The Cradle of Modernism

From the Autumn 1990 issue of The Scholar


Two things besides fatigue account for the radical shift in outlook away from Romanticism and for the extraordinary animus, the angry revulsion, the indignant scorn with which the next generations treated the movement. One is the revolutions of 1848; the other is the collapse of philosophy from an inadequate idealism into a crude materialism. Poets have no obligation to be philosophers and few of them read philosophy, but most if not all absorb the new doctrines in the air of their time and these affect their work, both the contents and the form.

Eighteen-forty-eight in France and its four-year sequel of uprisings all over Europe toppled thrones, caused repression, civil wars, executions and exiles, and finally brought on an eighteen-year dictatorship under a nephew of Napoleon in the country where Liberal democracy had first sought to establish itself. Those events broke the back of the century culturally and emotionally. Many artists died or fled from their homelands, promising careers were ruined, and perhaps worst of all, intellectuals were discredited on the one hand and disillusioned on the other.

Every generous idea previously accepted was now despised and, in fact, blamed for failure to bring about the better world. Love, liberty, progress, the sovereign people, the brotherhood of man, and the oneness of spirit under a mysterious but manifest providence — these were now regarded as the vaporings of feeble minds or glib rhetoricians. What was true was hard matter and evil man, nothing else. Science confirmed the first of these sole realities, politics the other. Hence Realism and Materialism: “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.”

Realism, moreover, was defined as the commonplace, the dull, dreary, sordid repetitious occurrences of daily life. They made anything other than soberness of word and feeling ridiculous. To be sure, the Romanticists had often felt despair; they were not fools — or blind. But their love of life was strong, and they were also gifted with the love of love; those among them who survived the debacle of 1848 kept their faith in humankind and felt it a duty to continue the fight for political freedom and social equality. Hugo, exiled on his Channel Island for eighteen years, was the chief spokesman for this “Nevertheless” attitude and thereby earned the contempt of the younger men who knew that ideas were “mere” ideas and worthless. He continued to love and worship nature; they, on the contrary, were possessed by the emotion that Roger Williams has described and analyzed in his book The Horror of Life and has shown by psychological and medical evidence to have been no affectation but fact.

The future is always the work of the young among survivors; the horror of life was bound to prevail over hope and the vision of a new Jerusalem. I am speaking here of culture — mood, tone, and forms of expression. The political battle, under and above ground, is another story. The first post-Romantics were the so-called Parnassians. Their name comes from a periodical, Le Parnasse contemporain, which from 1866 on published the poets that set the new standards. Their leader was Leconte de Lisle and their creed was “objectivity.” The poet was to see and describe — a kind of scientist — keeping his feelings and notions to himself. As Leconte put it in a sonnet called Les Montreurs (The Exhibitionists), writers who give away their emotions and opinions are to be classed with mountebanks and prostitutes (les histrions et les prostituées). Hugo, Musset, Lamartine, please take note.

But what was the true kind of poem to contain? Leconte gave the answer in his Poèmes antiques, Poèmes barbares, and Poèmes tragiques. The subjects are scenes from history, distant in time or remote in space. Insight into the mind is not excluded, but the mind is that of somebody other than the poet. As if to make his point even plainer, Leconte took up the learned fad of spelling ancient Greek names “correctly”: Clytemnestre written Klytaemnestra and well-known words such as houri and houkah transmogrified into hûri and hûka seemed to establish at once distance and scientific scholarship.

In form, the changes from Hugo-esque technique are matters of degree: rhymes are less rich, to be less conspicuous, the rhythm more sedate, and the images make a shorter leap from reality. As a whole, Leconte’s versification may be called a return to Chénier by way of Vigny. The detachment is more in the manner than the substance. For example:

Homme, si, le coeur plein de joie ou d’amertume,
Tu passais vers midi dans les champs radieux,
Fuis! La nature est vide et le soleil consume:
Rien n’est vivant ici, rien n’est triste ou joyeux1

That here was no counter-revolution in artistry is evident from the interesting fact that Theodore de Banville, whose Short Treatise on French Poetry in 1872 made Hugo the unsurpassable example, the complete poet, was one of the older Parnassians. And his light ironic verse, brilliant in technique, exquisite in detail, and subdued in lyric impulse, does show that the fervor of an earlier day had vanished.

