence. Religion failed Baudelaire in that respect as it fails us: the relationship desired has no analogue in experience: reality opposes the dream. We are left with the apparently absurd, the wasteland, and the fact that the world is not enough for us: or rather that we are too much for the world. Baudelaire’s sensitivity and courage made him a precursor who willed himself to confront reality even though he had to seek refuge also in his artificial paradises in order to temporarily escape the pain of being, or at least alleviate it.

Yet again it is not the whole story. The full range of his poetry, from his early idealisations and dream perspectives of the exotic and erotic through his four major relationships including that with his mother, and his nostalgia for that short-lived idyllic period with her, show great tenderness, and an endless yearning for satisfaction through relationship. It is the mistrust of relationship, emphasised by his mother’s betrayal perhaps, but essentially an existential condition aligned with modernity, where all relationship has to be self-sustaining, where our relationship with the external universe is in question, that causes his relationships to fail, and presents relationship, or the lack of it in enduring form, as the central issue of Baudelaire’s life and art, as it is the central issue of the emotional life of modern humanity. If Woman cannot fill the vacuum the Universe presents Man with, if no Other can fully meet the existential needs of the Self, and the Self is frail, mortal and beleaguered, then Baudelaire’s failures are specific examples of a generalised failure of human relationship to populate the Void and grant Humanity the solace it needs. Admittedly that Void is only seen by certain spirits, by certain hyper-sensitive spirits, by certain highly aware, extremely intelligent and rigorously honest spirits, while many seem satisfied with what can be realised in the human condition, but the vision is no less valid for that. Baudelaire cannot be condemned for seeing clearly, and being too stubborn an intellect to accept what he could not find acceptable, or be attacked as too weak a human being merely because he could not cease to long for what he could not realise or achieve.

The Voyage towards Woman did at times fill him with self-disgust. He saw himself as the Hanged Man, the Corpse, as flesh condemned to Hell, divorced forever from Paradise, and praying only for the courage to view himself and his failures clearly. In that mood towards the end of his life in ‘My Heart Laid Bare’ he sees the need for love as driven merely by a ‘horror of solitude, this need to forget the ego in the flesh of another’, while the artist ‘never emerges from himself’. He describes Woman as having ‘nothing except a body’, and love-making as ‘a crime for which one cannot dispense with an accomplice’. That is a soured and wearied Baudelaire. But his work as a whole does not focus on that traditional and limited extreme view of Woman. The Voyage to Cythera also understands that her island was once the ‘Isle of sweet secrets and the heart’s delight!’ His poetry covers the range, and there is within it the possibility always of tenderness, gentleness, beauty in relationship, of ‘those vows, those perfumes, those infinite kisses’ of the Balcony, that might ‘be reborn, from gulfs beyond soundings, as the suns that are young again climb in the sky, after they’ve passed through the deepest of drownings?’

Le Pendu

‘Le Pendu’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

To view him as, and worse to dismiss him as, impotent, voyeuristic, perverted, a lover of frigid women, contemptuous of the natural, is to believe too readily the words he himself wrote in his journals and elsewhere. One poem like his Letter to Saint-Beuve might stress his early intoxication with the idea of the Voluptuary: that does not make Baudelaire one, any more than we become what we read merely because it fascinates us and explains some of our internal thoughts, desires and dreams. Baudelaire used Saint-Beuve’s work to understand his own nature, but it does not define him. He always in fact distances his own work from his life. He is a much more self-conscious, self-aware poet than he is often given credit for. In certain moods he can appear exactly what he describes in his prose, he can play those roles, but his sexuality and his view of sexuality was complex, subtle, and contained many shades of awareness and feeling. The readiness with which Baudelaire’s work invites analysis, psycho-analysis, speculative destructiveness, negative commentary, should warn us to beware of simplification. His personal life does not exhaust his work, which carries meaning beyond the specific, and it is his work that concerns us here.

Baudelaire in his relationships with women is it is true in many respects an unreconstructed male, a traditionalist, a believer in the polarities. He read widely in the Greek and Roman Classics, and absorbed the Classical idea of the socially unequal though emotionally powerful role of Woman (Ovid was perhaps one of the few Classical writers whose idea of woman was somewhat more enlightened, Euripides another). Baudelaire was also a Christian, and absorbed the same polarised view of Woman often represented by the religion, Madonna or Whore, Mother or Seducer. In that respect he is perhaps not a true modern, but a child of his time, and of the past. But there is validity in understanding Woman’s representation for Man in those archetypal and restricted ways, because we are linked by sexual biology and custom to our primitive past, so that Baudelaire’s ‘love’ poems still speak to a modern reader, still realise tensions that remain powerful in our present, in our psyches (male and female) and our society. The sexual can be at war with the intellectual and spiritual in hyper-sensitive and deeply thoughtful minds. Expectation of relationship can still meet with concealment, bewitchment, disappointment, feelings of betrayal. It is the failure of relationship that is at the centre of Baudelaire’s poetry: that drives him to the Voyage: that colours and flavours his attitudes, and that proclaims his modernity. His insecurity leads to alienation, his failed paradises reveal the backcloth of hell, and the seething city, with its analogues, the seething oceans of the Siren, the woods filled with the winds’ roar, the mire and slime of Nature’s corruption, is the landscape where he searches for relationship.

Jeune Orpheline au Cimetière

‘Jeune Orpheline au Cimetière’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

IV: The City (The Vision of Hell)

If existence is fallen, if relationship with Deity, or the mother, or the Ideal, has failed, if we are exiled from the external paradise we seek, then it is natural to position ourselves in an analogue of the traditional Hell, whose ruler is the traditional Satan, the Angel who sinned through Pride. The analogue for Dante’s City of Dis, where Satan rules, is the modern City, Paris with its crowded streets and arcades, its multiplicity of beings and locations, its many levels and gradations of existence. Satan will be a kind of hero, a mask of the poet, a Prince of Exile as we see in the Litanies of Satan. But we are in a strange and somewhat different Hell than that of Dante. The sins of the modern Satanist are not Dante’s public sins of violence, evil against others: they are not the sins of heresy, public corruption, or public betrayal of others: they are rather the obsessions and frailties of the modern Self. Those who go looking for the world of a De Sade in Baudelaire are soon disappointed, despite his often colourful mock-Satanic poses. He is essentially a moral man, adrift in modernity’s maze, a man of great tenderness ravaged by existential loss. Satan, the poet’s image, is the eternally frustrated one, the buried rebel, the dethroned prince of longing. His disciples are the tormented ones, those seeking escape or forgetfulness, solace or oblivion. When they are strong and invigorated, they are proud rebels, seeking, as Baudelaire claims the dandy, the flâneur, does in The Painter of Modern Life, to ‘combat and destroy the trivial’. They will identify with other rebels, they will as we shall see, become aspects of ‘the poet as hero’. When they are weak and damaged they will be the lost tribe of Cain, the wanderers in pain and torment, the driven gamblers of The Game, and the sad images of ourselves in To The Reader, the strange tribe of Seven Old Men, exiled Wandering Jews, or the sufferers and labourers of the Evening and Morning Twilight, the damned Lesbian Women, and the inhabitants of the ladder of sins in the Voyage, in Calm. They are our selves: exiles, crooks, whores, gamblers, drinkers, flawed by deadly sins of pride and lust, avarice and envy, by stupidity and meanness, by deceitfulness and cruelty. Dante’s Hell is in some sense contained within Baudelaire’s, as the public is somehow concealed in the private, but it is the private self, the inner self, the fallen self, that Baudelaire is primarily concerned with.

