Review of Rosemary Lloyd’s “Baudelaire’s World”

Bob Hudson
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602

Rosemary Lloyd. Baudelaire’s World. Ithaca: Cornell UP, December 2002. 248 pp.

With the daunting amount of critical work on Baudelaire by such figures as Sartre, Proust, Benjamin, Robb, Pichois, etc., Lloyd’s step into the domain of biography is a bold one. The result, however, is a clever, intuitive and effective look into the situations, people and places that contributed to the shaping of the greatest poet of the 19th century.

As the title suggests, this book is a view into the complex relation between Baudelaire and the world of 19th-century Paris. Lloyd organizes the book’s eleven chapters according to various topics, including childhood, women, nature, friendships, transposition, each of which can be read individually and which cites prior research, resulting in a rich and useful bibliography.

In this sense, Lloyd’s book can serve as an excellent reference for topical research, but it is at the same time an incredibly concise initiation into the fundamental themes and devices of Baudelaire’s writings.

In the first two chapters, “To the Reader” and “The Palimpsest of Memory,” Lloyd explains the difficulty of translating a poet such as Baudelaire. She cites Nicholas Moore’s monumental book Spleen (London: Menard Press, 1990), in which he translates Baudelaire’s third poem entitled “Spleen” thirty-one times, each translation focusing on a different element of the poem: rhyme, pattern, tropes, symbolism, etc. and producing vastly different results, to illustrate the inadequacies and lacunae produced in translation. She also takes to task the modern, accepted translations of the poet, deconstructing them and citing particular instances where they fall short of the poems’ probable intended meaning. At the same time, she offers a fresh approach to reading Baudelaire—a way to see through the misogyny and ambivalence of character, to avoid closure and to see his innovative contribution to modernity. The second chapter culminates with her own superb translation of one of Baudelaire’s most beloved poems on Paris in transition, “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”).

Chapter three, “Genius is Childhood Recovered at Will,” treats the often over-emphasized childhood of the poet (e.g., the relation to his mother), yet without delving too far into psycho-biographical connections as other scholars have been prone to do. Here, Lloyd makes a Proustian connection between the events of Baudelaire’s formative years and the genius manifest in his later writings. Recounting anecdotes from the poet’s correspondence, personal journals and first hand accounts, Lloyd demonstrates how issues from the past are elicited and play out in the poet’s prose poems and in Les Fleurs du Mal. She correctly emphasizes the poet’s life within the scope of two revolutions and of the transformation of Paris into an industrial and modern capital.

Paris in transformation is an overarching theme of the remaining chapters. As indicated by the use of “Le Cygne” as the introductory poem, changing Paris is to be found throughout Baudelaire’s work. His desire for escape, his ennui, his artistic theory of extracting the eternal from the transitory, almost his entire world revolves around this changing capital and his psychical ambivalence that results from this change. In an aptly-named chapter, “City of Dreams,” Lloyd goes on to explore Baudelaire’s drug use, his exoticism, his contradictory view of nature, his relations with women and his acquaintances.

In exploring Baudelaire’s acquaintances and friendships—especially Delacroix, Champfleury, Manet, Courbet, Banville and Gautier—Lloyd compares Baudelaire’s vision to the often differing visions of modernity among his contemporaries, all the while showing the collective genius of the period. She also treats Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas de Quincey as an influence on the poet. The chapter, “The Art of Transposition,” is an interesting illustration of Baudelaire’s intertexual connections with existing art. And her last chapter, “The Old Captain Death,” focuses on the last poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, “Le Voyage” in which the poet welcomes death, an ever-present motif in his poetry.

Lloyd renders homage to Claude Pichois by naming her book’s epilogue “The Tip of the Iceburg,”and by adopting his view that what we know of Baudelaire is scant in comparison to what remains to be learned. Lloyd is modest here, however, because her book clearly sheds new light on several major issues in Baudelaire studies. The book is, additionally, immensely pleasurable to read and should serve to inspire others to delve further into Baudelaire’s complex world.

#Bob Hudson#Review of Rosemary Lloyd's "Baudelaire's World"#Vol. 2 Issue 1 Fall 2003