Century Old Visions: Baudelaire

Baudelaire by Etienne Carjat

I’ll admit right out of the gate that I’m pushing the whole Century Old Visions conceit to include Charles Baudelaire, seeing as he died a century and a half ago but he had to be at least a half century ahead of his time.  Les Fleur du Mal, written in 1857, is still ahead of its time. If we’re lucky it always will be because we’re in trouble if we ever catch up to lines like this:

If rape, poison, dagger and fire,

Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It’s because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!

When, after a decree of the supreme powers,
The Poet is brought forth in this wearisome world,
His mother terrified and full of blasphemies
Raises her clenched fist to God, who pities her :
– “Ah ! would that I had spawned a whole knot of vipers
Rather than to have fed this derisive object !
Accursed be the night of ephemeral joy
When my belly conceived this, my expiation !
Since of all women You have chosen me
To be repugnant to my sorry spouse,
And since I cannot cast this misshapen monster
Into the flames, like an old love letter,
I shall spew the hatred with which you crush me down
On the cursed instrument of your malevolence
Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

Baudelaire’s father, who was thirty years older than his mother, died when the boy was six. He did not like his stepfather and was kicked out of school when he refused to give up a note passed to him by a classmate. He spent the next two years in the Latin Quarter of Paris doing what poets do: getting drunk, racking up debt, contracting syphilis, and writing poems. He also translated the work of his “twin soul” Edgar Allan Poe and brought the work of that genius to the French-speaking world.

Charles Baudelaire died at the age of forty-six in Paris after a series of strokes. Every poet would do themselves a favor by spending some time with his work.

Get drunk
One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters;
that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s
horrible burden one which breaks your shoulders and bows
you down, you must get drunk without cease.
But with what?
With wine, poetry, or virtue
as you choose.
But get drunk.
And if, at some time, on steps of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the bleak solitude of your room,
you are waking and the drunkenness has already abated,
ask the wind, the wave, the stars, the clock,
all that which flees,
all that which groans,
all that which rolls,
all that which sings,
all that which speaks,
ask them, what time it is;
and the wind, the wave, the stars, the birds, and the clock,
they will all reply:
“It is time to get drunk!
So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time,
get drunk, get drunk,
and never pause for rest!
With wine, poetry, or virtue,
as you choose!”

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