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  • Baudelaire, Rimbaud, ToomerThe Urban Stranger and “Bad Blood” in French and African American Modernism
  • Andrew Ryder (bio)

The unexpected urbanization of rural populations prompted equally sudden changes in poetic subject and method. This new habitat resulted in increasing informality in style, deeper self-examination, the insurgence of the language of the industrial, an ambivalent relationship with the pastoral ruralism of the past, and frequent metonymical comparisons between people and their new environment and tools. In France, this inspired the development of modern poetry. The urbanization of Black populations in the United States almost a hundred years later held parallels to the European situation, prompting similarities in the style and content of the new avant-garde. In addition, the latent subject matter of the contact between different cultures, and the breakdown of the nineteenth-century concept of race, which had previously appeared in French modernism, became more overt in this African American form. While both style and content changed drastically in the appropriation of European forms, the work of Jean Toomer constitutes a revisiting of the themes of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, reaffirming their relevance in the Americas for a new population undergoing the first shock of urban alienation. The ensuing discussion of this connection is particularly indebted to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s 1995 study, “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African American Migration Narrative.

Charles Baudelaire, the literary critic and poet, is widely considered a crucial modernist figure. His most evident technique is his frequent reliance on metaphor. Baudelaire wrote that, “I have always liked to find in outward and visible nature examples and metaphors that would allow me to characterize pleasures and impressions of a spiritual order” (qtd. in Clark xvi). This remarkable use of figurative language, unique at the time in French poetry, was made more shocking to its audience by his approach to the everyday.

Baudelaire’s setting is entirely urban; when asked to contribute poems on the subject of nature, he replied, “I cannot get emotional about the vegetable world” (Baudelaire xv). In contrast, Rimbaud reinterpreted the pastoral into Symbolist poetry, remembering his peasant background to write of “Nostalgia for the thick young arms of pure green” he and his peers left for the promise of the city (Rimbaud 201). However, this imagery frequently defies mere nostalgia with a profound ambivalence expressed by a shift into an anti-pastoral, as Rimbaud’s Edenic imagery frequently slips into the apocalyptic: “What does it matter to us, my heart, the sheets of blood and of red-hot coals, and a thousand murders, and long howls of rage . . . I feel myself tremble, the old earth, on me who am more and more yours! the earth melts” (Rimbaud 202–03). Rimbaud frequently depicts the natural world as decaying beneath its pleasant exterior; “Comedy of Thirst” depicts [End Page 802] parched animals destined to “expire in those damp violets whose awakening fills these woods” (Rimbaud 212).

Toomer shares this ambivalent relationship with the rural past. His description of the natural environment composing the American South is similarly both beautiful and violent. In Griffin’s reading of “Blood-Burning Moon,” “the pastoral explodes into an anti-pastoral,” as the “connection between the murder of Tom and the Southern landscape makes it impossible for this to be a truly pastoral text” (Griffin 27). The beauty of the South is profoundly linked with a hidden past of exploitation and terrorism directed against its Black inhabitants. This contrast creates a dark irony: Toomer appreciates the beauty of his Southern home, but holds it in horror and fear for its historical brutality. This irreconcilable paradox provides a more emotional and extreme ambivalence for naturalism than Rimbaud can muster. Toomer constantly identifies the exploitation of nature with the oppression of its Black workers. Griffin points out that throughout the Southern portion of Cane, the “oppressed is described with natural metaphors, while the oppressor is described with industrial metaphors” (Griffin 27).

Even in its decay, Rimbaud’s view of nature is unmistakably vital and fluid: “Blood flowed, and milk” (233). His urbanism is far bleaker: “a desperate Love and a petty Crime whimpering in the mud of the street” (Rimbaud 257). “Metropolitan” is a direct comparison between...