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  • Baudelaire et la sacralité de la poésie par John E. Jackson
  • Michael Tilby
Baudelaire et la sacralité de la poésie. Par John E. Jackson. (Histoire des idées et critique littéraire, 494.) Genève: Droz, 2018. 136 pp.

In this lucid and persuasive essay, John E. Jackson, with the aid of close analysis of some of the most familiar poems of Les Fleurs du Mal together with others less commonly scrutinized, presents a mature reflexion on a perceived interplay between religion, myth, and word (parole), a triad that is seen to lead to Baudelaire’s sacralization of poetry. His discussion is divided into two closely related parts of unequal length, the first carefully entitled ‘Les Religions de Baudelaire’, and the second ‘De la parole dans Les Fleurs du Mal ’. Short shrift is given to Marcel Ruff’s non-theological discussion of ‘le mal baudelairien’, to Lloyd James Austin’s conviction that for the poet ‘le mal’ equated to Chateaubriand’s mal du siècle, and to the interpretations of ‘le mal’ advanced by representative scholars of a Marxist (or marxisant) persuasion. Instead, and with good reason, Jackson insists that it is from the starting point of key notions of Catholic doctrine that Baudelaire seeks to give expression to his troubled metaphysical state, while succeeding in transcending the pathological only through the unique form of satisfaction offered by poetic creation. It follows that Baudelairean metaphysics cannot be accessed in terms of explicit statements of religious belief but only through engagement with the poems themselves, which by their very nature defy conventional paraphrase. By his own admission, Jackson is the avowed enemy of over-interpretation. His subtle readings reveal the poems to be dictated by Baudelaire’s instinctive, if not always immediately apparent, commitment to self-contradiction, a phenomenon exemplified, for example, by ambiguous shifts of personal pronoun that betray uncertainty with regard to his identification with figures both [End Page 637] addressed and treated as subjects. Such seemingly insignificant words as ‘enfin’, ‘encore’, or ‘parfois’ can likewise become singularly disruptive. In response to the complexity of the poetic voice (and its polyphonic splintering), Jackson’s analyses themselves are consistently tentative, employing the conditional mood, redefinition, and qualifiers (including regular recourse to ‘si l’on peut dire’). Paradox and (radical) ellipsis are duly central to his enterprise. Although the author is beyond doubt theologically literate, his fundamental concern is at no stage with calculating the extent (or limits) of Baudelaire’s Christian orthodoxy as such, just as he is quick to point out the essential irrelevance of designating certain of the poet’s utterances as blasphemous. It is, as his suggestive title indicates, the entirety of Baudelaire’s poetic universe that is in play here rather than an artificially circumscribed dimension. At the same time, this study makes patently clear that the poet’s sacralization of poetry is all the more powerful for drawing explicitly on religious and biblical archetypes. Even so, Jackson’s exemplary close readings of a strikingly varied range of poems have the undoubted potential to serve as models for analyses of further Baudelaire poems conducted independently of his overarching thesis. His essay also contains valuable observations for students of Mallarmé and (particularly) Nerval, as well as for those with a scholarly interest in ekphrasis.

Michael Tilby
Selwyn College, Cambridge


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pp. 637-638
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