Charles Baudelaire: Petits poèmes en prose [Short Prose Poems] (2945 words)

Charles Baudelaire's Petits Poèmes en Prose (also known as Le Spleen de Paris) is a collection of fifty prose poems published posthumously in 1869, over a year after the poet's death. Although Baudelaire had been preparing this collection for publication, he never finalized the ordering or even the exact list of poems to include; moreover, what is now regarded as the preface to the poems was in reality a simple cover letter that accompanied a small group of titles the poet had earlier submitted to a magazine.

Given this somewhat rough and incomplete state, it is surprising how such a slender volume should rise to the stature it has today, for the Petits Poèmes en prose now rival Baudelaire's earlier verse collection, Les Fleurs du mal (1857), as one of the most important titles of nineteenth-century French literature.

The prose collection did not spring fully-formed in the late 1860s, but was part of a long and evolving aesthetic shift in Baudelaire's career. In 1857 he had published Les Fleurs du mal, which, while it secured his future prominence in literary history, proved disastrous for his present conditions: the collection was charged with immorality and, unlike the censorship case against Flaubert's Madame Bovary in the same year, the court upheld this accusation, leaving the poet impoverished, embittered, and with his best work to date barred from publication. While Baudelaire's gradual poetic redirection should not be attributed directly to the events of 1857, they had their impact, as will be shown below. For the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal (the censored poems having been removed), Baudelaire introduced most famously the urban texts grouped under the title Tableaux parisiens, and thereafter his production of verse poetry slowed to a trickle, stopping entirely in 1862. At the same time his work on prose poems, in which he had dabbled as early as 1851, intensified, and he was keen to explore this new form of expression freed from the constraints of conventional versification. As he wrote in his letter to Arsène Houssaye (given as the preface to the prose poems):

Quel est celui de nous qui n'a pas, dans ses jours d'ambition, rêvé le miracle d'une prose poétique, musicale sans rythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée pour s'adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l'âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresauts de la conscience?
C'est surtout de la fréquentation des villes énormes, c'est du croisement de leurs innombrables rapports que naît cet idéal obsédant.
[Who among us has not, in his days of ambition, dreamt of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, both supple enough and halting enough to conform to the lyric movements of the soul, to the waves of reverie, to the fits and starts of consciousness.
It is especially from familiarity with massive cities, from the crossing of their innumerable connections, that this infatuating ideal is born.]

While Baudelaire's aesthetic declarations do not always shed light on his practices, in this case it is fruitful to note his emphasis on the city. In Baudelaire's time Paris had grown rapidly into a metropolis teeming with sharply divided classes; during the early years of the Second Empire (1852-1870), the city underwent a full-scale metamorphosis (under the guidance of Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of Paris), resulting in the levelling and reconstruction of whole quarters of the city – along with the displacement of less privileged populations. The experiences of city life, filled with tensions, injustices, and unexpected turns, ended up informing Baudelaire's poetry at an intimate level, which is in part reflected by the adoption of a “prose poétique” (“poetic prose”). While verse operates within predictable parameters (for instance, we know how many syllables to expect and what kind of rhyme is possible), prose is more fluid; it is allowed to surprise us, taking twists and turns that may be both “souple et heurtée” (“supple and halting”), thereby conforming to the “soubresauts” (“fits and starts”) of urban experience or modern consciousness.

Baudelaire did not invent prose poetry in the French tradition: Mérimée had experimented with the genre as early as 1827, and Baudelaire's explicit inspiration is Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard de la nuit (1842). But Baudelaire is credited with adapting the genre to the needs of modern expression and infusing it with a profound poetic vision. Some of this vision draws on urban experience, and many of the tales have to do with the encounters occasioned by life in the metropolis. In “Les Foules” (“Crowds”), the narrator revels in the anonymity of the city, enjoying what he refers to as a “bain de multitude” (“bath of the masses”), rubbing shoulders with his fellow man while carousing through the city. In “Perte d'auréole” (“A Lost Halo”), the poet-narrator trips while crossing one of the new boulevards of the capital, losing his artistic halo in the muck – and he is glad to be rid of it, for now he can travel incognito. In “A une heure du matin” (“At One o'clock in the Morning”), the poet goes through a list of the tedious business of the day he has just finished – chatting with idiots, greeting people he doesn't know, squabbling about money with publishers – only to end up wondering if he is himself not more worthy of contempt than the people he scorns. In all of these poems, the city serves not as a backdrop, but as the necessary condition for the experiences described: the jostling hubbub of the capital keeps both narrator and reader feeling off-balance.