La Messagère du Diable

‘La Messagère du Diable’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

And it seems the sinners are not truly evil, as Satan is not demonic. Baudelaire identifies with and sympathises with his victims of existence, those cast into the existential Void, who strive to create means of escape, through infatuation, obsession, opiates, intoxication with wine, beauty, sensuality, those who search for any means of escape, any fruitful relationship, but who end, betrayed, adrift, tormented, imprisoned in the Self, and face to face with spiritual emptiness, with the lassitude of lost ideals and aims, with Ennui. This is a realm without Faith, or Hope, and so it can be mapped to Dante’s Hell, but equally since there is no Paradise, and no Purgatory except in the sense of a repetition of hell in the internal purgatory of remorse and self-disgust, it can easily be mapped to a modern wasteland, where religion is no longer a meaningful intellectual option, where behaviour and morality must be addressed from the direction of our biological origins, and our imposed ‘civilised’ values, which if we are to save them must be rooted in creativity opposing destruction, truth opposing falsehood, kindness opposing violence and cruelty, whether physical or spiritual, and empathy forging relationship against the indifference of the intention-less Universe.

The City for Baudelaire is another ocean of isolation, another place where relationship fails. Though he is essentially an apolitical writer, barely non-conformist, his age penetrates his thought and writing, merely because of the potency of the changes happening around him. Paris reveals all the facets of the modern Capitalist citadel. There, Baudelaire explained in an early poem, the prostitute sells her soul to buy shoes, and he too sells his thought, wanting to be an author. The City is a marketplace where the individual is commoditised, and that is a key aspect of Baudelaire’s Hell, that the individual, so prominent a feature of Dante’s Hell, even among the crowds there, is here submerged in the ant-heap.

In The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire celebrates the impassioned observer, anonymous spectator at home in the world, entering into the masses, ‘a huge reservoir of electrical energy’. The street is a dwelling-place, the crowd is endless interest. Yet already it is the isolated voyeur whom Baudelaire brings before us, the man for whom relationship is with the crowd and not other individuals. It needs a Kierkegaard to penetrate that psychology of the crowd, that mass culture of our age, that statistical murmur of which we are all now part, Kierkegaard, greatest defender of the pass and defile of the Individual. For Baudelaire the masses merely conceal the asocial individual deep in their ranks. He writes of the woman who passes by, the erotic opportunity, that like a flash of lightning arrives and vanishes, fugitive beauty, forever loved and forever unknown. The crowd, its anonymity, offers here the perfect realisation of the Ideal, that which can be seen, which enters into the lonely soul, but like a figure in a painting, a character in a novel, can never be compromised by new and extraneous knowledge. She is a Beatrice who cannot be corrupted by reality: Beatrice mourned and loved from afar.

La Musique aux Tuileries

‘La Musique aux Tuileries’ - Édouard Manet (French, 1832 - 1883)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

For the individual who fails in relationship the City is a haven, full of interest, human interest, but divorced from self, complex, requiring no engagement, yet inviting it, while seducing us. In the City individuals as Sartre noted, fulfil roles, submerge themselves. So the gambler, the drinker, the seeker of anonymous sex, the thief, the beggar, the whore, the dandy, the voyeur, can move in secret, though wholly visible, so long as they play their parts well. It is theatre. It is Vanity Fair. Yet human beings become numbers, their output becomes a commodity: their identity becomes the trail of their public transactions, nature is distanced. The sensitive person who longs for intimate relationship is both enthralled and appalled by the seething of the crowd, seduced by its anonymity and sense of protection, its glitter and enchantment, its confusion of classes and tasks, contrasted with its distinctions of levels and gradations, yet also annihilated by its emptiness and indifference, its ruthless commoditisation and its existence beyond the transient components that happen at any time to comprise it. At night it is a strange new ocean, populated by denizens of the deep and surface shoals, glittering with lights like the hidden universe, concealing and revealing.

Masques Parisiens

‘Masques Parisiens’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire was experiencing the first stage of this urbanisation effect. His Paris still has a high degree of intimacy and individuality, yet by reason of its complexity and size it can act as a potent drug on the dulled mind, both stimulating and refreshing. Later as his Paris changes, as he finds it harder to manage the shadows and the miseries, it becomes an ocean on which the exile floats, a night through which he wanders, a dark wood in which he is storm-bound, its resting-places are barren rocks, its inhabitants are downed birds, lost sailors, abandoned spirits. The human wreckage: the human disaster, the submergence of the individual, the repetition of beings within roles, all become more apparent as Baudelaire’s perspective darkens. He himself detests progress and industry (but not individual work, that to him was sacred) and yet realises that the landscape of his own city verses owes much to the changes modernity is bringing about. He has deep empathies but they are not translated into humanitarian action, which is another aspect of Baudelaire’s apolitical nature, his concern with self and its sensitivities, his lack of relationship. He looks into Hell, he wanders its streets, among the fiery tombs, and the icy lakes, the pools of slime, and the rocky deserts, just as Dante does, but though his keynote is also pity, and though he does not condemn so much as identify with Hell’s denizens, his journey through it leads to no program of change, no discipline that progresses us towards Paradise. Paradise is achieved if at all by escape, for here there is no God, and no hope of salvation, only of miraculous transformation within, through fantasy, delirium, art, dream, or voyage. This Hell is Hell, as in Dante, eternal, a state of loss, of stasis, of fracture, of separation, where relationship is doomed, but compared with Dante’s Hell it is one with no way out, other than the journey within.

Baudelaire’s work, unlike Hugo’s or Dickens’, is not filled with descriptions of the City. His Paris appears, as in The Swan, as almost a Classical backcloth, otherwise it is conjured by subtle hints, by mood and feel, as in The Seven Old Men, or in Epilogue. The crowd is present, even in the deserted dawn, as a spectral throng, Dante’s masses on the shore of Acheron, present as the hosts of the dead in the anatomical plates of the bookseller’s stalls, present in the repetition of old men, the wandering Jew multiplied by identity, or the shrivelled old women. Baudelaire supports the Individual, separated from this Hellish mob, yet in his weaker moments he identified with the mob. In Baudelaire the city implies the crowd, the crowd implies the city. The place where relationship fails is also the series of faces with whom it fails, the sets of eyes that gaze at the single one, sad pensive eyes, fixed eyes, the eyes of the lost beings who in that powerful poem Obsession leap from his eyes onto the canvas of shadows, uniting the crowds defeated by Nature with those defeated and exiled by society. Incidentally, as previously suggested, a whole book could be written on the eyes that appear in Baudelaire’s poems, of every colour from green to blood red, carrying every mood from languor to venom, from seductiveness to fixity, eyes of interrogation, repose, trance, witchcraft, darkness, the windows of the spirit, and its pools of oblivion also.

