Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lecture TEN Symmary

THE FOUNDATION: SYMBOLISM IN LITERATURECHARLES BAUDELAIRE (1821-1867).

Baudelaire ranks as the protopoet of Symbolism. This designation can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, he is the precursor, the John the Baptist as it were of the movement. On the other hand, he is the first in the series, crystallizing some of the quintessential features of the movement.

The pote's biological father, who was elderly when he was married, died when his son was only five. Throughout his life Baudelaire remained closely attached to his mother.

As he showed no sign of taking up a profession, he mother (who had remarried) sent him on a voyage to India (1841). However, he jumped ship at Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, and returned to France. Then he returned to France. Afterwards he never traveled outside of France and Belgium.

On reaching twenty-one he came into his father’s inheritance, which he proceeded to squander on the proverbial wine, women, and song-—as well as paintings (he was a small-time collector and dealer). His mother, alarmed at his accumulating debts, placed him on a tiny monthly allowance, administered by a strict lawyer. These sums were never enough, and much of Baudelaire’s life was spent in scrounging together an existence. It may be that he would never have written much, except for the need to earn money. That this activity was never sufficient is a commentary on the way in which modern society starves its creative figures.

One should remember that Baudelaire’s first public identity was as an art critic. He debuted with his Salon of 1845, when he was only twenty-four. Painting was his love as a consumer (and for a time as a quasi-dealer), more perhaps than literature. (Offering little private recitals for friends, he was already a closet poet, but this activity was not generally known.) His biological father had been an artist, though a mediocre one, and Baudelaire had practiced drawing as a child.

In this first Salon Baudelaire says he will be impartial, contradicting this assertion the following year with the triple-P declaration: “partial, passionate, and political.”

His reliance on the neologism modernité (Chateaubriand, Balzac) becomes salient in the second Salon (1846).

He views Delacroix as the consummate artist, the most original of all time. By rallying to this great Romantic he hitched his wagon to a star. For Baudelaire Delacroix excelled both in color (the conventional wisdom) but also in drawing. This commitment lead to conflict with his theories, to which the artist’s work only partially conformed. Much of Delacroix’s work is literary and historical, such as the “Barque of Dante” (1822). . Thus there remained a serious problem: how to reconcile Delacroix’s subjects-—ancient, medieval, Orientalist-—with the ideal of modernity. The answer he eventually came up with is that modernity is a sentiment not a straight-jacket. But not everyone will agree that the definition of modernity can be so elastic.

A chance find in a periodical (a translation of the story “The Black Cat”) led to a life-long obsession with Edgar Allan Poe, whom he seems to have regarded as a literary counterpart to Delacroix. Baudelaire spent sixteen years translating the American writer. Poe too was not limited to modern subjects.

Baudelaire’s concern with beauty was matched by his interest in caricature. The yoking together of beauty and ugliness was to become characteristic in his poetry. The intersection of beauty and ugliness is rooted in the modern city, and Baudelaire’s understanding of this inseparability is one of the features that make him THE pioneering modernist in poetry.

This perception of the fusion of beauty and ugliness is not unproblematic. A notorious example is the poem “La Charogne” (The Carcass). Here Baudelaire recalls going out one morning with his mistress on a walk, where they came upon a carcass (apparently of a horse or donkey). The legs of the beast are thrust up into the air like a “lecherous whore.” The effect of the light on the oozing carcass is striking. There is also a sinister synaesthesia—the combination of the odor with the buzzing of the flies. At the end, the poet rudely says to his companion that she too will be like that one day. Several mitigating considerations may be suggested. The last comment might belong to the “world enough and time” category. Let us enjoy each other while we can. But why doesn’t the poet indicate that he too will be that way. After all, the theme of the medieval and Renaissance memento mori is that this fate awaits us all (illustrated with the predella of Masaccio’s Trinity). Also, Rembrandt and others had previously explored the counterintuitive aesthetic interest of the dead carcass of an animal. When all is said, though, this poem remains unpleasantly transgressive. It reveals an almost boundless capacity for disgust, one that the writer has not brought fully under control.

As the two later Salons show, Baudelaire’s praise of originality in art came to be tempered by the acknowledgement that all truly successful works must have both an eternal and a transitory aspect. For this reason his essay on Constantin Guys, who was exclusively present-minded, fails to convince.

Let us turn now to a theme of special interest to this course. The “mystical” Baudelaire is not present in the first two Salons of ’45 and ‘46. That seems to have crystallized ca. 1852. The Salon of 1859 has some indications (the word specialité), and perhaps more generally in the sovereign role ascribed to the imagination (“the queen of the faculties”). The imagination now supersedes imitation of nature—and perhaps modernity as well.

Swedenborg, at first mediated by Balzac, was the principle source of Baudelaire’s mystical ideas of analogy. This is shown by the adoption of the term “correspondence” (poem no. 4 in Les Fleurs). However, Swedenborg himself depended on older ideas, as seen in his striking evocation of the microcosm-macrocosm idea. Here the cosmos is compared to a gigantic human being (a theme already illustrated in Les Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1416). It has been argued that Baudelaire’s interest in mysticism is grounded more generally in the rhetorical theory of analogy, which goes back to Antiquity. At all events, care must be taken not to exaggerate the role of this interest-—even though it was of supreme importance to the Symbolists.

The death of Delacroix in 1863 was a great shock. After his passing we had entered into the decrepitude of art (as he tactlessly remarked to Manet). This historical pessimism is sometimes termed “declinism.” Compare the relationship of Vasari to Michelangelo. Vasari too believed that with the death of his hero art could only decline.

In Les Fleurs du Mal the link with art takes the form of a series of ekphrasis poems, evoking paintings and sculptures, whether real or imaginary. The “real” sources are generally minor works, such as sculptures by Ernest Christophe, suggesting that they were merely pretexts for the poem.

The sixth poem in the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) is entitled “Les Phares” (“The Beacons”). Here he cites eight artists of particular importance, allocating a quatrain to each. The artists are (in the order given) Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. As it is not chronological, the sequence seems hard to understand, though perhaps these figures are intended as precursors of Baudelaire’s idol, Delacroix. Otherwise, the octet is admirably balanced. There are two Netherlandish artists, two Italians, one Spaniard, and three Frenchmen. Three media--painting, printmaking, and sculpture--are covered. Three of the artists are “twofers,” active in two media. Michelangelo was both a sculptor and a painter. And while Rembrandt and Goya were major painters, Baudelaire probably owed his acquaintance to them mainly through their prints. Baudelaire recognized the distinction between the linear and painterly modes, which was based ultimately on the contrast between the disegno of Renaissance Florence and the colore of Venice. The eight all adhere to the painterly mode. Significantly, Baudelaire begins with Rubens, the standard-bearer in the ca. 1700 battle over whether Rubens or Poussin was the ideal painter. In 1708 the critic Roger de Piles had hedged; not so Baudelaire. His worthies are all from the Rubéniste camp.

Such lists have a considerable history, of which Baudelaire was only partially aware.

The template stems from the poet Ludovico Ariosto, who formerly enjoyed an almost universal esteem. Cantos 32 and 33 of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (final version, 1532) concern the Castle of Tristan, remarkable for its murals that prophetically illustrate future events. In order to illustrate the power of artists, the poet gives two lists: a somewhat hypothetical ancient Greek one (derived from Pliny the Elder) and a modern Italian one. The latter ranks as the first ”beacon list” I have been able to find. Here it is: Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Bellini, the two Dossi brothers, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and Titian. All are Italian.

In a theoretical treatise of 1590 the Milanese artist and writer Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo selected seven top artists, correlated with the seven planets and seven metals. Lomazzo’s supremes are Michelangelo, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Polidoro Caravaggio (these last two are local luminaries), Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, and Titian. Along with Michelangelo, these last four would certainly still command assent.

When Lomazzo’s treatise was published in an English rendering in 1598, the translator added the names of English artists, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. The adaptation and recreation of the lists in Northern Europe shows a process of gradual internationalization, the results of which are fully evident in Baudelaire’s latter-day roster.

Despite the “Correspondences” so beloved of the later Symbolists, critics of the poems tend to ignore Baudelaire’s mystical side. The conventional wisdom is that Baudelaire is the poet of modernity and subjectivity, who works out his destiny in the modern city, with all its grandeur and squalor. As we have seen, the theme of the union of beauty and ugliness is highlighted in “La Charogne.”

What makes Baudelaire most modern, at least in the sense of a precursor, is his incipient challenge to the venerable doctrine of the harmony of levels of style. According to this view there are three literary modes: the elevated, the middling, and the low. Each of these situations calls for a distinctive use of language. (We still have survivals of the idea, as seen in the shock that greeted Cheney’s admonition to Senator Leahy that he perform an act of contortionist sexuality on himself.)

