15 March 2010

Baudelaire - La Géante

I'm reading Les Fleurs du Mal by way of a bet with myself. Can I learn enough about Baudelaire in a week to outdo the contestant who has chosen this as a specialist subject on Mastermind on Friday?

As a result I have come across this poem.

Du temps que la Nature en sa verve puissante
Concevait chaque jour des enfants monstrueux,
J'eusse aimé vivre auprès d'une jeune géante,
Comme aux pieds d'une reine un chat voluptueux.

J'eusse aimé voir son corps fleurir avec son âme
Et grandir librement dans ses terribles jeux;
Deviner si son coeur couve une sombre flamme
Aux humides brouillards qui nagent dans ses yeux;

Parcourir à loisir ses magnifiques formes;
Ramper sur le versant de ses genoux énormes,
Et parfois en été, quand les soleils malsains,

Lasse, la font s'étendre à travers la campagne,
Dormir nonchalamment à l'ombre de ses seins,
Comme un hameau paisible au pied d'une montagne.

At the time when Nature with a lusty spirit
Was conceiving monstrous children each day,
I should have liked to live near a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous cat at the feet of a queen.

I should have liked to see her soul and body thrive
And grow without restraint in her terrible games;
To divine by the mist swimming within her eyes
If her heart harbored a smoldering flame;

To explore leisurely her magnificent form;
To crawl upon the slopes of her enormous knees,
And sometimes in summer, when the unhealthy sun

Makes her stretch out, weary, across the countryside,
To sleep nonchalantly in the shade of her breasts,
Like a peaceful hamlet below a mountainside.
(This translation by William Aggeler and several more poetic translations can be found at I've chosen this one for its literalness.)

One thing the poem immediately illustrates is how hard it is to ignore biographical readings. The underlying story of Baudelaire's life was his relationship with his mother, complicated by her second marriage to a military man who seems to have been the antithesis of Baudelaire himself. It's the kind of upbringing that any amateur psychologist would see as ideal ground for producing a gay man, but Baudelaire was excessively heterosexual. You could use these poems as evidence towards an analysis of Baudelaire's sexuality, but I don't think that should be the purpose of criticism.

You can, however, legitimately use the context in which the poem appears. In the sequence of the 1857 edition it immediately follows "L'Idéal", in which the poet suggests that Lady Macbeth is more to his taste than the pale white roses of Gavarni's society drawings. So we can reasonably say that the poems at this point are exploring ideals of femaleness.

The first stanza refers to more ancient times; suggesting not just the mythological reality of giants, but also a lack in the present. Even without the biographical knowledge, we see here an inversion of normal relations: giants are normally male, and the image of a "voluptuous cat" is inherently female.

The second stanza continues this: the giantess is valued for her size, and her terribleness. But there's some admixture of humidity with flame.

In the third stanza, the woman is visualised as landscape. I suppose you could say that the poet expresses a kind of ownership of the landscape/woman; he climbs over it/her, with no regard for her wishes. In fact the transformation by metaphor removes her ability to even have any wishes or opinions. She is inert.

So a feminist reading of this poem is entirely plausible, and would regard it as objectifying the imagined woman, and lamenting perhaps that in modern times women aren't big-kneed and passive.

And yet, the image of the speaker is a bit pathetic. The female figure is unmoved by the male exploration. He seems irrelevant to her. The images of the man as cat and sleeping village are far from virile. The poem is certainly not a celebration of male power. On the contrary, you could see it, even without knowing what we know about Baudelaire's life, as an expression of fear and sexual ambiguity. I'm not (honestly I'm not) using this to help me understand Baudelaire the man. Why would I want to do that?

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