For Baudelaire the City is the Crowd, and it is also the Ocean, the Forest trees, the shadows of Night, all of those giant arenas which correspond to it, and which also transmute the crowd into the lost ranks of the dead, the drowned voyagers, the familiar shades from which the Self is severed. Among the crowd the lonely man can make contact with the anonymous Ideal, or be terrified by the monotony of repetition, can single out the mirror of the Self, or be lost in the multiple echoing images of the multitude.

It is interesting to trace this altering City in his poetry as it develops through time. In the early poems, for example in Landscape, the City is an enchanted world, above which a further enchanted world lies, inhabited by the poet separated from the Crowd, its workshops full of ‘song and light’. The belfries and towers are masts of voyaging ships, or vessels in a vast harbour, and the solitary poet can conjure an Idyll in imagination that transcends the City but is launched from its eyries. Similarly in The Sun, the City is a place of possibilities where the lone poet can wander receiving inspiration, while the same poetic sun that warms his spirit enters and warms the City. In both poems the Crowd is absent, temporarily stilled, barred from access, abandoned below, or rendered invisible.

By the time of Evening and Morning Twilight, the City is a populated ant-heap with recognisable characters that arouse empathy. These are exiles too, lost on the ocean of shadows, at dawn or evening. The Irreparable without mentioning the City specifically shows nevertheless an illuminated screen where the shadows of the defeated Crowd pass, where only in the theatre does the fantasy of Hope stir. Further on, in Moesta Et Errabunda it has become a sordid city, a city of slime and remorse. As Baudelaire lives beyond his close relationships with women, and becomes more isolated, so the darkened image of the City and the Crowd of the damned intensifies. With To The Reader, and The Game, we are among the crowd of obsessed, sinful spirits, images of ourselves, of the average human being, locked in place in the stasis of Hell. The Seven Old Men shows us a terrifying vision of monstrous repetition and multiplication, of exile and spiritual desolation, where the only image Baudelaire can find for his own soul is (as in Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’) a ‘mastless barge’ on a ‘monstrous sea’, perfect symbol of the defeated vessel of the Individual, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of the City.

Finally in the Draft Epilogue and Epilogue, and in Calm, the City is once more a backcloth only now a backcloth for the exhausted spirit, for the weary alchemist who has ‘turned mud into gold’, whose heart is quiet, who at last finds calm. It is a tribute to Baudelaire’s monumental construction of his poetic work, his slow, tenacious building of an almost Classical oeuvre, that we can see these steady changes in his perception of the City and the Crowd as his life changes, and he becomes increasingly sensitive to failed relationship, lost ideals, and the ambivalence of the City that provided him with an ever-changing background, a strange intense landscape, but also challenged his very being with its ultimate indifference to him, an indifference in which at the last he finds refuge.

And Satan is absent, or all-but absent. The City of Dis is not the City of a heroic Satan, but a place of alienation, something Baudelaire also learnt from Dante, whose Satan, when we reach him at the base of the Inferno, is a ludicrous monster from whom emanates an absurd gale of darkness, that has no need to stir and fuel Hell, because it is in a sense impotent to alter the stasis of the infernal regions with their eternally repetitive punishments, and their masses of shades without hope, progression, or even, in the depths, language. And this City is not the city of the Revolution, the failed revolution spiritually, in that it brought nothing to the masses but a new kind of slavery. It is the City of Modernity, of the future, where Revolution is defused by wealth and urbanisation, by mechanisation and acceptance. Baudelaire is no revolutionary, he is a witness.

Here, in this City of Dis, the sins are not sins against Deity but sins against Self: against Mind and Imagination. Crime is significant rather than sin, and crime, as theft, prostitution, avarice, stupidity, is spiritual laziness, an obsession to match the other obsessions of the spirit, pride, lust, longing, remorse, regret, memory even: it is an opiate to dull the senses. The City itself is a commoditised space, a theatre for the Crowd, with which the true Individual cannot identify. Here there is no Catullus, or Horace. Paris is not Classical Rome, and the poet is in exile from the social nexus, wherever that may be located. How completely Baudelaire in his poetry cuts himself off from the society of his time, from his own class, his peers! Whatever his situation in life, his situation in the poetry is carefully determined and subtly penned. He identifies with the outcasts, the pariahs, the obsessed, the defeated, and not with the successful, the wealthy, the powerful, and yet he is never a rebel as such, and in the end is like Dante ‘a party of one’, a spiritual onlooker, for whom the City is symbol but never an entity with which he has a true relation, any more than he has with Nature.

Baudelaire is ultimately not a poet of the City or the Crowd, as say Hugo was, or Dickens. He is not in profound relation. He identifies and draws back, he empathises and scorns. He is no lover of the people, no democrat, no Walt Whitman. Baudelaire is too full of disgust with the human condition, too full of self-disgust to champion a humanity he has lost faith in. His city dwellers are not the respectable citizens, who hardly appear, they are those whose lives depend on transience, on chance, on the repetition of the valueless instant, they are opportunistic thieves, gamblers whose fate depends on the next moment, on randomness: they are prostitutes seeking the next encounter, the repetition of previous encounters: they are beggars and rag-pickers searching the mire. They are not creative workers, builders, artists, but the flotsam and jetsam of the mindless ocean, the recipients of the fruits of anonymity, those who have fallen out of relationship, and whose public lives do not require relationship except with the ephemeral. The prostitute is the archetypal symbol of this commercialised, commoditised society, one who is the physical commodity and the seller, the shop-window and the store, the product and the service combined. Relationship with a prostitute, such as Jeanne Duval almost certainly was, exists in that overlap between the fixed social world of work and home, and the fluid world of the ephemeral City. Baudelaire was attracted by that overlap, that twilight, that boundary between raw and cooked, wild and tame, land and sea. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘does the man of intellect prefer whores to society women, although both types are equally stupid? Find the answer?’ The answer is in the freedom that such a meeting offers: freedom from oppressive, fixed, or failed relationships, freedom for new relationship. Ennui drives Baudelaire towards such a meeting, disappointment and disgust finally drive him away. Jeanne Duval was not a path to the ideal or the Idyll: and unfortunately Marie Daubrun and Madame Sabatier were not paths to satisfaction and solace either. The City is always for Baudelaire a source of interest, a source of mystery, an ocean for anonymous voyage, a place of concealed freedoms, and yet it also leads through observation of its denizens, and entry into its whirlpool, to sadness, shame and alienation.

La Foire aux Amores

‘La Foire aux Amores’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

The City, the Crowd, is where pride may be exhibited, fame may be won, relationship may be established, the Mind may be stimulated, life may be enjoyed, and yet, for the shy man, the anxious man, the hyper-sensitive man, the man for whom relationship with the Other is difficult, who finds it hard to emerge from himself, it is also where humiliation may be exacted, failure may become evident, the Mind may be dulled by obsession and disappointment, life may be constrained and dissipated. It is one more Ocean of the Voyage.

