Figuring oneself as Hamlet in the middle of the 19th century was a perilous business. Think of Mr Wopsle, who performs the role in a hilariously bad production in Great Expectations. When he agonisedly wonders whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings etc he is assailed by contradictory cries from the audience: ‘Some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said “Toss up for it”; and quite a Debating Society arose.’ On seizing one of the Players’ recorders during his altercation with Guildenstern, Wopsle/Hamlet is raucously entreated to play ‘Rule Britannia’. And when, his moralising over, he dusts his fingers on a white napkin after handing back Yorick’s skull to the gravedigger, an inspired prankster yells out: ‘Wai-ter.’
Charles Baudelaire had, it might be argued, a more authentic claim to the inky cloak and cosmic melancholy of the troubled prince than any other writer of the era. His much loved father, Joseph-François Baudelaire, died when he was only five, and for a blissful year or so he had his mother to himself. ‘I lived constantly through you, you were mine alone,’ he recalled in one of his many painfully needy and reproachful letters to her. ‘You were both an idol and a comrade.’ This paradisal state was abruptly terminated by the arrival on the scene of a military man, Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Aupick, who would in time rise to become General Aupick. Thirteen months after Baudelaire senior’s death, Aupick made his not too bitterly grieving widow pregnant, and a month before she was due to give birth they were married. The baby was stillborn. Baudelaire, who eventually came to hate his stepfather with an intensity rivalling that of Hamlet for Claudius, never forgave his mother her betrayal.
In 1841, when Baudelaire was twenty, Aupick, deciding he’d had enough of the young poet’s wilfulness and insolence, arranged for him to take a sea voyage to Calcutta. Charles’s ‘aberrations had caused cruel anguish to his poor mother’, Aupick explained in a letter to a friend justifying the exile. But like Hamlet, Baudelaire avoided completing the trip: when the ship docked at Réunion in the Indian Ocean he refused to go any further, exchanging, in the teeth of the entreaties of the captain, who was a friend of Aupick’s, the Bengal-bound Paquebot des mers du sud for the Bordeaux-bound Alcide. In a letter written to Aupick the day after he was deposited back on French soil Baudelaire declared himself penniless but as having acquired from the voyage ‘a fund of good sense’. This claim was to be pretty quickly belied by the reckless extravagance with which he shortly after set about squandering the substantial inheritance from his father’s estate that he came into later in the year. But if his aborted trip to the Orient didn’t bring him a fund of good sense, something he would never really acquire, he did return with a fund of exotic imagery that he would deploy brilliantly in Les Fleurs du mal.
‘To be or not to be …’ Baudelaire’s only recorded attempt at suicide came in 1845, when he was 24. ‘I am killing myself without grief,’ he wrote in his farewell letter to the Polonius in his life, the much put-upon Narcisse Ancelle, mayor of Neuilly, who had the unenviable task of administering the conseil judiciaire imposed by the family as the only possible means of reining in Baudelaire’s compulsive spending. This legal limit on his access to cash only partly worked, for he could still borrow. He hated the conseil judiciaire with all his considerable powers of hatred, railing against the humiliation of being treated like an irresponsible minor; he blamed it, and those who’d forced it on him, for his spiralling debts and the poverty and squalor of his day-to-day existence, as he drifted from seedy hotel to seedy hotel, pursued by creditors. But it wasn’t the debts, he insisted to Ancelle, that were driving him to suicide, for ‘nothing is easier than to rise above such things.’ It was ennui or spleen that lay at the root of his decision: ‘I am killing myself because I cannot live any more, because the fatigue of falling asleep and the fatigue of waking are unbearable.’ Yet he couldn’t help adding a reference to his mother having ‘involuntarily poisoned [his] life’: ‘She has her husband; she possesses a human being, an affection, a friendship.’ By accident or design, the poet’s knife-thrust failed to pierce any vital organs.
Despite such histrionics Baudelaire was as aware as Dickens was of the absurdity of acting like Hamlet in the age of progress. In the early poem ‘La Béatrice’ he presents himself wandering through a kind of wasteland, ‘terrains cendreux, calcinés, sans verdure’ (in Francis Scarfe’s prose translation: ‘ashen, vacant lots, burnt to a cinder where no green grew’); he sharpens, Hamlet-like, the ‘dagger’ of his thoughts on his heart. Dickens uses exaggeration and bathos to poke fun at the pretensions of narcissistically self-absorbed young men; Baudelaire – just as effectively – uses overblown Gothic. Over his head he notices a sinister cloud that turns out to contain a group of vicious demons that look like cruel, inquisitive dwarves. They gaze at him coldly for a while and then begin to mock him:
Contemplons à loisir cette caricature
Et cette ombre d’Hamlet imitant sa posture,
Le regard indécis et les cheveux au vent.