Prose is often associated with narrative, and it is a hallmark of the Petits poèmes that the majority of them revolve around an anecdote: the narrator encounters a parade of men carrying monsters on their backs and quizzes them about their plight (“Chacun sa chimère”, “To Each his own Chimera”); an actor takes part in an assassination plot, only to become a victim when the conspiracy misfires (“Une mort héroïque”, “An Heroic Death”); the poet has a run-in with a street-faring glazier, which ends in disaster (“Le Mauvais Vitrier”, “The Bad Glazier”); a man practices his aim at a shooting gallery, finally decapitating a puppet that looks like his wife (“Le Galant Tireur”, “The Galant Marksman”). All of these tales, and many others, are presented as short fables or parables, often with the suggestion of an inscrutable moral lesson. For instance, after the narrator is appalled to learn that the glazier he has hailed does not sell coloured glass (which would embellish the foulness of everyday life), he exacts revenge by dropping a flower pot on the poor vendor from a sixth floor window, revelling in the attack. In the last lines he admits that such actions may cost one dearly; however, he asks, “qu'importe l'éternité de la damnation à qui a trouvé dans une seconde l'infini de la jouissance?” (“What does eternal damnation matter to one who has savoured, for a second, the boundlessness of pleasure?”). Since it is posed as a rhetorical question (which Sonya Stephens has identified as a dominant mode in the poems), the reader is led to assume that such damnation does not matter. And yet, that assumption is troubling in other ways – not the least of which is that these actions may matter a good deal to such people as itinerant glaziers.

Time and again the stories follow the structure of moral tales while refusing to issue any clear morality, leading to an ambivalent experience for the reader. Because the poems are exquisitely crafted, every word weighed and every sentence distilled to its quintessence, the reader senses the sharpness and subtlety of Baudelaire's vision. However, because the texts generally conclude with sentences that have the rhetorical form of an ending but none of the resolution we might expect, we may feel that the text has a gap, or is somehow missing a part. This fragmentary quality is actually crucial: by refusing to bridge or fill in these gaps, Baudelaire's texts prompt the imagination of the reader, who often finds himself in the dizzying spirals of a logical paradox. Moreover, because the stories fail to make any conclusive sense when we read them conventionally, we are encouraged to read them otherwise.

This “other” mode of reading is also one associated with fables and parables: it is a kind of allegory. So, at the same time that Baudelaire depicts elements of conventional reality (the press of the large city, encounters between lovers, and so forth), these depictions are often doubled with other kinds of tales. In fact, certain poems hint at just such a reading: in “La Chambre double” (“The Double Chamber”) for example, the poet describes his room as a miniature paradise, a chamber of perfect harmony (significantly, it is reminiscent of “Correspondances” in Les Fleurs du mal) – until that harmony is interrupted by pounding on the door, announcing the intrusion of grim reality, and the poet once again sees his room for the squalid hovel that it is. That the poet's hallucination is triggered by a drug (laudanum) in this poem does not lessen the importance of the duality: “La Chambre double” presents the ideal as an allegory (or, as Ellen Burt has argued, a translation) for the real. It is, however, an “open” allegory – one that can often tolerate multiple interpretations.

This allegorical structure can be more or less explicit, and the reading of many poems demonstrates how preoccupied they are with issues of aesthetics, thus enacting tales of artistic production or reception. In this way the prose poems may be considered metapoetical: they are in part a poetry showing a keen awareness of the problems and possibilities of poetic expression – and often of the poetic expressions first elaborated in Les Fleurs du mal.

The echoes of the earlier collection are pervasive and deliberate among the Petits poëmes, some poems even sharing the same name; clearly Baudelaire sought to test in part how prose and verse forms might deal differently with similar material. Other connections to the Fleurs du mal are more metaphorical. A simple example of this principle can be seen in “Le Chien et le flacon” (“The Dog and the Perfume Bottle”), where the narrator presents a perfume bottle to a dog. The animal cowers and barks at the powerful odour, and the narrator scorns his pet's reaction, noting that it would have thrilled to the smell of a pack of excrement. So, he says, addressing the dog, “vous ressemblez au public, à qui il ne faut jamais présenter des parfums délicats qui l'exaspèrent, mais des ordures soigneusement choisies” (“you resemble the public, to whom one must never offer the delicate perfumes that it finds exasperating, but carefully selected filth”). It is hard not to read this short poem as a commentary on Baudelaire's own experience, where the public rebuffed the Fleurs du mal – especially when one realizes that perfume derives, specifically, from flowers, and that the earlier collection included a poem called “Le Flacon” (“The Perfume Bottle”), which was itself a rumination on poetry.

Another example occurs in the following poem, “Le Mauvais Vitrier” (“The Bad Glazier”), commented on above: the dropping of a flower pot on the old vendor, shattering his wares, calls to mind the “bomb” that was Les Fleurs du mal. Moreover, this final action of the poem is the last in a series of what might be considered “enactments” of figurative expressions: the action of breaking the glazier's glass panes performs the figurative expression “casser les vitres” (“breaking windows”), a French idiom meaning “to create scandal” – which is precisely what the publication of the Fleurs du mal achieved. This connection to the publication of the earlier collection is actually only of secondary interest, for the dynamics of the poem may be generalized as a reflection on the power of poetry (and art in general) to disrupt society, causing the jolts and starts that are typical of the experience of modernity.

