Eric Auerbach, "The Aesthetic Dignity Of The ‘Fleurs Du Mal’"
Quand le del has et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur I’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de I’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;
Quand la terre est changee en un cachot humide,
Où I’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;
Quand la pluie étalant ses immenses trainées
D’une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu’un peuple muet d’infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,
Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le del un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opinidtrement.
—Et de longs corbillards, sans tambour ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon àme; I’Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et I’Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.
(When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid
On a spirit moaning beneath endless troubles
And, blocking off the whole horizon,
Decants a day more dismal than night;
When the earth is changed into a damp dungeon
Where Hope like a timid bat
Flaps her wings against the walls
And dashes her head against the moldy ceiling;
When the long lines of rain
Are like the bars of a vast prison
And a silent swarm of loathsome spiders
Spin their nets at the bottom of my brain,
Suddenly the bells leap out in a fury
And fling a hideous howling at the heavens,
Like homeless wandering spirits
And a long line of hearses without drums or music,
Files slowly through my soul; Hope vanquished weeps
And vile despotic Dread
Plants her black flag over my bowed skull.)
This poem is all of one movement. Actually, despite the period after the fourth stanza, it seems to consist of a single sentence; made up of three temporal dependent clauses, each taking up a whole stanza, each beginning with quand, and of a main clause with several subdivisions, which unfolds in the last two stanzas. The alexandrine meter makes it clear that this is a serious poem, to be spoken slowly and gravely; it contains allegorical figures written in capital letters, Espérance, Espoir, Angoisse; and we also find epithets and other rhetorical figures in the classical style (de son aile timide). The syntactical unity, the grave rhythm, and the rhetorical figures; combine to lend the poem an atmosphere of somber sublimity, which is perfectly consonant with the deep despair it expresses.
The temporal clauses, describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds, are replete with metaphors: the sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon, leaving us without prospect in the darkness; the earth like a damp dungeon; Hope like a fluttering bat caught in the moldering masonry; the threads of rain like the bars of a prison; and inside us a mute swarm of loathsome spiders, spinning their nets. All these figures symbolize dull, deepening despair. And there is an insistence about them which, if you submit to their spell, seems to exclude any possibility of a happier life. The quand loses its temporal meaning and rings out like a threat; we begin with the poet to doubt whether a sunny day will ever dawn again; for Hope, the poor bat, is also imprisoned and has lost touch with the world beyond the clouds—is there any such world? Even a reader unfamiliar with Baudelaire’s other poems, who does not know how often he evokes the barred horizon, the damp and moldering dungeon of hell, who does not know how little use the sun is to him when it does happen to be shining, will grasp the irrevocable hopelessness of the situation from these three stanzas alone. Hopeless horror has its traditional place in literature; it is a special form of the sublime; we find it, for example, in some of the tragic poets and historians of antiquity, and of course we find it in Dante; it can lay claim to the highest dignity.
But in the first stanzas we already find things that seem hardly compatible with the dignity of the sublime. A modern reader barely notices them, he has long been accustomed to this style, established by Baudelaire, in which many poets, each in his own way, have subsequently made themselves at home. But Baudelaire’s contemporaries, even those who had grown used to the daring of the romantics, must have been startled if not horrified. In the very first line the sky is compared to a lid, the lid of a pot or perhaps of a coffin—the former is more likely, for in another poem, "Le Couvercle," Baudelaire writes:
Le Ciel! couvercle noir de la grande marmite
Où bout I’imperceptible et vaste Humanité.
(The sky! black lid of the great kettle
Where humanity simmers, vast and imperceptible.)
To be sure, Victor Hugo had proclaimed years before that the difference between noble and common words was done away with, but he had not gone so far, and much less had Alfred de Vigny, who of all the romantics was perhaps the most given to the tone of sublime horror. Of course damp moldering dungeons, bats and spiders, are perfectly in keeping with the romantic style, but only as properties in historical novels and plays, not in the sharp immediate present, not right beside or even inside the poet, and yet symbols for all that. The last word is cerveaux, a medical term. Clearly no realistic imitation is intended; on the contrary, the image of spiders in the brain is unrealistic and symbolic; but that makes it all the more degrading, for with spiders in his brain the suffering, despairing poet is denied the inward dignity conferred by such words as âme or pensée.
