Baudelaire, Swinburne and the Ugliness of Beauty

In a previous post, I discussed the similarities between Baudelaire’s conception of the unattainable ideal in To A Passerby, and Swinburne’s narration of the Rudel story in The Triumph of Time. Yesterday, while thumbing through my copy of Fleurs du Mal, I perceived what I think to be another affinity between the two poets: a similarly contradiction-laden view of the intertwined concepts of beauty and love.

That there do exist contradictions in the very nature of these concepts is nothing new. It has been a common theme for poets through the ages. As far back as the Greek lyric age, Anacreon wrote:

I love and yet I do not love,
I am out of my mind – and I am not out of my mind. (fr46)

Most famously, perhaps, the Roman poet Catullus:

hate and I love. Why would I do this, perhaps you ask?                                                                                                        do not know, but I realize it happens and I am tormented. (Catullus 85)

And, of course, the troubadours:

I never held it but it holds me
all the time in its bail, Love,
and makes me glad in angerfool in wisdom 
(Arnaut Daniel)

And the idea perhaps reached its apotheosis with the romantics. But what, I think, is crucial to note here is that the contradictions are, in virtually all cases, mirror images of each other (something that becomes clear on a close reading of the chiasmus in each of the lines). Furthermore, all these are examples of what Parry, in his article on Virgil, calls “the sublimation of sorrow”: that is, the so-called negative emotions that love and beauty evoke – hatred, madness, the absence of self-control, rage, foolishness – are, in a certain sense, every bit as high, pure, beautiful and noble (“sublime) as their opposites. If there is pain, then it is, in its own way, as glorious and uplifting as joy, it is, in a sense, to be as much desired as joy – and both joy and pain are two integral parts of the complete and fulfilled experience.

So far, so romantic. But the fascinating thing about Baudelaire and Swinburne is how, in their poetry, they emphatically reject this entire tradition of love-and-beauty versification, and focus upon a very different kind of contradiction. Let’s start with Baudelaire’s L’Ideal (Aggeler translation):

It will never be the beauties that vignettes show, 
Those damaged products of a good-for-nothing age,
Their feet shod with high shoes, hands holding castanets, 
Who can ever satisfy any heart like mine.

I leave to Gavarni, poet of chlorosis, 
His prattling troop of consumptive beauties, 
For I cannot find among those pale roses 
A flower that is like my red ideal. 

The real need of my heart, profound as an abyss,
Is you, Lady Macbeth, soul so potent in crime,
The dream of Aeschylus, born in the land of storms;

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who calmly contort, reclining in a strange pose
Your charms molded by the mouths of Titans.

This piece has the first hints of what later poems make explicit: namely that, in its entirety, beauty has an aspect that resists sublimation, that isn’t simply a reflection of pure virtues. “Profound as an abyss“, “soul so potent in crime“, “… contort, reclining in a strange pose…” – all these bear not only clear suggestions of an unabashedly carnal yearning, but also an essence that escapes a simple division into opposites (love and hate, foolishness and wisdom, and so on). And it is impossible, on reading this, especially the lines about Lady Macbeth and crime, to not be reminded of these lines from Swinburne’s Dolores:

Seven sorrows the priests give their Virgin;
But thy sins, which are seventy times seven,
Seven ages would fail thee to purge in,
And then they would haunt thee in heaven:
Fierce midnights and famishing morrows,
And the loves that complete and control
All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows
                That wear out the soul.

In Baudelaire, this theme becomes even more explicit in Hymn to Beauty:

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, 
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn; 
You scatter perfumes like a stormy night; 
Your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora, 
Which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit
Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog; 
You sow at random joy and disaster, 
And you govern all things but answer for nothing. 

You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty!
Of your jewels Horror is not the least charming,
And Murder, among your dearest trinkets,
Dances amorously upon your proud belly.

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle!
Crepitates, flames and says: “Blessed be this flambeau!”
The panting lover bending o’er his fair one
Looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb, 

Whether you come from heaven or from hell, who cares, 
O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous monster
If your regard, your smile, your foot, open for me 
An Infinite I love but have not ever known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren, 
Who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, 
Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! 
The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?

There are a number of different things at work, I think, in this poem. First, notice his use of the chiasmus, as compared to the example of the lyric poets. Some of them – “joy and disaster”, “governing all things, but answering for nothing” – would not be out of place in the latter – but the rest certainly would be. “Heaven and abyss”, “divine and infernal”, “benevolence and crime”, “stars and the black pit” – none of these, I think, are the images of romanticism – quite the contrary. They suggest, again, an aspect that is the very opposite of purity and sublimity, that is almost… repulsive. That brings me to the second point – the feeling of repulsion – although not very strong just yet – is reinforced by the words he appends to describe Beauty: “horror”, “murder” and “monster” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be sublimated in the same way that “madness” or “foolishness” or “pain” can. And this – the third point – in turn, is reinforced by his personification of Beauty – or rather, the personification of two body parts that are decidedly anti-romanticist: the “proud belly” (upon which murder is dancing “amorously”) and the foot.

There is, again, something decidedly similar in the Swinburne’s fervent declamations in Dolores: 

Fruits fail and love dies and time ranges;
Thou art fed with perpetual breath,
And alive after infinite changes,
And fresh from the kisses of death;
Of languors rekindled and rallied,
Of barren delights and unclean,
Things monstrous and fruitless, a pallid
               And poisonous queen.

By the hunger of change and emotion,
By the thirst of unbearable things,
By despair, the twin-born of devotion,
By the pleasure that winces and stings,
The delight that consumes the desire,
The desire that outruns the delight,
By the cruelty deaf as a fire
               And blind as the night.

