Tag Archives: Auden

Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kis, Zbigniew Herbert

In his introduction to Danilo Kis’ A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – a collection of short stories about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarianism –  Joseph Brodsky writes:

“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

While I am not entirely convinced about this seeming privileging of an aesthetic response to totalitarianism over a political response, the sentiment is portrayed with a particular impact in a poem that I came across today, Zbigniew Herbert’s The Power of Taste:

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

I particularly like “chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails/ the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning/ syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive…”, for the physical sensation of the language, and for its sense of how the constriction of language is inevitably a precursor to the constriction of imaginative worlds and of empathy (the word “chains” is particularly well-placed).

I am reminded of two other poems. The slightly defamiliarising “necessary courage” recalls the fare more defamliarising “necessary murder” used by Auden in Spain, almost as a counterpoint: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder...” Auden later disavowed this too-quick endorsement of revolutionary violence, and renounced the poem entirely. And “cartilege of conscience” brings to mind the “vertebraed with veracities” of Jorge Fernandez Granados’ Reconciliation, a poem about doubt and the end-of-the-rainbow quest for certainty. Both poems use an image of the body to capture that sensation that occupies that nameless space somewhere between firmness and rigidity.

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Filed under Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Cavafy’s “Ithaka” and Auden’s “Atlantis”

I recently read one of Auden’s relatively lesser-known poems, Atlantis, and was struck by the similarities it bears to C.P. Cavafy’s famous Ithaka. In both poems, life is described through the metaphor of an eventful voyage to a destination that belongs more in the realm of Greek mythology than in the real world. References to history and mythology, and that curious blending of the two, are scattered liberally throughout both. And both use the similar rhetorical device of directly addressing the reader, and drawing him into the world of the poem, and the voyage, by constantly asking him to imagine various hypothetical scenarios. Here are the two poems set out in full:


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty sholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong:
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
“This is Atlantis, dearie,”
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
That terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Thundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and now, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, my dear, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri,
Protect and serve you always;
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, dear, upon you
The light of His countenance.

Despite the many obvious similarities between the two poems, I think it’s interesting also to analyse the seemingly different world-view that they present. At the end of Cavafy’s piece, one feels a sense of closure, of conclusion. The voyage to Ithaka is clearly a metaphor for a life lived well and fully, with death the final homecoming. The events on the way, with the many beautiful images and descriptions that Cavafy draws upon, accentuate the experience, deepen it and enrich it. There is, in short, no doubt about the message (if that is the right word) that the poem is trying to convey.

Atlantis, on the other hand, is profoundly ambiguous every step of the way. The ambiguity is established in the first stanza, when it is clarified that the only ship making the journey to Atlantis is “the Ship of Fools”. The Ship of Fools, of course, is a famous allegory of the human condition, one that depicts a ship without a pilot, populated by insane passengers, and traveling without any sense of direction (see, for instance, this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch). This suggests that Atlantis itself may be an illusion, nothing more than a mythical paradise that is the figment of a fevered imagination. The impression is heightened by the second stanza, where the scholars’ subtle arguments is a facade designed to hide their “simple, enormous grief“. What is this simple, enormous grief? It is, I think, something akin to the Byronic lament that man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he can never attain. Similarly, the Ionian scholars’ ceaseless attempts to prove the non-existence of Atlantis perhaps stem from their grief at the unattainability of Atlantis. Atlantis, then, is ideal and perfection – to use a closer analogy, it is the ever-receding shoreline that Virgil’s Aeneas is constantly pursuing. And if that is the case, then it makes perfect sense why only a ship of fools would undertake that journey.

The next stanza adds another aspect of detail to the quest for Atlantis: it cannot be a conscious quest. Notice, however, that the poet does not write that you will find Atlantis if you forget about it. He writes that “unless you are capable/ of forgetting completely/ about Atlantis, you will/ Never complete your journey.” At no point is it written that the journey must necessarily end by finding Atlantis. This, of course, dovetails perfectly with the idea that Atlantis is actually unattainable. Not an illusion, mind, nor a myth, but something very real and worth striving for, although one is doomed never to achieve it.   

The next stanza, in fact, makes it clear that whatever else Atlantis is, it is something very real. The Atlantis that is being “counterfeited” by the prostitute is set up in contradistinction to the “true” – or, to put it another way, “the real“. This sense of Atlantis as an existing goal is reinforced by the next two stanzas that, I feel, constitute the heart of the poem. The first demonstrates the perils of chasing the ideal – it is a path fraught with continuous danger and nigh-impassable obstacles, and the constant fear of getting lost down trackless ways (of what? of failure? Is that what he means when he uses the word “dismissal”?).But the voyager can take heart from the fact that his companions in this fate are the “great dead”, men and women who, in the history of mankind, have striven for something similar. Notice now the contrast between “the ship of fools” that is meant to undertake the voyage, and the “great dead” that seem to have actually undertaken the voyage before. It is fascinating that Auden here chooses to use the word “dialectic”. Dialectic between what? It is anybody’s guess, but I feel that Auden is referring to the tension between the existence of the ideal as something intrinsically worth striving for, and the impossibility of attaining it.

