June 18, 2009


Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose. By Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By Clinton Heylin. Da Capo. $24.

     What do you do for an encore after you produce poetry that shakes up, enrages and captivates the public and quickly becomes both controversial and wildly influential? If you are Charles Baudelaire, you follow up The Flowers of Evil with a series of poetic observations and commentaries on Parisian life – but instead of casting them in the form of poetry, you write them as “Little Poems in Prose.” That is what Baudelaire did in Le Spleen de Paris, now newly and very poetically translated by Keith Waldrop as Paris Spleen. This makes a fine companion book to Waldrop’s 2006 translation of The Flowers of Evil, also published by Wesleyan University Press. But the thin volume – 116 pages – does not quite have the richness or the power of Baudelaire’s earlier work. “These nervous pleasantries are not without danger, and sometime quite costly. But what’s an eternity of damnation to one who has found in such an instant infinite satisfaction?” So asks Baudelaire (as here translated) in a brief story in which the narrator deliberately overdoes a practical joke in such a way as to ruin a glazier’s livelihood. It is a story that Poe could have written, complete with its parenthetical paragraph in which the narrator attempts to explain his motivation for what is essentially a cruel and vicious impulse. And Poe did write something like this, in The Imp of the Perverse, and wrote it much better. Nor is this the only time in Paris Spleen in which Baudelaire seems to deliver something a touch warmed-over. “A Hemisphere in a Head of Hair,” which lasts less than a page, begins, “Allow me long – longer – to inhale the odor of your hair, to bury my face in it, like a thirsty man at a spring, and to shake it out like a scented hanky, flinging its memories into the air.” This is mere tepid Romanticism. “An Heroic Death” is more not-quite-Poe: “This Prince was neither better nor worse than others, but an excessive sensibility rendered him, in many cases, crueler and more despotic than the rest. …Caring little for men or for morals, himself a true artist, he considered Ennui his only foe, and the bizarre efforts he took to flee or to vanquish this universal tyrant would certainly have made a serious historian classify him as ‘monster’ – if, in his domain, it had been permitted to write anything not for enjoyment (or astonishment, enjoyment in a particularly delicate form).” There are some felicitous turns of phrase in Paris Spleen, and the angry intensity and sexuality of The Flowers of Evil sometimes peek through, but not even the lovely flow of Waldrop’s translation can conceal the fact that this book does not present Baudelaire at his best.

     Shakespeare had plenty of encores – magnificent ones – to his sequence of 154 sonnets, but Clinton Heylin’s curious So Long as Men Can Breathe pays little attention to the playwright’s later work or, in a sense, to the sonnets themselves. This is not a book about Shakespeare, about poetry, about sonnets or about love (the sonnets’ primary focus). It is a book about publishing, both legal and illegal, written by a biographer of Bob Dylan and Orson Welles who happens also to be a scholar of the history of Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps Heylin’s multifaceted interests explain the direction he takes here. The great questions raised by the sonnets, including to whom they were dedicated and why Shakespeare seems to have tried exceptionally hard to conceal the identity of the person (or people) to whom they were addressed, come into Heylin’s book only in passing. He is less interested in what the sonnets say than in how they came to be printed, pirated, passed from hand to hand, altered, collected, sold, analyzed and considered and reconsidered again and again. The sonnets were first published on May 20, 1609, by George Eld and Thomas Thorpe, a pair of disreputable characters whose edition may or may not have been authorized. Heylin does a fine job exploring the hurlyburly of the 17th-century publishing netherworld, including changes that may have been made for the benefit of the publishers but that scholars have assumed for centuries to be elements of Shakespeare’s own intentions. Much of what Heylin discusses is speculative – much of everything that tries to figure out what Shakespeare “really” meant is speculative – but Heylin moves with rather too much enthusiasm into the back-and-forth of unceasing argument and counterargument, returning again and again to questions of how the method of publication of the sonnets may have influenced readers’ acceptance of their sequencing and meaning. At one point, Heylin writes of “the tortured relationship” in the sonnet sequence: “A sense of futility infuses the entire infatuation. The gulf in age, status, and feelings is stated almost ad nauseum [sic].” But he seems more comfortable tossing out the names of people whose claims and counterclaims may flow from piracy in the poems’ publishing history: “The rebuttal to Vickers’s views came soon enough, and from a not entirely unexpected quarter. Duncan-Jones was given two and a half columns in the TLS, a fortnight after Love’s review appeared, to mount her counteroffensive, [which included a claim that] Thorpe had no reason to ‘risk the wrath of’ Shakespeare by publishing something under his name that was not by him – i.e., exactly what Jaggard, Pavier, and Eld had previously done without the slightest repercussion.” It must be said that the rogues’ gallery of publishing pirates – “bookleggers,” Heylin calls them – contains some entertaining characters, and Heylin’s generally bright style makes many of the characters’ adventures and misadventures enjoyable to follow. But in all this, the genius of the sonnets’ poetry, their importance as literature, and their place within Shakespeare’s life and work, all tend to get lost. So Long as Men Can Breathe takes readers through many a byway of the past 400 years, while studiously avoiding the main roads that lead to the sparkle, wit and grace of Shakespeare’s language and poetic sentiments.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, you might enjoy my update of Poe's work, The Imp of the Perverse. It's here: