Charles Baudelaire’s Une Charogne And Its Influence On European Literature
Literary history is reminiscent of an orchestra. Once a single entity, it further breaks down into families, pitch groups, and individual instruments. The sections play to different meters, harmonize chords at Adagio and Allegro, or stumble off a solo, flat note; such a cacophony demands taxonomy. So too does one feel compelled to organize the overlapping annals of literature until the distinction between eras of collective thought is clear. To follow a single melody, however, is to do the whole symphony a grand disservice. By stepping back to appreciate the tangled nature of production, like analyzing literature, reveals subtle overlaps, motifs, and a common beat hidden within the subtle transition between movements. French poet, Charles Baudelaire’s, publication “Une Charogne” (translated to “A Carrion” or “A Carcass”) is a musical introduction during the Act: Romanticism of a year unwritten score. Debuted in the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), the poem acts as a disregarding hand to the expectations of its century, beginning a trend that surpassed Charles’ death by fifty years. Baudelaire’s poem, “Une Charogne,” provides an early example of the hallmark characteristics influential to modernist European literature, from its historical context reacting to the volatile French socio-political scene, revolutionary development of prose-poetry, and its graphically sexualized romanticism of death, society, and love – effectively bridging the fifty year gap between Romanticism and Modernism.
The basis for literary history is just that, history. Born April 9th, 1821, in Paris, Charles Pierre Baudelaire witness the modernization of French society from a customary constitutional monarchy dominated by landowning aristocrats to an industrialized “bourgeois monarchy” promoting commercial success and the democratization of the economy. At the age of 8, Baudelaire witnessed Parisian streets erupt in violent mobs; the middle-class liberals rose up against parliamentary injustice with cries of “Vive la République!” and “Viva Napoleon II!”. Louis XVII’s “Chambre introuvable” worked out a treaty with the revolutionaries, so Baudelaire attended university at Lycee Louis-le-Grand peacefully until his expulsion in 1839. Influenced by his stepfather, Baudelaire turned to the political scene during the successful February Revolutions of 1848. Unfortunately, in 1851, just four years before the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal, the Second Empire took power. Every regime swore social equality for an increasingly Marxist working class, a promise Baudelaire repeatedly saw betrayed as soon as the coup d’état placed their strawman in power. Disappointed in the political sphere, he returned to his artistic pursuits. Upon turning 21, he inherited 100,000 francs from his deceased father, but lavish spending on prostitutes and literary expeditions with his contemporaries had him running from debtors for the rest of his life.
During the mid-1800s, the literary Romanticism trend garnered popularity all across Europe. Typically idolizing the emotions of the individual over objective rationalism, romantic writers of the period looked back to Arthurian legend, Druidism, and other forms of mystical arts as a means to justify the ultimate good in man: love and authenticity. Baudelaire spat in the face of such naively optimistic readings of life in an industrializing cesspool. With help from a handful of like-minded Parisians, the Decadence Movement gained traction. Influenced by Gothic novels, including the work of Edgar Allan Poe (an author Baudelaire frequently translated), the Decadents identified their disenchantment with society, along with recent political and technological changes, as precursors to the end of civilization along the lines of the Romans. Little did Baudelaire realize, the same influential factors hammering the final nail in to France’s coffin would return at the dawn of the 20th century: The Modernists.Entering the common vernacular in the early 19th century, Modernism established itself as a forward-thinking literary generation. The Second Industrial Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, all in rapid succession, shifted the tectonic plates of history as man’s potential to do great good, and disastrous harm, exponentially increased. Modernists struggled to keep their head on straight, as Anna Notaro explains in her addition to the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture: In a way, the increased connectedness led to a growing sense of unease as traditional notions of community and culture were challenged by the fast-paced urban environments, leaving people at once exhilarated by the new set of possibilities and frightened by the uncertainty. Modernists experienced alienation from a society that no longer made sense; many resorting to Bohemian and expatriate living common of the Decadents before them. Coming from times of extreme political unrest and social and technological advancement, the very circumstances which Baudelaire wrote “Une Charogne” mirror what would later develop to be the Modernist movement. Additionally, seeds that he sowed in the 1850s germinated into stylistic choices inseparable from Modernist literature.
Reacting to the Romantics antiquated view on poetic structure, the modernist agenda prioritized experimentation. Modernists sought to reinvent basic foundations of the craft, experimenting with free verse, imagism, cubism, and objectivism. The prose-poem gained popularity in the early 20th century, a structure with immediate ties back to Charles Baudelaire. Prose-poetry separates into prose, or a text made up of sentences,paragraphs, and an understandable story, and poetry, written in lines, stanzas, and more often allegorical or metaphorical. “Une Charogne” walks the line of a prose-poem, creating a detailed, narrative-oriented poem with the rhythm of classic poetry: Remember, my love, the object we saw That beautiful morning in June: By the bend in the path a carcass reclined Onbed down with pebbles and stones… And you, in your turn, will be rotten as this: Horrible, filthy, undone, O sun of my nature and star of my eyes, My passion, my angel in one! The result mimics a ‘stream of consciousness,’ where the narrator’s process of connecting the body discovered with his lover and her identical fate. The reader not only hears the narrative’s voice, but gets a peek into the character’s mind at the point of recollection, unfiltered and totally authentic.