But human passion — especially in poets — is not to be turned on and off like a tap. In this grim period of the mid-nineteenth century, it burst out in Les Fleurs du mal, the perfect expression of “the horror of life.” Baudelaire himself calls them on his dedication page “ces fleurs maladives,” which means not so much sickly flowers as “flowers of sickness.” His technique remains that of the Romanticists; it is in his appearance of “objectivity” that he is connected with the Parnassians.

The novelty of his book resides in a triple contrast: the express desire for ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme et volupté;2 descriptions of sordidness or vice linked with love or ideal yearnings; and, in manner, a deliberate deadness in the utterance, a drugged quality in the rhythm, matched in the rhyming by attempts at richness that often fail. Indeed, flaccid or banal polysyllables at the end of his second lines suggest the urge to avoid eloquence. The truth is, Baudelaire found rhyming difficult; he pairs the same type or form of words or is content with what is hardly more than assonance. He uses inversion to avoid rhythmic difficulties at the cesura, and his vocabulary is scanty. Where he innovates is in using these limitations, purposeful or not, to serve his purpose: creating memorable poetic lines by imitating the ghastly reality, the ubiquitous prose. What Hugo and Musset used for special effects turns into a style. Faults and merits in Baudelaire beautifully come together to communicate that unmistakable atmosphere of the new realism, of experience narrowed by unhappiness, that the age took on as its character.

The alexandrine is Baudelaire’s prevailing line (in 131 out of 167 pieces) and he freely mixes the binary and ternary meters in the same verse:

Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette . . . 3

The first accent comes at the comma and the next at the ninth and twelfth syllables, but the regular cesura at the sixth is still perceptible.

Among forms, Baudelaire exploits the sonnet, also in alexandrines, where his design of juxtaposing fair and foul stands out with violent effect. His whole output is violent, like his nature. He fired one shot at random in the revolution of 1848 and tried in vain to gather a squad who would join him in killing the stepfather he hated. That was all the fury he expressed physically. But in his verse, the very succession of titles in his book shows his repressed rage: “Hymn to Beauty”; “A Rotting Carcass”; “Love and the Skull”; “Elevation”; “The Sick Muse”; “Journey to Cythera”; “The Barrel of Hatred.” I cite at random, but the hate turned inward is evident; it appears again in the suicidal moments of his life early and late.

In the poetry it produced those sudden turns for which he is famous: a ten-line address to his mistress begins by calling her “a vessel of sadness” and ends by comparing his erotic exertions upon her to the onslaught of “a chorus of worms upon a cadaver.” In turn, this comparison bespeaks “her coldness, which to him makes her the more beautiful.” Like all the post-Romantics, Baudelaire is a specialist. He works with but a few images and exploits three or four recurring themes.


In reading Baudelaire, one soon discovers another trait that marks the break with the past: his world is urban. He takes pains to point out that the great forests frighten him; he hates the ocean, because it reminds him of his own inner tumult and shows:

… l’homme vaincu, plein de sanglots et d’insultes 4

The city it is that gives rise to the comprehensive word for the unrelieved Baudelairean experience: “Spleen.” Its connotation in French is depression; it is not tender like melancholy, nor does it carry the idea of resentment as does English “spleen.” The soul is weary; every small accident underscores the hopeless, meaningless, and unchangeable character of human life; whence the horror of it. Here is the opening of the first of the three famous “Spleen” poems:

J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans.
Un gros meuble à tiroirs encombre de bilans,
De vers, de billets doux, de procès, de romances,
Avec de lourds cheveux roulés dans des quittances,
Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau5

The other two begin, respectively, with: “I am like the king of a rainy country” and “When the sky is low and heavy like a lid.”

