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  • Baudelaire and the Literary Fabrication of the Poor
  • Maud Meyzaud (bio)

By the time Baudelaire starts his work-in-progress prose-poems project, the Petits Poëmes en prose (1857–1865), also known as Le spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen),1 the poor, a recurrent protagonist of these short narratives, have already achieved a successful literary career of three decades. This evolution has mainly taken place in the rising genre of the novel, which, from the 1830s onward, interacts with an emerging mass public, whether one thinks of Dickens' Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy's Progress (1837–39), the Newgate novels, Eugène Sue's likewise widely popular Les mystères de Paris (1842–1843), George Sand's La mare au Diable (1846) or Francois le Champi (1847–48). At that time, Hugo's masterpiece, Les misérables (1862), which would have a tremendous impact on Baudelaire's prose poem project, is still to come.

Because of its media-related feature, the serial novel both addresses the poor as its protagonist and enables literary works to reach social classes that cannot afford to buy a book. In this sense, it is not surprising that the very first work to be published in Paris in 1836 as a serial novel, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), is credited to have founded the genre of the picaresque novel, also called romance of roguery. During the same period, especially before the Revolution of 1848, the poor have been addressed by early socialist literature and even self-help books. By letting them enter several pieces of his prose poems, as is the case in "The Widows," "The Old Acrobat," "The Bad Glazier," "The Cake," "The Pauper's Toy," "The Eyes of the Poor," "The Counterfeit Coin," "Let's Beat Up the Poor!" and "The Good Dogs," Baudelaire is not only drawing on a former urban experience, but also on motifs, semantics and a rhetorical figure developed by his predecessors. One of the last drafted prose poems, "Assommons les pauvres" ("Let's Beat Up the Poor!"), does not stage an opening reading scene by chance.2 The scene connects the concerns of the prose poem explicitly with that time and implicitly warns the reader not to read what follows too literally, i.e., the narrator's testing of a reversed 'philanthropy' on a beggar. My concern is to ask to what extent the prose poems react to a general culture of philanthropy and a language of compassion to which not only theoretical positions contribute, but also novels such as Dickens' Oliver [End Page 156] Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, Eugène Sue's Les mystères de Paris or Victor Hugo's Les misérables, i.e., literature in the narrow sense of the word and Baudelaire's own field. Walter Benjamin's notion that Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal might have profited from the mere fact that its author did not write any novel (The Writer 167), applies even more accurately to his prose-poems project. In this sense, one can grasp this project per Jonathan Monroe as the "novelization of lyrics" (25). The European novel at that time embodies an understanding of prose that Baudelaire will be writing against, especially while drafting most of his pieces from 1860 to 1865. Given the direction taken by the European novel—say, 'realism' – on the one hand, and Baudelaire's search for what he coined himself in his essay "Le peintre de la vie moderne," 'modernity,' on the other,3 one can suspect the figures of the poor to be closely linked to the act of rewriting that characterizes his prose poems in general. The political relevance of this aesthetic operation becomes clear when, instead of linking it to the versified poems of Les fleurs du mal (as Barbara Johnson did in Défigurations du language poétique, her classic study on Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil and his Paris Spleen), one chooses to focus on the political framing of the rhetorical operation by which the poor have been addressed by literature since then. I will show how Baudelaire's prose writing is directed against the rhetorical figure of 'giving a voice' to...


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pp. 156-174
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