Looking In: Baudelaire

Industrialism as Progress

Looking In: Baudelaire

Closing a chapter on Tennyson and opening one on Charles Baudelaire may seem a little jarring, rather as if there were some pages missing from the middle. As I see it, though, there are two very good reasons to place them side by side. First, because such a pairing would have seemed perfectly natural to Baudelaire, who often thought of himself in this English context. And second, because it allows us to test the soundness of a critically-vulnerable boundary. I’ve been insisting all along that Victorian England—not France—was the first nation to cross the industrial divide, and that English poets faced the mixed pain and promise of industrialism earlier than their French counterparts, often in more insistent and more pervasive forms. But Baudelaire poses a challenge to this whole line of argument. Isn’t he, after all, the first great modern poet? And mustn’t that mean that France, rather than England, was the first modern place?

From the beginning, the one term that has been most closely associated with Baudelaire’s work is modern. Paul Verlaine said that Baudelaire represented “l’homme moderne” (Bandy 74). T. S. Eliot praised him for introducing “something universal in modern life” (234). Marshall Berman calls him the “first modernist” (133) and Jonathan Culler the “prophet of modernity” (Introduction XXXI). There are other characterizations of Baudelaire, to be sure, but none has the stature of this one: Baudelaire the modern poet, or, just as often, Baudelaire the first modern poet.1 Of course, if people as politically and philosophically diverse as T. S. Eliot and Marshall Berman can be said to agree about Baudelaire’s status as a modern poet, it may be because they are using the word “modern” in very different ways—rather as if we were to say that Tony Blair’s commitment to labour was the same as Clement Atlee’s, or Edmund Burke’s conservatism the same as George W. Bush’s. Ultimately, though, I do not think this is true in the case of Baudelaire. When Eliot invokes the idea of the modern, he certainly means something different from Berman, but not something so very different as to rule out any common ground. As applied to Baudelaire, the word modern has a fairly consistent set of meanings: Baudelaire is modern because his poetry reflects either the conditions of urban industrialism (cities, slums, commodities, crowds) or, alternately, the trauma of living in an urban, industrial landscape (shock, alienation, reification) These are two sides of the same coin, one the material, the other the psychic impact of a new stage of capitalism, and what makes Baudelaire’s poetry modern, for all of these critics, is its engagement with one or both of these two sides.

If all of this is true, though, then we have a rather difficult circle to square. Why should the first modern poet be a French poet if urban, industrial capitalism did not begin in France? There are a few ways we might approach this question. We could, for instance, choose to strip Baudelaire of his title and install a British poet in his place (we might even follow Sterling’s lead and nominate Tennyson). For my part, though, I am happy to let Baudelaire keep his title and begin, instead, by asking what it means to find the first modern poet in a place that is not the first modern place. If the first modern poet appeared in France, and if the conditions that made him modern had already existed in England for half a century, then that poet must have had a rather complicated relationship to English industry and English literature. And Baudelaire did. His attention to English life sharpened his representation of the modern, and his engagement with English poetry expanded the range of his own verse (his relation to Poe, Longfellow, and American poetry is caught up in this as well, often in ways that make the “American” hard to distinguish from the “British”). Ultimately, if we want to better understand what made Baudelaire modern, we have to pay greater attention to his Englishness—and this means both the way he related to English literature and the way English readers recognized themselves in Les Fleurs du Mal. It is not only Paris that stands at the heart of Baudelaire’s modern poetry, it is also London, that other capital of the nineteenth century.

The Crystal Palace Project

The strong association of Paris with modernity, and of Baudelaire with both, draws a good deal of its force from the work of the German philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin.2 It was Benjamin who gave us the first, richest, and most detailed account of Baudelaire as the poet of modern life, and it was likewise Benjamin who made Paris the unofficial capital of the nineteenth century.3 As a result, it is tempting to think that these two parts of his account belong together, that everything we need to know about what made Baudelaire modern can be found in Paris. But in fact England, more than France, was the real locus of industrial capitalism, and London a rival claimant to the title “Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” It was London that provided Marx with the materials and the writing space for his magnum opus, just as the more fully industrial Manchester taught Engels the brutal laws of capitalist survival. For Baudelaire, too, it was not just France but England that provided the modern material for his modern verse.

Throughout the nineteenth century, England outpaced France in economic output and industrial entrenchment. As a proxy-measurement, the French railway system was less than one third the length of the British system, and it carried less than a quarter of the total freight (Mitchell 673-4, 684-6). At the same time, the population of England was already predominantly urban, whereas France was still an overwhelmingly rural place. London itself had nearly 3 million people, while Manchester and Liverpool each had over 300,000 (as did Glasgow), and Birmingham well over 200,000 (as did Edinburgh). Mid-century France could boast of only one city with a population over 200,000, and that was Paris. Bourdeaux, Lyon, and Marseille were all closer in size to Bristol than Manchester (Mitchell 74-6). Indeed, at that time a good swath of French life was still virtually untouched by industrialism—far from factories and inaccessible by railway—which is something that simply could no longer be said of England.

Beneath these quantitative differences, moreover, there was a more fundamental distinction. Only one of these countries had completed an industrial revolution and was experiencing the new economic and social organization that industrialism allowed. This is not to say that there was no industrial activity in France; in fact, there was a great deal. But, as I detailed in the introduction, industrialism is not a function of the number of people working in factories or the raw output of economic materials. It is better understood as a kind of tipping point which results in the emergence of a wholly new economic dynamic. Whereas pre-industrial societies are bound by the old Malthusian trap—with economic growth forever offset by a growing population—fully industrial societies face no such trade-off. They produce growth rates sufficient to allow for real improvements in social welfare. Mid-century England could boast such a rate. Mid-century France was still trapped.

To be fair, this analysis tells us more about the two nations than their capitals. Neither Paris nor London housed a great deal of industry; that kind of activity tended to happen either at the outskirts of the capital or in other industrial centers. In fact, both cities were still home to large numbers of artisans and small workshops, along with slums, businesses, civic offices, and all number of formal and informal activities. And yet even here, where the differences were smaller, they were not insignificant. In the first place, London was a hub of international trade and a center for global finance, its wealth and stability conceived chiefly in commercial terms. Parisian elites, in contrast, tended to think of themselves not as businessmen but as rentiers whose wealth was guaranteed less by trade and more by the awkward compromises that held together the regimes of Louis-Philippe and Louis Napoleon (Lees). Second, while Benjamin was certainly right to emphasize the many contributions to consumer culture nurtured in Paris—from the department store, to the plate-glass shop window, to advertising photography, among others—it is also true that many of the phenomena he discusses in the Arcades Project were equally prominent, and sometimes more prominent, in England.4 The gas-lighting whose optical effects he describes in such penetrating detail was installed in London years before it was even tested in Paris; the rag-pickers thrived as fully in the pages of Henry Mayhew as they did in the Parisian slums; and, beyond these, we can only wonder what Benjamin might have made of some of the more local, British phenomena, like the stereoscope or the Great Exhibition.

There are, then, two ways to account for Benjamin’s interest in Paris. Either he chose Paris as the exemplar of modern life because he didn’t fully appreciate the greater advancement of England, or he did so precisely because it wasn’t the place of greatest advancement. The evidence of the Arcades Project points, surprisingly, to the latter. If Benjamin looked to Paris, rather than London, to diagnose modernity, it was because Paris, in his eyes, was not quite the most advanced city and France not quite the leading nation. In the mid-nineteenth century, its development was still deeply uneven, its landscape rent between surging industrial innovations and lingering pre-industrial residues.5 Indeed, Benjamin’s favored subjects tell us just how important this mixture was for him. The ragpickers and prostitutes that he so richly allegorizes, for instance, are hardly modern at all, being two of what we colloquially call the oldest professions. What makes them central, for Benjamin, is that they have been symptomatically altered by modernity. The modern prostitute has gained a new figural power by her uncanny affinity with the commodity itself, and the ragpicker, too, has a new capitalist function: “to subject even begging to exchange value” (Quoted in Benjamin IV 102).6 People had been selling sex and gathering trash for centuries, but in nineteenth-century Paris these activities were transformed in ways that revealed the force-field of capitalist development. For Benjamin, there was something about the lagging nature of French modernity that made it an especially rich philosophical mine. The problem with London was that it was too advanced, no longer allowing for the kinds of mixed phenomena that so defined the landscape of nineteenth-century Paris.