No doubt is left about the moral climate in which everything in Baudelaire’s world takes place. The clearings in this dark weather come in the form of imagined relief, longed for, and not for a moment to be thought real. L’Invitation au voyage is but a dream; “Beauty” exists only in the minds of poets; and the “ideal being” for this poet is explicitly a fierce “red ideal,” none other than Lady Macbeth, because she is capable of crime; or Michelangelo’s figure, “Night of the Tomb” in Florence, who “sleeps in a strange posture,” her physical attractions “fashioned by the mouths of Titans.”

All these images, these mixed desires, coupled with erotic experiences both voluptuous and sordid, explain why Baudelaire has become for many English readers the first French poet they admire after Villon. Baudelaire satisfies the hatred of modern society felt by sensitive natures and he records the fruitless that seem to be best expressed in poetry by more or less explicit reference to sexuality and its perversions.

This aspect of Les Fleurs du mal is discreet enough by twentieth-century standards; it was outrageous by nineteenth, and it qualified the book for prosecution in the courts. What aggravated the offense was the rather complacent expression of remorse sheltering under the religious doctrine of fallen man. This combination, too, of enormities described with a varnish of religiosity added, became a leading motif of subsequent literature down to the present.

In retrospect, the work of the Parnassians, crowned by Baudelaire’s achievement, appears as what I have called specialization. The new school took from the Romanticists not only verse technique, but also whatever else in their work it found congenial, adaptable to their spiritually crushed condition — despair, stoicism, love cynically flouted, images of violence and sordidness, compassion for the downtrodden. By concentrating the dose, the effect was made overwhelming and seemed a new departure. Hugo was the first to acknowledge it when he said of Baudelaire that he had created le frisson nouveau — the new thrill — this in no disparaging sense. By affirming an anti-social attitude, it was indeed new — it was alienation declared by the poet for the benefit of all who have the wit to feel the horror of life and to see through the fallacy of progress.

For yet another cause of unhappiness was the encroachment of machine industry and its attendant uglification of town and country. The Romanticists had sung in an agrarian civilization; towns were for handiwork and commerce. Industry brought in not factories only, and railroads, but also the city — slums, crowds, a new type of filth, and shoddy goods, commonly known as “cheap and nasty.” And when free public schools were forced on the nation by the needs of industry, a further curse was added: the daily paper, also cheap.

This last item sounds like a tired joke, but one must read Baudelaire to see how seriously it is to be taken. The newspaper was his bête noire; he railed at it, called it Satanic. He loathed it not as a symbol but as a fact and a force. The reason for this animus was that the penny paper created what has since been called the mass mind. The schools, by teaching reading and writing, produced the half-educated; and their newspaper — its language, cliches, “sensations,” and illustrations — kept the populace in the state of vulgarity and opinionativeness that forever prevented their becoming civilized.

The poet, the artist, was thereby displaced, even in his own eyes. He was no longer the hero, the seer and prophet who leads a grateful people to a higher spiritual life. He was now an outcast — maudit (accursed), doomed to misery, poverty, disease, and death. Baudelaire celebrates wine and opium and women as providers of paradis artificiels. From his day onward it has been the expected thing that artists should end not triumphant in palaces but outcast in the charity hospital and the pauper’s grave.

The contradiction of the superior man in the inferior place heightens the disgust with self, while at the same time it reveals as part of the artist’s resentment the ambition for high status and power. The upshot in poetry is the paradox of compassion expressed for “the people” and hostility to democracy and its material betterment. Thus, in one of his Little Poems in Prose Baudelaire speaks of the pleasures of “taking a bath in the populace. To enjoy the crowd is an art.” His urban intelligence perceives that “multitude and solitude — it is all one.” But in another such prose poem entitled “Let us beat up the poor,” Baudelaire makes up a parable about economic and social equality: no one is entitled to it; it belongs to those who can win it and keep it. And he taunts the social reformer: “What do you think of that, Proudhon?”