Isn’t it a pity, they continue, to see this ‘bon vivant,/Ce gueux, cet histrion en vacances, ce drôle’ trying to interest nature in his sorrow, as if crickets and streams and flowers cared a jot about his misery. The poet prepares to turn his princely head away from the taunts of this obscene mob, like the dandyish Baudelaire disdaining his creditors or landladies, but then pauses, for he has noticed in their midst
La reine de mon coeur au regard nonpareil,
Qui riait avec eux de ma sombre détresse
Et leur versait parfois quelque sale caresse.
Baudelaire is as refined a master as Dickens was of the art of merciless humiliation. Central, I think, to the genius of both is a blindness to the possibility of compromise. Flaubert put it adroitly: ‘You are as unyielding as marble,’ he wrote to Baudelaire on reading the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, ‘and as penetrating as an English mist.’
In the same letter Flaubert praised Baudelaire for having found a way ‘to rejuvenate Romanticism’. But this rejuvenation is also Romanticism’s satirical, demonic parody, as ‘La Béatrice’ (the title a sardonic reference to Dante’s ideal beloved) so vividly demonstrates. This is the reason Baudelaire now stands, Janus-faced, on the threshold of so many discussions of modernity. It was Walter Benjamin who most persuasively argued that Baudelaire was the first ‘writer of modern life’, adapting the title of Baudelaire’s encomium on the artist Constantin Guys, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, published in 1863. The influence of Benjamin’s essays on critical approaches to Baudelaire is so pervasive that they can at times come to seem a double act. In Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity, Françoise Meltzer goes so far as to present Baudelaire’s writing as in crucial ways incomplete without Benjamin’s interpretations of it. Her argument is an attempt to push one stage further a complex metaphor used by Benjamin in a fragment not published in his lifetime, but written around 1921-22.
Benjamin’s metaphor asks us to compare time to a photographer who photographs the essence of things. Only the negative of that essence is recorded on the photographic plates, which therefore can’t be read by contemporaries living through the history the plates record. The ‘elixir’, Benjamin writes, ‘that might act as a developing agent is unknown’. And while Baudelaire doesn’t possess this vital developing fluid, he is somehow, ‘thanks to infinite mental efforts’, able to read the plates. ‘He alone is able to extract from the negatives of essence a presentiment of its real picture. And from this presentiment speaks the negative of essence in all his poems.’ Meltzer’s twist on this is to suggest that, fortunately for us, Benjamin himself possesses the vital fluid or elixir or developing agent that can transform Baudelaire’s negatives into pictures. In other words, Baudelaire is the photographer who records life in negatives on photographic plates that no one, including him, can read; then Benjamin, ‘with the brilliance of his own retrospective vision of the poet and his city’, applies the elixir that turns ‘the negatives recorded by Baudelaire into the theory of modernity’.
It’s an intriguing, if frequently dizzying, line of argument, and offers a way of bringing into focus, to continue the photographic metaphor, the double image that Baudelaire’s writings so often convey, a contradictoriness summed up by Christopher Isherwood in the 1946 preface to his translation of Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes:
What kind of a man wrote this book?
A deeply religious man, whose blasphemies horrified the orthodox. An ex-dandy, who dressed like a condemned convict. A philosopher of love, who was ill at ease with women. A revolutionary, who despised the masses. An aristocrat, who loathed the ruling class. A minority of one. A great lyric poet.
There is no disputing the fact that Benjamin’s essays played, and continue to play, a major role in the notion of Baudelaire as an ‘icon of modernity’, yet Baudelaire’s own writings betray little enthusiasm for progress or the future: ‘Poetry and progress,’ he observed, ‘are two ambitious men that hate each other, with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet along a pathway one or other must give way.’ But it was exactly Baudelaire’s anxiety about what the future might hold, his alienation from the present, and his recognition that the past was irrecoverable, that singled him out from his contemporaries, and made his work anticipate the concerns of a later age. Baudelaire’s sense of displacement drove him to undertake the ‘infinite mental efforts’ that would allow him to pit against each other in his poetry the antinomies that besieged him as ferociously as the dwarfish demons deriding the would-be Hamlet of ‘La Béatrice’. By finding ways of registering the chaos of impossibilities through which he had to make his way, like some latterday Satan (with whom he often aligned himself) breasting the buffeting currents in the void between Hell and Heaven, Baudelaire created the body of writing that Benjamin would in due course hail as the gateway to the modern condition.
