Despite his failure to free himself from the chains of naturalism, from the view of nature as "red in tooth and claw" as Tennyson wrote, Charles Baudelaire nonetheless did try to defend himself by aestheticizing the paradoxes of man's place in the world. Often his attempts at self-defense begin with collisions between the hypersexual and the demonic, for such extremities easily confront fear as in "Metamorphoses of the Vampire." Looking at this poem has the obvious advantage of a familiar, folkloric subject matter but, moreover, it shows the nervously decadent ways the poet tried to come out of these nightmares alive. Although the poem does not focus directly on the vampire as a subject but rather on the sin the narrator experiences, the experience nonetheless arises from the narrator's sensitivity to the dualisms of the preternatural.
Meanwhile from her red mouth the woman, in husky tones,
Twisting her body like a serpent upon hot stones
And straining her white breasts from their imprisonment,
Let fall these words, as potent as a heavy scent:
"My lips are moist and yielding, and I know the way
To kcep th antique dmon of remorse at bay.
All sorrows die upon my bosom. I can make
Old men laugh happily as children for make.
For him who sees me naked in my tresses, I
Replace the sun, the moon, and all the stars of the sky!
Believe me, learned sir, I am so deeply skilled
That when I wind a lover in my soft arms, and yield
My breasts like two ripe fruits for his devouring — both
Shy and voluptuous, insatiable and loath —
Upon this bed that groans and sighs luxuriousiy
Even the impotent angels would be damned for me!"
If the experience Baudelaire writes about can be metaphorically thought of as a flood, then one might say that he attends only to the immediate carnality of the flood, and not to the deeper relations between man and water, or even the life of a flood. The stanza above begins the poem in the midst of an unknown action ("Meanwhile"), and this immediacy heightens as every sense, from color ("red mouth") to sound ("husky tones") to touch ("twisting her body") to sight ("white breasts") and finally to smell ("heavy scent"), acts sexually. Continued description, and description alone, spoken by the woman conclude the first half of the poem with a performativity that is presented and not represented. As a result, the allusions to and symbols of beauty that the sensory overdrive rely upon (the Venus image, "For him who sees me naked in my tresses, I / Replace the sun, the moon, and all the stars of the sky!" and "My breasts like two ripe fruits") live mechanically in nature.
When she had drained me of my very marrow, and cold
And weak, I turned to give her one more kiss — behold,
There at my side was nothing but a hideous
Putrescent thing, ail faceless and exuding pus.
I closed my eyes and mercifully swooned till day:
And when I looked at morning for that beast of prey
Who seemed to have replenished her arteries from my own,
The wan, disjointed fragments of a skeleton
Wagged up and down in a lewd posture where she had lain,
Rattling with each convulsion like a weathervane
Or an old sign that creaks upon its bracket, right
Mournfully in the wind upon a winter's night.
Without warning, the second stanza abruptly changes to first-person as the describer enters out of nowhere and, all at once, navigates through several frames of absence, the missing parts of this story, and several frames of presence, the evidence that lies right before him. Such compression of time creates a nightmarish fabric beyond human control wherein the dualisms of the vampire--undead and dead, beautiful and grotesque, natural and unnatural--here negate each other until only a skeleton remains. Even though the descriptions run in the opposite direction of realism, by having his narrator go to sleep and then reawake ("I closed my eyes and mercifully swooned till day"), Baudelaire leaves no room to interpret this as anything but reality. In the mirror of the "disjointed fragments of [the] skeleton," the narrator sees nature's triumph over himself as gothic, atmospheric images of decay caused by natural laws ("a weathervane," and "an old sign that creaks upon its bracket [...] upon a winter's night"). Indeed, after he reawakens we find that the real horror is not the skeleton, but the realization ("Who seemed to have replenished her arteries from my own") of the irony of his own fate.
1a. Compare this poem with "The Vampire." Does does Baudelaire control words and play with syntax in a characteristically decadent way? In other words, does he set his words in an artifical way to show-off?
1b. How does the extensive use of a quotation stylize and affect the story in both poems?
Alas! the phial and the blade
Do cry aloud and laugh at me:
"Thou art not worthy of our aid;
Thou art not worthy to be free
"Though one of us should be the tool
To save thee from thy wretched fate,
Thy kisses would resuscitate
The body of thy vampire, fool!"
2. Is this an example of a poem that shows the great distinction between decadent poetry and symbolist poetry? For instance, does the line "Even the impotent angels would be damned for me!" reveal a necessary Decadent revolt against Christianity, as opposed to the more syncretic revolt found in Symbolism?
3. In what ways does Ruskin's praise of Gothic architecture parallel or intersect with a Decadent inclination toward images of fear, madness, collapse, and the sublime?
4. How would you use this poem to either support or defend the claim that Baudelaire's poems are always full of flat and narrow descriptions?
Baudelaire, Charles. Flowers of Evil. Trans. George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1936.
Last modified 16 March 2008