Back in Blood: The Accursed Poetry of Baudelaire & Verlaine
If you create something so earth-shattering that a state government bans it, know you have found some powerful, and are wielding it correctly. This post looks at French poets so remarkable in their time, Parisians couldn’t handle their poetry’s themes of finding beauty in life… through the malignant, persistent evil that nips at all of our heels. Their works were banned, and they lives a fair bit shattered by the end.
These are the stories and verses of the “accursed” poets – Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine.
Baudelaire & Verlaine: Heart of the Symbolist Movement
During the mid-to-late 1800s, the world was changing – everything about society was just…. Changing. Within 40 years, a millennia of Industrial progress was made, inspired by in no small part the Industrial Revolution. People began to think that, even in the realms of art and poetry, the world could be broken down into objective realities – physical laws and reduced in a cold mathematical fashion. There had to be a pure state of “reason” people could reach through observing the material world, and that could ultimately solve all of humanity’s problems.
Most of you may love saying phrases like, “That’s just not rational!” Or, “Think logically for a second.” You know why those phrases don’t always work? Why they don’t always “make sense,” even if they seem, “Sensible?”
Because not everything about reality is logical. Some of it can only be conveyed through a more layered, poetic expression.
Describing the material world solely in naturalist, realist, objective terms was not enough; there was something that language was missing in describing what Ginsberg would call “Absolute Reality.” The art and poetry of the Symbolist Movement – driven by Baudelaire and Verlaine, sought a more esoteric, ethereal mysticism that better conveyed a powerful sense of being. It didn’t describe the human experience as a mechanical, objective thing that could just be bottled up; language only did its best to frame the indescribable sensation of existence. Baudelaire and Verlaine took this sentiment to the heart of a new artistic and literary movement: symbolism.
Banned: The Accursed Outcasts Baudelaire and Verlaine
Paris actually banned six of Baudelaire’s poems from The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs del Mal) for being so risqué in its exploration and taboo subjects. Sexuality, the raw modern life experience… love… death. These guys covered it all and spawned entire artistic subcultures centered around the foundations of their poetry.
Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine found life’s purpose in poetry: their art distilled beauty from the harsh depravity of reality. Poets saw the curse humanity had laid upon itself, and changed language through their gentle yet shockingly intense verses. If you doubt that, Baudelaire introduced the terms “modern” and “modernity” to common lexicon. You ever call something “modern?” You were invoking the sentiments of Charles Baudelaire without even knowing it.
To give you an idea of how Baudelaire perceived the world around him, The Flowers of Evil – specifically Lesbos – are required reading for poetry fans. He is the Godfather to the Modernist movement that swept over the world during the early 20th century:
Lesbos, where kisses are as waterfalls
That fearless into gulfs unfathom'd leap,
Now run with sobs, now slip with gentle brawls,
Stormy and secret, manifold and deep;
Lesbos, where kisses are as waterfalls!
And since that time it is that Lesbos moans,
And, spite the homage which the whole world pays,
Is drunk each night with cries of pain and groans,
Her desert shores unto the heavens do raise,
And since that time it is that Lesbos moans!
Never before had a male poet so artfully stepped inside the mind of a lesbian woman! By evoking Greek mythology and the island of Lesbos, Lesbos the poem tells the story of a lesbian woman excommunicated from her community by deciding to make love to a man, too. It’s such a layered and mystical, yet realistic relaying of how it would feel to have a gay subculture or community condemn you because of your changing “preferences.”
Even writing about a woman’s sexuality was totally off limits, so this poem, along with 5 others, were banned in Paris. Naturally, that only made the man more popular, inspiring a wave of poets and artists leading the Symbolist subculture movement. He once said about taboo topics like sexuality, “Everything that gives pleasure has its reason. To scorn the mobs of those who go astray is not the means to bring them around.”
All we can say about Verlaine is he would have been a songwriter in this generation. His poems are very bouncy in their rhythm, and his word choice and phrasing are certainly interesting. We’ve talked about Baudelaire mostly to this point, but Verlaine coined the term “cursed poets” to describe the art and poetry scene around him. Accursed because they saw perhaps what “could be” Verlaine’s earlier writings have an infectious enthusiasm and gentleness. Very interesting to get the guy’s firsthand take on his contemporaries!
Decadence Destruction & Symbolism Everlasting
Sadly, Baudelaire and Verlaine didn’t only lead the Symbolist Movement – they also were also men of an almost fiendish decadence. Their freewheeling lives were fueled by essentially a rock star lifestyle: drugs, sex, and booze. However, by the end, they died crazed alcoholics and addicts, alone.
Yet, remarkably, despite this tragic ending, they live in the remarkable subcultures that were inspired by their works, including future Modernist and Existentialist Thinkers. They were rare talents in the art/poetry, world, and we give them a bit of shine here. For more than one artist has said it’s better to burn out that to fade away. My, it appears the cursed poets felt the same.
And later an angel shall joyously pass
Through the half-open doors, to replenish and wash
The torches expired, and the tarnished glass.