As we all know, there is no sufficient explanation for the success of a work of art; given any explanation, we could always construct a work that satisfies the terms of the explanation and yet does not produce in us the “esthetic effect.” Yet we also recognize that some explanations are more powerful than others. In the previous Chronicle I tried to show how a line of Baudelaire operated paradoxically to invert phonetically the “loss” referred to semiotically, reinforcing the poem’s ironic effect and suggesting that the real “loss” is not in nature but in the poet-dandy’s posture of despair—all the more despairing for its posturing. In that case such an analysis might suffice, given that the poem as a whole (“Le goût du néant”) is a series of increasingly intense variants on the theme of the poet’s alienation from the world, leading to his final request to be carried off in an avalanche. But in Baudelaire’s richer poems the articulation of the parts cannot be understood without examining the whole.
To take a relatively simple “unhappy” case, in the first of the “Spleen” poems, “La cloche fêlée” [the cracked bell] (called simply “Spleen” in the first edition), the poet begins in his room on a winter night, telling us it is amer et doux [bittersweet] to listen by the fire to his old memories float up (les souvenirs lointains lentement se lever [far-off memories slowly rising]) to the sound of churchbells heard through the mist. The reference to sound leads to the image of a “well-throated” bell that is compared to a faithful old soldier on watch standing in his tent, the form of which is similar to that of a bell.
But the now personified evocation of the bell as heard by the apparently easeful poet provokes in the tercets a comparison with his own voice and its source, his “cracked” soul. Moi, mon âme est fêlée [I, my soul is cracked] abruptly opposes the two elements, bells and listener, that coexisted in bittersweet comfort in the quatrains. From this point of departure, the faithful old soldier who figured the bell is replaced by a wounded one who agonizes near a “lake of blood” under a pile of corpses, Et qui meurt sans bouger dans d’immenses efforts [and who dies without moving in (i.e., despite) immense effort]–the sensation we know from nightmares of trying and failing to move.
Thus the apparently benign comparison between the bell and the soldier, by its unexpected application to the poet who synecdochically inserts his own voice into a scene in which he was peacefully hearing the voice of another and enjoying its incitation of his own memories—the “l”‘s of les souvenirs lointains lentement se lever accentuating the liquid facility of the operation—turns a comfortable winter (of life?) scene into a nightmare of stifled movement and death. Here it is not simply a phonetic reality such as adorable-odeur that guarantees the poem’s irony, but the parallel between the agreeable/nightmarish images of soldiery and the poet’s passive/active use of his voice. As often in Baudelaire, starting with “Au lecteur,” the production of poetry is problematized as a competitive move against the voices that already exist in the society, and which, in this poem at least, seem to satisfy its cultural needs. Since at the beginning the poet is not in tension with his environment but in bittersweet harmony, the only explanation for the open contrast between himself and the churchbell-soldier is the poetry itself, the fact that the personage in the poem is also the poet, so that the pleasure of hearing memories rise up within his mind suggests to him that if he can evoke his memories in a poem in the context of the bells, he should be able to “populate the cold night air” (peupler l’air froid des nuits) with them on his own.
For the lyric “I” is always a poet, not a fictional character, who always has the possibility—in the broadest sense, the necessity—of crossing the barrier to the world of creation. But by the same token, he is susceptible to punishment for his pride. In this particular context, which suggests that of a healthy religious culture, he seems to embody the familiar romantic topos of the enfeebled modern in comparison with the denizen of the healthy medieval religion (cf. “Le mauvais moine”). This need not be understood as a judgment on the historical viability of religion in 1850s France. It suffices that the bells embody even nostalgically a stable social tradition analogous to the old soldier, perhaps no longer much good for fighting, but whose loyalty suffices to suggest a harmonious social order—and consequently to convey to the poet that his own poetry is endangered by his alienation from this tradition. Yet it is the striking final image of the poet’s suffering from the inability to express himself that is itself the ultimate poetic expression. The shift from happiness to unhappiness is also the esthetic conquest of the poem, an effect no doubt achieved with a lighter touch by the laments of “Le goût du nèant,” where the poet’s self-denying pose is not placed in competition with an established ritual order.
If “La cloche” is an “unhappy” poem, how do we account for its success in evoking the nightmare of non-creativity? Can a poet without falling not simply into hypocrisy but a blindness unredeemable by irony complain of his failure to communicate while succeeding in communicating this very failure to the reader? Already we note the precedence of “amer” to “doux” in the first line. The experience of a multiplicity of memories in the absence of any conceivable discourse about them is a constant component of Baudelairean Spleen; we will examine in a moment “Spleen II”, J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans [I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old]. The key moment of reversal in “La cloche” is the second quatrain, when the plural-singular relationship between the poet and the bells (carillons) becomes a rivalry between the (implicit) poet and a single bell (la cloche au gosier vigoureux [the vigorous-throated bell]) who then is personified as the old soldier, leading directly to the unfavorable comparison in the tercets. There is no effort to connect the two soldier figures directly; the first is evoked by the tent-like appearance of the bell, not by its sound, whereas the second returns to the more fundamental comparison with the soul and its voice.
What guarantees the poem here is not linguistic harmony but the “lived” power of the figure that seems taken from a horror film, with the lake of blood adding a fantastic detail. The poet has made clear not only that this is a comparison but that it applies only souvent [often]. These concessions to reality, however, only accentuate the power of the final image to efface any such logical considerations. Baudelaire’s metaphors/comparisons rebel against the tenor-vehicle opposition, not because (as often in Mallarmé) their syntax or narrative structure is ambiguous, but because we become interested in these “vehicles” as new foci of thought that take the place of the nominal “tenors” by demonstrating a greater affinity for the moral point at issue. In coldly rational terms, we are talking about a voice that “often sounds like” the death-rattle of the soldier in question. But it is impossible to read the last lines thinking about the poet’s voice (which we already understand metaphorically as referring to his writing); we think about the struggles of the dying soldier, and experience this nightmare as the expression of the poet’s mon âme est fêlée.