Of course, as any good urban history or for that matter encounter with Dickens will show, London was also a wonderfully variegated city, full of innumerable social and economic confusions. And, while it harbored advancements that the rest of Europe—and Paris in particular—couldn’t match, it was also missing features that we tend to think of as paradigmatic of modern life. Bohemia, for instance, which was central to the French experience of modernity was utterly foreign to the English. Its characteristic ferment of counter-bourgeois attitudes was nowhere to be met in London, and the effect of this absence—on English art in particular—was profound. As Jerrold Seigel and Mary Gluck have both argued, Bohemian Paris nurtured a set of poses and practices that contributed to the formation of modernism and the later avant-garde. Not having a Bohemia, then, kept London at something of a distance from this strain of modernist practice. Yet, what this discrepancy between Paris and London reveals is something rather different than what Seigel and Gluck presume. It is not enough to say that modernity, writ large, gave birth to Bohemia, which then inspired a set of modern artistic practices. That circuit was never activated in England, and the reason has nothing to do with an absence of urban, capitalist incursions. To the contrary, Bohemian counter-culture emerged in France because the eruption of urban capitalism and the ascendancy of the middle-class had been too-long delayed and then too quickly realized. In France, the bourgeoisie assumed control not only of the market and the public sphere, but also of the still-lingering monarchical and imperial mechanisms of official culture, imposing their artistic standards in ways more direct and more authoritative than was possible in England—and provoking, for that reason, a subculture that was more defiant and more flamboyantly adversarial. The reason that London lacked a culture of Bohemia was not because it trailed France, but precisely because it had managed, over time, to accommodate and institutionalize both the new forces of industrial capitalism and the new powers of the middle class.7

Indeed, London’s greater economic and institutional advancement was widely acknowledged by contemporaries—even, as we will see later, contemporaries from French Bohemia. There circulated in the nineteenth century an idea of England as the consummately modern place, a place, as it were, already at the end of history. The influence of this idea on Benjamin, in particular, is well illustrated by an example from the middle section of his Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.8 Like so many of Baudelaire’s readers, Benjamin finds himself drawn past the French poet and into the orbit of Baudelaire’s favorite American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, whose “The Man of the Crowd” expresses, for Benjamin, one of the central dynamics of modern life: the need to penetrate and track the new social organism that is the crowd.9 Seated behind a café window, the narrator occupies himself in discerning the rank and position of every person who passes by, until he sees a man he cannot place, a man of “absolute idiosyncrasy” whom he follows around the city for twenty-four hours. Wherever they go, the two men, pursuer and pursued, “remain in the middle of the crowd” (IV 27), and the unfolding of the story, from Benjamin’s perspective, depends less on their particular movements than on the dynamics of crowd-hunting and crowd-reading. Not all crowds are created equal, and Benjamin is convinced that Poe’s crowd is very much a “London crowd” (IV 29), by which he means far more than that Poe’s story is set in London. As Benjamin sees it, this is the type of crowd that only London could produce:

The people in his story behave as if they can no longer express themselves through anything but reflex actions. These goings-on seem even more dehumanized because Poe talks only about people. If the crowd becomes jammed up, this is not because it is being impeded by vehicular traffic—there is no mention of vehicles anywhere—but because it is being blocked by other crowds. In a mass of this nature, flânerie could never flourish. / In Baudelaire’s Paris, things had not yet come to such a pass. (IV 30)

In Poe’s story, the crowd has expanded to encompass the entire city. There are no vehicles, only masses of people whose movements are constrained by other masses. Nothing like agency or autonomy can survive in the London crowd, only the “reflex actions” of dehumanized bodies subject to the whims of the agglomerated others. Flânerie, too, has died out, the space of ironic resistance being wholly absorbed by the stochastic movements of the mass. For Benjamin, however, Paris is a different story. The final line from this excerpt sums up the situation beautifully: “In Baudelaire’s Paris, things had not yet come to such a pass.” Benjamin’s carefully phrased “not yet” tells us that this state of affairs cannot last, that Paris will eventually become what London already is. But for this moment—Baudelaire’s moment in the mid-nineteenth century—Paris was a place of partial modernity, a place where flâneurs could still move about. It was a city peopled by what Benjamin calls, in the conclusion to “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” “errant negotiators of the old and new” (Arcades 26).

As I said, this vision of the difference between London and Paris is exaggerated. Contrary to Benjamin’s conclusion, there was plenty of room for flânerie in the London streets and plenty of places free from the tyranny of crowds. These misperceptions are part of the strange, but widespread, idea of a consummately modern London, a city of complete modernity which could also be a nightmare of fulfilled modernity. And yet this distorted idea still points, accurately enough, towards a profound historical fact. London—both in itself and as the symbolic center of England—was closer to fulfilled modernity than any other nineteenth-century place. Certainly, it had not reached the endpoint—if such a thing exists—but just as certainly it was at the vanguard. And Paris, with France around it, was not. Painting the difference between those two cities in bold, exaggerated strokes, as Benjamin does in his reading of “Man of the Crowd,” helped to register this real historical difference, the fact that England was not only more urban and more industrial but that its rate of growth was accelerating more quickly, widening the gap with every passing year. To those on the near side, that gap could seem not just large but existential. And so Benjamin looked instead to Paris, where the shearing forces of urban capitalism were still in process and, thus, uniquely visible.

A Secret Community

There is yet another reason that Benjamin imagined Paris as the trailing echo of a consummately modern England: that is just how Baudelaire conceived it. He, too, saw England as the other, inescapable, redoubt of modernity, home to a kind of life that France, in its own advancement, could not help but echo. Moreover, the unmatched force of English capitalism had imprinted itself onto English art—marking it with the sign of modernity. That, at least, is how Baudelaire perceived it, and in fact the feeling was more general. Here, for instance, is his friend and fellow-poet, Théophile Gautier, after seeing an exhibition of English art:

Antiquity has no place in English art. An English picture is modern in the same way that a Balzac novel is modern; the most advanced civilization on Earth can be read in minute detail, in the sheen of the varnish, in the preparation of the panel and the colors.—Everything is perfect. (Hamrick 30)

For Gauthier, English art is modern because its every detail—from brush-stroke to varnish—reflects the advanced state of English life. “Perfect” is the punctuating word—another version of the same Benjaminian fantasy of fulfilled modernity, only this time as fulfilled art. Sometimes, Gauthier seems to suggests, French art can also be perfect, citing the example of Balzac, but it is important to note the imbalance in Gauthier’s praise. On the one hand, every English picture is modern; on the other, not every French novel is modern, just the work of Balzac. When he refers, in the phrase that follows, to “the most advanced civilization on Earth,” there is no question as to which civilization he has in mind. There can only be one “most advanced civilization” and here it is clearly England. France is something else, a nation sufficiently advanced to give birth to the occasional piece of modern art—like a Balzac novel—but not so advanced as to bring a modern sheen to all French art.

Baudelaire never wrote about the varnish and colors of English art, but he penned a long piece of art criticism dedicated to an artist who wasn’t English but who chose to live and work there.10 That essay, “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne,” is Baudelaire’s most famous piece of criticism, a celebration of the power and possibility of modern art. Its hero is Constantin Guys, a French artist who honed his craft as an artist-reporter for the Illustrated London News.11 His work wasn’t varnished and perfect, in the way that Gauthier admired; it was rough and impressionistic. Yet, for Baudelaire, Guys’ art was just as surely shaped by English modernity, its “vélocité d’exécution” specially fitted to the “mouvement rapide” of that most advanced civilization (II 686). Baudelaire may have been looking for something different in his paragon of modern art, but he too looked across the channel, and what he found there was yet another French artist enamored of England.