V: Voyage to Modernity (The Vision of Limitation)

Baudelaire’s Voyage was a voyage in search of relationship. Voyage is movement, it expresses possibility, opens horizons, re-energises hope. The ship, the vessel, a persistent symbol for him, is like us a wanderer, happier than us through its insentience, beautiful in its form (at least the fully-rigged sailing ship that Baudelaire knew was), a wanderer of far distances, a traveller to exotic countries, always arriving, resting, setting out again, rocked by the waves as in a cradle. ‘A harbour is a charming retreat for a soul weary of life’s struggles’ says Baudelaire in his prose poems (XLI The Harbour) going on to describe the slender vessels in their harmonious oscillations. The Invitation to the Voyage and its prose equivalent celebrate them: ‘nomads’ who ‘come from the ends of the world’, ‘huge ships charged with riches’ which are his own ‘enriched thoughts’. The vessels are quasi-living entities, beings like us who search for eternity, for the Idyll, for the Ideal, only more blessed than us, cradled by the ocean, carrying memories of childhood in their rocking motion, sensations of intimacy, symmetry and beauty. They evoke ‘the notion of a huge creature, complicated but rhythmical, an animal full of genius, suffering and sighing with all the ambitions of mankind.’ (Rockets XXII). ‘These great, handsome ships, swaying imperceptibly, cradled so to speak, on the tranquil waves: these strong ships, with their aura of idleness and nostalgia, surely they ask us, silently: ‘When do we set sail for happiness?’ (Rockets XI). Ships have identities: they are those almost-living hulls of Virgil’s that populate the Aeneid (See especially Cybele’s transformation of the Trojan fleet in Book IX). They are the steeds of heroes: of Odysseus, or the Argonauts.

Embarquement de Folkestone

‘Embarquement de Folkestone’ - Édouard Manet (French, 1832 - 1883)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

The ship at anchor is the poet waiting for inspiration, indolent in the creative sense, yet rigged out, ready for travel, waiting a favourable breeze. It is strong, sturdy, solid, a potential hero. Far horizons beckon to it, its path is not yet charted: its destinations are not yet visible: the unknown entices, the undiscovered calls. When it sets sail it becomes the image of all wanderers, all Classical travellers, all escapees from our many internal and external prisons, and so analogous with every nomad, gypsy, every great bird in flight, and the ocean on which it sails is a symbol of every other ocean into which we plunge, where we swim, whose waves we traverse, the oceans of Woman and sensuality, of the City, of intoxication, obsession and dream, of night and twilight, of the Other whose eyes absorb us, of Nature’s great forests, sunsets and seasons, of Time, Space, Mind, action, desire.

And if Baudelaire were only the poet of these things, of tranquil harbours, of setting sail, of calm voyages and ecstasy in the depths, then he would remain the Romantic poet, le romantique transcendant that Flaubert claimed him to be, a classic of that genre. But Baudelaire is only rarely the poet of these things. He does indeed touch on the beauties and the enchantments, none more brilliantly, so that the images from his poems of ships at rest, or setting out on their voyage stay with us, fiercely and sweetly delineated. But Baudelaire’s true voyage is towards Modernity, and so his voyages end not in enchanted isles, rather they are voyages to Cythera, or to the distant but disappointing destinations of his greatest poem The Voyage, from which bored travellers return to report scathingly the tedious news of the whole world. His exotic women end as debased exiles, the Woman of Malabar, or Andromache that tragic heroine passed through many hands, and the lost consumptive negress of The Swan. His wanderers, his gypsies, travel towards the realm of shadows, ‘eyes grown heavier, with mournful regret for absent visions’. His city dwellers are doomed to the transience, resignation, decrepitude, and repetition of their doomed landscape. The great birds fall from the sky, symbols, as is Icarus of the aspiring artist, of the poet himself, crippled like the Albatross on earth, damaged and dying like the Swan. The wiser Owls recommend caution. Nature too creates fear rather than beauty as in Obsession, or emphasises the sadness of transience as in Autumn Song, or the pain of existence as in Music. And even in death, which seems perhaps a gateway at the end of The Voyage or in Death of the Poor, even there it seems the dream is corrupted, the carcase of beauty rots, the skeletons of the dead dig forever in an enigmatic landscape.

Baudelaire begins his voyage seeking, as he says of Guys in his essay on him, ‘the transitory, fleeting beauty of our present existence, the characteristics of what the reader has allowed us to call modernism.’ But Baudelaire is not the poet of that beauty alone, it co-exists in his work with clarity of thought, a depth of feeling that is in tension with that beauty. Modernity is the realisation of limitation. Romanticism in its failure to find an objective state corresponding to its desires for the Ideal, and the Idyll, ends in Ennui, in a spiritual impasse. It is Baudelaire’s greatness as a poet to transmute that mud into gold, to extract poetic riches from unpromising material, to blend the dream and the enchantment with the harsh reality, so that we are presented with the latter veiled by the former. Poetic form and beauty of language and imagery allow us closer to the reality while still protected to some degree from its full impact.

On occasions Baudelaire’s poetry can create an illusion of modernity where it is in fact highly traditional. Poems like Beatrice, which reveals the faithless mistress or A Rotting Carcase composed on the theme of the mistress’s and beauty’s mortality, connect to a formal poetic past, here Classical and Medieval respectively (there is a Renaissance connection also for example with the poetry of Ronsard), but Baudelaire infuses even these poems with a sense of the deep yearning for the Ideal, the Idyll, Paradise, a longing, compromised by reality, that takes us well beyond those previous periods, while retaining a classical and medieval solidity and sense of the real, that likewise takes us beyond Romanticism. No Roman writer, no Ovid, Horace or Virgil desires to escape from reality as much as this, or is so inimical to daily life, so desperate to go beyond the given. Classicism ultimately enjoys its world, and even enjoys the formal speculation about the after-life. There is an irony in Latin Classicism towards its subject matter, a half-veiled disbelief in the deities that populate its world, a sophisticated transformation of the Greek inheritance, and Baudelaire relates to that, and inherits that irony, transferring it to the Christian ethos. But it is the intensity of Christian belief, now denied that fuels Baudelaire’s intensity, an intensity that is not found in the gentle laughter and calm speculation of the less intense Romans. No Medieval writer has so little faith in the other aspects of the afterlife that offset the terror and disgust of mortality and deceit. Baudelaire is in Hell with no Paradise: while the Classical world doubted Hell and Paradise: the Medieval world believed in both: and the Renaissance world was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to faith.

Le Vice Suprême

‘Le Vice Suprême’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Some of Baudelaire’s inferior poetry is too full of the pose (or reality) of the tormented poet to engage us closely now, it smacks of the hysteria of Romanticism rather than its clarity. Many of his poems, The Balcony is a very fine example, are expressions of desire and longing, of escape and reverie, modern in tone because they take internal rather than external routes: society, religion, metaphysics etc offering no obvious paths to the poet. But perhaps his greatest poems bring us face to face with reality, in terms which do engage, and do stay with us as defining images of the human predicament in the modern world. It is useful to pick out some of these great keynote poems that punctuate the voyage.

