By Benjamin Welton

Painting of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet (via Wikimedia Commons)

"A Carcass" is arguably Charles Baudelaire’s most infamous poem. Published as part of his 1857 collection The Flowers of Evil, “A Carcass” slithers in sex and death, a disturbingly graphic tapestry that seems more fitting for death metal (see: the British band Carcass) than Victorian-era poetry:

My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman,
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence,
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature
The elements she had combined.

By the poem’s end, the narrator reaffirms to his presumably gagging companion that she too will belong to the kingdom of the blow-flies. Death comes for all, and beauty is no shield against mortality.

In some ways, “A Carcass” is a more crass rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” As the man who translated Poe’s work into French, Baudelaire knew well not only the commingling of eroticism and horror, but that in order to make his own poems resonate with Francophone readers, Gallicization was needed.

The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire (via Wikipedia)

Undoubtedly, Baudelaire is much more than the French Poe, and it’s also true that Baudelaire presents the apotheosis of French poetry during the mid-19th century. As such, Baudelaire’s work, especially the poems in The Flowers of Evil, not only responded to the Parisian milieu of the 1850s, but defined the era. The chief figure of Baudelaire’s poems, the flaneur (a type of well-heeled idler with a literary imagination and a thirst for exploring the streets and shops of Paris), was the product of both early French capitalism and French autocracy, but it was Baudelaire who gave the figure real menace and an air of historical importance.

The critical connection between Baudelaire, his poetry and the flaneur was first made by German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin. As Chronicle of Higher Education writer Eric Banks notes, Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, an incomplete study of Parisian life in the 19th century, is a “fabled kaleidoscope of the cultural phantasmagoria of mid-19th century Paris, with inspiration above all derived from the shop windows of the city’s new flaneur-friendly displays of consumer commodities, united the dreamscapes of surrealism, the rigorous materialism of Marx and the range of a deep, maze-like immersion into the emergent forms of cultural consciousness.” The flaneur, who seeks out the arcades (the iron-and-glass covered precursor to the modern shopping mall) in order to alleviate “the kind of boredom that easily arises under the baleful eyes of a satiated reactionary regime,” is to Benjamin not only the result of France’s era of “high capitalism,” but is also the first modern man: a figure engrossed in consuming and the performance of watching others, all the while desiring to be watched himself. Before the advent of “people watching” as a recreational pastime for the listless, French dandies endlessly strolled the streets of Paris and did their very best to look “literary.” For the most part, these flaneurs were thought of as fodder for photographs (then the cutting edge in art and recreation), but as Poe proved in “The Man of the Crowd,” anonymous young men who float in and out of urban crowds can be just as vicious and bloodthirsty as any highway brigand.

Photograph of Baudelaire (via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the fact that Baudelaire’s poems were entirely predicated upon “modernity” (a word that he himself coined in order to describe the fleeting sensations of life in a metropolis) and the historical moment that Benjamin so thoroughly describes, Baudelaire himself was not exactly in step with the modern world. Although Baudelaire was a spendthrift who oscillated between asking his mother for money and dodging creditors throughout France, his politics were nothing if not aristocratic. He briefly supported the cause of Republicanism during the revolutionary year of 1848, but soon grew weary of democracy and populism. As Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon III and the Second French Republic became the Second French Empire, Baudelaire came under the influence of Joseph de Maistre, an arch-conservative who defended hierarchical states, especially those built around an inherited monarchy, during the bloody spasm of class warfare known as the French Revolution.

Writing as a subject of the Italian Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, de Maistre famously asserted that “Man is insatiable for power; he is infantile in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only what he has not. People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man.” In his journals, Baudelaire, who shared his love for de Maistre with Poe, echoed this same sentiment: “There is no reasonable, stable government save the aristocratic. Monarchy and republic, based on democracy, are equally weak and absurd.” Furthermore, Baudelaire asserted that: “There can be no progress (true, that is, moral) save in the individual and by the individual himself.”

Considering that very little “progress” is made in The Flowers of Evil, it’s safe to say that Baudelaire was an artist first and not a polemicist (although T.S. Eliot, in his “The Lesson of  Baudelaire,” suggests that Baudelaire, more than any other poet, was concerned with morality and “the problem of good and evil”). While Baudelaire was certainly supportive of the Ancien Régime, it’s hard to believe that all the blasphemies and grotesqueries of The Flowers of Evil are some sort of trick that continues to fool people into thinking that a right-wing conservative was some kind of wine-soaked poet-revolutionary. Still, whether or not politics, capitalism or the sight of so many strolling loafers influenced Baudelaire, it remains a fact that French literature abounds with right-wing writers (Gaston Leroux, Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain) who created savage works of art (The Phantom of the Opera, Fantômas) that would go on to influence more radical and left-wing movements (notably the Surrealists). Baudelaire remains at the forefront of this contradiction, and literature is undoubtedly more interesting for it.

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.

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