In the penultimate stanza, the final fate of the voyager is made clear. He gets all the way until the edge of Atlantis, having come all this way in a ship of fools, and braved terrible dangers to arrive here; and at the very cusp of the fulfillment of his heart’s desire, he finds that his strength has given out, that he cannot even descend to claim what he has traveled so far for. And yet, that doesn’t really matter, because you have, after all, been permitted to catch a glimpse of Atlantis. But notice that it is no ordinary glimpse – it is a “poetic vision“. Suddenly, the stable ground has slipped away from under our feet – does this mean that Atlantis is unreal after all, and an illusion, if it does not even exist in a way that can be seen – or rather, grasped – through the senses? Perhaps not. Perhaps this is Auden at his most Byronic – seeing Atlantis in a poetic vision represents the ability to concretely conceptualise the impossible ideal, an ability that manifests itself only at the end of a lifetime of striving after that very ideal that one cannot even know, let alone begin to understand.

All of which seems to suggest that what is of paramount importance is not Atlantis itself – since it can never be attained – but the voyage to Atlantis. And indeed, that is what the last stanza seems to indicate, in what is perhaps a tip of the hat to Cavafy. Hermes, master of the roads, and “the four dwarf Kabiri” are invoked to bless – not the attainment of the destination – but the voyage. The last stanza is about setting out to sea, the beginning of the voyage, and what it seems to be paramountly concerned with is the voyage itself.

And this, indeed, is very close to what Cavafy is seeking to convey through Ithaka. Consider last two stanzas:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

And so, the most important thing is not getting to Ithaka; indeed, that seems positively inconsequential. Ithaka is the centrepiece of the poem not because of what it is, but because of what it provides a reason to do – that is, to take the voyage, the glorious voyage with all its detours  to Phoenican trading stations (with sensual perfumes!) and Egyptian cities. 

This suggests that the themes of the two poems are not as far apart as they may originally have seemed to be. What is interesting is how the two poets employ radically different styles to achieve a similar kind of response. Cavafy’s is clear and direct, with a succession of striking images following one another in a logical sequence, speaking directly to the imagination; while Auden’s is complex and layered, with ambiguity piled upon ambiguity, and you must peel off the layers of seeming paradoxes and inconsistencies to arrive at the heart of the poet’s vision.


Filed under C.P. Cavafy, Modernism: Second Generation, Poetry: Miscellaneous, W.H. Auden

Two Views on the Nature of Language: Nietzsche and Auden

That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” says Nietzsche. “There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Language, then, is a substitute for the inexpressibly rich and the unfathomably deep. It is a perpetual reaching-forth towards something (beauty? love? truth?) that recedes even as we attempt to trap it in the web of our words. It is translation, and something is always lost when we translate. It is a faded window onto the world, into our hearts. And it is associated with a kind of suffering that is born out of a sense of incompleteness, a sense that no matter how hard we try, no matter how beautifully and evocatively we use the language that we have, the inexpressible (truth or beauty, the Grecian urn would say they are one) remains ever elusive, beyond our grasp; something that we have access to through sensation, feeling and imagination, but which disappear the moment we try to know it, or even worse, to communicate it to others through the only medium we have – our language.  

Although Nietzsche’s own position is more subtle and complex, he does express this thought in a series of dazzling aphorisms. In S. 296 of Beyond Good and Evil:

What then do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brush, we immortalisers of things which LEND themselves to writing, what are we alone capable of painting? Alas, only that which is just about to fade and begins to lose its odour! Alas, only exhausted and departing storms and belated yellow sentiments! Alas, only birds strayed and fatigued by flight, which now let themselves be captured with the hand—with OUR hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer, things only which are exhausted and mellow!”  

A slightly different sentiment from S. 423, The Dawn of Day:

Alas! the silence deepens, and once again my heart swells within me: it is startled by a fresh truth—it, too, is dumb; it likewise sneers when the mouth calls out something to this beauty; it also enjoys the sweet malice of its silence. I come to hate speaking; yea, even thinking. Behind every word I utter do I not hear the laughter of error, imagination, and insanity? Must I not laugh at my pity and mock my own mockery? Oh sea, oh evening, ye are bad teachers! Ye teach man how to cease to be a man. Is he to give himself up to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, brilliant, dumb, immense, reposing calmly upon himself?—exalted above himself?”

And perhaps most eloquently, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (“The Convalescent”): 

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated? To each soul belongeth another world; to each soul is every other soul a back-world. Among the most alike doth semblance deceive most delightfully: for the smallest gap is most difficult to bridge over. For me—how could there be an outside-of-me? There is no outside! But this we forget on hearing tones; how delightful it is that we forget!”

