Twenty Prose Poems by Baudelaire and The Unknown Poe

BaudelairePoe

A curious fact about American literary history is that Edgar Allan Poe‘s works became popular throughout Europe long before anyone in the states recognized Poe’s talent. This recognition was largely due to the efforts of Charles Baudelaire, whose own emergence as a world-class poet occurred during the 1850s, precisely the decade of his discovery of Poe. While Poe’s works became bestsellers in the bookstalls of Paris and London in the latter half of the nineteenth century, he continued to be half-recalled by US literati as an unfortunate magazine writer who ended up a skid-row drunk in the gutters of Baltimore.

The author of the “The Raven” and the “The Bells” had been dead for three years when Baudelaire published, in 1852, his essay “Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages […his life and works]” in the influential Revue de Paris. In hindsight, it is an unbelievably prescient appreciation of the universal greatness of a writer who was dismissed for generations by his fellow countrymen as a “jingle maker” (Emerson) and a “peurile” exponent of “slipshod writing” (Eliot). Baudelaire is particularly eloquent in his outrage over Poe’s obscurity in his native country:

Recently in the courts, there appeared before the magistrates an unfortunate fellow, upon whose forehead was inscribed a strange and singular tattoo: Born to Lose! Thus above his eyes he bore the epigraphy of his life like the title of a book, and subsequent interrogation proved this bizarre inscription to be cruelly true. In the history of literature there are analogous destinies of actual damnation – men who bear the words “bad luck” etched in mysterious characters in the sinuous folds of their foreheads. The blind angel of Expiation has taken hold of them, brutally punishing them for the edification of others. In vain their loves show talents, virtues, graces; but society has a special anathema for them, even accusing them of the infirmities its own persecution has produced. 

In this essay, Baudelaire assumes the mantle of an Old Testament prophet, standing on the ramparts of western culture and railing at the blindness of those who consider themselves civilized but can’t recognize a genius when they see one. All the rancor and bitterness comes through in Raymond Foye‘s translation (excerpted above), which is included in The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings (City Lights, 1980), edited by Foye and including many delightful fugitive pieces by Poe such as his critical assessments of Shelley and Shakespeare as well as selections from the marginalia jotted down throughout the pages of Poe’s own personal library.

Poe’s influence also shines through in Baudelaire’s Twenty Prose Poems (City Lights, 1988), translated by Michael Hamburger. Anyone who has read Poe’s classic story “The Man in the Crowd” will recognize in Baudelaire’s work hints of one of Poe’s most famous authorial personas. “The Man in the Crowd” narrates the observations of an urban aesthete who watches, day after day, from his seat at a café, as a frenzied, haggard street person roams aimlessly over the same stretch of pavement, apparently unnoticed by anyone but the narrator. The insight drawn from this tale by Baudelaire, in his prose poem “Crowds,” is that the watcher and the watched are one – the poet is no less a haggard stranger in the crowd than the tramp is a poet:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege that he can, at will, be either himself or another. Like those wandering spirits that seek a body, he enters, when he likes, into the person of any man. For him alone all is vacant; and if certain places seem to be closed to him, it is that, to his eyes, they are not worth the trouble of being visited.

The solitary and pensive pedestrian derives a singular exhilaration from this universal communion. That man who can easily wed the crowd knows a feverish enjoyment which will be eternally denied to the egoist, shut up like trunk, and to the lazy man, imprisoned like a mollusc. The poet adopts as his own all the professions, all the joys and all the miseries with which circumstance confronts him. What men call love is very meagre, very restricted and very feeble, compared to this ineffable orgy, to this holy prostitution of the soul that abandons itself entirely, poetry and charity included, to the unexpected arrival, to the passing stranger.

Now that Poe, after so much time has passed, finally has a firm foothold in the American canon, it is worth reflecting that his reputation was largely exported back to us after being built up overseas by Baudelaire. Poe and Baudelaire’s was a marriage made in hell, so to speak – one recognized by the great literary theorist Marshall McLuhan: “While the New England dons primly turned the pages of Plato and Buddha beside a tea-cozy, and while Browning and Tennyson were creating a parochial fog for the English mind to relax in, Poe never lost contact with the terrible pathos of his time. Coevally with Baudelaire, and long before Conrad and Eliot, he explored the heart of darkness.”

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