The Alterity of Ugliness in Baudelaire's City: Critical Analysis of Poetry

Making reference to Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, I will discuss the alterity of ugliness in Baudelaire’s city. He was a French poet born in 1821 who significantly marked European literature in the period of modernism. His unconventional techniques as well as controversial themes used in his works made him one of the most remembered poets of the 19th century. Since his poetry was unlike any other poetry, Baudelaire’s vision was not always approved by the society, which resulted in suppressing exactly six of his poems. Although one of his main inspirations were female figures and passage of time, the city that was going through major structural changes in the 19th century was inspiring him the most, which prove one of his well known volumes of poems “Flowers of Evil” and “Paris Spleen”. The city, which is the main objective of my paper, was depicted in an unusual way, in which the beauty that the author saw in the city was not associated with the beautiful architecture of Paris and bourgeoise social classes, but the real city with pathological environments filled with dirt, corruption and degeneration.

These themes which were considered as inappropriate were almost examples of the naturalistic literary movement, which is why the alterity of ugliness in Baudelaire’s poetry fascinated so many people around the world - from 19th century up until now. “Flowers of Evil” (1857) and “Paris Spleen (1862), as modernist texts have all of the characteristics typical for fin de siecle ( the end of century). Decadence, melancholy, and the lyrical I with an inner conflict were one of the main features that we can witness in his poems. In both of the volumes, the author describes the real 19th century Paris. As a symbolist, he used many allegories to show the French urban space and saw beauty in every-day reality and average people. They were depicted in an impressionistic way, but in self-contradiction to the term “impressionistic”, very realistically.

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The author focuses on ordinary matters and shows them in an extraordinary way, appreciating the dailiness, that for most of the 19th century societies did not seem as beautiful as it seemed to him. The city, that was evoking and developing under the Second Empire, was one of the main themes in Baudelaire’s poetry, and for him as an artist, there was no other way of getting to know the city than experiencing it. Baudelaire came up with the term flaneur which refers to a person that experiences the city, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. Although the author saw the city as a mysterious maze that he was experiencing by wandering around the city, when describing it, he stays detached from it. Poverty, dirt, corruption or even prostitution were the author’s main inspiration, which is why back in the 19th century, Baudelaire’s poetry was not as valued as it is now. My paper explores Baudelaire’s poetry, by the interpretation of chosen poems and describing the alterity of ugliness in Baudelaire’s beloved city of Paris.

“Flowers of Evil” is divided into six sections (Spleen and Ideal, Parisian Scenes, Wine, Flowers of Evil, Revolt and Death) and contains 126 poems, but Paris that was going through structural changes back then was described most precisely in Parisian Scenes. One of its poems, “The Swan”, dedicated to Victor Hugo ( French writer who supported Baudelaire when he was sued for “affronts to public morality”), shows a nostalgic image of a changing Paris. Even though Baudelaire himself was a Parisian, the lyrical I of the poem seems to be alienating and distancing himself from the urban reality. The eponymous swan is a personification of Baudelaire himself that according to the metaphor, is “as a swan taken from his native lake” . The lake refers to Paris, that was devastated by the renewal and new structural changes. The chaos and the pursuit of modernity killed the city of love, making love pretty much non-existent in the rebuilt Paris. Many comparisons (to Andromache e.g.) create a specific kind of a nostalgic and melancholic atmosphere that makes the urbanization of the 19th century city look not only like a devastation but also like the attempt to forget the “real” and legendary Paris. Poem CXXVI “Dawn” also shows the city during the industrial reforms. It shows a contrast between the people from different social classes, showing the true reality of Parisian daily life. Baudelaire, as a symbolist, uses different metaphors and allegories to depict the urban space, where women in particular, were one of the author’s main inspirations. Even though Baudelaire’s poetry focuses mainly on industrial changes and the city, “Dawn” refers to nature which correlates to daily life, which is described in most of his works.

“Paris Spleen”, a volume consisting of 50 prose poems, was devoted in 100% to the city of Paris. The poems may be considered as examples of the texts associated with the stream of consciousness, in which Baudelaire presents different emotions at once, creating the unconventional writing technique. Before interpreting each of the poems, the readers should focus on the definition of spleen. Although the first meaning that comes up in the dictionary refers to an internal organ, the definition of Baudelaire’s spleen is much more complex and allegorical. In his poetry, it is associated with the feeling of melancholy, pessimism, decadence and a feeling of helplessness without any particular reason. Another interpretation of the title could refer to the degeneration of the society that was presented as the decay of the human body. “At one o’clock in the morning” is one of the poems where Baudelaire describes everyday life in a stream of consciousness style.

Although the author admits disconnecting himself from the society, paradoxically, Paris is shown as a city that connects itself with the people living there. In “Crowds” Baudelaire describes not only the city, but also the society. He focuses mainly on the dirt and degeneration in which he found beauty. The ugliness of the city, in Baudelaire’s eyes, turns into beauty and he draws inspiration from it. The crowds of Parisians depicted in the poem show the masses of people, in which the lyrical I feels lonely. Even surrounded by many people, he feels alienated, as if he lost his sense of identity, however, in author’s opinion being a part of a crowd is essential to fully experience the city. The energy of the masses and its movements became an integral part of a modern, ever-changing city like Paris. The readers may feel the disgust while reading the impressionistic descriptions of the city - the filthy, crowded streets full of degenerated people and prostitutes, but Baudelaire’s love for the city turns the disgust into the admiration for the average matters and the imperfection of the reality.

The alterity of ugliness in Baudelaire’s city is reflected in many poems from both “Flowers of Evil” and “Paris Spleen” and the interpretation of the poems, as well as many articles and scholars, prove the claim of the chosen topic. Paris of the 19th century and its society were precisely depicted in author’s works, illuminating the alterity of the term beauty, which in Baudelaire’s context, was rather associated with ugliness.

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