I find the imagery of rainbow-bridges particularly poignant. Who hasn’t read about the futile, yearning chase for the pot of fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow, the continuous chase towards the ever-receding goal? Is that, then, the character of language? A continuing yet useless attempt to build a bridge between each individual’s eternally isolated world, a gloss upon our solitude, an anodyne of forgetfulness? Something always incomplete, partial… secondary?

Auden has a different view, one that he expresses in Making, Knowing and Judging, his inaugural lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. At the beginning, he quotes Valery on poetry:

“The power of verse [writes Valery] is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition. The harmony ought not to be definable; when it can be defined it is imitative harmony and that is not good. The impossibility of defining the relation, together with the impossibility of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line.”

Auden cites this to support his point that what distinguishes poetry from prose is that in poetry it matters what particular word is associated with an idea, whereas in prose, it is a question of arbitrary convention. Leaving that aside, if we read “what it says” to refer to form and language, and “what it is” to the unspoken, unexpressed (because inexpressible) idea that gives rise to it (and I understand that this is probably not how Auden or Valery understand the statement), then we have a position where language (in this case, through poetry) isn’t an exercise of translation at all, or an attempt to capture the essence of the inexpressible in a second-best manner.

This sounds rather obscure, and I’m not sure about what it really means, myself. But here’s Auden, towards the end of his lecture, providing his own “theory” of poetry. Drawing from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, he says that there are two kinds of imagination: primary and secondary. The primary imagination is concerned with “sacred beings and sacred events”, and the secondary with the profane. What is a sacred being? It is what I have been so far referring to as the inexpressible. It is one that cannot be anticipated, but must be encountered, and on encountering it, the primary imagination has no option but to respond. “The impression made upon the imagination,” says Auden, “By any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance-an unchangeable quality, an Identity…”

This sounds obscure as well, but it is greatly clarified by this quotation from Charles Williams:

“One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence…. Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express . . . but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round.”

And Auden himself:

“The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repuIsive – a swan or an octopus – beautiful or ugly – a toothless hag or a fair young child – good or eviI- a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans Merci – historical fact or fiction – a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream – it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary Imagination is without freedom, sense of time or humor. Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art. Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death… One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has to be converted.”

And that, especially the last line, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Which of us hasn’t looked upon a full moon sailing through the cloud-curtain, and responded in an intensely powerful, yet utterly indefinable way? And if someone asks us why we respond in that way, is it possible to make any response but “Can’t you see it?” If someone asks me what I find so profoundly moving about the opening of Dies Irae in Mozart’s Requiem, any answer I make based on musical theory, on harmony or balance, will seem forced, constrained and inadequate – it is, as Auden says, a question of being converted, not taught.

Auden contrasts the primary imagination with the secondary imagination.

“The Secondary Imagination is of another character and at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its categories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful and ugly… Beauty and ugliness pertain to Form not to Being… the Secondary Imagination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance and mess.”

One of the important characteristics of the secondary imagination is that “is social and craves agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and you think it ugly, we cannot both help agreeing that one of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing the matter.”

And then, most crucially:

“The impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.”


“The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure and aptness to that which it is the form of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred and profane worlds differ.”


“Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate anyone sacred being or event to any other. The relation may be harmonious, an ironic contrast or a tragic contradiction like the great man, or the beloved? and death; he can relate them to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, reason and conscience, and he can bring them into contact and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can be happy, ironic, tragic and, in relation to the profane, comic… But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to the language, he need not name them directly unless he wishes; he can describe one in terms of another and translate those that are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as are acceptable to reason and society.”

And, in conclusion:

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”

I think the crucial point that Auden is making is that while poetry is “rooted” in imaginative awe – it is not – and language is not – an exercise in direct translation, an attempt to “recapture” imaginative awe, as it were. Imaginative awe a certain kind of response (of the primary imagination, but the terminology is not important) to a certain kind of being or event (the sacred); and through language and poetry (and other forms of art), we seek to evoke a different kind of response – a response of pleasure, perhaps, to form, symmetry, harmony, balance, rhythm – and all those elements which go into making up our conception of beauty, and a response that is not private but social.

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

Nothing of great import hinges upon the distinction, of course, but it might be interesting to think about it as we examine our relationship to that which is inexpressible, and our undying attempts to express it nonetheless.


