Baudelaire as Phenomenologist | Cassandra Voices

Baudelaire as Phenomenologist


Three Poems by Charles Baudelaire


Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’equipage
Prennent des albatross, vates oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissent sur les gouffres amers.

A peien les ont-ils deposes sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroit et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le poète est semblabe au prince de nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exile sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

IV – The Albatross

Often, to amuse themselves, ship crews
Brought aboard Albatross, those great birds of the sea,
And who often were their indolent companions,
As their ships glided upon the bitter waves.

And, almost as soon as they let them out on deck,
How these great sky kings suddenly then appeared ungainly and awkward,
Trailing piteously their great white wings
Like proud useless oars behind them.

These winged voyagers, how they appeared so out of place.
Once the superb plungers, now they looked only comical and stupid.
One shakes her beak about in frustration;
Another mimes, as she clumsily walks, the infirm who fly.

The Poet is rather like these Princes of the Clouds,
Those who would fly above the eye of the storm, smiling
As they look down. Yet, exiled upon the earth,
Their great wings impeding even the most local movements.

Consider the L’Albatros, that most ungainly bird alive, used by the poet as an unforgettable metaphor for when s/he is confined on Earth. Reaching the sky, its natural habitat, it glides for hours without flapping its great wings. This is analogous to the invigoration a poet feels when they are in the act of composition.

Verse Junkies, the name of a publication I came across some years ago, vividly conveys the idea, at least in English. Most proper poets – there are so many pretenders these days – see in this creative act a power, or force, that gives them the ultimate or peak sense of personal achievement; so much so that they come to see themselves –their most fundamental sense of self – as intrinsically bound to the role of poet/artist.

The thematic link with the preceding poem Bénédiction is also clearly evident. This is another singular element to Les Fleurs du Mal in that the poems follow a very close chronological order, almost like a novel.

I can think of no other work, barring Dante’s Commedia and Shakespeare’s sonnets, which approach Baudelaire’s ambition. Petrarch, Pushkin, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson come near in terms of scope, I would agree, but there is something all -consuming in Baudelaire’s project which somehow, at least for this reader, leaves those other illustrious poets in his wake.

Perhaps, it is the rather systematic way in which Baudelaire goes through the different topics, or the complexity of the interplay between the poems and the famous correspondences. Thus, after reading L’Albatros, with all its invocation to flight, you turn the page come across Élévation.


Au-dessous des étangs, au-dessous des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par-delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par-delà les confins des spheres étoilées,

Mon esprit, tut e meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indiscible et male volupté.

Envole-toi bien loin de ces miasmes morbides;
Va te purifier dans l’air supérieur,
Et bois, comme une pure et divine liqueur,
Le feu clair qui remplit les espaces limpides.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureuse
S’élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins;

Celui don’t les pensers, comme des alouettes,
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor,
–              Qui plane sur la vie, et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes !

IV – Elevation

High above the ponds, high above the valleys,
The mountains, the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Out there by the sun, out there by the ether,
Out there beyond the confines of the starred planets,

My spirit, bound with great agility,
And, like a superb swimmer it balms in the waves,
Plunging happily into the immense profundity
With an inexpressible and male voluptuousness.

Fly out far beyond the noxious air;
Go and purify yourself in the stratosphere,
And drink, as if from a divine and pure liquor,
The clear fire which replenishes the limpid spaces.

Leave behind the boredom and the vast sorrows
Which super charge our so unclear existence,
Happy is he who with a vigorous wing can
Fly upward to the luminous and serene fields;

Those which certain thinkers, like larks,
Converge to in the morning to partake in the flight to freedom,
– Who glide through life, understanding effortlessly
The language of flowers, and other mute things.


La Nature et un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de  nite s
Qui l’obervent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde  nite ,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la claret,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
–              Et d’autres, corrumpus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin, et l’encens,
Qui chantant les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

IV – Correspondences

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Utter at times confused words;
Man passes through the forest of symbols
Which observe him with familiar eyes.

Deep echoes from afar become mixed up
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and lit through with
Perfumes, colours and sounds respond.

And, they are as sweet as the scent off children,
As soft and as sonorous as the notes emitting from an oboe,
Verdant as prairies, and just as richly corrupted and triumphant.

Having the expanse of infinity,
Like amber, musk, benzoin and incense
Whose songs transport both the body, and the mind.

Correspondances is among the most discussed poems by Baudelaire, and one of the most influential, prefiguring the psychoanalytic schools of Freud, Jung and Lacan, which were to have such a profound effect on twentieth century art and thought.

This one, short poem gives a clear idea of how far ahead Baudelaire was of his time. Rimbaud is the only poet to come anyway close, in terms of mind-expanding conceptualisation. He also embraced the idea, embodied in the poem, of poet as savant and visionary.

The influence of hashish and other hallucinogens, such as opium, which Baudelaire was to graduate to, are in clear evidence in a poem that might explain his popularity in the English speaking world during the 1960s with the advent of the counter culture movement, as hashish and LSD became the drugs of choice among the hippies and beatniks.

Indeed I first came across Baudelaire while smoking hashish on a pretty regular basis just after leaving school. I was listening to the psychedelic music of poets, musicians and bands like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Pink Floyd.

Perhaps, with the increasing popularity of cannabis, having been finally legalised in numerous U.S. States and elsewhere, we will also see a revival of interest in the poet. He might provide a wake up call to the sleep-inducing Woke culture!

Baudelaire wrote extensively on his drug usage, consciously following in the line of writers like Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Growing up in 1980s Cork I recall the drug-induced visions, mind-bending in their scope, of William S. Burroughs, foreseeing, like Baudelaire, an apocalyptic future. This, surely, is one of the key signs of a visionary, which Baudelaire certainly was

Now looking around at the horrors of the twentieth century – ecocide, gross inequalities and more – it seems we are not so much inhabiting the world as living out nightmarish, drug-induced prophecies.

Helmut Newton

In the case of Baudelaire I remember very clearly, while living in Paris during the 1990s, the extraordinary images taken by the German photographer Helmut Newton for the Austrian hosiery company Wolford.

They had been lovingly framed and encased in the bus stop shelters used by advertising companies. These latter-day Amazonians, shot in black and white, were illuminated in such a way that at night, when observed from a distance on a passing train or bus, they appeared like ghost emerging out of the smokey haze of one of Baudelaire’s joints; clarifying young eroticised minds.

In these singular images, one could say Baudelaire’s ideal vision of Woman had been realised, and the world had become Baudelaire-ian.

This is another aspect of his genius. Most of us walk around completely unaware of how he shaped the world around us, in particular through the artifacts of the everyday, such as advertisements for women’s tights.

It is through such details that his poetry manifests in the world. Just like when you hear snatches of a song by Léo Ferré emanating from a café, or when a black cat sidles up to you on the street, or when, for example, you hear the ticking of an alarm clock and you imagine the two hands strangling you…


About Author

Peter O’Neill is the author of five collections of poetry.  The Exquisite Cadaver is taken from The Enemy – Transversions from Charles Baudelaire ( Lapwing, 2015). His sixth collection of poetry, a bilingual collection translated into French by Yan Kouton, Henry Street Arcade, is to be published by Éditions du Pont de l’Europe and will be launched on the 8th April, 2021, as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Charles Baudelaire which will be hosted by the Alliance Francaise in Dublin.

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