The Poets

May 10, 2010

Baudelaire's [Bleak] Sky

One of my favorite aspects of existence is the blue sky- the host of clouds and birds; the medium of sun and moon, of planets and stars; the symbol of that which is transcendental. One may think this an exaggeration, but even as I sit here in this room typing this post, I long for that sky- my heart almost wants to burst open from mystical anticipation of its view, seriously.

So when I read Baudelaire's poem, The Sky, you might imagine the internal shock- even grief- I felt when he referred to it as a "strangling cavern wall" that essentially traps and suffocates our miserable human existence.

I've read dark poems, and this one isn't too terribly dark- but poems that ruthlessly target inherently beautiful aspects of nature and life ... well, they seem to approach a certain level of contempt. Now I'm not calling our poet contemptuous- far from it! I happen to think his poetry to be both interesting and well done. What I am saying- or at least trying to convey- is that the shock value I received from reading this particular poem was a mixture of awe and negative repulsion.

If one reads this poem and the collection this poem was published with, one will get an immediate sense of a darker poet. Bleak and oblique are many of the poems that have emerged from the pen of this French writer, and in many ways Baudelaire reminds me of a hip, coffee-drinking existentialist just waiting for a reason to rebel. Make no mistakes, I respect Baudelaire as a man and as a poet, and think much of his poetry cleverly written and interesting ... I'm just saying, he's different- but perhaps that's where his poetic genius lies.

The Sky

Where'er he be, on water or on land,
Under pale suns or climes that flames enfold;
One of Christ's own, or of Cythera's band,
Shadowy beggar or Crœsus rich with gold;

Citizen, peasant, student, tramp; whate'er
His little brain may be, alive or dead;
Man knows the fear of mystery everywhere,
And peeps, with trembling glances, overhead.

The heaven above? A strangling cavern wall;
The lighted ceiling of a music-hall
Where every actor treads a bloody soil--

The hermit's hope; the terror of the sot;
The sky: the black lid of the mighty pot
Where the vast human generations boil!

Of the Poem:

Lines 1 through 6

The poet makes no distinction of persons in this poem- all alike are subject to the conclusion drawn by it; thus, unhesitatingly, does the poet address the world of the living and of the dead- Where'er he be, alive or dead!, he says.

Lines 7 and 8

There's a mystery hidden in the heart of man, something akin to agoraphobia, but more existentially dreadful. We perceive it when we gaze sky-ward, or so our poet contends, and it seems to produce in us wild states of trepidation and awe. It is the sky.

Line 9

Exactly what produces these "trembling glances" is not clear, but what is clear is that the sky draws it out of us, and all alike are acutely aware of it. Perhaps the poet intends to convey the idea of our being trapped like prisoners beneath this massive dome, or, as he calls it, this "strangling cavern wall."

Lines 10 and 11

To call the sky a "lighted ceiling of a music-hall" seems a little less bleak, indeed, delightful- that is, until our poet describes what this "lighted ceiling" is illuminating: human turmoil and conflict where "every actor treads a bloody soil."

Lines 12 and 14

In short, the poem seems to conclude that all of us- rich or poor, alive or dead, Christ's or Cythera's, hermit or sot- all of us are trapped in a mighty pot, a hideous condition of strife and turmoil where "the vast human generations boil", and that we have a perpetual reminder of this ... that "black lid", that vaulted prison wall we call the sky.

Of the Parameters:

Baudelaire's chosen style for this poem is pretty interesting. He basically took the structure of an Italian sonnet and made a few modifications. The first 8 lines (which are essentially divided into two quatrains) are called an octave. In current Italian sonnets the rhyme scheme would go abba with each quatrain. Baudelaire employs an alternating ryhme scheme with the octave: abab cdcd (this, in truth, is closer to the original structure of the Italian sonnet as it was practiced and endorsed by Giacomo da Lentini, abab abab).

The last 6 lines (which are essentially divided into two tercets) are called a sestet. With the Itailian sonnet the sestet had one of two ryhme schemes: cde cde, or cdc dcd. Baudelaire, cool as he is, switched this up a little, so that in his poem the rhyme followed this pattern: eef ggf.

The meter of the whole poem, like any other typical sonnet, is based on an iambic pentameter.

End Notes:

Cythira- an island by southern Greece (line 3)

Croesus- king of Lydia (line 4)


John W. May said...

Side Note:

Reading Baudelaire's poetic polemic of the sky reminded me of a poem that I wrote in January '09. In that poem I also refer to the sky, but quite differently than our French poet did. Indeed, far from a bleak canopy that encloses and traps wretched mortals in a wretched existence, the sky I speak of- and experienced- revealed itself to me as a medium for Glory. Here's that poem:

A Memory of Delta D.O.C.

I left the buildings for the brink-
For Delta’s wretched grounds below-
To interface with others jailed,
When to delight a sight did show:
The prison sky seemed calm to me
As orange tints embraced her blue;
Then Jesus spoke through every cloud
With love no mortal mouth can do.

Nancy said...

1) I must say the chosen poem would go entirely over my head without your interpretation. I especially like your analysis of lines 12 & 14, ominous though they be.

2) A Memory of Delta D.O.C. is one of my very favorite of your works. It takes my breath each time I read it... the last two lines are pure perfection of soul.

3) ... "a hip, coffee-drinking existentialist just waiting for a reason to rebel." LOL! You crack me up, John. That is so funny!

Keep up the good - no, GREAT work my favorite of friends. *Smiles*

The Art of Katarina Silva said...

I am just becoming acquainted with your illuminating blog, and find your poetry interpretations refreshing. With this last one from Baudelaire, I must mention that my mother's graduating Vassar thesis was on on his works, and (as a linguist) she always cautioned me on how much of an original work can be lost in translation. A delicate process indeed! But, indisputably, his melancholic outlooks never fail to evade the translators, which you reference when questioning his gloomy experiences of beauty in nature. As a lover of nature myself, I cannot relate to them either. However, as I am sure you know, this French poet was also known for his intense and melodramatic love affairs, which often tinted the way he regarded his surroundings: turning the glorious into the bleak and entrapping! What vast differences exist in the way two people experience the same sky merely based on the state of our spirits! THank you for reflecting on this as you juxtapose his poem with yours....which, incidentally, is lovely! :)

As of April 9th, 2010