In Baudelaire’s case, grappling with modern art meant grappling both with England and the English language. Baudelaire had been reading English books since his boyhood, and the fluency he developed fed not only into his translations but also into his French poetry. The English word “spleen,” for instance, is one of the most vital words in Baudelaire’s oeuvre and also a very new word in French.12 New enough, in fact, that not just the word but the feeling was still associated with England, as in the familiar phrase “English spleen.” No less than four poems in Les Fleurs du Mal bear the “Spleen” title, as does the outsized first section of the book (“Spleen et Idéal”) and his later collection of prose poems (“le Spleen de Paris”). Part of the responsibility of Baudelaire’s work was to make room in French for this English word, to establish its contours and connect it to an increasingly prevalent modern mood—and this despite the fact that the French language already has a related word for this mood, namely ennui. The advantage of the word spleen is that it comes from English, bespeaking its connection to modernity in a way that ennui cannot. Not only, then, did Baudelaire find his paragon of modern art by looking across the channel, but he choose his most prominent word from the English lexicon.

As it happens, he also tried to get his poetry read across the channel, both by a general audience—offering review copies to several leading English journals and newspapers, including Blackwood’s, the Edinburgh Review, and even the Times—and by well-known writers—sending presentation copies to Longfellow, Tennyson, De Quincey, and Browning (Pichois 275). His poetic allusions and borrowings (“plagiats,” he called them) all flowed in the same direction. In one of his several attempts at a preface for Les Fleurs du Mal, he offered his readers a list: “Thomas Gray. Edgar Poe (2 passages). Longfellow (2 passages). Stace. Virgile (tout le morceau d’Andromaque). Eschyle. Victor Hugo” (I 184). We might want to add others to this list—Coleridge, for instance, whose “Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” almost certainly inspired “L’Albatross,” and also, as we will see later, Alfred Tennyson—but the important thing to note is Baudelaire’s indifference to German, Italian, and all other forms of European poetry. His debts and credits all flow in the other direction, away from continental Europe. When he is not looking backwards, to the far poetic past, his gaze is resolutely turned towards England and the U.S.

It is important to include both of those countries—England and the U.S.—because both were important to Baudelaire, and obviously they are not the same. There is something too easy about the way that Benjamin turns “Man of the Crowd” into a paragon of British experience when, of course, it is a work of American fiction. The differences between England and the U.S in the mid-nineteenth century were legion, and any serious attempt at trans-Atlantic literary study would have to attend to those differences. But, again, the question for us is less the real nature of these differences than the fact that, for Baudelaire, the similarities were far more weighty. Poe, he knew, was an American author raised in an American milieu (several of them, in fact), but still he felt that what mattered most about Poe’s work was its un-Americanness, its poor fit with American life and letters. Poe, he says in “Edgar Poe, Sa Vie et Ses Oeuvres,” belongs with “les grands poètes” of “la poésie anglaise” (II 302). On its own, that phrase “la poésie anglaise” could refer either to English poetry (as distinct from American) or poetry in English (which would include American), but seeing as Baudelaire didn’t acknowledge any “grands poètes” in America before Poe’s time—not Bradstreet or Bryant—he must have meant the former. The pantheon to which Poe belongs is the one comprising Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Gray, and the other exemplars of British poetry. Poe is one of these, a poet defined not by his American roots but by his unsuspected place in the history of English, and specifically British, poetry. This is not to say that Baudelaire was blind to Poe’s real national context but it does suggest that he thought of America in a peculiar way, as just another place where an English poet might flourish.

In his own poetry, Baudelaire made good use of the shared heritage of England and the U.S. “Le Guignon” provides an excellent example. “Guignon” was an important word for Baudelaire, a word that helped crystallize his thinking about the relation between art and society. As it is generally used, “guignon” refers to bad luck, but for Baudelaire it had a far more specific meaning: it named the curse faced by great, unappreciated writers.13 “Il y a dans l’histoire littéraire des destinées analogues, de vraies damnations, —des hommes qui portent le mot guignon écrit en caractères mystérieux dans les plis sinueux de leur front” (II 296).14 Baudelaire was thinking of Poe, in this passage, but Poe wasn’t the only artist who had the word guignon written on his forehead. Their numbers, Baudelaire felt, were increasing as the bourgeoisie increased its authority over aesthetic matters.

Baudelaire’s poem, “Le Guignon,” is a traditional French sonnet with octosyllabic lines. And if, as you read it, you think about its English resonance, you can get a good sense for what makes it so peculiar:

Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage!
Bien qu’on ait du coeur à l’ouvrage,
L’Art est long et le Temps est court.

Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres.

– Maint joyau dort enseveli
Dans les ténèbres et l’oubli,
Bien loin des pioches et des sondes;
Mainte fleur épanche à regret
Son parfum doux comme un secret
Dans les solitudes profondes.15 (I 17)

It has long been recognized that most of the poem is, in fact, borrowed.16 Of the 14 lines, 4 come from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” and 6 from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” That leaves only 4 original lines by Baudelaire, but as is so often true with poems of this stamp, the interesting thing is not only what Baudelaire borrows but how he adapts these “plagiats” for his particular vision.

Longfellow’s poem is too long to quote in its entirety, but what interests Baudelaire is this single stanza:

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

It is rather an unusual stanza in Longfellow’s poem—in terms of both its tone and its thematic emphasis. The piece, as a whole, is chiefly about defying death and achieving immortality in life. “Let us, then, be up and doing” and “Act,–act in the living Present” are representative lines and they illustrate the general, carpe diem appeal. In such a poem, the four lines that Baudelaire borrowed are decidedly out of place, being rather somber and almost bleak in their funereal emphasis. “Stout” and “brave” our hearts may seem, but their force is “muffled,” and the rhythms they beat out match our steps towards an inevitable grave.17

In Baudelaire, Longfellow’s stanza is split in half and separated by two lines that add a timbre of isolation to what is already a death-march.

Bien qu’on ait du coeur à l’ouvrage,
L’Art est long et le Temps est court.

Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres. (3-8)

Not only are the heartbeats muffled, “comme un tambour voilé,” but even if they were booming in Baudelaire’s version you still couldn’t hear them, isolated as they are “Loin des sepultures célébres, / Vers un cimetière isolé.” The heroic notes of Longfellow’s poem are buried deeper in the French, his soft “voilé” matched and darkened by a rhyming “isolé.” At the same time, Baudelaire’s deeper fatalism is also a more specific fatalism, shifted from Longfellow’s “our hearts” to Baudelaire’s “mon coeur.” What were, for Longfellow, lines about the universal burden of mortality become, in Baudelaire, lines about the specific burden of cursed artists. In “Le Guignon,” it is not humanity at large but only the modern poet who feels the melancholy of his mortality, his heart beating out a muffled funeral march towards a grave in a forgotten cemetery. He is alone, isolated, walking silently towards death—not because he is human but because he is a guignon.

This same shift is already evident in the opening two lines. For Longfellow, “Art is long, and Time is fleeting” is a statement about life, rather than art.18 “Lives of great men all remind us,” he says elsewhere in the poem, “We can make our lives sublime.” If we work tirelessly and waste nothing of our few mortal days, than our lives can become as immortal as artworks. That is what he means by “Art is long, and Time is fleeting.” Baudelaire’s version is an exact translation, but when he writes “L’art est long et le Temps est court” he is most assuredly thinking of aesthetics and the particular difficulties of making art. In particular, he is thinking of Sisyphus, equating the “l’ouvrage” necessary to create an “oeuvre” with the tireless work of that long-suffering king. This makes art something worse than long and closer to impossible. It does not actually matter how short Time is, as it will always be briefer than the eternity Sisyphus needs to complete his task. Time is short and Art is endless, in this case. Yet, for Baudelaire, there is still something heroic about attempting that endless artwork, something which is nicely captured by the exclamation point that completes the second line: “Sysiphe, il faudrait ton courage!” It is hard to tell exactly what sort of courage is being celebrated here. Is it courageous, in other words, that Sisyphus persists heroically in the face of an impossible task? Or is it simply courageous for him to persist at all, to live on without hope of success? Whether we are in the major key of heroic persistence or the minor key of heroic subsistence is a question left for the tercets, which makes it a question for Thomas Gray.