The Albatross, is the first such poem: it brings Romanticism to earth, or rather to the deck, and the Poet is presented as a creature blessed with spiritual and intellectual wings but grounded by reality, and doomed to constraint and limitation. Beatrice is a self-revealing, defining though still traditional moment, where Woman is seen as the betrayer and the poet as a shadow of Hamlet, a player of roles, a distressed modern tormented by the mocking face of the real. The two poems taken together define the poet as a limited, distressed creature, who will be failed by his deepest attempts at relationship, that with the empowering voyage of the spirit through Nature and the universe, and that with Woman, the beloved Other, who as mother, lover, and companion will betray or abandon the loving heart to a desolate relation-less state.

If the Ideal and the Idyll are illusions, if lust torments the body and corrupts and condemns the spirit, if reality tears apart the enchanted isles of relationship, then the poet is the Hanged Man of ‘Voyage To Cythera’. This magnificent poem, though again its attitudes can be seen as somewhat closed and traditional, presents clearly the failure of Romantic Love, and relationship, when face to face with the self-disgust that the body imposes on the spirit. Utilising the symbolism of voyaging it anticipates, in its imagery and tone, his greatest poem, The Voyage, while remaining focused on this one dimension of the search for the Ideal, and its resulting failure. The second, greater poem develops out of this first less ambitious concept.

Moesta Et Errabunda reveals the next major attempt to reclaim paradise, and the next confrontation with and realisation of reality. Madame Sabatier is probably addressed here, and their shared frustration is a call to another desperate voyage, towards a virgin sea that might console the poet, through an escape from the city and from suffering, and a regaining (with Madame Sabatier as the mother figure) of childhood innocence with its pre-sexual longings. It is an attempt to go beyond Woman, or rather to return to the cradle, the womb, the harbour where everything is still possible. But its closing lines already anticipate the failure of the journey backwards, there is no return.

To The Reader, like a lesser poem The Game, offers a condemnation of modern humanity, its meanness and triviality rather than its great sinfulness: these damned souls even ‘lack fire’! The poem is a symphony of a city it hardly mentions, and while it may seem caustic in its litany of failure, it is also empathetic in its conclusion. This world is the world of the reader, but also the poet. Baudelaire condemns himself along with us all. We are the voyeurs of reality, filled with Ennui, not merely boredom, but spiritual barrenness, dreaming of action and sin while solacing ourselves with meaningless pleasures. The Game, Spleen, and Obsession form a fine lesser trio, emphasising this strange Hell of the lost and defeated, the limited and confined, driven by their repetitious obsessions, filled with tedium or fear, longing for escape, devoid of faith in the spirit or the afterlife, and willing to accept even the torments of their modern Hell to the nothingness of the abyss, to death and annihilation.

Ideas and imagery from all these poems contributed to Baudelaire’s central masterpiece, The Voyage. Here, in Part I, childhood has embraced the illusion of a vast universe, of life as a great adventure, but now memory realises the pettiness of existence and the smallness of the world. With his opening verse Baudelaire severs himself from any return to childhood innocence, and already anticipates for us the results of the voyage. The ocean, every ocean, is a sea where we take our desires, longing to be soothed, and longing to escape from all our failed attempts at capturing the Ideal, through ambition and work, through a return to childhood, or through that seductive Circe, Woman. The escaping traveller stuns himself with experience to mute the pain and destroy the longing, while the truest travellers voyage out of pure restlessness, a Faustian discontent that demands their endless flight towards the phantasms of their dreams.

Part II shows us, as in a mirror, our mad pursuit, spurred on by our malaise and by curiosity, of Love, Fame or Happiness, only to find the barren reef, the deserted rocky isle, the mirages of Eldorado, Capua, the New World. Parts III and IV bring us the traveller’s tale, the report from our peers around the globe, the news from everywhere. Cities and landscapes fail to reveal the promise we dreamed, Man and Nature cannot satisfy us. Pleasure only fuels fresh desire, without satisfying our lust for the Ideal and the Idyll. The travellers bring back the exotic for our delectation, the curiosities of strange religions, foreign women, descriptions of architecture, knowledge of all the sights. None of that attracts for long. What else has the traveller found?

Parts V and VI bring us the dreadful truth. Everywhere is here. All is the same. Ennui is indeed this vision of the world as repetition. Travelling to foreign countries is no longer travelling towards difference and even perhaps enlightenment, it is travelling towards sameness, towards the human selves we cannot leave behind, but are obliged always to take with us, towards the ladder of sin and corruption that is ours also, towards the failed relationship of the sexes, towards the corruptions of violence and power, the evasions, hypocrisies and illusions of religion, towards the same narcotics and obsessions, the same drugs and vanities, that we find at home. How brilliantly Baudelaire paints the appalling picture: he almost sculpts the condemnation of our human world out of some bright yet veined classical stone. How clearly he anticipates the endless Ennui of the modern world, of unsatisfactory restless tourism, of media chatter, of petty dictators and small wars, of relentless hypocrisy and blindness, of damaging triviality and blandness, a world that has to lull itself with drugs and pleasures, with entertainments, with those last voyages that are in reality only voyages around the bay.

À un Diner d'Athées

‘À un Diner d'Athées’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Part VII cements the vision in place. It is ourselves, our own Self that we will find, ‘our image beckoning’ to us in ‘a desert of ennui.’ Time is the enemy, tormenting us, yet still even now sometimes spurring us on, until we hear once more the Siren voices, calling us towards the shores of the Lotus Eaters, like noble, long-suffering Odysseus and his men, or tempting us, like Orestes, the exile and destined avenger of those betrayers, his mother and stepfather, towards relationship: Friendship personified by Orestes’ friend Pylades, or Love of family, of innocence, in the form of his sister Electra.

So to Part VIII: if we have done the rounds of our world, if it can offer nothing more than tedium, weariness, boredom, if all our attempts at reaching the Ideal fail, if the Idyll cannot satisfy, if all is doomed to repetition, if we are to be like Sisyphus rolling his rock forever up the slope only to watch it roll down, like Tantalus stretching for food he can never reach, like Ixion bound eternally on a wheel of sameness, or like Prometheus condemned to be tormented, torn by the birds, and then restored for fresh torment: if that is our fate, then Death may be preferable, Death alone may offer a voyage beyond this sterility, into whatever realm lies beyond, Hell or Heaven, who cares, but at least something new.

The Voyage is Baudelaire’s clearest, most ‘classical’, and most accomplished attempt to encapsulate the ills of himself and his age, to explain the apparent failure of our relationships with the world, with Nature, with ourselves, and with each other, and in so doing he literally brings on Modernity, and thereby instigates all our attempts since to redefine the human condition in terms that confirm, evade or deny his conclusions. I will discuss those attempts briefly later.

Baudelaire was left at the end of his life to recapitulate the themes of his previous poetry, in terms primarily of loss and sadness, disappointment and at least partial failure (of his personal life though not of his art). Among these, two great poems of Modernity stand out. Firstly The Swan, a poem which returns in sadness to a Paris that is changing, a Paris of the widowed, the exiled like Ovid, the fallen like the shattered swan itself, biting the dust, the lost like the consumptive negress searching for her idyllic and exotic homeland, the orphaned, the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the defeated. The mood is one of deep melancholy. The scene is one of transience and decay. These are Classical ruins, pointed by the references to the unhappy Andromache, wife of the broken warrior, Hector, widow of all dead heroes, and by the wolf-mother Sorrow, who akin to the mythical wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus Rome’s founders, nourishes the modern age. Andromache is our symbol, she who has suffered at the hands of Achilles, and his son, and whose ‘false Simois’, and smaller version of Troy in exile, are like our diminished age and art compared with the greater ages that are behind us, from which we are exiled, defeated by the conquerors, Time and Fate.

