"A Carcass"

In "A Carcass" Baudelaire mocks Petrarchan ideals of feminine beauty. (** See two of Petrach's early Renaissance poems at the bottom). What emerges is an amazingly complex imaginative universe that Baudelaire builds from a personal experience. Even if the contrast between the language of courtly love ("The gleaming golden curly hair, the rays / Flashing from a smiling angel's glance") and crude and obscene descriptions no longer shocks in quite the same way, certainly we still find striking the imaginative way in which he superimposes a swarming, vibrating new life onto the blurred outlines of a decaying animal carcass. Baudelaire was convinced that "every good poet has always been a realist," and he himself was a master of realistic details used for effects that go beyond conventional or photographic realism. Imagery in "A Carcass" is brutal. The poem's ostensible theme is familiar--carpe diem, "seize the day" or "think of the future and love me now, " since only a poet can preserve beauty-- but one has only to compare Yeats's poem "When You are Old" to recognize the harshness of this address to the beloved.

"A Carcass"' intends to shock the reader with its brutal description of an animal carcass swarming with maggots seen in a setting designed for love--"That beautiful morning in June." Moreover, the poet uses this carcass as a comparison with the woman he loves in a contrast of ideal femininity and physical mortality. Part of the poem's effect comes from the tension between horror and beauty, the past sight and the present address to the beloved. In the original French, the initial rhyming contrast between "my love" (ame--which appears at the end of the line in the original) and "foul" (infame) for "stones" is exacerbated. Both the positive and the negative are amplified, and the positive becomes an aspect of the corpse itself: "And the sky cast an eye on this marvelous meat / as over flowers in bloom." Rhyming "Bloom" (s'epanouir) and "swoon" (evanouir), the second half of the stanza contrasts with the first.

He pulls off a surprising poetic gamble, nonetheless, in transforming images of decay into images of new life, the hum of flies and maggots into the more acceptable music of caves, running water, wind, or a thresher winnowing grain. By this transformation, the poet has demonstrated the power of artistic imagination (eighth stanza) before returning to the cruder image of the hungry dog, and the final, aggressive emphasis on universal decay—inevitable for all but the art of poetry.

The final turn which contrasts the body of the beloved, whom the poem reduces from "soul" to corpse, with the achievement of the poet: "corpses of love" is not only a phrase denoting organic decay; it is also a key term in Baudelaire's aesthetics. In the "Salon of 1859" he argues that the Imagination is "queen of the faculties" because it "decomposes all creation" and with the "amassed materials" it "creates a new world." In the poem, the process of "giving back" to Nature all that it had joined together produces a new flowering and a "strange music." The corpse becomes a "sketch" left for the artist to finish "with memory's aid." Baudelaire's criticism warns against directly imitating nature and urges instead recourse to "memory." The poem thus offers further insight into what "fleurs du mal" might be. Their beauty is difficult, to achieve it may be a dreadful task that takes all the writer's energy: one's soul threatens to faint along the way.

The poem recalls medieval verse in its contempt of the flesh, and even more closely baroque poems (such as Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress") that seek to win a lover through exploitation of religious sentiments, but the end strikes a new note.

 

**FRANCIS PETRARCH (1304-74)

"She Used To Let Her Golden Hair Fly Free"

She used to let her golden hair fly free

For the wind to toy and tangle and molest;

Her eyes were brighter than the radiant west.

(Seldom they shine so now.) I used to see

Pity look out of those deep eyes on me.

("It was false Pity," you would now protest.)

I had love's tinder heaped within my breast;

What wonder that the flame burned furiously?

She did not walk in any mortal way,

But with angelic progress; when she spoke,

Unearthly voices sang in unison.

She seemed divine among the dreary folk

Of earth. You say she is not so today?

Well, though the bow's unbent, the wound bleeds on.

"The Eyes That Drew from Me"

The eyes that drew from me such fervent praise,

The arms and hands and feet and Countenance

Which made me a stranger in my own romance

And set me apart from the well-trodden way;

The gleaming golden curly hair, the rays

Flashing from a smiling angel's glance

Which moved the world in paradisal dance,

Are grains of dust, insensibilities.

And I live on, but in grief and self-contempt,

Left here without the light I loved so much,

In a great tempest and with shrouds unkempt.

No more love songs, then, I have done with such;

My old skill now runs thin at each attempt,

And tears are heard within the harp I touch.