The lines Baudelaire borrows from Gray are among the most famous, and indeed the most clichéd in English literature—though it is hard to know whether they would have seemed clichéd to an English-reading poet living very much outside of English public discourse:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

It was here that Baudelaire found his hidden gems and hidden flowers, as well as the parallelism of “Maint joyau” and “Maint fleur” (echoing Gray’s “Full many a” structure). But again, Baudelaire’s rendering fundamentally changes the context, shifting the burden from everyday life to modern art. Gray’s poem is set in a country cemetery, among the graves of rural England’s “unhonour’d dead,” for whom Gray imagines a kind of untapped nobility. Baudelaire has in mind something quite different. His “joyaux” and “fleurs” aren’t secretly heroic commoners but modern artists and guignons. And that basic change of emphasis filters down into a range of smaller, more focused changes. “The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean” become, in his hands, “les ténèbres et l’oubli, / Bien loin des pioches et des sondes.” Instead of the vaguely metaphoric “unfathom’d,” we have the far more literal, and more menacing, image of pickaxes and probes. In Gray’s poem, the jewels are unfathomed mainly because no one has bothered to look, whereas in Baudelaire, they are hidden because no one has yet been able to find them. It is not, in other words, that these artists and guignons have been forgotten or exiled to isolated cemeteries; they have sought out such cemeteries so as to live in peace. Unfit for a world of pickaxes and probes, they have hidden themselves in an oblivion that promises a kind of safety. Sleeping “dans les ténèbres et l’oubli” may be lonely, but for an artist alienated from an increasingly bourgeois public, isolation provides its own kind of consolation, or what the final tercet calls a secret sweetness.

There is a comfort, in other words, to be found in this isolation, a sweetness that can only be felt in loneliness. Baudelaire’s hidden flowers may “épanche à regret / Son parfum” but that wasted “parfum” is now “doux comme un secret.” It is the sweetness of secrecy itself, of that which is private and concealed, but also intimate and strangely communal. Secrets, after all, are often shared, creating a community of the knowing. If the perfume of this flower is “doux comme un secret,” it is not because of its isolation, but rather because of its guarded community. “Maint fleur” is how the stanza opens, just as “Maint joyau” opens the previous one. And the unusual combination of singular and plural that this construction allows stands in for the kind of secrecy, and the kind of community, that is at stake in this poem. It is not just one flower that wafts its sweet perfume, but many flowers, each doing so in secret. Each of them suffers in isolation and solitude, but they can share the sweet secret that they are not alone in being isolated.

They belong, we might say, to a secret fraternity of the guignons: a community of artists bound together by their estrangement from society, a host of Sisyphuses each with his own boulder to carry. There is a hint, moreover, that this secret fraternity of the estranged allows for occasional communication, faint poetic echoes that are too close to be called allusions and too free to be called thefts. Whatever you want to call them, though, they speak to the idea of a deep, though hidden, relation between artists. There is a brush of contact between Baudelaire and Gray, and another between Baudelaire and Longfellow. The connections are weak and one-directional, no doubt, but they constitute the only kind of community, and the only kind of sweetness, that is possible for modern, cursed artists.

In that sense, the secret community of the guignon is not entirely unlike the communities-in-progress that Tennyson’s poetry imagines. Both are minimal forms of community, not living and thriving but makeshift and fragile. And both are communities of last resort, made necessary by the failure of any more sustaining relation. If anything, though, Baudelaire’s vision is even more attenuated than Tennyson’s, and certainly more tentative. There is nothing like the comradeship of Ulysses and his mariners, or the passionate embrace of an orphan for his “Mother-Age.” Instead, there are borrowed words, translated allusions, and the sweetness of a shared isolation. It is a community of artists whose ties are limited to occasional literary echoes; and not even all artists are welcome, only those trapped in places modern enough to be cursed by the bourgeois indifference to aesthetics: Longfellow in America, Gray in England, and Baudelaire in France.

Not only, then, does “Le Guignon” imagine a minimal kind of community, but it imagines an embattled community, one whose secret is always under threat from “des pioches et des sondes.” The sweet perfume of solitude may have a social aspect, but it also has to be guarded against the corruption of a larger, less worthy society. When that fails, as happens in the very next poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, secrecy ceases to seem sweet and becomes doubly burdensome:

J’ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques
Que les soleils marins teignaient de mille feux,
Et que leurs grands piliers, droits et majestueux,
Rendaient pareils, le soir, aux grottes basaltiques.

Les houles, en roulant les images des cieux,
Mêlaient d’une façon solennelle et mystique
Les tout-puissants accords de leur riche musique
Aux couleurs du couchant reflété par mes yeux.

C’est là que j’ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes,
Au milieu de l’azur, des vagues, des splendeurs
Et des esclaves nus, tout imprégnés d’odeurs,

Qui me rafraîchissaient le front avec des palmes,
Et dont l’unique soin était d’approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir. (I 17-8)

This next poem, “La Vie Antérieure,” is also a sonnet, though in the more orthodox 12-syllable alexandrine. And while there is a great deal to be said about the quatrains—from the rich play of history and memory, to the homophony of antérieure and interieure, or the images and sounds of what Baudelaire elsewhere calls “correspondance”—the deepest connections between this poem and “Le Guignon” surface after the turn.19 Traditionally, that would mean looking at the ninth line, but Baudelaire’s turn happens later, as we cross into the 11th line and meet the “esclaves nus.”

Nothing in the poem prepares us for this, and in fact a great many elements seem designed to heighten the shock. Deferring the turn certainly has this effect, as does the enjambed list, which begins by enumerating the “voluptés calmes” of “l’azur,” “vagues,” and “splendeurs” and then suddenly—and despite the innocuous “Et”—finds itself forced to accommodate the very different resonance of naked slaves. Whatever they are doing there, it is clear that they do not belong in this list, however much the poem strains to make them seem like just one more iterated item. Most dramatic, though, is the way their presence reverberates back through the poem, making us suddenly aware that there have been no other people in “la vie antérieure.” There are no citizens in the polis, no ships at sea, no friends with whom to share the glories of “correspondence.” Rich though the music of the quatrains may be, the speaker enjoys it very much alone. The only others who might join him are the slaves and they, as the poet tells us, have but one care: “d’approfondir le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.”

It is a crucial line in the poem, but also a difficult one, and that difficulty is apparent even in the earliest translations. “La Vie Antérieure” was one of just a handful of poems to be translated into English in the years before 1880. Eugene Benson, writing in the American Atlantic Monthly offered a prose translation whose final line was: “to seek the painful secret which made me languish.” On the English side, Arthur Reed Ropes penned a verse version for the Cambridge Review which ended with the line: “to divine / the secret sorrow that could make me pine.” Both translators keep the word secret, and both draw attention to the special burden of this secrecy, which is called painful in one rendering and sorrowful in the other. What was, in “Le Guignon,” a source of sweetness is now a source of anguish. And there are two reasons for that. One, this artist seems to be truly isolated, cut off even from a hidden society of guignons. Two, interested society has found him out. If the slaves left the speaker alone, in other words, the pain of utter, unshared loneliness would already be bad enough. But of course they will not leave him alone. All of their time is spent trying to “approfondir le secret douloureux.” Benson and Ropes take “approfondir” to mean ‘try to find’ (“seek,” in the one case, “divine” in the other). That makes the slaves rather like the prospectors, only instead of pickaxes and probes they use palm leaves. “Approfondir,” however, also has another, more literal, meaning, which the translations failed to capture: it can mean to deepen or make deeper, and if that is the case than the work of the slaves is rather different. Their job would be to bury the secret, not unearth it—pushing it deeper and deeper underground to ensure that it never finds an outlet.

