Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Martin Sorrell

I’ve touched briefly on the French author Charles Baudelaire on the Ramblings in the past; but despite having several of his books lurking, it’s decades since I dipped into his poetry. The “Selected Poems” you can see on the pile in the picture has been with me since the 1980s, when I first began to really explore literature, but the rest of the volumes have arrived gradually over the years. I’ve meant to go back to his work many times, but it was reading “Orphic Paris” which gave me an attack of French Poetry (as those who follow me on social media might have seen…) Baudelaire was a constant touchstone in Henri Cole’s Paris and I thought it was about time I got down to actually reading some CB…

Dreams, always dreams! And the more the soul is ambitious and discerning, the greater the distance between dream and the possible.

“Paris Spleen”, a pretty little Hesperus Press volume that I’ve had for quite some time, contains 50 short prose pieces by Baudelaire which are considered just as revolutionary as his poetry was. His best-known work is the poetry book “The Flowers of Evil” (Les Fleurs du Mal), and apparently the pieces in “Spleen” often correspond with the poems in the former volume, almost considered as prose versions of the verse; I can’t really comment on that as yet, as it’s a looong while since I spent any time with “Flowers…” However, I think “Spleen” stands on its own as a marvellous work and could well be a good introduction to Baudelaire for those new to him.

The fifty pieces range in length and subject matter; some are no more than half a page, some stretch to four or more; and they’re anything from fables and allegories to poetic pieces of prose exploring Baudelaire’s thoughts, dreams and beliefs in all their variety. There is a streak of dark melancholy running through the work and a recurring motif of autumn; which is often a particularly bittersweet time of year and indeed time of life. It’s perhaps worth recalling that “Spleen” was published posthumously, and the dating of each piece can range over several years, as if Baudelaire revisited the pieces regularly to refine their final form.

She loves with autumn love, as though approaching winter were lighting a new fire in her heart, and the servility of her tenderness is never a burden.

“Paris Spleen” is not a jolly read, that’s for sure; Baudelaire was not a happy chappie and he has a dark view of humanity which is in places reminiscent of Poe. However, I’m very fond of Poe’s darkness and found myself equally drawn to Baudelaire’s spleen. (The fact that Baudelaire was a pioneering translator of Poe may have some relevance here…) Nevertheless there is great beauty and melancholy in his writing, and these vivid pieces linger in the mind. For example, one section tells of the narrator being brought face to face with an old and redundant circus performer; seeing this surplus member of humanity, Baudelaire predicts a destitute and useless old age for himself – which, for better or worse, he never reached, dying at the age of 46. The language is often heightened and melodramatic; there are tales of meeting with, and losing your soul to, the Devil; and love never goes well for our Charles…

…an exquisite autumn sky, one of those from which hosts of memories and regrets descend..

However, an additional element which needs to be born in mind is the time and place in which Baudelaire was living. The nineteenth century saw Paris being pulled to pieces and rebuilt and the descriptions of the city in these poetic vignettes often reflect this. One of the best-known pieces is “The Eyes of the Poor” (which you can find online easily, and which I’m sure I’ve read before). Although the story shows the impossibility of real communion and understanding between humans, an important element is the changing city. The poor characters are shown as being witness to changes taking place which are not for them, in their poverty, and this resonated strongly with my recent reading of “City of Light” for Shiny New Books, which of course covered the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. Modernity is creeping into the world and that’s reflected in these stories, with so many of the characters appearing to be out of date and unneeded.

… the intoxication of Art dulls the terror of the void better than anything else…”

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Paris Spleen” is translated and introduced by Martin Sorrell (who I believe has translated a number of French authors of this era) and I was interested to compare his rendering of what is possibly Baudelaire’s best known piece from this collection. No. 33 is here rendered as “Be drunk” and advises us to be in a permanent state of intoxication – whether from wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t seem to matter! (Poetry for me, please!) I’ve seen this translated as “Get drunk” and I think on the whole I prefer “Be drunk” as it kind of implies a permanent state, rather than something which has to be constantly refreshed!

… what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?

Somehow, Baudelaire made perfect reading for a wet, dull Bank Holiday Sunday (yes, I’m that behind with my posts…) His writing is intense, beautiful, dark, evocative and melancholy, and his imagery memorable – well, he’s a poet writing prose, so it would be, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t realised he had such a reputation as an essay writer until I did a bit of online research and remembered I had a Penguin Great Ideas volume of his prose knocking about too. So I think I might be spending a bit more time in the company of this melancholy man in weeks to come – pass the absinthe, please!

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