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Nietzsche, W.H. Auden

Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

Earlier, I wrote about how, in the best of Baudelaire’s poems, he brings out with unrestrained clarity and starkness, through striking and brutal images, the repulsive – yet alluring – aspect of beauty and love. Today, I came across this passage by Auden:

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” – “Robert Frost”, from The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. (Emphasis Supplied)

The first half of that passage would, I suppose, be the philosophy of a Keats writing La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a Tennyson writing The Lady of Shalott, or a Walter de La Mere writing A Song of Enchantment – romanticism, essentially. The second half seems to resemble the approach of the Movement, perhaps D.J. Enwright’s Saying No, or Larkin’s Deceptions. And as I think about Auden’s passage, it seems to me that these two approaches have often been in tension, evolving as a response, and in opposition to, each other. The 19th century Romantics were reacting to the Enlightenment, to mechanisation, to industrialisation, and so they were consciously trying to create, in the words of the critic F.R. Leavis, “a dream world“; and it was against this dream world that first, the Modernists, and then the Movement, in turn, reacted (think of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and Kingsley Amis’ Lovely, to take just two examples). 

And as I continued to muse over the passage, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the major reasons why Baudelaire’s poetry is so striking and impactful, and why it lingers so long in the memory, is that he does succeed in carrying out the Auden edict, to a great degree. I’ve underlined a few of the words in that passage, because I think they are most accurate. La Mort des Amants (The Death of Lovers) and La Chevelure (Of Her Hair) are two brilliant examples of how Baudelaire can build a “verbal earthly paradise“, that timeless world of pure play that contrasts with “actual historical existence… of inescapable suffering“. And for ugliness at its starkest, we of course need look no further than Une Charogne (The Carcass), and so many more.  The presence of these two types of poems in the same volume already hints at the point that Auden is making, but what is more, Baudelaire repeatedly succeeds in marrying them within the same poem. A few poems that I discussed earlier: Le Cygne (The Swan), where Baudelaire appropriates the classically romantic image of the swan to illustrate the desperate situation of the victims of colonialism (discussed here), and his series of poems on love and the ideal, in which allure and repulsion, attraction and disgust, beauty and ugliness – are all held together, mutually reinforcing each other, integral parts of both the poem and the experience (discussed here).

It is part of the point that, I think, Walter Benjamin makes in the very title of his book – “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism“, and in the book itself, when he calls Baudelaire the last of the lyric poets, and explains how he used the lyric form, and lyric motifs, in writing about the effects of the rise of the cities as part of the rise of 19th century industrial capitalism. This perhaps explains it – Baudelaire remoulded the language, imagery and vocabulary of romanticism – without depriving it of its essence – in a way that it becameincredibly – the language of the city, of everyday life, of what Auden calls “the truth“. Lyricism, but with no dream words, and “free from self-enchantment and deception” (remember, for a moment, how obsessed Larkin was with the word “deception”, and of freeing poetry from it – see this poem, called Deceptions. Larkin’s solution was a different language altogether, while Baudelaire kept the language, because he saw himself as a lyric poet).

Le Soleil (The Sun) is, I think, one of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems, and it illustrates the point perfectly (Aggeler translation):

The Sun

Along the old street on whose cottages are hung 
The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries, 
When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 
The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 
I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 
Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,
Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;
He makes cares evaporate toward heaven,
And fills with honey hives and brains alike.
He rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls,
And commands crops to flourish and ripen
In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!

When, like a poet, he goes down into cities, 
He ennobles the fate of the lowliest things 
And enters like a king, without servants or noise, 
All the hospitals and all the castles.

I think the great thing about this poem is how the two sets of images – and words – are intertwined so closely, so subtly, even, that it’s impossible to keep them apart in your head. “Secret lecheries” and “verses blooming in the fields like roses“; the “cruel” sun that “strikes with increased blows” – and yet “rejuvenates” those on crutches, filling them with the “sweetness and gaiety of girls” – and at the end, in the last line, “hospitals” and “castles” as the two places into which the sun goes. Baudelaire uses classic romantic vocabulary, referring to “immortal hearts” and “dreams“, and at the same time, destabilises it by also using “chlorosis” and “slated shutters“.  At the end of reading this poem, my mind, at least, was filled with a clutch of contradictory and confusing images, sensations, thoughts and ideas. The verbal earthly paradise, in the process of construction, had been subverted by the intrusion of the problematic, the painful, the disorderly and the ugly. And the key point, I think, the point that Auden does not make in the passage, but one that appears repeatedly in his own poetry – is the essentiality of not taking sides, of not driving the poem to a resolution where either one view prevails over another, or both are reconciled. This absence of reconciliation is, I feel, a key feature of Baudelaire’s poetry, something that distinguishes his treatment of contradictions from the romantics’ “sublimation of sorrow” that I discussed here. The contradictions remain unresolved, remain in tension, and yet remain integral and indispensable parts of the entire experience. And at the end of the day, we get a sense, from Baudelaire, that dissonance, disharmony, disarray… even these things can be beautiful.

This is perhaps what Auden’s vision of poetry – as it comes out through that passage – was, and perhaps what Baudelaire accomplished brilliantly.


Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, W.H. Auden