Set in a modern, urban Paris, the prose pieces in this volume constitute a further exploration of the terrain Baudelaire had covered in his verse masterpiece,The Flowers of Evil: the city and its squalor and inequalities, the pressures of time and mortality, and the liberation provided by the sensual delights of intoxication, art, and women. Published posthumously in 1869,Paris Spleen was a landmark publication in the development of the genre of prose poetry--a format which Baudelaire saw as particularly suited for expressing the feelings of uncertainty, flux, and freedom of his age--and one of the founding texts of literary modernism.
Luckily for Baudelaire's english speaking audience, the subjects of his poems were so rich and his imagery was so vivid that even after all of those elements are lost, his poetry still stands up under scrutiny. The only downside of this collection is that it's not a dual language version-- even if you don't speak a foreign language you can still get a sense for its rythym by comparing the original and the translation side by side.
The prose poems in this collection (and the ones in Les Fleurs du Mal) focus on the internal life of the city. Ina time when Paris was being systematically destroyed and rebuilt, Baudelaire looks past the veneer of the city to the heart of its citizens. While British poets from the same time lose themselves in the architecture of the city and in the city's natural elements, Baudelaire and his contemporaries focused specifically on the people that make up the city.
Paris Spleen gives you an outsider's look into Parisian life. As the narrator of these pieces moves through the city, he shares his assumptions about life as seen through windows, as passed on corners, as watched but not necessarily participated in. When the narrator actually does take part in the world around him, he does so with gestures so grand that they exist only for the sake of metaphor. In one instance, the narrator berates a glass dealer for harassing the poor and tosses a flower pot at him. In another, men are described as carrying chimeras on their backs as they go through their daily routines.
Although at times the narrative leans towards the surreal, the images are accessable and each poem flows quickly. If you can't read the poems in their original language, this is a great translation to pick up.
Plus, his humor is so odd:
Soup and Clouds
My adorable little minx was serving me supper; through the dining room's open window I was contemplating the shifting architectures God creates from vapour, those marvellous constructions of the evanescent. As I watched, I thought: "Those apparitions are nearly as beautiful as my sweet lady's eyes, the mad little green-eyed monster."
Suddenly a violent fist landed in my back and I heard a charming, raw voice hysterical and brandy-damaged, the voice of my little darling, saying: "Get on with your bloody soup, cloud merchant."
Contrary to popular belief, I had never read Baudelaire until now. I've trusted Walter Benjamin and lately Calasso to provide me with a well informed ethos about this central figure. There are many concerns that this is the literature of the young, to which I shout, absurd. This is the lettres of the Absolute, the eternally curious.
Below the bile, there is a hum of sensitivity. Behind the debris are the tears of the sensitive. Is it forgiving, likely not? There is a buzzing pulse at play, a hum and a forgiving glance.
Paris Spleen is not as consistent in regards to 'quality' (Rather a bad choice of words here, I do not want to mislead any ignorant reader into thinking Baudelaire is any less than great) or as urgent in tone as its more wide read predecessor. Overall though, this an indispensable for all students of poetry as well as those "moon-mad men." We couldn't forget them, now could we?