Le Werwolf

‘Le Werwolf’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

The other poem that emerges from this late cluster, perfect though chilling, is The Void. The Voyage led to the abyss, and now Baudelaire will describe it, echoing Pascal’s Void, the immense spaces that terrified him, an abyss like that which Goethe’s Mephistopheles offers us, where all is valueless because all is doomed to extinction, where Time defeats all our actions, dreams, desires, and even our words, even the Word of revelation. Whatever ‘God’ he speaks of here seems not to be on our side. Is this religion he mentions? Is Baudelaire religious? Or is ‘God’ merely his name for the forces of fate and time that toy with him? The torment is of being denied nothingness, being condemned to being and number, names and forms as Buddhism would say perhaps, the illusions that entrap us, and prevent us from achieving Nirvana, acceptance, resolution, ultimate relationship with the Universe. If Baudelaire’s ‘God’ exists, he is being distanced from humanity, and is hardly a god of Love.

So the Voyage ends in the abyss, or at least in the fear of it, the fear of its being no more a resolution of our spiritual and emotional suffering and torment than reality is.

Baudelaire has further poems to write after The Void. He even appears to drift towards a religious conclusion in The Unforeseen, but we should remember the ironic note Baudelaire attached to that poem: ‘Here the author of Les Fleurs du mal is turning towards the eternal life. It had to end that way. Let us observe that like all the newly-converted, he is very strict and very fanatical.’ He learnt his irony towards religion perhaps from Ovid, from that late pagan world that believed and doubted simultaneously.

VI: The Poet As Hero (The Vision of Icarus)

Where does the immensity of that Voyage, the bleakness of that Vision, leave the poet as a human being? To answer that we must consider Baudelaire’s view of poetry and of himself as a poet, his view of the role the poet might adopt in modernity. ‘No one listens to the wind which will blow on us tomorrow, yet the heroism of modern life surrounds us and presses in on us’ he said. ‘The artist, the true artist, will be the one who can extract what is epic from modern life.’ Understanding the nature of his age, the terrible forces that are ranged against the individual, the ‘cheapening of hearts’, the ‘coarsening of our natures’ (Rockets XXII), that industrialisation and commercialisation inflict, the degree to which the life and the courage of the spirit are weakened by an obstacle beyond our strength, the formless nature of our times, understanding all that, Baudelaire nevertheless demanded the poet adopt the role of hero. It takes a heroic mind to live modernity. To give shape to it is the labour of a Hercules. Nowadays we cannot set out to describe ‘the’ world (even Baudelaire still had that asset to a degree, the beauties and charms of his ‘period’) we must first create ‘a’ world, a consistent image of the world, our own internal version of it, before we can write it: just as we must create a consistent range of words and phrases to encapsulate it. The artist, the poet, is a maker of worlds not a describer of them. Yes, that was always true. Art is art, a creation. But modernity requires a greater trial of strength, a repeated task of clearing away the jostling of the crowd, the multiplicity of signs and signals: a repeated assault like Sisyphus on his rock. And the heroism is without hope, Ennui is at the door, and no easy answers will suffice. What is required is a massive act of will, across a lifetime, to create an art whose surface value may appear barely commensurate with the effort (where after all is our Divine Comedy, our Metamorphoses, our Odyssey?). Yet as Baudelaire asks himself, is the achievement not perhaps ‘infinitely more worthy, because it triumphed in a hostile atmosphere and place’.

Take a hypersensitive man, and set him down in a seething modern city, let him understand the problems of relationship, personal, social, spiritual, in such a place. Is not the ordinary man, a hero, the ordinary woman a heroine to carve a life out of such a chaos? And the poor, the wretched, the derelict, the non-conformist, those living the most ephemeral of lives, represent for Baudelaire the wreckage of the city’s tempest. He does not identify with them, except symbolically. He is not a revolutionary, an activist, a rebel, or a saint. He stands apart even as he describes and empathises. He is a witness: I refuse to say a voyeur.

In the beginning Baudelaire is a Romantic, it is Romanticism that first projects the poet as hero: that begins to be self-aware, to construct its own myth, in a mode derived from Dante, himself the protagonist of that great journey through the three realms. In Landscape, and The Sun, we see the young poet positioning himself above or outside the crowd in a seemingly empty city, or one where the poet is strangely separated from others, already exercising an act of will, creating self-sufficiently from his own being, identifying with the solitary and remote sun that brings light to the masses, a duellist in Dumas mode fighting for his art. In Sorrows of the Moon, and Beauty, we see that poets are a race apart, that the solitary poet identifies with the distant, narcissistic and languid Moon, that poets are the docile lovers of remote beauty inspired to create, as slaves to the Ideal. These are romantic ideas, not particularly original with Baudelaire, but beautifully expressed by him, and showing already his unique approach.

With Don Juan in Hell, we have a picture of the isolated ‘hero’, the individualist, gazing quietly at the sea of reality, and illusion, proud and scornful, choosing and accepting his own destiny even crossing the Acheron. The image will return at the end of The Voyage as the poet asks Captain Death to weigh anchor and float us into the unknown, into the new.

On Tasso In Prison, gives us the poet as distraught genius, stifled and imprisoned by the world, in a scene with romantic and baroque overtones, while Elevation is a pure declaration of the prize to be won by willed isolation, by mental activity, by the search for the higher and purer. As often with Baudelaire he uses an image of flight to stress freedom, individuality, and the powers of self-willed ascent that winged things symbolise. When defeat and failure comes it will be symbolised by fall, like the fall of proud Satan, into the pit of reality.

As Baudelaire’s art develops, as life becomes more difficult, as the Ideal comes to seem unattainable, he deepens his position. The poet is doomed to disappointment and perhaps ultimate defeat and failure, in a world inimical to him and to the Ideal. He is to be identified with other beings who strive against the odds, especially those who are exiled or underprivileged but still proud, like the Red-Headed Beggar Girl, or the Wandering Gypsies, doomed to frustration like Sisyphus, or the Lesbian Women, those Greek-style Sapphic victims of a wrong-headed society, ‘modern woman in her heroic manifestation’. He creates and celebrates, in the face of mortality, as in A Rotting Carcase, denying, in Renaissance fashion, the claims of Death to ultimate sovereignty. In Je t’adore, he attempts to assault, heroically, an implacable and unattainable objective, like some Giant of old attacking Olympus.

