HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 3, 2007
The Machine Gunner’s Poet:
Charles Baudelaire’s Tout Entière and The Albatross

John R. Guthrie


Full four decades and more ago, I was that most earnest of creatures, a Lance Corporal of Marines, 19 years old, incredibly skinny, and the leader of a machine gun section in the landing force of a gunboat called USS Little Rock. We’d just returned from the revolution in the Caribbean that followed the assassination of the infamous yet ever colorful Dominican despot, Generalissimo Rafael Leonídas Trujillo, (El Jefe as he was called publicly, or very privately, Chapitas, "bottlecaps" -- because of his plethora of medals and, equally descriptively, El Chivas, “The goat” because of his sexual proclivities).

Once the imbroglio in Ciudad Trujillo was resolved, we steamed northward to dock at Pier 7, US Naval Station, Norfolk, and the Bos’n’s Mate of the Watch piped liberty call. I finally wandered alone away from the B-girls and bars of Norfolk’s then notorious South Main Street to an area of small shops and noticed a bookstore. I entered and browsed around.

There was a display of small, thin books published under the imprint of the Peter Pauper Press, all priced so as to be within that lance corporal’s budget. The book I picked up had, certainly for a young man of very modest educational accomplishment from rural South Carolina, the curiously heretical title of LES FLEURS du MAL, or FLOWERS OF EVIL by someone then unknown to me named Charles Baudelaire. I thumbed through it, pausing to read here and there. I was entranced. Now what did the young machine gunner discover there that so captivated him?

In short, there were words of such power and beauty as to convey to him that there were kingdoms and castles, there were powers and principalities, far beyond those that he’d previously entertained or even thought possible. With all due appreciation for the stepping stone the United States Marine Corps provided for me, the book cracked open the door to a very different world than either the one in which I was residing or the one from which I’d sprung. And when I peeked into that world, against all odds, I saw myself someday, somehow, as part of it.

Baudelaire, to refresh the reader’s memory, was born in 1821. In our times, he would run a very good risk of being institutionalized—perhaps in prison for his opium addiction, perhaps in a mental institution on heavy doses of antipsychotics because of the chaos of his inner life.

He had a mistress, Jean Duvall, with whom he was totally, madly obsessed. She’s often charitably described as being “an actress,” and a “lesbian.” In fact, you might more accurately describe her as a member of a much older profession and polymorphously perverse in her sexual orientation. Better, think of her as being that person you met as an undergraduate on that lost weekend in Myrtle Beach or Fort Lauderdale, Nassau or  Acapulco and came back to your sane and ordered life, wondered whether you should get tested for something, hoped for the best, and tried to forget that it ever happened.

Baudelaire, to the abject horror of his very aristocratic mother, clung fast to Jean Duval his whole life through. Below is one of the milder erotic poems he wrote of his love for that dreadfully flawed woman. Perhaps you can hear resonating through it still 150 years later, the intensity of his affection for her:


Tout Entière  

The Devil up my attic stair
Came tiptoeing a while ago
And, trying to catch me unaware,
Said laughing, “I should like to know,

“Of all her many charms, what springs
Most often to your mind? Of all
The rose-colored and shadowy things
Whereby her beauty may enthrall,

“Which is the sweetest?” –O my soul,
I answered the abhorrèd Guest:
Her beauty is complete and whole.
No single part is loveliest,

“When she is near, I cannot say
What gives me such intense delight,
She dazzles like the break of day,
She comforts like the fall of night,

”My senses seem to merge in one,
The harmony that rules her being
Is all my knowledge – I have none
Of hearing, smelling, touching, seeing.

“No, I cannot make a choice
In this sublime bewilderment.
Perhaps the music of her scent!
Perhaps the perfume of her voice!
                                                  

I hope Jean Duval was as impressed by the brilliance of Baudelaire’s metaphor and the poetry of his imagination as was I.

My favorite of Baudelaire’s poems, though, from that very first day when I picked up that small volume, was and still is “The Albatross.” Now remember, I was a seagoing Marine. How could I not be intrigued by a poem named for those magnificent creatures one might see from time to time gliding so effortlessly high above the ship as you stood the gun watch in one distant place or another?

But in lieu of my telling you about this pivotal poem and my reaction to it, allow me to include it and you decide if it works at any level for you:


The Albatross

Sometimes, to entertain themselves, the men of the crew
Lure upon the deck an unlucky albatross, one of those vast
Birds of the sea that follow unwearied the voyage through,
Flying in slow and elegant circles above the mast.

No sooner have they disentangled him from their nets
Than this aerial colossus, shorn of his pride,
Goes hobbling pitiably across the planks and lets
His great wings hang like heavy, useless oars at his side.

How droll is the poor floundering creature, how limp and weak –
He, but a moment past so lordly, flying in state!
They tease him: One of them tries to stick a pipe in his beak;
Another mimics with laughter his odd lurching gait.

The Poet is like that wild inheritor of the cloud,
A rider of storms, above the range of arrows and slings:
Til exiled on earth, at bay amid the jeering crowd,
He cannot walk for his unmanageable wings.


The above poems are taken from a 1936 volume in my library which the inimitable Edna St. Vincent Millay and her cotranslator George Dillon undertook the tricky business of translating Les Fleurs du Mal so that it worked as well in English as it did in French. I favor their translations because they adhere to the original Alexandrines, or six beat lines typical of French poetry instead of shifting to the iambic pentameter more common in English. Also, the original French poem and the translation are on facing pages for comparison.

So there you have him; Charles Baudelaire. His personal life was an ongoing tragedy. According to some, in fact just about everyone that mattered, he was an immoral person -- his works were banned by church and state early on for their blasphemous and sexual content. He was improvident. He was comatose and blind from neurosyphillis when he died in poverty at the age of 46. But for all that he was not, Charles Baudelaire was a Poet. And what a Poet!


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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