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43: COINCIDENCE OF OPPOSITES

#43: COINCIDENCE OF OPPOSITES. A scant two years separate the publications of two of the major works of world poetry: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Both are arguably the great works of their country’s nineteenth-century poetry: both were expanded to become catch-alls of their authors’ verse; both works were controversial and their authors attacked as dangers to public decency. There is even that odd, glancing similarity in the titles. And the books are, in all other respects, as opposite as possible for works created by two members of the same species.

Baudelaire worked as part of one of the most gifted poetic generations in the history of France, alongside Lamartine, Vigny, Nerval, Musset, Leconte de Lisle and, of course, Hugo, who was as prolific in verse as he was in prose. What Baudelaire brought to the music of French verse was an hypnotic quieting of the Alexandrine line, a softening of the caesura, the complete removal of the thump of declamation or doggerel. This quality of calm allows Baudelaire’s level gaze to deal with (in the first line of the book) “stupidity, error, sin, stinginess”—the city of dreadful night with which he found himself surrounded in Paris. Baudelaire looks at the abyss of urban self-alienation with more directness and less hysteria that any other nineteenth-century author, and without false distance—he is, movingly, the least Olympian of poets. He was one of the first to do this and is still one of the greatest—he addresses, with pity and terror, the world still with us. Les Fleurs du Mal is usually translated as The Flowers of Evil, but the sense of “mal” has a reach beyond the narrower English “evil”—it includes sickness, unhappiness, misfortune, moral wrong—a miasma of meanings on which Baudelaire worked his transformations. In the last line of the book he sums up his alchemical feat: “Tu m’as donne ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.” “You gave me your filth and I made of it gold.”

The sonority of Baudelaire’s verse has made him a bane to translators, but they keep at it: there are many bilingual editions. The New Directions edition has a text in French and a selection of various translators. Of the complete editions by a single translator, my current favorite is the one done by William H. Crosby for Boa Editions (1991), which sticks to the original rhyme schemes without jarring mannerisms; it also includes the text of the prose poems, Paris Spleen, certainly among the great examples of the French ease in this difficult form. In French, the Classiques Garnier and Bibliotheque de la Pleiade editions are standards, and annotated to the teeth. There is now a huge critical literature on Baudelaire, much of it gaseous, but Enid Starkie’s biography (Baudelaire, New Directions, 1957) is still worth reading. Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler’s bio (Baudelaire, translated by Graham Robb, Vintage, 1989) is also good, and conveys the overwhelming seriousness so central to understanding its subject. Jacques Barzun’s Essay on French Verse For Readers of English Poetry (New Directions, 1991) is a terrifically intelligent little book and an ideal introduction. For a selection of Victor Hugo’s verse—the teeny tip of a very large iceberg—go to Selected Poems (Penguin, 2002) which has texts and graceful versions by Brooks Haxton.

Whitman on the other hand worked alone, like Dickinson, and they stand as the great nineteenth-century American poets—I would say the greatest bar none. Dickinson reworked the traditional eight-and-six hymn meter into one of the most immediately recognizable voices in poetry. Whitman, on the other hand, took the traditional meters, put them together in a small room, and threw in a hand grenade. His gab, his barbaric yawp—his long rhetorical line, Bronx vernacular, his enthusiastic carnality, his firm planting in the American soil, his egalitarian mix of high and low, animal and angel—all these are still capable of startling the unprepared. Read aloud, Whitman has a wingspan nobody can match—and that, to him, was America, as he himself was America. A presidential candidate said recently, “The American people are, I think, congenitally optimistic,” and it is the defining difference between Whitman and Baudelaire. The Civil War was a dreadful strike to him, and he hated getting old—but there is nothing eupeptic, nothing staged, nothing Hallmark in Whitman’s optimism; it is blood-bred and convincing throughout. Perhaps his survival as a poet who is read with pleasure, not just studied or annotated, is a signal of something still in the American bloodstream—in abeyance these last bad years, but living, and premature of elegy.

There are scores of cheap editions of Whitman, every shape and size. The Library of America has an excellent text and includes the prose. One of the best recent studies of his work is Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, by David S. Reynolds (Vintage, 1995).

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