Baudelaire Bicentennial

I must be brief.

How does one speak of the bicentennial of a poet such as Charles Baudelaire, born two hundred years ago on April 9th in 1821? how to find the right words,…?

Some know him for his poetry, some for his criticism. His influence was subtle but enormous, immeasurable, far beyond his milieu.

He was an outspoken sensualist in works articulating a philosophy celebrating beauty for its own sake, earning him the label “decadent”. For a poet I know both in French & translation, it’s astonishing how many ways his poems get translated, how many brilliant things one can find in a single poem. The pleasures he described were Epicurean, worldly, educated, but original and new in their articulation. I’ll take Baudelaire over Henry Miller or Anais Nin: although I suppose neither of the latter is really possible without Baudelaire, as in some ways it’s as though he invented erotic literature. Or that’s how it feels. My God as I read and re-read, he seems so fresh & new especially when one sees the variety of translations, each seeking to meet the poet on the same level: which is impossible.

See for yourself

Charles Baudelaire

Not for the first time, I’m seeing huge echoes in our own time of the pandemic. Baudelaire was a man sketching brilliance from a dark place, sunny images seen from the shadows, recollections of vivid life that seem especially poignant now, so perfect for 2021. He was an idealist portraying the unreachable and the unfathomable.

I can imagine him smiling at our current lockdown and the impacts upon our lives.

A few months ago I wrote about Alexander Ross’s Wagner book, pondering the meaning of “modern” and “modernism”. I’ve seen Richard Wagner spoken of as a 20th century composer, the century having begun with Tristan und Isolde, an opera composed in the late 1850s. By the same token Baudelaire is one of the first and most important Wagnerians, which might be the least reason to identify him as modern if not modernist, alongside his poetry.

Ha, what’s a poet after all if we don’t sometimes stretch the meaning of words to the breaking point…? How modern then?

I am intrigued at how sometimes the ideas surrounding a work (whether it’s painting or performance) may be as important or more important than the work itself. I recall receiving Fleurs du maI as a gift from a friend, her excitement about a book I had not yet encountered. And I remember reading Baudelaire’s commentary about the Lohengrin Prelude. Curiously he was writing about something he had not actually heard himself. Nobody had yet heard the work in Paris. No, he may as well have been writing about the descent of Holy Grail itself: which come to think of it, he was trying to do (given the imagery in the opera). Baudelaire got excited while describing music Franz Liszt had heard & described and his enthusiasm was contagious. In time the symbolists in Paris would put Baudelaire, Wagner & Poe on their pedestal as their pantheon of influences, ideals barely understood even though they were from far off cultures (a German & an American?), languages they didn’t understand and whose foreignness added glamour and prestige.

The Baudelaire poem that I think of as most influential at least in the half century following its appearance is Correspondances. It captures in a few lines the concerns of many he would influence.


La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.


Richard Wagner

There are many translations, but even in French you can’t miss suggestive lines, such as
“La Nature est un temple” or
“forêts de symboles”. This is multi-sensory, when we see
” Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons.”

We’re shown an approach that would happily cross disciplinary boundaries, all senses stimulated, and anticipating the bold ambitions of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork. It might have been composed as the manifesto of a new type of art, the symbolist creation.

Maybe he never knew of Schopenhauer, but that first line suggests the philosopher’s idea that the arts could be understood as a channel for the divine, as though the poets were priests or priestesses.

Many other artists picked up on his ideas about reality. Claude Debussy set some of Baudelaire’s poems as songs or used them to inspire his piano music. “Harmonies du soir” from Fleurs du maI ends with the line that is Debussy’s title for his 4th prelude of Book 1, namely “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir.” The suggestive imagery of the poem becomes the departure point in the composition of the prelude.

Debussy instructions in the score for the pianist are poetic. He says “comme une lointaine sonnerie de cors” (or “like a distant ringing of horns”) and when the phrase is echoed moments later it says “Encore plus lointaine et plus retenu” (or “even more distant & more restrained”).

Can a piano make sounds suggesting horns? Debussy would expect it, the piano score another species of poem, the pianist another sort of poet.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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