Marked by his immersion in a modern metropolis, Baudelaire attends to the contrasts it affords. Still, in Les Fleurs du Mal, he clings to the constraints of the standard apparatus of French poetry. The aesthetic of his late poems in prose foregrounds more frankly the “somersaults” required by modern urban living.

With the passage of time we can identify several downsides of Baudelaire’s poetry. 1) Embedded in Les Fleurs du Mal are three minicycles, devoted to the women in his life. Even seen in the most charitable light, his relationships with women can only be regarded as neurotic. He sees them as inextricable from the pervasiveness of le Mal. Interestingly, the cycle of poems was originally to be entitled Les Lesbiennes. No one is quite sure why. He ended up with three poems about female same-sex love, but that is hardly enough to establish the theme of the whole. 2) Baudelaire is much taken with a kind of bargain-basement Satanism, le Mal again. He is tormented by a sense of guilt and the horrors that it portends. To be sure, this preoccupation lends drama—as in the last poem of the enlarged edition, where he accepts the abyss, whether “it leads to Heaven or Hell.” This preoccupation is connected with his pervasive depression, his spleen or ennui. Still, most modern readers find this obsession with damnation hard to accept. (Interestingly, in one poem he identifies le Mal with le Néant, nothingness, a term that is to enjoy a considerable fortune.)

By the way, was Baudelaire really the first modern poet in any language? Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass precedes him by two years, and is more innovative metrically. (Baudelaire knew Poe, of course, as well as Emerson and Longfellow, but not Whitman.)

In summary Baudelaire faces in two directions, towards tradition and towards the future. His involvement with the city of Paris is emblematic. He grew up in a still half-medieval city, but he lived to see most of the transformations effected by Haussmann.

PAUL VERLAINE (1844-1896).

Born in Metz, Paul Verlaine was educated at a lycée in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Charles Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867), though adversely commented upon by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality.

Verlaine's private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Mauté, who was a disciple of Louise Michel, a radical leader. Mauté became Verlaine's wife. At first Mathilde seemed the more interesting of the two, for her husband came across as a kind of accountant. This perception would soon change.

In September of 1871 Verlaine received the first letter from the stripling Arthur Rimbaud. By 1872 he had lost interest in Mathilde and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover, a situation that had a devastating effect on the insecure and overemotional Verlaine. He now became a heavy drinker, and shot Rimbaud in a jealous rage, wounding him, but not mortally. Verlaine was arrested and subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination, including his intimate correspondence with his lover and the accusations of Verlaine's wife about the nature of their relationship. Jailed for 18 months, Verlaine produced some of his best poetry in confinement. He returned to Catholicism, a change which influenced his work (and earned him the vicious mockery of the inconstant Rimbaud.)

After his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and produced another successful collection, Sagesse, this one heavily religious. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus.

Verlaine's last years witnessed a descent into drug-addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. Yet his poetry gained new adherents and was recognized as ground-breaking. The poems served as a source of inspiration to several composers, such as Gabriel Fauré, who set many of his poems to music, including La bonne chanson, and Claude Debussy, who turned the entire Fêtes galantes into a classic mélodie album.

Several artists painted Verlaine's portrait, among them Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de la Gándara, Eugène Carrière, Frédéric Cazalis, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen.

Verlaine’s early lyrics are characterized by delicate evocations of landscapes, some tinged with nostalgia (for the 18th century, above all). Some are correlated with his inner states. As he experienced the whiplash of his attraction to both women and men, his poetry became more personal and intense.

His “The Art of Poetry” (1884) sets forth several themes dear to the Symbolists, including the preeminence of musicality and the importance of the nuance. The sonnet “Languor” (1884) is a wonderful expression of the siting of decadence in the late Roman Empire. Both these poems appear in the collection Jadis et naguère, which must have played a key role in the formulation of the Symbolist aesthetic.

In addition to his loyalty to the “decadent” label, Verlaine coined the expression "poète maudit" (accursed poet) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke or had been ignored by the critics. In the 20th century the idea was extended to the “peintres maudits.”


ARTHUR RIMBAUD (1854-1896).

Arthur Rimbaud was born into the provincial middle class of Charleville in the Ardennes in northeastern France. As a boy he was a restless but brilliant student. By the age of fifteen he had won several prizes, composing original verses and dialogues in Latin.