Les Gitanos

‘Les Gitanos’ - Édouard Manet (French, 1832 - 1883)
Yale University Art Gallery

Satan is his patron in all this, Satan a symbol of undefeated pride, the guardian of arcane wisdom, the teacher of alchemical skills of transmutation, the champion of the resolute and defiant, spirit of hope and consolation among the exiled and the damned. This is the true sense in which Baudelaire is a Satanist, that Satan is a divinity for him of the oppressed, not an inspirer of crude or violent acts of body or mind. So Satan cannot be relinquished as an idea, and the blasphemy of some of Baudelaire’s worst verse is in the end a protest against a God and a religion to which he cannot give ultimate consent, for the sake of those lost in the Inferno, because they are human, with human weaknesses. It is the position of the intellectual rebel, but it leads not to action in Baudelaire, only to the creation of a testament, the testament of modernity.

The hero of the modern world traverses modernity, and is attacked and savaged by it. For him the social contract is broken, since the laws and the virtues condemn so many to exile and failure, disappointment and defeat, yet Baudelaire distances himself from both the worker and the bourgeois, from both the criminal and the justice system. He always moves back, and moves away. He should never be recruited by his commentators into the ranks of the revolutionaries. Baudelaire is an heir of the failed revolutions of the spirit, and of the successful revolutions of matter, commerce, industry. He prophesies the permanence of exile, the completion of mechanisation, the eternal separation of the poet as hero from his Ideal. He both loves and hates his world, as one loves and hates the hell of one’s obsessions, the charms of one’s lost struggles: the flavour of one’s failures. Human existence is surrounded by, hedged about by, filled with, contradiction, irony, paradox, ambiguity, and against these things which defy logic, annihilate our efforts, and entangle us in irresolvable mysteries we have only our willpower, our concentrated labour aimed towards form, understanding, resolution, consolation. We must walk the City of Hell, like the poet himself, in The Seven Old Men, steeling our nerves ‘like a hero’, to face the strangeness of modernity.

Yet the modern mind does not create heroes, it acts them, and so the end is pre-ordained, since the drama is already complete. Baudelaire is a shadow of Hamlet, an actor on holiday, and the Beatrice to his Dante is to his mind as faithless as the Ophelia of his imaginings. In The Voyage he is Orestes returning from exile to create a bloody denouement, summoned by a phantom Pylades, by a phantom Electra. Despite his claims to heroism, Baudelaire does not dwell on heroes. His Classical allusions are infrequent, though telling, and he does not play intellectually with heroic concepts, rather he makes a passing reference to figures carved in the stone of past art. His real-life poetic heroes were exiled or imprisoned, Ovid, Dante, Tasso. His mind moved rapidly beyond the heroic, to the anti-heroic, the failed attempt, the stricken character, the banished and destroyed.

Hamlet et Horatio au Cimetière

‘Hamlet et Horatio au Cimetière’ - Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798 - 1863)
The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002, Directmedia Publishing GmbH - Wikimedia Commons

So he reserves his most potent symbolism for some of his greatest poems. The Albatross and The Swan are symbols of doom, downed heroes, great birds made for freedom, for winged flight through the heavens, coursing over the waters, embodiments of beauty when at liberty, symbols of defeat and limitation when out of their own habitat, fated to be grounded and handled by human beings. Women too, symbols of beauty, become images of defeat, women traduced, objectified, like his negresses defiled in the city streets, searching for their lost paradises, like Andromache, wife and widow of a hero, become the cast-off prize from a fallen city, Troy, and diminished by exile. Like Agathe (Madame Sabatier, Marie?) a victim of her beauty, her sadness, who is imprisoned by the city, by the ocean, by the crowd.

The hero gazes at life, and sees his own image in the derelicts, obsessives, sinners, criminals, of the twilights of dawn and dusk. He shies at his own fate presaged in that of the digging skeletons: he dreams his own end, embodied in terrifying words: ‘The curtain had risen, and I was still waiting.’ He is a Midas, guided by an unknown Hermes, trapped into making gold from mud endlessly, then to achieve his freedom doomed to make iron from gold.

And in an ultimate piece of symbolism, Baudelaire, the poet, is Icarus, flying on waxen wings made by his father Daedalus (creator of the artistic tradition) too near the sun, deceived in his pursuit of the Ideal, unable to accept mundane reality, his destroyed eyes searching the heavens, beneath the power of an unknown fire (mysterious Nature), lacking skill and strength, exceeding his capabilities, and ascending only to fall, as Icarus did, into the waves, the ocean of humanity, the sea of transience: doomed not to be able to name the abyss into which he falls (as Icarus gave his name to the Icarian Sea) since it is the Void, an abyss without names. Baudelaire’s myths are the myths of failure and defeat, of those ‘lost in this mean world, jostled by the crowd.’ The hero ends not as hero, but as anonymous victim, drowned silently, buried by the weight of time and thwarted desire.

VII: Twilight (The Vision of Calm)

I have argued that Baudelaire’s art expresses the failures of relationship that became apparent in his age, and which taken together constitute the shift towards modernity. His own temperament and early history sensitised him to those aspects of life and his age, but his art embodies more than merely his own experience, it speaks for us all face to face with the real. These failures of relationship were new and profound. Baudelaire experienced them gradually as his own life expanded from the personal towards the social and then the universal.

Firstly the failure of the hyper-sensitive male in his relationship with Woman, precipitated by the polarised view of Woman inherited from religion and past society, but made doubly intense by his own struggles with his sexual impulse, his pride, and his jealousy. Polarity meant openness to the seductive power of sexuality, the concept of Woman as a sweet haven, but coupled it with longings for the Ideal, the paradise beyond the world. The result was an oscillation between dream and disgust, between intense alternatives, conflicting forces: it is represented by that curious rocking motion that pervades Baudelaire’s thought and verse, and is symbolised by those tall vessels swaying in harbour between voyages, in a temporary and precious place of calm before voyage and tempest, before travel towards the Ideal, and shipwreck in the stormy waters of relationship.

Secondly there is the failure of relationship in religion, the failure of the illusion of deity, the loss of that harmonious and consoling Ideal, which is also a relationship with Woman, embodied in Christianity as the Virgin, or the Magdalene, Woman exalted or Woman fallen, Woman as ultimate forgiveness or Woman as the fount of evil (‘simultaneously the sin and the Hell that punishes it.’). Baudelaire’s dance with his gods, one of whom he calls Satan, is also his dance with Woman, and the one failure, the one tension, overlaps with the other. When the Ideal fails it fails in all its aspects: when one dimension of the Ideal fails it has a tendency to destroy all others, in the sensitive mind. Baudelaire is the heir to that erosion of religion by reason that the Enlightenment promoted, and the Revolution sealed. He inherits a French tradition of analysis and fearless thinking that could not leave him unscathed and that anticipated the continuing process in the intellectual life of our age, the retreat of religion as an intellectually acceptable answer in the face of science and analysis, the marginalisation of religion in advanced rights-based secular societies, and its relegation to the realms of the personal and private, as an emotional response to the problems of existence. God is dead, and there are no gods, but the longing, for many, remains.