Baudelaire’s secret fraternity of guignons is caught, as it were, between these two meanings of approfondir, threatened at once by the possibility of being unearthed and by the equal possibility of being buried alive. If the sweet, shared isolation that binds the artists of “Le Guignon” is broken, and the secret divined, then the sweet perfume becomes too diffuse and too diluted. If, on the other hand, their isolation is heightened, the artists further exiled, and the secret buried deeper, then the sweetness is trapped. What “Le Guignon” imagines, then, is a delicate and deliberate kind of community: bound together by the sense of a shared, artistic curse, communicating through occasional allusions, and thriving on the closely-guarded secret of its own collective isolation. It may not be what I called before the major key of heroic, Sisyphean persistence—the notes are too muffled and the contact too tenuous. But neither is it the minor key of mere subsistence. These artists don’t suffer passively in their march toward “un cimetière isolé,” and they don’t simply accept the burden of eternal failure. Rather, they go on forging the delicate links that sustain their secret community. In the most aggressive reading, these figures confirm Benjamin’s famous account of Baudelaire as a professional conspirator, planning in secret for the grand, defiant revolt which is to come. This gives a quite different meaning to the phrase “L’Art est long et le Temps est court.” Art is not just long, but patient. It bides its time, gaining solidarity through allusion and “plagiats” while the rest of the world goes about its narrow, utilitarian business.

Le Voyage à Tennyson

Thus far, I have talked a great deal about industrialism and modernity, but not about progress. That is not because the idea was foreign to Baudelaire. In fact, Baudelaire was one of the 19th century’s great anti-progressives, a committed skeptic who thought of progress as the worst kind of ideological nonsense. “Il est encore une erreur fort à la mode de laquelle je veux me garder comme de l’enfer.—Je veux parler de l’idée du progrès” (II 580).20 Progress was a dangerous, if fashionable error, and it was also, as Baudelaire expressed elsewhere, the natural enemy of poetry: “La poésie et le progrès sont deux ambitieux que se ha\EFssent d’une haine instinctive, et, quand ils se rencontrent dans le même chemin, il faut que l’un des deux serve l’autre” (II 618).21 I said, in the introduction, that this kind of skepticism was essentially absent from the English intellectual scene, the belief in progress having achieved an unquestioned ascendancy. But in France, where industrialism was still uneven and industrial progress a thing of the future, the debate was still vibrant. Baudelaire, himself, offered no shortage of reasons for disclaiming progress, not all of them consistent. In the first place, he felt that it made human beings too free: “[il] a déchargé chacun de son devoir, délivré toute âme de sa responsabilité, dégagé la volonté de tous les liens que lui imposait l’amour du beau” (II 580).22 He also argued that the idea of inevitable progress was an unjustifiable extrapolation. Even if we admit that there had been some real material advances in the past, what makes us think these will continue into the future. “O\F9 est cette garantie? Elle n’existe, dis-je, que dans votre crédulité et votre fatuité” (II 581).23

His sharpest language he reserved for a third critique. Even if progress is real, and inevitable, isn’t it as much an affliction as a boon?

Je laisse de côté la question de savoir si, délicatisant l’humanité en proportion des jouissances nouvelles qu’il lui apporte, le progrès indéfini ne serait pas sa plus ingénieuse et sa plus cruelle torture; si procédant par une opiniâtre négation de lui-même, il ne serait pas un mode de suicide incessamment renouvelé, et si, enfermé dans le cercle de feu de la logique divine, il ne ressemblerait pas au scorpion qui se perce lui-même avec sa terrible queue, cet éternel desideratum qui fait son éternel désespoir? (II 581)24

At every step, progress negates its own achievements, tantalizing us with the promise of a pleasure that it can never actually provide. Endless repeated motion is how Baudelaire imagines it, whether of the “suicide incessamment renouvelé,” or the “cercle de feu.” And what drives this cyclical movement is our own unquenchable desire, our hope for a “desideratum” which remains forever out of reach. Imagine Sisyphus, finally pushing his boulder over the summit only to discover a second hill on the far side, and beyond that an endless mountain range.

Alternatively, you could imagine Tennyson’s Ulysses, voyaging endlessly to satisfy his own restless desire to surge into the unknown. So many of Baudelaire’s concerns are already there in the Tennyson: the sense of fruitless, tortured motion, the idea of a progress forever negating itself, the confusion of development and suicide. Certainly, there are differences between the two. For Tennyson, progress was not a myth but a fact, something which might condemn us to restlesnness but which still provides some real achievements. Baudelaire thought progress a bleak illusion, a facade behind which lay the truth of eternal self-torture. Real or illusory, though, both poets imagined the experience of progress in much the same terms, and this is something more than a coincidence. Baudelaire’s ideas about progress came very much out of his engagement with Tennyson’s poetry. We know that Baudelaire read and appreciated Tennyson, and there is ample evidence of a deeper indebtedness, particularly in the case of “Le Voyage,” the final, conclusive poem of Les Fleurs du Mal.25 Written, as Baudelaire claimed, to “faire frémir la nature, et surtout les amateurs de progrès” (I 1098), that poem takes Tennyson’s work on progress as its basic model.26 The most direct evidence for this is its allusion to “The Lotos-Eaters” and the line “Venez vous enivrer de la douceur étrange / De cette après-midi qui n’a jamais de fin!”27 Now, obviously, invoking the myth of the Lotos-Eaters need not be a Tennysonian homage. It might harken back to the Homeric original, except that in Homer there is no mention of a perpetual afternoon, an “après-midi qui n’a jamais de fin!” That image comes instead from one of Tennyson’s opening lines: “In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemèd always afternoon.” This, as I say, is the most direct allusion to Tennyson, but it is not the deepest sign of his influence.28 That lies, instead, in the very framing of Baudelaire’s poem, which repeats the fundamental conceit of “Ulysses,” taking the ancient, inveterate practice of sea-voyaging and recasting it as a figure for the uniquely modern perversity called progress. That was one of Tennyson’s great innovations, and in “Le Voyage” it becomes one of Baudelaire’s richest borrowings, one of the documents of Victorian industrial experience that he adapted for his own modern needs.

“Le Voyage” is not only the final poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, it is also the longest verse poem Baudelaire ever wrote. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end—all arranged along a recognizable narrative arc (which is generally read as an allegory for life itself, moving from childhood in the opening lines to death in the final ones). What is more, the speaker is not the familiar Baudelairean “je,” but instead a more expansive “nous,” a poet speaking with the authority of a community and addressing a shared experience:29

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Un matin nous partons, le cerveau plein de flamme,
Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers,
Et nous allons, suivant le rythme de la lame,
Berçant notre infini sur le fini des mers: (I 129, 1-8)30

To the earnest child of these opening stanzas, the universe seems as vast as his own desire. It is full of all the treasures he has dared to imagine, and as he sets off he still hopes to find them all. This is what it feels like to be driven outward by the forceful wind of desire itself, that boundless yearning which enflames the mind and embitters the heart. The child’s voice, however, is not the only one in these opening lines; there is another, more experienced and more cynical voice which looks backward rather than forward. “Aux yeux de souvenir,” it tells us, “le monde est petit.” The rhyming pair which connects these two perspectives is revealing here. If the child sees through the eyes of infinite desire, or what the poem calls his “appétit,” the experienced traveler sees a world which, for all its diversity, must always be “petit.” No matter its size, no world can accommodate the limitless hunger of anticipation.

The “nous” which grows out of these lines and governs the whole of the poem incorporates both these voices. It speaks for the sanguine child and the cynical adult. It ventures out, with the child, “le cerveau plein de flame,” but it also retains a certain knowing fatalism, an awareness that the “fini des mers” cannot calm “notre infini.” Moving between these voices gives Baudelaire some of the same freedoms that Tennyson found in the dramatic monologue: the ability to speak from multiple positions, to plant words in the narrator’s mouth or disclaim words that would otherwise be his.31 It enables Baudelaire to shift seamlessly between perspectives, speaking at times as the representative of what he grandly calls “L’Homme,” and at other times as its nemesis.

Comparing just the opening lines of sections II and III gives a clear sense for the range of this “nous,” Section II begins:

Nous imitons, horreur! la toupie et la boule
Dans leur valse et leurs bonds; (25-8)32

The interjected “horreur,” and its accompanying exclamation point, leave no doubt as to the sympathies of the moment. Though he speaks as the “nous,” Baudelaire is nonetheless speaking against humanity; he is appalled by—and staunchly critical of—the restless bounding and stagnant, purposeless spinning of all those in thrall to progress. By the opening of the poem’s next section, however, the “nous” has regained something of its credulity:

Etonnants voyageurs! quelles nobles histoires
Nous lisons dans vos yeux profonds comme les mers! (49-50)33

There are no derisive interjections, here, and the exclamation points only reinforce the sense of captivation. At this moment, the speaker seems as enthralled as everyone else. Notice, too, that the “fini des mers,” from the opening lines, has become “vos yeux profonds commes les mers,” as if there were once again some hope that our desires and our experiences could be mirrored in a perfect correspondence. It is not that our speaker has changed his mind about progress or lost his sense of “horreur.” It is simply a matter of the malleability of the “nous.” In Tennyson, much of this work occurs in the gap between Ulysses’s voice and that of the poet. In Baudelaire, the plural subject is what allows the poet to speak with the freedom of different voices.

