24 November, 2009

Le goût du néant

Morne esprit, autrefois amoureux de la lutte,
L'Espoir, dont l'éperon attisait ton ardeur,
Ne veut plus t'enfourcher! Couche-toi sans pudeur,
Vieux cheval dont le pied à chaque obstacle bute.

Résigne-toi, mon coeur; dors ton sommeil de brute.

Esprit vaincu, fourbu! Pour toi, vieux maraudeur,
L'amour n'a plus de goût, non plus que la dispute;
Adieu donc, chants du cuivre et soupirs de la flûte!
Plaisirs, ne tentez plus un coeur sombre et boudeur!

Le Printemps adorable a perdu son odeur!

Et le Temps m'engloutit minute par minute,
Comme la neige immense un corps pris de roideur;
Je contemple d'en haut le globe en sa rondeur,
Et je n'y cherche plus l'abri d'une cahute.

Avalanche, veux-tu m'emporter dans ta chute?

This poem appears about 2/3 of the way through Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and I'm going to do an analysis of it for my French Symbolists class, so I'll post a few preliminary thoughts about it here, going stanza by stanza. First I'll do another one of those literal translations so that it's a little clearer what I'm talking about to anyone who's not familiar with French. (The usual disclaimer about my translation being in no way an attempt at a poetic rendition stands firm.)

Morose soul, once amorous of the struggle,
Hope, whose spur once kindled your ardour,
No longer deigns to mount you! Lie there without modesty,
Old war horse whose foot stumbles at each obstacle.

Resign yourself my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.

Vanquished, exhausted soul! For you, old thief,
Love has no more savour, no more than war;
Farewell then, songs of brass and sighs of the flute!
Pleasure, tempt no more a heart sombre and sullen.

The adorable springtime has lost its fragrance!

And time swallows me up minute by minute,
As an immense snow a stiffening corpse;
- I contemplate from above the globe in its roundness
And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hovel.

Avalanche, why don't you carry me away in your fall?

I. The first stanza takes the form of a direct address of the poet to his soul, which the poet describes as an old war horse, once "amoreux de la lutte" but now worn out and lacking its rider, "l'espoir," which at one time had spurred it into action. The rather gnomic opening two lines only hints at the war horse imagery through the use of the words "éperon" and "enfourcher," but their regretful tone, together with the idea that the soul at one time could be spurred into action, and in fact loved the struggle does bestow upon it the sort of noble identity that the image of the battle charger would suggest.

Yet this sense of the soul's nobility drops away quickly in the close of the sentence. The second line, which preserves a formally conventional line break, is in fact heavily enjambed syntactically, the contre rejet at the beginning of the third line completing the idea that had begun with "L'Espoir," but had been suspended for a moment by the intervening semi-parenthetical clause which ends the second line with a description of hope. The delayed realization of what this hope is actually doing --that is, that it disdains the weariness of the soul and will not even stoop to be its guide any longer--delays our recognition of the mild contempt in which the poet in fact seems to hold his soul's weakness. Hope is not merely absent; it does not want to mount the worn-out soul. And thus the poet berates the "vieux cheval" which stumbles at every obstacle, sarcastically commanding it to lie down without shame ("sans pudeur"). The single-line exclamation that succeeds the opening quatrain echoes that stanza in its imperitive quality and directness of address, but nuances the image of surrender into that of resignment. This could be taken as a more positive view of the soul's submission, yet to give up the fight may well be to lose a major aspect of one's humanity--the sleep into which the soul sinks is not that of a poet's powerful genius; it is not even that of a noble war horse, but is merely a "sommeil de brute"-a brutish sleep.

II. In the second quatrain, Baudelaire sustains the tone of slight contempt, calling his soul not merely "morne," but vanquished and exhausted ("vaincu, fourbu"). It no longer bears even an ironic resemblence to a war horse, but rather seems more akin to an old petty thief ("vieux maraudeur"). This image affects the image of the struggle of the previous quatrain by even further diminishing its heroism: the fight has not been a war to gain what is the poet's by right, but the toil of the thief to rob others of items of small worth. Certainly the images--of love and the music of brass and flutes--in the stanza suggest that part of what the soul has been pursuing is Beauty, and this is hardly an item of small worth in Fleurs du Mal. Yet his reaction to Beauty is always ambiguous, if not directly hostile, and the images of love and music in this stanza cannot but conjure up the many poems in which he attacks these instances of Beauty as being cheapened conceptions of the real thing, or attacks Beauty "herself" as deceiving him by making herself inaccessible except through such tawdry--and mortal--intimations. These pleasures have been nonetheless tempting, and his appeal to them to "tempt no longer a dark and sullen heart" reveals that he sees them as something dangerous, liable to lure him into a struggle which he no longer has strength to conduct. Whatever love and the songs of brass or sighs of the flute have been in the past, however, it is not even merely his weariness that stops his pursuit, but the utter lack of taste in his "somber heart" for their pleasures.

Thus in this second stanza we see a development of the poet's attitude towards his spirit and of his understanding of its inaction, which is not simply a result of brutish indolence, but which has at its root a loss of delight in those pleasures which once tempted him. Yet he still, as it were "wishes to wish these things" (cf. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" IV). He still has not purged himself of regret for a time when such pleasures could mean something to him, and thus the brief exclamation that follows the quatrain laments that "Le Printemps adorable"--the season of new life and renewed beauty--"a perdu son odeur."

III. No longer addressing his spirit, the poet spends the final quatrain in a melancholy meditation on his own place in time and in the universe. The loss of savor in life becomes here a descent into the abyss of time, which--and the word conjures up an image of time as some ravenous monster--swallows up (engloutit) the poet. This image is immediately linked to another, even more sinister metaphor, whereby the action of this monstrously personified time is described as an enormous fall of snow that buries and freezes a stiffening corpse. Time's action becomes nothing more than a process of deadening the person to any outside influences, just as the above two previous two quatrains suggest an emotional dulling of the person's spirit. The immobility of the soul in the face of the struggle we now understand in terms of the immobility of this corpse, unresponsive, buried, and (both emotionally and physically) frozen.

Contemplating in the next two lines the world and the ravages of time, the poet knows himself to be helpless to find shelter from the storm; even the slight defense of a shack is unavailable to him. To use the word "cahute," with its connotations of dinginess and dilapidation, is to recall the description of the soul as a "maraudeur" in the second quatrain and the correspondingly low estimate of pleasure as a valid object of struggle. Pleasure would be one of these near-worthless shelters from the onslaught of the abyss, his taste for them a distraction from the "goût du néant" (taste for nothingness) of the title. He had once hoped for at least its shelter, which explains why at the end of the second quatrain he still lamented the loss of springtime's odor: he had not yet reached the point where he can eschew such shelter entirely.

Now, by contrast, he no longer seeks it. In contemplating "la globe en sa rondeur" he recognizes the inevitability of stiffening like a corpse as his soul becomes too worn in the fruitless struggle for beauty and he understands the ultimate uselessness of makeshift shelters from the storm. Thus his last line takes the form of a direct address, not this time to his soul, but to the avalanche, an image that directly recalls the "neige immense" that is his metaphor for all-devouring time. He now fully assents to the once contemptible weakness of his soul, relinquishing action to beseech the "avalanche" to carry him away into the abyss.

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