If Benjamin was Baudelaire’s redemptive twin, his semblable, his frère, waiting in the future to apply a magical elixir to his poetic negatives, his own literary doppelganger was Edgar Allan Poe, whom he discovered in 1847, two years before Poe’s death. In 1848 he published his first version of a Poe tale, and over the next decade and a half translated a significant percentage of Poe’s work. What Benjamin did for Baudelaire, Baudelaire did for Poe. He instantly and strongly identified with the American’s febrile or enervated aristocrats, his capricious tormentors and doomed adventurers, and developed a vision of their author as a saintly victim of the brutal, vulgar forces of American capitalism. Poe helped Baudelaire to see how the dandy might be developed into the aesthetic flâneur, compulsively indulging his refined, connoisseur’s curiosity in defiance of the getting and spending going on all around him. Poe’s devious admixture of the squalid and the outlandish, the banal and the hallucinatory, the exquisitely patterned and the disturbingly macabre, found more than an echo in Baudelaire. ‘No man,’ he declared in a particularly purple passage in an essay on Poe’s life and works,
has spun such magical tales about the exceptions of human life and of nature, the feverish curiosities that arise in convalescent states, the dying seasons, heavy with enervating splendours, warm days, sodden with damp mists, when under the soft caress of the south wind nerves are relaxed like the strings of an instrument and the eyes run over with tears that do not come from the heart, hallucination, at first leaving room for doubt but soon following, like a book, its own line of reasoning with conviction, the absurd occupying the intelligence and governing it with its own hideous logic, hysteria usurping the throne of the will, conflict reigning between nerves and mind, and man so out of tune with himself as to express grief by laughter.
No one, in America or Europe, had responded to the unwholesome world of Poe’s tales and poems with such enthusiasm before. Note the emphasis on the artificial (‘tears that do not come from the heart’) that runs through Baudelaire’s own poetry, and on the exceptional. And that such an exceptional figure, himself the creator of exceptional characters and exceptional situations, should have been brought low by the materialist culture into which he had the misfortune to be born, chimed exactly with Baudelaire’s vision of the poet as misprised and ensnared, forced, like the poet and the seabird of his famous ‘L’Albatros’, to endure the mockery of the ignorant and malicious:
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
Yet Poe also showed that there could be no turning a blind eye to that culture, however inhospitable. In the story ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Poe’s narrator decides to follow an old man whose face he glimpses in the mob streaming past the window of the London coffee house in which he’s dawdling, after recovering from a long illness. Though he tracks his quarry all night, through all manner of contrasting districts, the man’s behaviour remains stubbornly incomprehensible. At times he seems to parody the purposefulness of both the eagerly consuming bourgeois, and his ‘hypocrite’ antagonist and opposite, the aesthetically consuming flâneur: ‘He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.’ The narrator’s attempt at the story’s conclusion to allegorise the man as ‘the type and the genius of deep crime’ registers as a singularly unconvincing attempt to evade what was becoming increasingly evident as the century progressed: the impossibility of making sense of city life.
After his return in the spring of 1842 from his one and only sea voyage, Baudelaire rarely stirred from Paris; until, in 1864, with a perversity equalling that of any of Poe’s characters, he moved to Brussels, which he instantly hated, for two bitterly unhappy years that ended only when he suffered a paralytic collapse probably brought on by the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. Many of the most resonant of the poems collected in the enlarged second edition of Les Fleurs du mal of 1861 (the earlier edition having been withdrawn after a ludicrous but successful prosecution for obscenity), respond to the mysteries of the city in a manner analogous to that of Poe’s story:
Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!
Les mystères partout coulent comme des sèves
Dans les canaux étroits du colosse puissant.
The first two lines from ‘Les Sept Vieillards’ extend the process of Franco-American literary transference: they are cited by T.S. Eliot in his Notes to The Waste Land as a source for the line ‘Unreal City’, and by implication for the phantasmagoric aspects of the poem’s London more generally. In a passage from the poem ‘Le Soleil’ that anticipates the urban poetics of another ardently Francophile American poet, Frank O’Hara, Baudelaire figures his traversing of the streets of Paris as an aleatory means of exploring simultaneously the city, the self, and the possibilities of poetry:
Flairant dans tous les coins les hasards de la rime,
Trébuchant sur les mots comme sur les pavés,
Heurtant parfois des vers depuis longtemps rêvés.
In ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ he compares the urban sketches of Guys with the narrator’s heightened awareness in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’: ‘The lover of universal life,’ he exclaims, ‘moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity.’ The frisson of the chance encounter is memorably captured in a poem such as ‘A une passante’, the subject of a fine chapter in Meltzer’s study: ‘La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait,’ it opens; amid the seething crowds the poet spies a woman in mourning in whose eye he glimpses the femme fatale-ish mix of tempestuousness, gentleness and deadly pleasure to which he is addicted. But before he can act she is gone – ‘Un éclair … puis la nuit!’ The rapidity with which erotic possibility emerges and then disappears in the poem is glossed by Benjamin as an example of ‘the stigmata which life in a metropolis inflicts upon love’; a spark of enchantment followed seconds later by farewell. The image of the widowed woman – and it was during her widowhood that the young Baudelaire enjoyed his closest relationship with his mother – survives in the poem, but only as an impossibility. But it also insists on the way her image continues to haunt him, as Thomas de Quincey, whom Baudelaire also translated into French, was haunted in his urban wanderings by the vanished figure of the young prostitute Ann in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?
It is not, I think, just the influence of Benjamin’s image of Baudelaire as a quintessentially city poet that makes one feel that the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ section of Les Fleurs du mal has worn better than the volume’s many poems of doomed or vampiric love. Their heady mix of sex and guilt, and tumbling hair that he bites or gets drunk on, appealed strongly to Swinburne and 1890s poets such as Arthur Symons, but it’s likely that Baudelaire readers of today prefer him out on the streets of Paris, registering the lives of the city’s waifs and cast-offs, pondering its destruction at the hands of Baron Haussmann, as in the superb ‘Le Cygne’, or panoptically recording its furtive nightlife in a poem such as ‘Le Crépuscule du soir’, which opens like a film noir: ‘Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel.’
The urban consciousness developed in this section of Les Fleurs du mal also dominates a number of the wonderful prose poems Baudelaire began writing in the second half of the 1850s, and which he sold – sometimes twice over – to various newspapers and fugitive magazines. He intended to collect these into a volume to be called Petits poèmes en prose, but it never appeared in his lifetime, probably falling victim to his somewhat unscrupulous, but never particularly successful, dealings with various publishers. It was posthumously issued as Le Spleen de Paris, translated by Francis Scarfe as Paris Blues.
In a letter to Arsène Houssaye, whose La Presse published twenty of these prose poems in 1862, Baudelaire outlined his ideal of ‘a poetic prose, musical though rhythmless and rhymeless, flexible yet strong enough to identify with the lyrical impulses of the soul, the ebbs and flows of reverie, the pangs of conscience’. This notion, he continues, had its origin ‘in our experience of the life of great cities, the confluence and interactions of the countless relationships within them’. In one called ‘Les Foules’ (‘Crowds’) he celebrates the extravagant rapture of the soul when it ‘yields itself entire, in all its poetry and all its charity, to the epiphany of the unforeseen, the unknown passer-by’. At such moments the random, unpredictable nature of urban experience is equated with the mysteries of divine grace. In ‘Mademoiselle Bistouri’ (a bistouri is a ‘lancet’), which describes a singular woman who worships all doctors, we are enjoined to pay heed to the warped and mad lurking like ‘innocent monsters’ in the weird warren that is the great city. And here again he appeals to the divine – ‘O Lord, have pity on the insane, the madmen and madwomen!’ – eventually surmising that there can be no monsters in the eyes of God; for He knows ‘comment ils se sont faits et comment ils auraient pu ne pas se faire’.
Baudelaire may be subliminally pondering his own weirdness or monstrousness here. In an essay of 1930 Eliot argued that Baudelaire ‘attracted pain to himself’, and that while he had ‘great strength’, it was strength ‘merely to suffer’. Certainly there is no progress to be discerned in his contorted decades-long wrestling with the family dynamics that shaped his behaviour and character; even after Aupick’s death in 1857 his relations with his mother didn’t improve. He rarely visited her at her villa in Honfleur, where she and Aupick had retired, though his demands for money continued. Baudelaire accumulated suffering as readily and compulsively as Mademoiselle Bistouri accumulates her extensive knowledge of Parisian doctors. If his double vision allowed him to imagine a God who saw how he might have escaped or transcended his misery, he lacked conclusively the elixir, to borrow Benjamin’s term, needed to transform these negative intuitions into real-life pictures. It was the extremity and eloquence of his response to a narrative that he could no more change than an actor can change the plot of Hamlet that made him an exemplary precursor for writers of the next century, writers as antithetical to each other as Benjamin and Eliot. As Eliot put it: ‘In all his humiliating traffic with other beings, he walked secure in this high vocation, that he was capable of a damnation denied to the politicians and the newspaper editors of Paris.’