This drama of the compound “nous” reaches its climax at the end of “Le Voyage,” where it intersects with the various questions we have been tracing: about Baudelaire’s Englishness, his investment in Tennyson, his reputed modernness, and his imagination of community. Indeed, it is here, at the end, where Baudelaire establishes his own, distinctive difference from Tennyson—not by way of repudiation or disavowal, but simply by taking the materials of Victorian literature and recasting them for his own modern poetry.

We know from Tennyson that poems which deal with progress face a special burden as they close: they have to reconcile the end of the poem with the endlessness of progress. Tennyson, himself, struggled with that problem throughout his work, and Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” faces a similar, though not identical, burden. The fact, in particular, that Baudelaire’s vision of endlessness is different means that so too are the possibilities for bringing it to an end. In Baudelaire, progress is not only conceived as a mad, restless movement; there is plenty of that, to be sure, but it is only half the problem—and the optimistic half at that. For Baudelaire, progress is not just an endless quest towards an impossible fulfillment; it is a painful quest as well. And it is important to recognize just how different this is from the Tennyson. Ulysses may be trapped in an endless cycle of deferral, but he really does enjoy the journey. To the end, he is excited about progress, perhaps even too excited: in thrall to his excitement. In Baudelaire, you have the very different combination of enthrallment and spleen.34 The voyagers who set out with bitter hearts and inflamed heads find only further bitterness and greater dissatisfaction. They do not treasure the turbulence of their compulsive maneuvers, nor do they say, with Ulysses, “all times I have enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone.” Instead they say:

Nous avons vu des astres
Et des flots, nous avons vu des sables aussi;
Et, malgré bien des chocs et d’imprévus désastres,
Nous nous sommes souvent ennuyés, comme ici. (57-60)35

The blasé tone of that last line is perfectly pitched. We are often bored, no matter whether we are at sea or at home. Moving around cannot change that fundamental fact. As we travel, we do see things—stars, tides, sand—but we see them so regularly and with so little variation that they cease to excite. And even when we encounter some more exciting “chocs” and “désastres,” they are still dull. No matter how “imprévus,” “Désastres” still sounds like “des astres”—the unexpected being no more intense or enlivening than the familiar. In Baudelaire, the lure of progress is vitiated by the fact of historical stasis. Every time we go in search of the New, we shipwreck upon the self-same.

That term—self-same—is Baudelaire’s own. It is an English compound that he first used to describe Poe’s relation to progress. Poe, he said, considered progress “comme une extase de gobe-mouches,” a frantic, futile flight from the truth that lay elsewhere: “à l’immuable, à l’éternel, et au self-same” (II 299).36 In the world of the self-same, the only thing worth discovering is that there is nothing left to discover, that the New is always just the first phase of an eternal repetition:

Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui! (109-12)37

For all its richness and diversity, our world is, was, and will forever remain “monotone et petit,” a perfect reflection of our own desperately bored souls. This is what you might call the dark side of Baudelairean correspondence. Yes, humanity is in harmony with the world, only it is the harmony of banality. We are trapped in the self-same because we, ourselves, cannot change. Wherever we go, we see the stale image of our own restlessness and dissatisfaction.

What, then, is left for us to do? Should we follow Ulysses, embracing progress and traveling outward in search of things we know we cannot find? Or should we accept the self-same and try to rest as much as is humanly possible? This question, or this series of questions, marks the beginning of the end for Baudelaire’s poem. And the speaker’s initial response—”Si tu peux rester, reste; / Pars, s’il le faut”— is appropriately flip, given the utter insignificance of the answer (113-4).38 If life will be full of boredom either way, there is no reason to take seriously these questions about which boring path to prefer. And yet, the poem does ultimately make a choice. Some ways of enduring the self-same are inexplicably better, and for Baudelaire pointless journeying seems strangely preferable to pointless stasis, dull travel to dull respite. To the question, ‘should I stay or should I go,’ the ultimate response of “Le Voyage” is: go. And this is never more true than at the moment of death, the moment when you are finally overcome by “l’ennemi vigilant et funeste, / Le Temps!” (115-6):

Lorsque enfin il mettra le pied sur notre échine,
Nous pourrons espérer et crier: En avant!
De même qu’autrefois nous partions pour la Chine,
Les yeux fixés au large et les cheveux au vent,

Nous nous embarquerons sur la mer des Ténèbres
Avec le coeur joyeux d’un jeune passager. (121-6)39

When time catches up to us and puts his foot firmly on our chest, then our real journey can begin. Notice, in other words, what death is not. It is not a final, ultimate rest. It is not a peaceful escape from the endless, anxious, active ennui of life. It is more like a voyage to China, another stop on the same closed circuit we have been following throughout our lives—only with a revived hope for success.

Somehow, in death, our faith is restored. Something of the infinite anticipation of the child has been recaptured, and with it the renewed hope that we may at last encounter new experiences and find new kinds of satisfaction:

Entendez-vous ces voix charmantes et funèbres,
Qui chantent: “Par ici vous qui voulez manger

Le Lotus parfumé! c’est ici qu’on vendange
Les fruits miraculeux dont votre coeur a faim;
Venez vous enivrer de la douceur étrange
De cette après-midi qui n’a jamais de fin!” (127-32)40

Two different Homeric moments are here packaged together in one irresistible offer. There are the sirens, singing with their “voix charmantes et funèbres,” but what they are offering are the flowers from the island of the lotus eaters, the “fruits miraculeux dont votre coeur a faim.” It is the fulfillment of desire and the freedom from desire all at once.41 That these two temptations actually belong together is something that Adorno and Horkheimer saw long ago, in a famous excursus from Dialectic of Enlightenment. Both sequences, they recognized, offer Ulysses a promise of satisfaction and then reveal, through the vigor of Ulysses’ resistance, his indifference to real happiness. Ulysses will neither eat of the lotos flower nor swim to the sirens and the reason he will not is because he cannot tolerate the idea of contentment.

Tennyson felt the same resistance, and to guard against the seduction of happiness he made his own “Lotos-Eaters” even less appealing. You can see something of that in the line that Baudelaire borrowed. “In the afternoon,” Tennyson writes, “they came unto a land / In which it seemèd always afternoon.” Seemed, to begin with, is a decidedly ambiguous verb, and the fact that it is lengthened into two syllables helps to draw attention to that ambiguity. The lazy repetition of afternoon has a similar effect, as if to suggest not only a kind of permanence but also a kind of incapacity, a breakdown in language. Tennyson’s words wink at us, with a knowing suspicion about the dubious value of this island of sweet intoxication. It may seem satisfying but any attempt to live that satisfaction leads to a kind of lazy degeneration.

Not so in Baudelaire. “De cette après-midi qui n’a jamais de fin!” contains no repetition and no “sembler,” only a newly earnest exclamation point. The line has been stripped of all its more ambivalent elements, allowing the lotos-siren temptation to appear as a gift, rather than a trap. Unlike the Homer or the Tennyson, something of real fulfillment is on offer in Baudelaire’s lines, and it is an offer that “nous” may finally be willing to take. In life, Baudelaire tells us, we are enslaved to progress, driven ever outward in search of new experiences, only to find that each experience reinforces the reign of the self-same. We are forever captivated by a promise of happiness that continually escapes us, and so we spin in futile circles like a child’s top. Then we die, at which point, we can finally enjoy the intoxication of the lotos flower and the pleasure of the sirens.