A perhaps yet more striking example is found two poems later in “Spleen II”:
Un vieux meuble à tiroirs encombré de bilans,
De vers, de billets doux, de procès, de romances,
Avec de lourds cheveux roulés dans des quittances,
Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau.
An old desk/chest of drawers encumbered with balance-sheets,
poetry, love-notes, lawsuits, romances
with thick hanks of hair rolled up in bill-receipts
hides fewer secrets than my sad brain
Is the point really that his triste cerveau contains more secrets than this unforgettable piece of furniture, or simply to imagine the latter, with its “Balzacian” intertwining of romance and venality, woman’s hair and paid-up bills, as a figure of the (poet’s) mind? These passages may be said to illustrate the figure of hyperbole (the subject of an ancient article, “Hyperbole et ironie,” Poétique 24, Fall 1975), but their recourse to what pseudo-Longinus would call “the sublime” tells us that we are no longer in the well-imaged territory of romantic descriptivism. The poet’s voice in “La cloche fêlée,” “souvent” or not, is realized in the final image—in a way, incidentally, that his memories are not in Spleen II, which after this wonderful beginning ends rather lamely with the figure of a “granite” Sphinx in the desert. Some of Baudelaire’s greatest poems (e.g., “Le cygne”) end badly, given the impossibility of finding a still stronger figure to follow up on a previous powerful configuration (which in “Le cygne” makes us await the appearance of the title character until the sentiment of exile has passed from Andromache to the poet’s own “exile” from pre-Haussmann Paris). In “Spleen II” the images of containers, from the desk to a cemetery to a boudoir, fade out, as it were, as the poet’s brain is increasingly defined by a tender nostalgia for its contents. Once this happens, the poem starts over but can only end on dandy’s ill humor and a hint that poetry is a swan song—a figure more positive, but far more anodyne, than a death rattle! What works or doesn’t work in Baudelaire’s poetry is neither the meaning of the words nor their magical/musical effect, but their effectiveness in evoking a state of being-in-the-world.
Not all the Fleurs describe unhappy relationships between the poet and the world, not even ironically. There are some happy moments, as well as many poems that content themselves with an object-world and do not explicitly double back on themselves. My favorite “happy” poem is “Le balcon,” no doubt because it makes such good use of the “objective correlative” supplied by the balcony itself as a space intermediary between the inner and outer worlds, the apartment and the cosmos, and hence a “metaphor,” for lack of a better term, for poetry, culture, language itself, by means of which we do not simply communicate one to one but first to the sacred center of the community as a whole and only subsequently in intimacy.
“Le balcon” establishes from the beginning a complementary parallel between inside and outside: Tu te rappeleras la beauté des caresses / La douceur du foyer et le charme des soirs [you will recall the beauty of our caresses / the sweetness of the hearth and the charm of the evenings], then in the second stanza: Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon / Et le soirs au balcon, voilés de vapeurs roses [the evenings lit by the warmth of the coals / and the evenings on the balcony, veiled in pink vapors/haze]. In the latter pair, the poet creates an equilibrium between two types of illumination, l’ardeur du charbon and the vapeurs roses, that adds an element of contrast to La douceur du foyer et le charme des soirs. Then in the third stanza, with Que les soleils sont beaux dans les chaudes soirées [how beautiful are the suns on warm evenings], the poet refers to “suns” of warm evenings, not sunsets, which he opposes to the intimacy of imagining he can smell his partner’s blood (Je croyais respirer le parfum de ton sang [I thought I was smelling the perfume of your blood].) One imagines that he avoids the “bloody” sunset to concentrate on the smell of blood in the boudoir, but I think we should still assume that the objective correlative of soleils here is indeed setting suns, and that this is a shorthand rather than a fantasy of nocturnal solar light. Which is to say that there is just a hint of a demonstration of poetic arbitrariness, not simply in choosing soleils but in showing that he has chosen them, leaving the sun’s image vague so that we can imagine the other’s blood, which, we should note, he claims neither to have seen nor even smelled, merely that he “believed” he did.
Like all Baudelaire’s best poems, “Le balcon” reaches a climax where, in this “happy” case, the linguistic sign (signifier) is pushed to its limit in harmony, rather than in ironic tension, with its meaning (signified): La nuit s’épaississait ainsi qu’une cloison [The night thickened like a partition]. The use of the repeated “s’s” (plus the “widening” of -it [i] to –ait [ɛ]) to convey the thickening of the night make this one of B’s most masterful lines. The balcony reaches its limit as an interface between interior and exterior when the “thickening” cuts off the balcony’s openness to the exterior to create a perfect intimacy between the couple, at the same time allowing the poem to reveal this intimacy to the public without violating it, since it is that of the all-pervading nuit.
It is only after this that the poet openly asserts his mastery: Je sais l’art d’évoquer les minutes heureuses [I know the art of evoking happy minutes], and even expresses in conclusion the rhetorical hope that these moments may be reborn like the sun after their passage through the “gulf” of death. Baudelaire in his best poems never uses rhetorical expressions of desire without a prior guarantee of mastery over language. For all poetry is rhetoric, and the degree to which it succeeds in perpetuating our desire to transcend time is measured by its effectiveness in making the material of language appear to abolish and reconstitute itself as the necessary expression of its content, matter magically endowed with meaning through its intimacy with the sacred center of all desire.
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Like its predecessor, this Chronicle is dedicated to Carolyn, Cristina, Dorthea, Hope, Louise, and Nanar, the students in my just-concluded seminar on Hugo’s Les contemplations and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal.