This morning’s guest blogger is James Vanden Bosch—English professor at Calvin College.
It was an ordinary day in the world literature class this week; we had already read a handful of poems by Baudelaire from the anthology and other sources, and we were now working our way through a few more. Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal) had been infamous in its day; it is merely famous now. In 1857, its publication in France caused an uproar, and it didn’t take the French authorities long to seize the book and fine the author. Ten years later, Baudelaire died, infamous but not yet famous. Today he is required reading for all those who want to study the turn to the modern in European literature.
The themes and interests of this collection of poetry are pretty straightforward; Baudelaire wanted to explore the disgusting, ugly, or scandalous elements of modern urban life and then develop those topics in a way that allowed a kind of beauty to shine out of the decay and violence. His subjects—prostitutes, criminals, soul-damaging depression, urban lowlife in the shadows and the darkness—were unusual, and the deep and relentless attention he gave to those elements of life in Paris was even more unusual. The collection begins ((“To the Reader” [“Au Lecteur”]) with a direct assault on the reader, whom the poem refers to as “Hypocrite reader!—You!—My twin!—My brother,”* and the poems that follow almost never relent. There is a famous love poem that focusses its attention on a rotting carcass by the side of the road, reminding the loved one that this is where all bodies are headed, suggesting between the lines that such knowledge should lead to a more intense enjoyment of our short corporeal existence. Another poem (“Comes the Charming Evening” [“Le Crepuscule du Soir”]), one with more direct warmth and loving-kindness in it than most, describes the transformation of a Parisian day into a dark and sinister night, a world dominated by prostitution and low-life criminality. But in a few lines, the narrator notes one brief interlude of a non-criminal sort:
. . . it is evening that relents
To those whom an angry obsession daily haunts.
The solitary student now raises a burdened head
And the back that bent daylong sinks into its bed. **
By the time we’d made our way through a reading and then re-readings of these strange but compelling texts, my students had begun to develop a certain level of resistance to the subjects of the poems and their poetic treatments. Noticing their unease, I talked with them about their resistance for a few minutes and then asked them a question that suddenly occurred to me: “How often does Baudelaire turn up in the music you listen to every day? How regularly do his themes, subjects, obsessions, or tones come to the foreground in your playlist?”
In the next few minutes, almost all of the students in the room realized that they’d been listening to some part of the Baudelaire collection for several years already, and listening to it attentively and with pleasure. Several students urged me to listen to the music of Lana Del Ray, so I did, a few hours later, and I was surprised to notice how much overlap there is. Del Ray is young (28), striking, popular, and maybe a little trendy (quite unlike Baudelaire), but she certainly has focused most of her energies on the sad, sorrowful, or angry love anthem. The songs I listened to were definitely in the love song tradition, with all of the potential for danger, hurt, and rebellion that contemporary youth culture notes in troubled and tormented love relationships.
We have not yet had the opportunity to talk about this subject very much, but I have already shared with the students T.S. Eliot’s strong endorsement of Baudelaire’s poetry in essays he wrote to a sophisticated literary and critical readership in the 1920s and 2310s, essays that are interesting in many ways, but chiefly for his claim that “All first-rate poetry is occupied with morality: this is the lesson of Baudelaire. More than any poet of his time, Baudelaire was aware of what most mattered: the problem of good and evil.” A few years later, Eliot took a slightly different tack: “It is . . . really Sin, in the permanent Christian sense, that occupied the mind of Baudelaire.”
What, I’ve asked in a preliminary way, might Eliot’s approach contribute to their own fascination with music by Del Ray and others? They’re not sure. Maybe, they say, they, too, have been looking for something in the poetry and sound of their playlists, something somewhat similar to what Eliot endorsed—artists who take seriously the dark side of the love song tradition, offering my students an awareness of, almost an experience of, the ways that love affairs can reveal what is most vulnerable in themselves, can engage their own awareness of the flaws and fears and self-destructive tendencies they’d like to know well enough to deal with productively.
It’s very likely that I’ll be learning a great deal about Baudelaire from these students, just as they’re learning something about the music that pleases them in ways they’re not yet quite ready to articulate.
Eliot would be paying close attention; I think I’d better, too.
* Roy Campbell’s translation (1952)
** David Paul’s translation (1955)