The three stanzas introduced by quand present a heavy silence. The fourth, which begins the main clause, brings in a sudden clamor: furious bells leap out and fling a hideous howling at the sky. Bells that leap furiously and howl at the sky! Anything more violent and outrageous is scarcely imaginable; such a combination offends against every traditional notion of the dignity of the sublime. True, hurler had been employed by the romantics in an orgiastic sense;1 it seems to have been fashionable with certain literary circles in the forties; but combinations of this sort occur nowhere else. Church bells that howl and leap with fury: seventy years later such an image would have been termed surrealistic. And, it must be remembered, we are not on the style-level of satire, where one might speak lightly of "clattering bells," but in an atmosphere of profound seriousness and bitter torment, and therefore on the style-level of the tragic and sublime. In the next lines the bells proceed to emit sounds that might be characterized as a persistent blubbering whimper; geindre is a childish blubbering, furious, meaningless, and ignored; no one hears the homeless spirits. And while this absurd hubbub is still raging, the last stanza begins. Once again there seems to be utter silence, the procession of hearses, sans tambour ni musique, draws slowly through the poet’s soul—this time it is the soul, mon âme, whose last strength is exhausted by the sight (a procession of memories, a wasted life laden with guilt). Hope has given up looking for a way out; she is weeping; hideous Dread hoists her black flag over the bowed skull, and so this magnificent poem ends. As a picture in the grand style of total abjection and collapse, the last stanza, especially the last line, outdoes all the rest. For the rhythm and the images—the procession of hearses, the victor hoisting a flag over the enemy’s captured citadel—all these are in the grand style; but the victor is Dread, of the poet nothing remains, no soul, no brow, not even a head; what has bowed down beneath the black flag is only a skull, mon crâne incliné. He has lost all dignity, not before God, for there is no God, but before Dread.
In our analysis we have tried to bring out two ideas, both of which take the form of antitheses. First the antithesis between symbolism and realism. Obviously the poet’s aim is not to give an accurate, realistic description of rain and a damp moldering dungeon, of bats and spiders, the ringing of bells, and a bowed human skull. It makes no difference whether or not he ever actually heard bells ringing on a rainy day. The whole is a vision of despair, and the expository statements are purely symbolic. The data are of so little importance that the symbols can be changed without loss; Hope first appears as a bat, but the end, where she weeps in defeat, suggests the image of an infant or child, certainly not of a bat. Thus the poem cannot be called realistic if by realism we mean an attempt to reproduce outward reality. But since in the nineteenth century the word "realism" was associated chiefly with the crass representation of ugly, sordid, and horrifying aspects of life; since this was what constituted the novelty and significance of realism, the word was applicable to ugly, gruesome images, regardless of whether they were intended as concrete description or as symbolic metaphors. What mattered was the vividness of the evocation, and in this respect Baudelaire’s poem is extremely realistic. Though the images evoked are wholly symbolic in intention, they forcefully concretize a hideous and terrible reality—even when reason tells us that such symbols can have no empirical reality. Obviously, there is no one by the name of Angoisse who can plant a black flag over a bowed skull: but the image of the crâne incliné is so overpowering that we see the gruesome portrait. The same is true of the spiders in the brain or the leaping, whimpering bells. These images strike with a realistic force that no one can escape; nor does the poet want anyone to escape them.
The other idea stressed in our analysis is the contradiction between the lofty tone and the indignity both of its subject as a whole and of many details. This contrast affected many contemporaries as an inconsistency of style; it was violently attacked at the time, though since then the "mixed style" has gained general acceptance. Modern critics, beginning in Baudelaire’s time but more persistently in later years, have attempted to deny the hierarchy of literary objects, maintaining that there is no such things as sublime and base objects, but only good and bad verses, good and bad images. However, the formulation is misleading; it obscures the significant thing that happened in the nineteenth century movement. In classical aesthetics, subject matter and the manner of its treatment came to be divided into three classes: there was the great, tragic, and sublime; then the middle, pleasing, and inoffensive; finally the ridiculous, base, and grotesque. Within each of the three categories there were many gradations and special cases. A classification of this sort corresponds to human feeling, in Europe at least; it cannot be argued away. What the nineteenth century accomplished—and the twentieth has carried the process still further—was to change the basis of correlation: it became possible to take subjects seriously that had hitherto belonged to the low or middle category, and to treat them tragically. The subject matter of Flaubert or Cezanne, Zola or Van Gogh, is not "neutral"; one cannot say that their originality consisted solely in the novelty or perfection of their techniques; there can be no significant new technique without new content. The truth is rather that the subject matter became serious and great through the intention of those who gave it form. The same may be said of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. On February 28, 1866, he wrote to Ancelle: Dans ce livre atroce, j’ai mis toute ma pensée, tout mon coeur, toute ma religion (travestie), toute ma haine. . . (Into this abominable book I have put all my thought, all my religion [travestied], all my hatred). He could not have written in this way if he had not seen all human tragedy, depth, and greatness in his subject matter and intended to express them in his poems. It is futile to ask to what extent he posed and exaggerated; posture and exaggeration were an inherent part of the man and his state of mind. All modern artists (since Petrarch at least), have tended to dramatize themselves. The artistic process requires a concentration on certain themes, a process of selection, which stresses certain aspects of the artist’s inner life and puts others aside. It was not easy for Baudelaire to live with himself and make himself work. He inclined to exaggerate his state and to make a display of what he rightly felt to be original and unique. But his concentration on certain themes that were distinctly his own and the force of his expression leave no room for doubt as to his fundamental authenticity.
He is authentic, and his conceptions are large; his poetry is in the grand style. But even among those whose intentions were similar, he is an extreme case; he is distinguished even from Rimbaud by his inner stagnation, his lack of development. He was the first to treat matters as sublime which seemed by nature unsuited to such treatment. The "spleen" of our poem is hopeless despair; it cannot be reduced to concrete causes or remedied in any way. A vulgarian would ridicule it; a moralist or a physician would suggest ways of curing it. But with Baudelaire their efforts would have been vain. He wrote in the grand style about paralyzing anxiety, panic at the hopeless entanglement of our lives, total collapse—a highly honorable undertaking, but also a negation of life. German slang has an apt term for this spleen: das graue Elend, the gray misery. Is the gray misery tragic? One should not be in too much of a hurry to dismiss as philistines the contemporary critics who rejected this form of poetry; what would Plato have thought of it? Baudelaire himself found a very similar term for his spleen, ma triste misère. It occurs in his poem "Le Mauvais Moine"; after a half ironic picture of the medieval monks, who painted pictures of death and the truths of religion to console them for the ascetic austerity of their lives, he concludes as follows:
Mon âme est un tombeau que, mauvais cénobite,
Depuis l’éternité je parcours et j’habite;
Rien n’embellit les murs de ce cloître odieux.
O moine fainéant! quand saurai-je done faire
Du spectacle vivant de ma triste misère
Le travail de mes mains et l’amour de mes yeux?
(My soul is a tomb which, miserable monk,
I have paced for all eternity. There I live
In a hateful cloister to which nothing lends beauty.
O idle monk! When shall I learn
To turn the living vision of my bitter misery
Into the work of my hands, the beloved of my eyes).
These verses present a new problem, though one implied in what has been said above. It is characteristic of the gray misery that it incapacitates one for all activity. Even those who cope with such depressions more successfully than Baudelaire, force themselves at best to carry on some routine activity; most of these are helped by their milieu or by an occupation that obliges them to do certain things at certain hours. In many cases this kind of activity has relieved or overcome the gray misery. But Baudelaire had no milieu or occupation requiring regular activity. Instead, he demanded of himself something far more difficult, something well-nigh impossible, and he succeeded: he managed to form his triste misère into poetry, to leap directly from his misery into the sublime, to fashion it into the work of his hands, the beloved of his eyes. His passion for expressing himself drove him into an unremitting struggle with his gray misery, a battle in which he was sometimes victorious; not often, and never completely enough to cast it off; for strange to say, the gray misery was not merely the enemy, but also the beginning and object of his activity. What could be more paradoxical? The misery that paralyzed and degraded him was the source of a poetry that seems endowed with the highest dignity; it was the source both of the sublime tone produced by the fact of working under such desperate conditions and of the breaches of style that sprang directly from the subject matter.
The poet’s misery had still other aspects, the most painful being his sexuality. Sexuality was a hell for him, a hell of degrading desire (Lusthölle; I believe that Thomas Mann uses the expression in Doctor Faustus). Here again we shall stick to the texts and begin with a poem without any concretely erotic content:
Je te donne ces vers afin que si mon nom
Aborde heureusement aux époques lointaines,
Et fait rêver un soir les cervelles humaines,
Vaisseau favorisé par un grand aquilon,
Ta mémoire, pareille aux fables incertaines,
Fatigue le lecteur ainsi qu’un tympanon,
Et par un fraternel et mystique chainon
Reste comme pendue à mes rimes hautaines;
Eire maudit à qui, de l’abîme profond
Jusqu’au plus haut du del, rien, hors moi, ne répond!
—O toi qui, comme une ombre à la trace éphémère,
Foules d’un pied léger et d’un regard serein
Les stupides mortels qui t’ont jugee amère,
Statue aux yeux de jais, grand ange au front d’airain!
(I give you these verses, hoping that if my name,
Like a vessel favored by a stout north wind,
Should happily accost in epochs now remote
And stir a dream one night in human minds,
Your memory like a dubious fable
Will clang in the reader’s ears and torment him,
Your memory suspended by an intimate
And mystic chain from my lofty rhymes;
Accursed one, whom from deepest depths to highest
Heights, no one will answer for but me!
You who like an ephemeral shadow
Pass light-footed and serene
Over the stupid mortals who have judged you vile,
Statue with eyes of jet, towering angel with head of
Syntactically, this poem too consists of a single sweeping movement: the simple and solemn main clause (Je te donne ces vers); dependent on it a long and intricate purpose clause, the subject of which appears only at the start of the second quatrain (Ta mémoire); followed, in the concluding tercets, by the apostrophe in three parts (Etre maudit à qui. . . ; O toi qui. . . ; Statue. . .). No less lofty seems the content: a poem is solemnly dedicated to the loved one, in order that she may, at some time in the distant future, partake of his fame. The reader is reminded of similar passages in which earlier poets, Horace, Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, or Shakespeare (some critics haveeven mentioned Corneille and Byron) have spoken in lofty style of their future fame, sometimes in connection with a beloved. The words je te donne ces vers, with the ensuing image of a ship putting into port after a long voyage, seem quite consonant with this sublime tradition. And the singling out of a particular moment (un soir) when the poet’s fame will go into effect, recalls a famous sonnet by Ronsard. But then the reader, prepared for grandeur and dignity, is shocked by the word cervelles (in the first version the line read Fit travailler un soir les cervelles humaines) the value of the poet’s enduring fame becomes strangely dubious. The reader dimly suspects what becomes a certainty in the next stanza: the fame of which the poet is going to speak will not enrich future generations and gladden their hearts; it will irritate and torment them (ta mémoire . . . fatigue le lecteur ainsi qu’un tympanon), drawing the future reader into a noxious entanglement. The distasteful memory of the beloved to whom the poem is solemnly dedicated will remain attached to the poet’s proud verses par un fraternel et mystique chaînon—in other words, the memory is not proud or lofty, but base and unpleasant, and it will be drummed into the reader’s mind with a perverse insistence. The whole poem is a piece of bitter malice, not only against the beloved (we employ the word only because no other is available), but also against the future reader; for now, retroactively, the afin que of the first line takes on an insidious meaning: the poet’s purpose in his rimes hautaines is malignant: to tyrannize the future reader and avenge himself against the beloved. In the final apostrophe the latter theme is explicitly developed; for the apostrophe—in three parts—is a curse; the beloved is described first in relation to the poet, then in relation to the rest of mankind, and finally for herself. Here we shall not go into the separate themes—the poet at the mercy of an outcast; her indifference; the mysterious presence of this unmoving statue, this angel of evil. Yet in the end something akin to admiration and adoration enters into the curse, expressed in a last haughty gibe, this one at the stupides mortels qui t’ont jugée amère. This poem, so rich in contradictions, sustains its lofty tone from the first to the last word. The curse ends with something in the nature of an apotheosis.
What all this means is known to us from other poems that deal directly with love or desire. Rhythm, form, and attitude place nearly all of them in the lofty style. But the traditional themes of sublime love poetry are almost wholly lacking; the accent is on naked sexuality, particularly in its terrible, abysmal aspects. If we are fully to understand the profound significance of Baudelaire we must recall the place of such things in the European literary tradition. Traditionally, physical love was treated in the light style.2 In the older poetry the perverse or abject aspect is scarcely mentioned in any category of style.3 In Baudelaire it is dominant. Traditional echoes are not wholly absent, such as the theme of the worshipped beloved (Muse, Madonna), but they ring false; sometimes they sound ironic and always strangely disfigured. The intimate tenderness that had gained a place beside the sublime in the love poetry of the early romantics also appears here and there in Baudelaire (Mon enfant, ma sceur . . .); but it is not the same idyllic intimacy as in the romantics, which would have been quite incompatible with Baudelaire’s temperament; in him it has a new and strange aftertaste.
Almost everywhere in Baudelaire the relation between lovers—or more accurately between those bound by sexual attraction—is represented as an obsession mingled with hatred and contempt, an addiction which loses none of its degrading, tormenting force for being experienced in full (yet defenseless) awareness. Love is a torment, at best a numbing of the senses; true, it is also the source of inspiration, the actual source of the mystical intuition of the supernatural; nevertheless it is torture and degradation. Sometimes the loved one is sick and no longer young, more often she is a kind of bestial idol, soulless, barren, and morally indifferent. Baudelaire’s masterly rendition of synesthetic impressions, in which the sense of smell is dominant (respirer le parfum de ton sang; des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants; forêt aromatique of the hair) helps to create a unique impression, at once sensuous, cold, bestial, painful, demonic, and sublime. All this is sufficiently known.
—from Erich Auerbach, Scenes From the Drama of European Literature (1959). "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du Mal’": Translated by Ralph Manheim from the original German text in Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung (Bern, 1951), pp. 107-27.
The second half of Auerbach’s "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du Mal" appears in the post immediately below; his notes appear two posts down.