In 1852, the March and April issues of La Revue de Paris carried an essay by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), “Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Works.” This was the first version of Baudelaire’s preface to his influential translation of Poe’s tales. In Poe’s view, poets possessed “the immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its spectacles as a revelation, as in correspondence with Heaven.” Above all, poetry must be constructed; it was not a naïve outpouring: “construction, armature, so to speak, is the most important guarantee of the mysterious life of works of the mind.” Poe’s “correspondence” of earth and heaven would be the Symbolism of the movement that appeared in the 1880s, and his insistence on the “music” of poetry was equally important to the Symbolists—the rhythms and sounds of their poems were intended to create a mood. Poets would “construct” their works as Poe said they must, aiming at perfection.

When Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal went on sale on June 25, 1857, an article in Le Figaro attacked it for its “immorality.” The public prosecutor began legal proceedings against Baudelaire and his editors for “outraging public morality.” Baudelaire was fined three hundred francs, later reduced to fifty. (Flaubert, too, had been prosecuted for outraging public morality, with his novel Madame Bovary, but was acquitted.) Sick and discouraged, Baudelaire planned to leave Paris. The charge that the poems encouraged immorality is ironic in view of their stated intention to rise above morality, good or bad. For Baudelaire, art must be disconnected from the passions: in one of his poems Beauty says, “Never do I weep, and never laugh.” He seems to be writing with the positivist philosophy of the age. In his descriptions of the modern city, Baudelaire is objective, impersonal, appalling.

But he is not a “realist” of the kind associated with Edmond Duranty, Champfleury, and their school of Realism that gave trivial accounts of everyday life. At one time, Baudelaire contemplated writing an essay in which he would give reasons for disassociating himself from the school. Baudelaire’s writing can be realistic in that his descriptions are accurate, but the objects and actions he shows are significant. At times, they seem symbolic. The view opens and lifts to sweep across space and time.

There are poems in which Baudelaire is not at all impersonal. He speaks to angels and demons, to a vampire. He speaks of using opium, and of his “spleen,” times “When the sky, low and heavy, weighs like a lid/ On the groaning spirit, prey to long ennuis …” This is the Baudelaire who would be aped toward the end of the century by the so-called Decadents. The greatness of Baudelaire, however, is not in passages that express his ennuis. It is in poetry such as “The Swan.” Is the poem realism? Symbolism? The writing breaks strikingly through the limits of such terms.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 1, on page 33
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