What is at work in the allegories of the prose poems is perhaps best illustrated in “Le Galant Tireur” (“The Gallant Marksman”), where a man takes some shots in a shooting gallery, planting bullets in the ceiling and walls, but never coming close to his target. When his wife laughs at his incompetence, he gets his dander up, pointing out a doll in gallery that has a smug look, its nose in the air. “Eh bien, cher ange,” he says to his wife, “je me figure que c'est vous” (“Well, my dear angel, I'm imagining that it is you”) – after which he closes his eyes, pulls the trigger, and blasts the head off the doll. What happens here is not quite uxoricide: the narrator has not killed his wife, except in effigy. At first glance, and despite that fact that the narrator refers to his wife as his “muse”, this brief text would hardly appear to be another poem about poetry; however, as Barbara Johnson has shown, “Le Galant Tireur” illustrates a quintessential operation of the prose poems in the simultaneous success and failure of the marksman's action: by casting the doll as a figure or image of his wife, he hits one target (the doll) at the same time that the bullet necessarily misses the other (the wife). This, of course, is the power of poetic metaphor, which always substitutes one figure for another. Interestingly, the implication is not just that poetry can have an impact, but that this impact will be all the greater (and more accurate) because it is accomplished indirectly, by way of substitution. Typically, in Baudelaire, the action of this figurative language will be tied to violence and, as Kevin Newmark notes, trauma.

The notion of shooting at one target in order to hit another sounds not just like “indirect expression”, but more like full-fledged misrepresentation. While it certainly draws on a certain idea of irony (where the speaker says one thing but means another), it is also dangerously close to lying. Notably, one of the last poems Baudelaire wrote for Les Fleurs du mal was “Le Masque” (“The Mask”), a poem about a statue with two faces – one being the “true” face, the other “la face qui ment” (“the face that lies”). In the Petits poëmes en prose, the corresponding piece is probably “La Fausse Monnaie” (“The Counterfeit Coin”), in which the poet's friend offers a two-franc piece to a beggar. Stunned first by his friend's generosity – which he assumes will impress the panhandler as an unhoped-for windfall – the narrator imagines his friend is following an essentially aesthetic principle: “après le plaisir d'être étonné, il n'en est pas de plus grand que celui de causer une surprise” (“after the pleasure of being taken by surprise, there is no greater pleasure then springing a treat upon another”). But then he is taken off guard himself, left reeling when he learns the coin was fake. For a moment the poet revels in the aesthetic possibilities of such an action, which places in the unsuspecting beggar's hand a kind of wildcard that could lead either to fortune or ruin, causing surprise after surprise. In response to the poet's questions, though, the friend reveals that he is simply a cheapskate, intending to do a good deed at a discount – an excuse that the poet finds unpardonable. Here again we find an example of a poem that accomplishes one thing by doing another: by putting in circulation the counterfeit coin and revealing his motives, the friend (wittingly or not) actually realizes the aesthetic principle announced in the beginning: he bestows upon the narrator what has just been defined as the greatest of pleasures – a series of surprises. Following the same logic as “Le Galant Tireur”, the coin may travel into the hand of the beggar, but it is the other party – the narrator – who receives the successive blows of aesthetic pleasure. And to the extent that the poems themselves resemble the counterfeit coin (since they, too, say one thing while meaning others), the reader finds herself in the midst of this exchange, continually appreciating the unsettling and endless reversals of these poetic anecdotes.

These short analyses should at least hint at the hidden complexity of the prose poems, which has made them a source of considerable inspiration for other writers and critics – even though they drew relatively little attention during the first century of their existence. As readers grew more interested in what we might call metadiscursive practices (that is, texts that reflect on their own rhetorical devices), the prose poems drew increasing critical attention. But because the anecdotes themselves are so simple, and so beautifully rendered, they may be appreciated in many ways at many different levels. In some sense the Petits poëmes en prose paved the way for Rimbaud's Illuminations and the free verse and prose poetry of the twentieth century. They are full of punch, flourish, and mystery, their eerie lack of resolution guaranteeing that even the best critical approaches will always (and sometimes successfully) miss the mark.

Works cited:

Burt, Ellen, “Baudelaire and Intoxicants,” in The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire, ed. Rosemary Lloyd (Cambridge [UK]: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Carpenter, Scott, “The Esthetic Mask: Irony and Allegory in Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris”, in Acts of Fiction (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1996).
Johnson, Barbara, the Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, c1980).
Newmark, Kevin, “Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP).
Stephens, Sonya, Baudelaire's Prose Poems: The Practice and Politics of Irony (Oxford: New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).

Carpenter, Scott. "Petits poèmes en prose". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 May 2008
[, accessed 28 October 2016.]