There is something very appealing about this reading, and it is certainly not without its textual evidence.42 It is also not without its problems, though. It is not just that we have to die in order to find happiness—generations of religious devotees have lived comfortably with that trade-off.43 Rather, it is that the passage to this greater happiness looks suspiciously like all of our other failed, boring voyages. The final stanzas of “Le Voyage,” in particular, tell us that this death which seems to promise real fulfillment is like nothing so much as another voyage in search of the elusive New:

Ô Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!
Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre,
Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!

Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous réconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau! (137-44)44

The perversity of progress is as pronounced here as it is throughout the poem. Death is a captain, ready to raise anchor and set sail. And we—the “nous”—are only too eager to follow, our hearts “remplis de rayons,” and our heads, as in the opening lines, burning with anticipation.45 Magically, death has renewed our faith in the tortured promise of progress and given us new assurance that we will finally “trouver du nouveau” (and notice, here, that Tennyson’s final “to find” has found a matching place in Baudelaire’s last line). But of course, we were always confident that we could find something new; that is what drove our futile path around the globe to begin with. The only difference between this voyage and the others is that we call this one death and the other life. Our desires, our hopes, and our expectations are exactly the same in both cases. We merely repeat, in death, the same ritual we perfected in life.

The ultimate meaning of these final lines depends in large part on who is speaking. Is it the bitter, critical “nous” who might interject an “horreur!,” as in “Nous voulons, horreur!, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau, / Plonger au fond du gouffre.” If so, then these final stanzas are the most piercingly cynical of the entire poem. Even in death, this “nous” would suggest, we are enslaved by progress. We cannot imagine rest or fulfillment except as extensions of our own futile voyaging, and the consequence is that even in our watery graves we will be unable to sleep because we will be haunted by the promise of the New.

Then again, it might be the more hopeful “nous,” the speaker who moves forward with humanity and speaks for the power of human possibility. Him we might trust to tell us about the new potential of death and the real happiness that lies on that far side of that great divide. His final “trouver” might be something other than a feint, and something firmer than Tennyson would allow. What makes “to find” so awkward in the Tennyson, remember, is that his Ulysses—like Adorno and Horkheimer’s—has no interest in finding; he lives to search. In Baudelaire, however, the possibility of finding seems more comfortable and more plausible, because the poem has already showed us what it would look like: the magical combination of sirens and lotos-flowers. Even if we repeat in death the compulsive activity of life, that repetition is no longer absurd, because in death there are actually new experiences to be found and new kinds of satisfaction to uncover—satisfactions intimated by those reworked Homeric allusions.

Unless, again, we have the tone wrong, in which case we are continuing the old pattern of sacrificing our lives to the hollow promise of happiness. Thus, round and round we go, inside the speaking “nous” whose position we cannot fix and therefore cannot trust. What was ambivalence in Tennyson has become vertigo in Baudelaire—the mix of enthusiasm and compulsion intensified to produce a new kind of poetic closure, not awkward and half-hearted as with “Ulysses,” but doubly insistent, equal parts passion and cynicism. It is a vicious interpretive circle, rather than a hasty detour, and that change is itself a reflection both of the very different temperaments of these two poets and, more important, of their very different communities.

The reason the end of Baudelaire’s poem seems so vertiginous is because there is truly nothing else to hold on to: no excitement, no discoveries, no fruits of progress to enjoy, and above all no community-in-progress to make the journey bearable. If the “find” of Ulysses’ last line seems artificial, we can happily dismiss it and still take comfort in the enthusiasm of our captain and the bonds of an incipient community. In Baudelaire, there is no such recourse and no such community. Despite the very deliberate and very unusual use of the speaking “nous” (“Le Voyage” being one of only two poems in the Fleurs du Mal governed by the “nous”), this “nous” does not seem to be a truly collective voice. It has its power and its flexibility, but what it does not achieve—perhaps does not even attempt to achieve—is any instantiation of a living, speaking community. There is nothing like the fellowship of Ulysses and his undead mariners nor indeed the communal, choric song of the lotos-eaters; instead, there is only this hollow plural signifier which stands, more than anything else, for the palpable absence of others. This is why the final appeal in Baudelaire is so different from the one in Tennyson. “Come, my friends,” Ulysses says, “Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” Baudelaire’s speaker has no friends to implore, and so he turns, instead, to death: “Ô Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!” Better, it would seem, to lose oneself to death than to reclaim your brothers from the same fate.

This difference in the representation of community, moreover, points back to the problem with which we began, the problem of Baudelaire’s strange Englishness. Part of the reason Baudelaire could not imagine his own community-in-progress—in life or in death—is because he was the first modern poet in a nation that was not the first modern place. His natural poetic partners were toiling away across the channel, and Tennyson is just another of those, another English writer in the vortex of modern life whose work Baudelaire could adapt for his own modernist purposes. It was from these British and American guignons that Baudelaire borrowed his literary materials, and it was to them that he looked when trying to imagine his own artistic community. They, however, were neither near enough nor tangible enough to provide any real, social recompense for the pain of progress.

What is perhaps most astounding about Baudelaire’s imaginary involvement in a secret club of English writers is that there were a number of English critics who indulged the same fantasy. One such reviewer wrote that “in Baudelaire prevails that intense and all-pervading sadness, that iron gloom, that calm, cold, pitiless painting of the worst side of human nature, which Frenchmen would consider the effect of English spleen” (Hillard)—picking up, obviously on Baudelaire’s borrowing of this English word and using it to paint Baudelaire as a poet of English feelings. George Saintsbury, in his review essay, went even further. After quoting, in French, the concluding stanzas of “Le Voyage,” he wrote, “the first thing, perhaps, which strikes a careful observer is that it is singularly unfrench” (512). And, elsewhere in the same essay, he expanded on that observation: “there is perhaps no French poet more deserving of appreciation in England, certainly there is none whose poetical qualities are so germane to those which we should chiefly affect and reverence on this side of the channel” (501). If Baudelaire looked to England to find an artistic community, it must also be said that these English reviewers returned his gaze. They knew, of course, that Baudelaire wasn’t an English poet, but part of what they suggest is that if he were, he might not feel so painfully alone.46

And if he could not make himself an English poet, he did what he could to narrow the gap: he looked to England to understand the dynamic that was reshaping France; he imported the word spleen into his own language; he celebrated a French artist who had found his proper medium in a Victorian periodical; and he used the resources of English poetry to improve his own verse. Tennyson, Poe, Gray, Longfellow, De Quincey—these writers helped shape his innovative poetic vision, so much so that part of his status as modern poet must be understood through his imaginary identification with England. It was from them that Baudelaire borrowed his literary materials and it was to them that he looked when trying to imagine a community for himself, most fundamentally because he thought they—better than anyone else—understood modernity. “La poésie anglaise” was also, for Baudelaire, “la poésie moderne,” a kind of writing inseparable from the urban, industrial landscape that had overrun England (and America) and was spreading to France. Even when they are set in pre-industrial churchyards and Homeric islands, these English poems still seemed stamped—like the paintings Gauthier eulogized—with the imprint of that most advanced civilization. Each had found its own way of wresting Art from the engine of modern life, which made them indispensable for Baudelaire’s own struggle with the echoing energies of nineteenth-century Paris.

What made Baudelaire the first modern poet, in other words, was something other than his susceptibility to the processes of modern life; that alone could not suffice, because these processes were not fully developed in Paris. He needed, also, to experience England—the only fully modern, industrial nation—and he drew that experience from his engagement with English and American poets. It was thanks to those writers whom he thought of as his partners in urban, industrial modernity and with whom he forged a secret community that he, more than anyone else, was able to capture and diagnose the Paris of the nineteenth century.


1 More recent books on Baudelaire tend to reinforce this idea. Ulrich Baer calls him “the first poet …of our modernity” (1) while Debarati Sanyal refers approvingly to Baudelaire’s status as the “exemplary bard” of “urban modernity” (3).

2 In Michael Jennings’ words, Benjamin “accomplished nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of the great French poet as the representative writer of urban capitalist modernity” (1)

3 My own title—”London: Capital of the Nineteenth Century”—is an echo of the expos é he wrote for the Arcades Project : “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

4 The best account of these changes, and their importance for Benjamin, comes from Nord.

5 For more on the importance of ambiguity in Benjamin’s depiction of the Paris Arcades, see Jennings.

6 This is actually Adorno, in a letter to Benjamin, but the context makes clear that he is trying to express something that Benjamin already knows but has kept in silence.

