Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poem of the Week 8/07/2010: Obsession


Great woods, you frighten me like cathedrals;
you howl like organs; in our curs'd hearts lie
chapels of endless grief where old rales rattle,
echoing your De Profundis a reply.

Ocean, I hate your tossing and your tumults,
my spirit finds them all again in me,
I hear the monstrous laughter of the sea,
the bitter laugh of the vanquished, with sobs and insults.

O night, how you would please me without stars
whose light speaks only in the banal tongue!
I seek the black, the empty, and the bare!

But the shadows are themselves a canvas where
from my eyes a thousand ghosts are flung.
of vanished beings with familiar stares.

Charles Baudelaire, trans. C.F. MacIntyre

Well, this could have been a joyous return to the poem of the week, perhaps with the onrush of a love-torn sonnet, or a sweetly pastoral poem, or a comic epic of unabashed wit! Which will it be, door one, two or three? Happily for you, dear readers, you are greeted by one of Baudelaire's fleurs du mal, a poem which plays out a crushing relationship between relief and pain, forgiveness and torture, and creator and muse.

Opening with the lines "great woods / you frighten me like cathedrals" links nature, beauty, the speaker, and the sacred, setting them as some of the poem's major topics. Baudelaire's first two lines, "Great woods, you frighten me like cathedrals; / you howl like organs;" are so amazing! They link terror "frighten," with the sacred "cathedral," with song, "the howl of organs." This will be a poem about a dark song, perhaps, which is breathed with the speed of wind -- the only way the forest could produce a howl. The next several lines, "in our curs'd hearts lie / chapels of endless grief where old rales rattle, / echoing your De Profundis a reply," elaborate this tortured relationship with the sacred and with song. "De Profundis" is a direct reference to Psalm 130, a song (poem) in which David calls to the Lord for mercy for his dark, black sins ( In the Psalm, the tortured ask for and are granted relief. In this poem, the empty howl of the woods echoes a reply -- grief and sadness. This first stanza establishes the question and answer format of the poem, but a secret one which drives us to deeper and darker measures.**

In the second stanza, then, the ocean at once ignores and embodies the pleads for help found in the De Profundis of the first. Baudelaire draws a delicate balance between tyrant and oppressed, with the line "monstrous laughter of the sea, / the bitter laughter of the vanquished." Because of this impersonal laughter, and the connotation of ocean with vastness and therefore power, it seems like the ocean must represent something untouchably strong, and in this case cruel. Perhaps it is the vindictive Old Testament God, perhaps the standard of poetic creation to which the speaker cannot but must live up to. On the other hand, the monstrous laughter is also the voice of the tortured who have already been refused their forgiveness, their own monstrous, Hamlet-like laughter at their own heavily rent states.

The next stanza makes its plea for forgiveness, or implies one already, in a different way; the introduction (and subsequent slander) of stars, in themselves quiet and still, implies the welcoming and rejection of beauty, respite, and peace. Baudelaire's speaker has already rejected the stars as "banal," and wishes to erase them. Perhaps his obsession is erasing him, or causing him to hate the beautiful, yet banal, elements of beauty that are normally given us. What is he doing here -- is he simply erasing the stars because they have failed him? He says that he seeks "the black, the empty, the bare!," almost as if that would save him (from banality?) more readily than the howling woods and tossing ocean.

Once he achieves the poetic erasure, though, he finds on that same dark screen only the shadows and projections of his brain. Poetic metaphor, the imagined or felt relationships with woods and sea that were established in the beginning of the poem, become aggressive in the third stanza and overwhelm the speaker in the final one. His phantom relationships with people become ghosts that torture him, and he is powerless to the spasms of his mind. Is this about the writing process (the poet is erased in his obsessive search for the perfect poem)? About the fall of man (man cannot help but run deeper and deeper into darkness)?

As you can probably tell from the number of question marks in this writeup, I remain unsure, and the more I read the poem, the deeper the confusion runs. Over what is the obsession? For what does the poet wish? I want to say regeneration, or forgiveness, but the poem seems to have already asked for this and been rejected; then I say beauty or purity, but the poem constantly opens and rejects these questions as well. In this sense, then, the poem is itself a turning set of questions, always finding the same answer, beginning over in each stanza, posing the question starkly to the reader, and then pulling it again darker, underground. Perhaps this is a relationship with a muse, which is, I think, implied in the "De Profundis" reference, where the poet wishes for something, good song and greater inspiration, and then the poet finds nothing but howls and torture to answer his call. The beauty of the muse is like a streak of lightning in a Turner painting, covered and devoured by its cloud, bursting forward, then retreating again.

**this is most succinctly stated in the final paragraph of my writeup. I hope you all enjoy.