Baudelaire’s aim in his prose poems was in keeping with his rejection of anything suggestive of pure delight; the desire for it must be balked or adulterated by the sordid or at least the commonplace. As he said, “We have all been longing for the miracle of a poetic prose, musical but without rhythm or rhyme, flexible enough yet jagged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the wave-like motions of reverie, and the upheavals of conscience.” In these short pieces the poet treats again some of the themes of his verse. For example: “One must be always drunk, . . . so as not to feel the horrible burden of Time, which crushes your shoulders and bends your spine toward the Earth . . . .” Others are sui generis — anecdotes exploiting the bizarre or using language several degrees below the level that his already colloquial lines would accommodate.

Whether all the fifty poems answer to his description is a question. Some of the prose has a perceptible rhythm; other parts of it are flat indeed and do not express any lyric impulse, reverie, or fit of conscience. The aesthetics of the prose poem cannot, by its nature, be defined; it is a genre, not a form. At one extreme the poetic pulls toward incantation and at the other, the prosaic toward (let it be said with all due respect to Baudelaire) journalism. What remains clear is that Baudelaire’s prose poems are, again, city pieces. The epilogue in verse he appended to them confirms the fact: the poet has climbed the hill from which he can see the whole town — “hospital, brothel, purgatory, hell, prison” — and he concludes: Je t’aime, ô capitale infâme! — “I love you, O squalid capital!”

One cannot speak of Baudelaire, the prose poem, and the idea of specialized concentration in poetry without also speaking of Poe. English and American critics have spent valuable thought wondering why the French poets of the last half of the nineteenth century were so enamored of the American. The critics consider him a negligible figure — inferior as poet, and in his fiction, at best a writer of popular entertainment. Yet after Baudelaire translated his tales and disseminated his ideas about poetry coupled with his loathing of the populace, Edgar Poe (as the French call him and as he was in fact known to his American contemporaries) became a great force in French poetics and literature generally. He was cited again and again as a farsighted innovator in theory and practice; Mallarme translated “The Raven” and wrote a sonnet for the Poe monument in Baltimore, a companion sonnet to the one for Baudelaire. It would be shameful, says Mallarme, if “our thought” did not sculp

Un bas-relief
Dont la tombe de Poe éblouissante s’orne6

The key to the riddle of this hero worship is simple: it lies in the fifteen pages of Poe’s essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition,” which purports to tell how the author composed “The Raven.” Because the critics think poorly of “The Raven” and do not believe Poe wrote it as he says he did, they neglect the “philosophy” stated in the opening pages. It consists of two main points: a poem can only be short — long poems are made up of short bursts of true poetry tied together with prosy verse; and a true poem is not the product of inspiration but of careful, cold-blooded contriving.

These principles appealed immediately to the post-Romantic generation that wondered, among other things, what could be done after Lamartine, Musset, Hugo, and Vigny had manifestly exhausted every scheme and idea. Poe insists on originality — it is, he says, a powerful means of catching the reader’s interest. The modern cult of the New dates from those words, to which Poe adds, in italics, an expression of surprise “that for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.” And less emphatically, almost casually, Poe states another principle: that a story gains immensely in artistry if it concentrates on a single episode and produces a single effect by taking care to use language adapted to the unique atmosphere.

In thus defining his invention, the short story (as against any tale that happens to be short), Poe was not only giving a formula applicable to the kind of poem he desiderated, but he was, indirectly, justifying the prose poem. A unified, “atmospheric” piece such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” may be seen as a prose poem. The tales Baudelaire translated were in their effect prose poems about a strange world. When, moreover, Poe’s life became known — his struggles, his neglect by the public, his weaknesses and wretched death — the literary world in France added fellow feeling to reasoned admiration.