7 Engels frames this divide rather differently in a note from the 1888 English edition of The Communist Manifesto : “Generally speaking, for the economical development of the bourgeoisie, England is here taken as the typical country, for its political development, France” (337).

8 As it happens, the middle section is the only one of the three planned sections that Benjamin was able to complete. He left copious notes for the others, in the form of outlines and the Arcades Project itself.

9 Poe, of course, was one of Baudelaire’s great passions, and translating Poe one of his few completed projects.

10 He once considered doing so, as part of his review of the 1855 Exposition Universelle , which housed a selection of English works that Baudelaire found “tr ès singuli èrement belle, et digne d’une longue et patiente étude [singularly beautiful, and worthy of a long and patient study]” (II 582, my translation). Only he felt himself unready, and the task too difficult.

11 The essay is most often translated as “The Painter of Modern Life.”

12 Leakey offers a useful discussion of the relation between spleen and ennui in Baudelaire.

13 Blood offers an alternate interpretation of this poem and its many borrowings.

14 “Literary history shows us other such destinies, real damnations—men who have the word guignon written in mysterious characters in the sinuous folds of their foreheads.” My Translation)

15 “To lift such a heavy weight, Sisyphus, a man would need your courage. Though we work with a good heart, Art is long and Time is fleeting. Far from the tombs of the famous, towards a lonely graveyard, my heart, like a muffled drum, goes beating funeral marches. Many a gem sleeps buried in dark forgetfulness, far, far from picks and plumb-lines; Many a flower unwillingly looses its perfume, sweet as a secret, in deep solitudes” (Clark, Selected Poems , 13).

16 Several of the earliest reviews and letters pointed to that fact.

17 Baudelaire was not the only one attracted to these unusual lines, however: Poe was as well. He used them as the epigraph for the first version of the “The Tell-Tale Heart” (the image of a muffled, but still beating heart being obviously appropriate.) It is possible, in fact, that Baudelaire first encountered them in Poe’s story, and only later came to know them in the original context.

18 The original meaning of the phrase, generally attributed to Hippocrates, was also not about art, in any direct sense. “Vita brevis, Ars longa” means something like: “Life is fleeting, and the art of medicine takes long to master.” For more on the history of the phrase and its migration into Baudelaire, see Vines.

19 It may, however, be worth noting another suggestive connection, namely that between the city in this poem and the picture of Athens in Shelley’s “Ode to Liberty.”

20 “It is still a fashionable error, and one I want to resist as I do hell itself—I am speaking of the idea of progress.” My Translation.

21 “Poetry and Progress are two competitors who hate each other with an instinctive hate, and when their paths cross, one of them must serve the other.” My Translation.

22 “It has discharged each of us of our proper duties, delivered every soul from its responsibilities, and freed the will from all those requirements imposed upon it by the love of the beautiful.” My Translation.

23 “Where is that guarantee? It is a figment, I would say, of your fatuous credulity.” My Translation.

24 “I leave aside the question of whether, by tantalizing humanity with the promise of new pleasures, endless progress wouldn’t be the cruelest and most ingenious torture; if, proceeding by way of a continual negation of itself, it wouldn’t amount to a kind of eternally-repeated suicide, and if, enclosed in this logical circle of fire, it wouldn’t resemble the scorpion who stings himself with his fearsome tail, an eternal desideratum which ensures its eternal disappointment?” My Translation.

25 There is a broader circuit of connection as well. Poe referred to Tennyson as “the noblest poet that ever lived” (461). And Baudelaire made use of that praise, referring at one point to Poe’s “admiration quasi fraternelle” for “la m élancolie molle, harmonieuse, distingu ée de Tennyson” (600).

26 “to make nature shudder, and with it all the amateur philosophers of progress.” My Translation.

27 “Come enjoy the strange, intoxicating sweetness of this afternoon which has no end.” My Translation.

28 Babuts provides a fuller account of the many classical allusions.

29 Burton argues that it echoes the “nous” of “Au Lecteur,” the last poem thus mirroring the first.

30 “For the child, in love with maps and prints, the universe is equal to his vast appetite. Oh, how big the world is by lamplight! In the eyes of memory, how small the world is! / One morning we leave, our brains full of fire, our hearts swollen with resentment and bitter desires, and we go, following the rhythm of the waves, rocking our infinity on the finitude of the seas:” (Clark 138).

31 “The poet,” Baudelaire wrote, “enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else, as he sees fit. Like those roving souls in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes” (rpt in Benjamin Selected IV.32).

32 “We imitate, horror! the top and the ball in their waltzing and bouncing;” (Clark 138).

33 “Astonishing travellers! What noble tales we read in your eyes, deep as the seas!” (Clark 139).

34 In one of his more anti-progressive moods, Carlyle wrote something similar: “Mount into your railways; whirl from place to place, at the rate of fifty, or if you like of five hundred miles an hour: you cannot escape from that inexorable all-encircling ocean-moan of ennui …you can but change your place in it, without solacement except one moment’s” (Kaplan 359).

35 “We saw stars and waves; we saw sands too; and, in spite of many shocks and unexpected disasters, we were often bored, there as here.” (Clark 140).

36 Benjamin, for his part, had planned to make a variant of that term, the ever-same, the focus of the third and final section of his unwritten book on Baudelaire, in order to bring his anti-progressive poetry into the more philosophical space of eternal return.

37 “It is bitter knowledge that comes from traveling! The world, monotonous and small, today, yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our own image: an oasis of horror in a desert of tedium!” (Clark 143).

38 “If you can stay, stay; leave, if you must.” (Clark 143).

39 “the vigilant, deadly enemy, Time!” (Clark 143). “When he finally puts his foot down on our necks, we will be able to hope and cry ‘Forward!’ Just as we once left for China with our eyes fixed on the open sea and our hair in the wind, / We shall set sail upon the Sea of Darkness with the joyful heart of a young passenger.” (Clark 144).

40 “Do you hear those voices, charming and deathly? They sing, ‘This way, you who want to eat / Of the Scented Lotus! This is where men gather the wondrous fruits that your heart desires; come and be lost in the strange intoxicating sweetness of this afternoon that has no end.”‘ (Clark 144).

41 This vision is familiar from so many of the poems that fall under the heading of Baudelairean “id éal,” where fulfillment is figured as an escape into sexuality, memory, wine or some other un-productive activity.

42 To quote from Richard Burton, it may be that this “resurgence of hope amid the darkness represents nothing less than a gratuitous reinfusion of childlike expectancy and delight in the midst of adult cynicism and despair” (88).

43 Baudelaire did have his religious sentiments, but they were always of the darker persuasion. And even in the poem itself, all of the allusions point towards the ancient, rather than the Christian world. If there is some redemption to be found in these stanzas, it is decidedly non-Christian.

44 “O Death, old captain, it is time! Let us weigh anchor! This country is tedious to us, o Death! Let us make ready! If the sky and the sea are as black as ink, our hearts which you know are full of rays of light. / Pour us your poison and let it strengthen us! We want, such is the fire that burns our brains, to plunge into the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what does it matter? To the depths of the unknown to fund something new .” (Clark 145).

45 In another register, Leo Bersani has written powerfully about Baudelaire’s attachment to rocking and the soothing experience of pitching back and forth (42-3), and in his Jounaux Intimes Baudelaire expressed his fascination with “these beautiful big ships that lie on the still water imperceptibly rocking, these strong ships that look so idle and so nostalgic.” But those same idle ships posed, for him, a burning question: “Are they not asking us in a mute language: When do we set sail for happiness” (qtd in Benjamin IV 59).

46 Enid Starkie has made the most of this idea by imagining Baudelaire as an innocuous English type: “Baudelaire, at this stage of his life, would have gone up to either Oxford or Cambridge, as an undergraduate where, under proctorial and tutorial supervision, he would have done himself no permanent harm. He would probably have made a name for himself in undergraduate circles, in artistic and literary clubs, and this might have satisfied his need for eccentric self-expression” (Rpt in Lloyd).