Carpenter on Whidden (2022)

Whidden, Seth. Reading Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Prose Poem. Oxford UP, 2022, pp. 321, ISBN 978-0-19-284990-8.

It has become old hat to speak of Baudelaire and modernity in the same breath, especially in the context of the prose poems published in 1869 under the title Spleen de Paris. For many readers this modernity is entangled with notions of historicity that inform Baudelaire’s allegorical vision—especially in its unresolvable ironies. In the ambitious volume before us, however, Seth Whidden proposes a substantially different approach, undertaking a formal study that owes more to the likes of Roman Jakobson than to, say, Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, or Ross Chambers. In a far-reaching examination of the collision of prose and verse in the Spleen de Paris, Whidden seeks to reveal “how prose poetry, by capturing and expressing different aspects of what is seen and heard, exposes certain elements of Baudelaire’s poetic modernity” (37).

Just what does it mean, in this context, to “see” and “hear”? Many things, it turns out. In a tantalizing introduction, Whidden speaks, for example, of the degree zero of the visual: quite simply, how words look on the page. Vision influences our reading of literature, he tells us, citing Pierre Boulez (9-10), who maintained that certain musical scores provide more food for the eye than for the ear. And, in fact, the interference of the visual is hardly new to French letters; as one recalls from the interplay between la rime pour l’œil and la rime pour l’oreille (25). On the side of hearing, we may be less surprised, given poetry’s long association with patterns detectable by the ear—especially rhyme and meter, but also the standard coterie of assonance, alliteration, and other aural repetitions. Whidden’s special interest, though, has to do with what happens when prose and poetry fuse—that is, when the straightforwardness of prorsus (his term for prose), is entwined in the vines of versus (verse). (Given this reliance on the duality of literal and figurative, of straight and winding, it’s a pity to find no engagement with “Le Thyrse” in this study, which would provide grist for his mill.) Evoking Baudelaire’s description of the “miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rime et sans rythme,” the driving question becomes: “How much of Baudelaire’s prose remains hidden to the eye or silent to the ear?” (8).

Chapter one focuses on the visual, which one might variously consider to include the way a poem looks on the page, the thematic roles that looking and seeing play, and how visual representations (i.e., imagery) operate in a selection of texts. While Whidden takes up certain typographical particularities in a later chapter, here it is thematics and imagery that command our attention. In initial analyses of “Le Fou et la Vénus” and “L’Horloge” we see, first, how these works play out on a mostly visual field, until mute objects (the eyes of a statue or the face of a clock) start telling us things. In this vein, Whidden’s analysis of “Une Mort héroïque” focuses on the sight-based spectacle of Fancioulle’s pantomime, which is famously interrupted by sound—an “oral production bursting onto the visual scene” (97).

That analysis leads naturally to the second chapter, which focuses on the prevalence of the audible, especially in scenes where speech interrupts poetic prose. Here, too, we find the uncomfortable cohabitation of prorsus and versus: in texts like “Les Yeux des pauvres” and “La Soupe et les nuages,” direct discourse erupts in the poetic space as a plain, flat-footed, and brutal deflation of the lyrical. Through a technical analysis of poetic forms, Whidden shows just how widespread this phenomenon is in the prose poems: from “Laquelle est la vraie ?” to “Le Désespoir de la vieille” we see how direct discourse announces the arrival of the anti-poetic, arriving in a clearly audible form.

While the first chapters touch upon a vast number of texts, providing a broad perspective, chapter three offers depth, focusing largely on a reading of “Le Galant tireur” that draws on the kind of innuendo that already underlies the notion of galanterie. Relying extensively on Delvau’s Dictionnaire érotique moderne, Whidden offers a counter-reading that casts the tale as a veiled encounter with a prostitute. Even if this highly original interpretation may strike some as a bit of a stretch, the author’s goal is less to coax this poem into the specific space of sexuality than to “consider how Baudelaire’s poetic prose is rich in the kind of allusive language of which innuendo is but one example” (178). That’s smart, and Whidden’s idea that there is a kind of rustling (bruissement, 218) of the language of the streets (and of streetwalkers) beneath more chivalrous poetic discourse is one of the most useful takeaways of the book.

To this reader’s eye, Whidden’s fourth chapter on inebriation represents a highlight, especially in the discussion of what matters or doesn’t—all those uses of n’importe and qu’importe sprinkled throughout the prose poems (“Enivrez-vous,” “Le Mauvais Vitrier,” “Les Fenêtres,” among others), when the poet throws caution to the wind. These expressions signal or trigger an excess in language and experience, blasting through the guardrails of morality as well as those of poetic verse, in what the author refers to as a “spillage of form” (251).

Lastly, the epilogue takes us beyond Baudelaire’s innovations, focusing on what happens to poetry when someone like Rimbaud takes a chainsaw to verse.

Overall, Reading Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Prose Poem is an ambitious and unusual book, ripe with many keen observations, and impressive for its scope. That said, Whidden’s occasional reluctance to part with a series of examples, or to let an allusion remain allusive, can leave us surrounded by many trees and less forest. His affection for dictionaries can lead to trouble, as when he faults earlier interpretations (166–67) for running afoul of Larousse or Littré—even though the definitions in question were demonstrably common in Baudelaire’s time. Nevertheless, readers intrigued by the collision of prose and poetry in and after Le Spleen de Paris will find much to occupy their thoughts.

Scott Carpenter
Carleton College