That these distant followers of a congenial doctrine failed to assess as we do the worth of Poe’s poetry is not to the point. Rather, the adoption of that doctrine, like its emergence in America in Poe, a keen reader of European letters, shows that it answered a need of the times, not just an isolated quest.

No less important in the circumstances was the idea of Beauty. Poe considers it not a quality but an effect: the “intense and pure elevation of soul — not of intellect or of heart.” Beauty is “the province of the poem,” and its contemplation is the highest, purest pleasure. Poets have always wanted their works to be beautiful, but the beauty they attained was a mixed product, born of other concerns — panegyric, dramatic, erotic, satirical, elegiac, in a word, social. Now beauty had become a necessity for the human being as such, to escape the social, to live by contemplating it pure, to forget the concerns of intellect and heart, and receive from art the only pleasure left in a degraded world.

Poe’s expression of these ideas paralleled and confirmed those gaining ground among European artists. In France, Verlaine was preaching against eloquence in poetry — “wring its neck!” — and urging De la musique avant toute chose. In England Walter Pater was making a theory out of the tendency: all the arts must tend toward the nature of music, that is, significant beauty without articulate meaning, or in Verlaine’s creed again, only the indefinite and suggestive. As for life, it was to be spent in a search for moments of intense contemplation in the presence of beauty. In a word, aestheticism was the latest phase of culture; the word itself dates from 1855 and the critic who first applied it to a poem, disparagingly, defined it: “It is music and picture, and nothing more.”

This temper was liberating. For the artist, the daily world was exorcised; the real world was the Elsewhere. For the beholder of art, the symbol in Symbolism gave free room to the imagination wearied by the explicitness of previous art. As Rémy de Gourmont declared with the double authority of poet and critic, a poem by Mallarmé is whatever any reader makes it, even a different poem on different evenings, selon le sentiment du moment. The notion that literature does not consist of fixed texts is no recent discovery; it is exactly one hundred years old.

But once again, the contemplative ideal could not subdue the common passions; aestheticism and Symbolism did not prove a lasting refuge from the world. Though Verlaine never abandoned his ideal nor transgressed its language, he wholeheartedly encouraged Rimbaud, who did both. As early as 1871, after the uprising and massacre of the Paris Commune, Rimbaud wrote a poem that says: “Europe, Asia, America: perish!” Begin by “overthrowing all order.” But at the end the poet despairs: he himself “is still around.”

This is the voice of those who deserve the name of Abolitionists, the promoters of the clean sweep. They are a numerous band, from Rimbaud and Lautreamont down to Jarry, Tailhadé and on to Marinetti, Tzara, and the Surrealists. Many of them take their ire out on language itself, breaking up grammar and syntax like the Symbolists, but with a different purpose, which can be seen in the mingling of the fragments with the colloquial and the obscene. Modern poetry is thus able to fuse complaint with denunciation, yearn for the Elsewhere, and produce “Realism” bearing the stamp of 1848. For all the talk of pure art and the saving grace of beauty, literature since Baudelaire has been valued to the degree that it has repudiated contemporary life and done its part in denying the worth of life itself.



1 O man! if with a heart full of joy or bitterness / You should at noontime cross the radiant fields, / Flee! Nature is a void and the sun burns away: / Nothing here is alive, nothing sad or joyful (Poémes antiques, “Midi”).

2 Order and Beauty, / The sumptuous, repose, and the voluptuous (L’Invitation au voyage).

3 Yet who ever has not clasped in his arms a skeleton . . . .

4 . . . Man defeated, full of tears and loaded with insults.

5 I remember more things than if I were a thousand years old. / A large bureau with many drawers full of balance sheets, / Verses, love letters, lawsuits, and parlor songs / With heavy tresses rolled up in receipted bills / Contains fewer secrets than my sorry brain. / op. cit.

6 A bas-relief / With which to decorate Poe’s dazzling tomb (Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poë).

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Jacques Barzun (1907–2012) was a historian of ideas and culture and the author or editor of more than 40 books, including From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000). He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.


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