L'Amante du Christ

‘L'Amante du Christ’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Thirdly Baudelaire experienced the failure of relationship within society, its transformation due to the growing power of capitalism and trade, the rise of the cities, the loss of the Individual within the Crowd, the mass ‘exile’, defeat and subjugation of the weakest, the commoditisation of all aspects of human life which is again the trend that has extended through our own times, touching every corner of existence. Baudelaire, witnessing the powerful forces ranged against the Individual, the massive pressures to conform within the marketplace of commercialisation, understood how difficult the struggle against it would prove, felt in his own depths the pain of being in such a world, felt the death of the Romantic dream that it signalled, and coined the phrase ‘the heroism of modern times.’ The past is in conflict with the present, Romanticism with Modernity. Baudelaire embraces the ambiguities, the paradoxes, the antithetic forces, and by an effort of will creates classic art in the face of defeat. His own instincts are to see Woman polarised within heterosexual relationship, yet he celebrates Lesbianism, and the changing role of working class women at least in capitalist production. He despised progress, Americanisation, Brussels as a monument to commerce, ‘the apotheosis of merchandising’. ‘For the commercial man’ he says, ‘even honesty is a speculation for profit.’ And yet he utilised in his poems the strange beauty of modern times, the tone and frisson of city landscapes, the dramas it created, the polarities it exhibited juxtaposed together, art and ugliness, poverty and wealth, law and crime, work and idleness, energy and exhaustion. Baudelaire is not a system-builder, not a consistent thinker: rather he is a witness, a powerful vessel of his times, experiencing, analysing, veering towards and away, a ship all at sea, on the great ocean of modernity. The Ideal society, perhaps Classical in Baudelaire’s mind (though his utopias tend to be strange mineral worlds of light and distance, cold landscapes, where Nature stilled, and shaped by art, produces calm within a dream) the Ideal society is lost or unachieved, and social disintegration, social chaos inhabits the interstices of what may seem social order. The Crowd, savage or dulled, submerges the Individual and brings isolation, indifference, defeat. The City, Paris, that Woman, ‘the infamous Capital’, fails the spirit, and destroys it, even as she enchants.

La Pudeur de Sodome

‘La Pudeur de Sodome’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Fourthly Baudelaire experiences a change in the relationship with Nature, traversed, mapped, and therefore no longer virgin. Her repetitions and boredoms have been explored, and there is nothing new there for the weary mind. Her resources are being plundered, and therefore her sacredness is less assured. While natural imagery pervades Baudelaire’s verse, he tends towards the remote and non-human, stormy oceans, troubled woods, remote mountains, stars and suns, a Romantic extremism that is perhaps the last haven for his hopes and dreams, but an ambiguous haven, since Nature is too often the realm of transience, mortality and cruelty. Nature as the Goddess, is also Woman as an Ideal, and the failures of relationship with Nature, become failures of that Ideal also. She too betrays, causes ennui, turns away, disgusts. Yet she also calms and quietens. She is the cavern of resonance, echo, memory, symbol, reverberation, reflection. Her sunsets, her autumns, are ambiguous, her seas and skies are places of failure and shipwreck, yet they are also infinite regions where the spirit can free itself. Her eyes are wells of night and humiliation as well as suns, stars, beacons, bringers of beauty, a beauty that is also sorrow. In the ambiguity, in the ranging over extremes, Nature allows moments of peace and calm, as well as storms and drowning. Still, for Baudelaire, they are only moments, instants of peace, places offering hopes of new life, fragments of exhausted reflection or dream. They are temporary harbours, the twilights that follow exertion and emotion, the havens of memory, or the cool landscapes of exhaustion or remote reverie.

Modernity offers us a struggle that seems doomed to failure. Yet Baudelaire’s art is no failure. He proposed the only solution to the succession of days for the modern creative artist: work. He suggested the heroic mind-set necessary to swim in the ocean of the modern, that one should be ‘a great man and a saint to oneself: that is the one vital thing’: that ‘true progress, that is to say moral progress, can occur only within the individual and by his own effort.’ And he believed that ‘genius is merely childhood rediscovered by an act of will,’ while ‘the child and the artist continually discover new themes in a single image.’ ‘We the poets and philosophers,’ he cries, ‘have redeemed our souls by ceaseless labour and by contemplation. By the constant exercise of our wills, and the lasting nobility of our devotion, we have created a garden of beauty for our use.’

Is there a way beyond Modernity, beyond the failures of relationship precipitated by older ways of seeing and knowing? Well, we cannot simply by-pass Modernity, or Baudelaire’s vision. Aspects of that vision are real: aspects of the failure are true and deep. Modernity is still around us, with its failed religions, its commoditisation of human beings, its outdated polarities, and its destruction of the natural bond. We can only go beyond Modernity by addressing the failed relationships again in new ways, by establishing new relationships between men and women and between all human beings, new relationships with Nature and the Universe, new relationships between the Individual and society. We ourselves are witnesses to changing forms of those relationships whose failure Baudelaire experienced.

Firstly, the difficult revolution that allows Woman social justice, and frees her from the web of polarised thought that past ages and religions have cast about her, a revolution that also frees all disadvantaged human beings to take up their rightful places in society. That the Individual should no longer be objectified is the aim of such a revolution.

Secondly, the new, though often chilling, comprehension of our biological and social selves within the context of an intention-less universe devoid of gods and demons, open to exploration through the scientific method, a universe which, while still ultimately mysterious to us in its being and its organisation, is no longer some artefact of a strange deity, or the whim of a blind creator.

Le Sphinx

‘Le Sphinx’ - Félicien Rops (Belgian, 1833 - 1898)
LACMA Collections

Thirdly, a recognition of our relationship with the natural world, with the planet, in that difficult tension between achieving the means of our existence and freedom, while still preserving the un-violated essence of Nature, a relationship that ultimately must include an understanding of the sacredness of all life, and will confer rights on all our co-creatures, not least the right to as natural a life as possible, freed from abuse and exploitation, with Humanity taking its true place among the species.

Fourthly, the creation of new forms of society, which will curb the objectification and commoditisation of human beings, will return us to relationships of the spirit, and will reduce the significance of those of the process, or the object. Such societies do not yet exist except in embryo, but who is to say they are not possible in the future, perhaps on other planets than this one.

I am not suggesting that such changes of relationship solve all our problems, or remove the pains and torments of being human. Nor am I suggesting that Baudelaire was merely a child of his times, and that we somehow know better. Our relationships are changing, and while some aspects are repaired by that process, others are, or remain, damaged. I simply suggest that there are ways beyond Modernity that are not merely re-expressions of past failure in more refined, more abstruse or colder terms. Post-Modernism will give way to a New Realism, but not in the old sense of trying to replicate the world in art, rather in the fresh sense of seeking to understand our true place in the Universe, our true possibilities of communication and communion with each other, and the social forms that might best meet our greatest needs and aspirations.

That Baudelaire’s work rings true for us, perhaps even more so than in his own age, indicates that he addressed permanent problems of relationship, that he expressed those deeply felt problems in poetry that satisfies and calms even as it challenges, and that we are still only beginning to address the new possibilities of relationship that might mitigate the problems he experienced: that there are, despite Baudelaire’s vision, new worlds perhaps to create among the ruins of the old, new landscapes of the imagination to fashion. Let us allow Baudelaire, rightly, the last questioning word here:

‘Those vows, those perfumes, those infinite kisses,

will they be reborn, from gulfs beyond soundings,

as the suns that are young again climb in the sky,

after they’ve passed through the deepest of drownings?

- O vows! O perfumes! O infinite kisses!’