“These days, when reading critically, the fashion is to remain aloof from the human experiences of novelists.”- Zadie Smith, “Middlemarch and Everybody” from Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
I can’t read anything by Charles Baudelaire without harboring obsessive curiosity about his psyche and his relationships with other people. Was it overarching intellectual boredom that produced “ces fleurs maladives”, “these sickly flowers” (trans. by Richard Howard) in the poetry made of scary material and hideous imagery? Family life? Too much bed time with a crazy mistress? Loss of faith in purpose? I aspire (and perhaps Zadie Smith, as well) to surpass the preceding epigraph so that we can train ourselves as readers to search for a literary compassion and general interest in who is opening up our worlds. There is a very real psychological root to metaphors of dark fragrances like musk and incense merging with the light perfume of children. (“Correspondences”, “Correspondances”) One could argue that deep psychology exists in which cereal you eat for breakfast, but a treasure of poetry is that it wields the mighty power of language to turn mere chores into terrible adventures.
Cinnamon Toast Crunch speaks not of my excited awe when reading “Le Guignon” (“Artist Unknown”):
Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage!
Bien qu’on ait du coeur a l’ouvrage
L’Art est long et le Temps est court.
Loin des sepultures celebres,
Vers un cimetiere isole,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voile,
Va battant des marches funebres.
–Maint joyau dort enseveli
Dans les tenebres et l’oubli,
Bien loin des pioches et des sondes;
Mainte fleur epance a regret
Son parfum doux comme un secret
Dans les solitudes profondes
Flesh is willing, but the Soul requires
Sisyphean patience for its song.
Time, Hippocrates remarked, is short
and Art is long.
No illustrious tombstones ornament
the lonely churchyard where I often go
to hear my heart, a muffled drum, parade
“Many a gem,” the poet mourns, abides
forgotten in the dust
“many a rose” regretfully confides
the secret of its scent
to empty air.
This and each poem by Baudelaire feels, to me, like a thin novel. The deep and inexhaustible characterization that causes three-hour Parisian lunches and a mass of French verbs that denote thinking or feeling, turns several stanzas into a rich observation of traumatized artists everywhere. They push their work up a rock always, wander the “lonely churchyard”, mourn, abide, and watch emptiness wash over them. But for all the Shakespearean love purges (a.k.a. sonnets), these taxing lyrics of pain are so necessary to the Artist or Mathematician– honesty. Hiding in books and saucy wit, our poet sometimes accepted and sometimes hated his life’s design to sculpt candid words into hauntingly beautiful verse. I find it amazingly interesting that his particular combination of childhood, personality, and desire brings us a quick story about the loneliness of poetry.