In 1870 his teacher Georges Izambard became Rimbaud's literary mentor and his verses in French began to improve rapidly. He frequently ran away from home and may have briefly joined the Paris Commune of 1871, which he portrayed in his poem “L'orgie parisienne ou Paris se repeuple” (The Parisian Orgy or, Paris Repopulates). He may have been raped by drunken Communard soldiers (his poem "Le cœur supplicié" ["The Tortured Heart"] suggests so). By this time he had become an anarchist, started drinking and amused himself by shocking the local bourgeoisie with his shabby dress and long hair. He returned to Paris in late September 1871 at the invitation of Paul Verlaine (after Rimbaud had sent him a letter containing several samples of his work) and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine, who was married, promptly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, overgrown (5 ft 10 in), light-brown-haired young man. They became lovers, leading a wild, vagabond life spiced by absinthe and hashish. They scandalized the Parisian literary coterie on account of the outrageous behavior of Rimbaud, the archetypal enfant terrible, who throughout this period continued to write strikingly innovative, visionary verse.

Rimbaud's and Verlaine's stormy love affair took them to London in 1872. In Brussels in July 1873 Rimbaud committed himself to journey to Paris with or without Verlaine. In a drunken rage, Verlaine shot at him, one of the two shots striking the 19-year-old in the left wrist.

Rimbaud eventually withdrew the complaint, but the judge sentenced Verlaine to prison. Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) in prose, widely regarded as one of the pioneering instances of modern Symbolist writing and a reflection of that "drôle de ménage" (odd partnership) life with Verlaine, his "pitoyable frère" ("pitiful brother") and "vierge folle" ("mad virgin") to whom he was "l'époux infernal" ("the infernal husband"). One of the segments bears the enigmatic title “Alchemie du verbe.”

In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau and put together his pathbreaking Illuminations. Alternative titles for these prose poems are “Painted Plates” and “Colored Plates,” suggesting that he may have been influenced by the illuminated manuscripts he saw in the British Museum.

Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875 in Stuttgart, Germany, after Verlaine's release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing and decided on a steady, working life; some speculate he was fed up with his former wild living, while others suggest he sought to become rich and independent to afford living one day as a carefree poet and man of letters. He continued to roam extensively in Europe, mostly on foot. He traveled to Cyprus and in 1880 finally settled in Aden as an employee in the Bardey agency. He had several native women as lovers. In 1884 he quit the job at Bardey's and became a merchant on his own in Harar, Ethiopia. He made a small fortune as a gun-runner, but Rimbaud developed right-knee synovitis which degenerated into a carcinoma. His deteriorating health forced him to return to France in 1891, where his leg was amputated on May 27. Rimbaud died in Marseille on November 10, 1891, at age 37.

Rimbaud’s most celebrated single poem is his sonnet on the vowels, which has invited various esoteric interpretations. Whatever it may ultimately mean, it ranks as a famous set piece on the theme of synaesthesia.

One of Rimbaud’s most challenging statements is “Je est un autre” (I is someone else.) Reflection suggests that he was questioning the age-old Western commitment to the integrity of the personality. This declaration occurs in the outpouring known as the “Seer Letter” of May 1871. As he states: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains. He undergoes unspeakable tortures that require complete faith and superhuman strength, rendering him the ultimate Invalid among men, the master criminal, the first among the damned--and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown.”

Rimbaud’s influence in modern literature, music, and art has been pervasive. His life in Paris was dramatized in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio called "Total Eclipse" (1995). Among the creative figures who have felt the influence of Rimbaud are French poets in general, the Surrealists, the Beat Poets, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William S. Burroughs, Bob Kaufman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hugo Pratt, Mário Cesariny de Vasconcelos, Sérgio Godinho, Klaus Kinski, Dwid Hellion of Integrity, Jack Kerouac, Philippe Sollers, Patti Smith, Bruce Chatwin, Penny Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, John Hall, Bob Dylan, Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, John Lennon, Rozz Williams, and David Wojnarowicz.

Bob Dylan refers to Rimbaud in his song "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" from Blood on the Tracks: "Situations have ended sad, / Relationships have all been bad. / Mine've been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud. / But there's no way I can compare / All them scenes to this affair, / You're gonna make me lonesome when you go."

The composer Benjamin Britten began his scintillating settings of Les Illuminations in Suffolk in March 1939 and completed them a few months later in the USA. The work has been choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton and Richard Alston.

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