As for Baudelaire, the repulsion finally becomes unambiguous and express in this single line the final quatrain of I Adore you as much as the Nocturnal Vault:

I advance to attack, and I climb to assault, 
Like a swarm of maggots after a cadaver
And I cherish, implacable and cruel beast, 
Even that coldness which makes you more beautiful.

This is a truly extraordinary image. Moths and flames is part of the standard imagery of love; but who would ever describe the pursuit as a swarm of maggots chasing after a cadaver? And that is not all: Baudelaire has a complete poem that is called, unsurprisingly, The Carcass: 

My love, do you recall the object which we saw, 
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, 
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way 
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence, 
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature 
The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver 
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed 
You’d faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid 
All along those living tatters.

All this was descending and rising like a wave, 
Or poured out with a crackling sound;
One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath, 
Lived by multiplication.

And this world gave forth singular music, 
Like running water or the wind,
Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion 
Shake in their winnowing baskets.

The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream, 
A sketch that slowly falls
Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist 
Completes from memory alone.

Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog 
Watched us with angry eye,
Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass 
The morsel he had left.

— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being, 
You, my angel and my passion!

Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers, 
To molder among the bones of the dead.

Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence 
Of my decomposed love!

I don’t think I need to say anything about this poem – it speaks for itself, far more eloquently than any critic ever could. The imagery is stark and brutal. Swinburne never goes quite this far, but he does have a stanza that is vaguely suggestive of the same idea, along with the use of the words “corpses” and “barren”:

For the crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,
And love is more cruel than lust.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
               Make barren our lives.

While highlighting the similarity between the two, I think it is also important to note that they come from very different places. Yes, both Swinburne and Baudelaire reject the romanticist conception of love as feeble, withered, incomplete, pale. But Swinburne’s poetry, as is especially evident from Hymn to Proserpine and The Last Oracle is full of anger against Christianity, which he believes has diluted and watered down real life to an unacceptable extent (“the pale god’s kingdom come“) through its emphasis on abnegnation, on a weak morality, on sinning and forgiveness, and so on. Dolores can also be read, perhaps best, as an attack on stifling Victorian morality (recall that the press in his day castigated Swinburne as “that libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs“), and that’s why, much of the focus of Dolores is on uncontrolled and uncontrollable passion. On the other hand, one of the points that Walter Benjamin makes in his book on Baudelaire, or at least, so I gathered, is that Baudelaire was writing lyric poetry but was also, first and foremost, a poet of the city, the city and the arcades of mid-19th century Paris. This essentially is one of the causes of the seeming tension in his work, between lyric form and style and themes, and subjects and images that are entirely alien to traditional lyric poetry (the situation is somewhat similar to Byron’s Don Juan).

Nonetheless, I love to read both Swinburne and Baudelaire for precisely this reason: they fly to where other great poets fear to tread, make prey where others dare not perch, exploring the ugly and repulsive side of love and beauty to its very depths, and coming up with a very different kind of paradox: that it is precisely that ugliness and repulsiveness that is alluring, without which the experience would be, in a sense, only partial. That a decaying and putrefying corpse can nonetheless be possessed of a strange and inexplicable enchantment of its own, a kind of horrifying fascination that can’t just be rendered sterile by simply making it, like I said before, a straightforward mirror of the straightforward pleasures and joys of love and beauty that have, by now, become almost quotidian.

And lastly, the difference between Baudelaire/Swinburne and the great romantics comes out beautifully, I think, in this instance, where Baudelaire and Keats invoke precisely the same image in radically different ways. Consider:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task… (Keats, Bright Star)

For Keats, the image of the star suggests steadfastness, loyalty, beauty, splendour, eternity. But Baudelaire, in one his poems (which I have, at the moment, shamefully forgotten) finds in that same image simply the suggestion that the star, hung up in isolation in the sky, will burn for all time in utter pointlessness. It is two great poets simply looking at the world in radically different ways, and perhaps, both philosophies have something to recommend themselves.

Fleurs du Mal: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

Swinburne’s Dolores: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/swinburne/dolores.html

Keats’ Bright Star: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/bright-star/

 

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5 Comments

January 4, 2013 · 6:34 am

5 responses to “Baudelaire, Swinburne and the Ugliness of Beauty

  1. Very insightful and fascinating commentary.

    One point that I am thinking about is the similarities between Swinburne and some of the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche regarding Christianity and weakness.

    I am thinking about Baudelaire’s connection between love and the imagery of decay and death. I think that he has tapped into something fundamental that lies deep in our psyche.

  2. Thanks, Brian.

    You know, I actually had Nietzsche in my mind when I was re-reading Dolores, but I refrained from writing about it, since I have only a passing acquaintance with his work. You’re right, there are very strong Nietzschean overtones in Swinburne’s work generally, and in Dolores in particular, not only when he’s writing about Christianity and weakness, but also the antithesis that he sets up – the pagan heroes – seem to bear strong resemblances to the Nietzsche’s superman, who exists in a realm beyond convention and morality.

    Spot on about Baudelaire – love and death are common enough, but he’s the only one I’ve read yet who brings decay into it – and I mean, not decay in the sense of a bed of faded roses, but decay in the sense of a putrefying corpse!

  3. Pingback: Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry | anenduringromantic

  4. Pingback: Baudelaire and the Eliotic Shudder | anenduringromantic

  5. Hey there,

    I’d love to reference this in an academic work, is it possible to get your name?

    Ally

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