In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, stream of consciousness similar to Baudelaire’s appears in full swing:But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionless, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly. It was that windless hour of dawn when madness wakes and strange plants open to the light and the moth flies forth silently. An enchantment of the heart! The night had been enchanted. In a dream or vision he had known the ecstasy of seraphic life. Was it an instant of enchantment only or long hours and years and ages? Joyce shifts between questions, exclamations, and proclamations with little concern for fluid transition. By lifting the guise of perfection in literature, Modernists wished to reflect the true ‘artist,’ a technique that Baudelaire developed in his merging of prose and poetry. However, more important than the historical content and structure of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, “Une Charogne” tackles taboo themes of the era including sex, death, and the futility of religion.
“Baudelaire is indeed the greatest example in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have experience,” T.S. Elliot, a prominent Modernist poet, wrote, “But his renovation of an attitude towards life is no less radical and no less important.” Modernists and Decadents both looked at Romanticism with a distaste for moral insincerity. Baudelaire referred to Victor Hugo, a man he defame as often as he praised, acting “like a priest,” who “always had his head bowed – bowed so low that he can see nothing except his own navel.” Instead, Decadent poets lavished in the taboo. In “Une Charogne,” the narrator takes a perverse fascination at the decaying body. He describes her legs “spread out like a lecherous whore,/ sweating out poisonous fumes,” as being “in slick invitational style” to her “stinking and festering womb.” Even though the body is very much dead, he suspects the carcass, “blown with vague breath,/ Lived in increasing itself.” both in memory and as food for the flies. This sexualization of death owes to Baudelaire’s attachment to the Catholic Church. The concept of the Immaculate Conception in Victorian Catholicism held women’s purity in the highest esteem. Thus, Baudelaire finds a sick thrill in seeing a female in her most tarnished, obscene position– literally split open and stinking. Baudelaire’s frank and discomforting descriptions of sexualized macabre justified a ban on his littérature-charogne (“carcass literature”) However, openly talking about the taboo subject influenced Modernist’s to test the limits of obscenity in their own times; Adrienne Rich explored the sensuality of lesbianism, and E.E. Cummings wrote endless prose on eroticism.
Grotesque sexualization only echoes a larger theme in “Une Charogne,” the banality of Death. The Decadents adored pondering on grim truths, including the world’s passivity to death. “The whole teeming world made a musical sound,” He writes in lines 25-26, “like babbling brooks and the breeze…” Baudelaire goes so far as to see death as a necessity, laying out the fate of his lover as something of a climax for his love: Yes, such will you be, o regent of grace, After the rites have been read, Under the weeds, under blossoming grassAs you moulder with bones of the dead. Ah then, oh my beauty, explain to the wormsWho cherish your body so fine, That I am the keeper for corpses of loveOf the form, and the essence divine! For Baudelaire, her sexual beauty, love, and death all find equilibrium in this moment of reflection. Modernists shared a rampant dual disgust for war, societal shackles, and the cruel nature of death, and a morbid fascination for its awesome power. In the segment, “Death by Water” in T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, he describes the corpse of a sailor rotting in the depths of a watery grave: Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss.
A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool.Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The taking of a young, healthy man has no reason, but that doesn’t change that it happened and cannot be taken back; to think that death can be halted it to say the same for age or life itself. Same as Baudelaire prophecies his lovers demand, Elliot warns the audience, “Whether gentile of Jew” Phlebas, now dead and decaying, “was once handsome and tall as you.” Death is another character in the Decadent and Modernist movements, further blurring the lines between when Baudelaire’s influence ends in the later. Disclosing the socio-political atmosphere that formed “Une Charogne,” the speciality of prose-poetry in which it was penned, and the revolutionary discussions involving death, sex, and love in Victorian English taking place between the lines, the influential factors of Baudelaire’s Decadent status and his perceived title as one of the first Modernist poets rings true. Les Fleurs du Mal was posthumously forgiven by the French government, allowing the collection to sell in its entirety, including those banned additions. After picking apart the orchestra, unearthing the origin of its theme and its many players (as conductors, patrons, musicians), it is time to sit back and enjoy the music. A symphony that trail-blazed decades of cultural content far outside its home country, Les Fleurs du Mal and “Une Charogne” supersede the classification of literary history. Instead of a taxonomy, literary history stands as one never-ending, constantly changing song.
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