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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Two. Stevens’ Poetic Legacy across the Atlantic

Bad Boy for Good: Baudelaire in Stevens and Bishop

Angus Cleghorn

Texte intégral

1Wallace Stevens’ use of Charles Baudelaire in “Esthétique du Mal” is apparent from the title of this long poem confronting evil and human malice through the Second World War. Scholars such as Raymond Poggenburg have long traced Stevens’ references to Baudelaire. More recently, findings by Milton Bates and Burton Hatlen have focused on the transformative and potentially ethical sublime that Stevens cultivates in the poem. And yet, as Jacek Gutorow reminds us in Luminous Traversing: Wallace Stevens and the American Sublime, “Esthétique du Mal” remains for some readers a rather obscure poem that does not flesh out Stevens’ developing poetics as successfully as other long poems of his late career. However, if we look closely at how Stevens redefines the sublime through Baudelaire’s bold use of language and color, and then investigate similar pursuits by Elizabeth Bishop at the end of World War II and after, we will find a shared attempt to resuscitate the sublime in an embodied poetics of the earth.

  • 1 W. Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 34.
  • 2 Ibid.

2In “Esthétique du Mal,” Stevens divides sublimity into two types. On the one hand, old, worn-out literary energies are unfelt by the “ephebe,” a bored disembodied young man who is oblivious to the groaning Vesuvius and its unreleased fire. On the other hand, there is the active evil of the monk-assassin’s scene, a composition in which “One feels its action moving in the blood” (CPP, 285). By making the devout religious figure of the monk a potential killer, Stevens coalesces good and evil on earth in the manner of William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “Evil is the active springing from Energy”1 and “Energy is Eternal Delight.”2 Blake’s idea is developed thoroughly in the work of Baudelaire, not only in terms of what Baudelaire says in his poetry, but also in his gorgeous, almost abusive use of color that de-naturalizes nature so we can see it fresh. The freshening of life is a thing of consequence for Stevens, especially near the end of World War II, when thousands of dead soldiers deserve vivid artistic remembrance.

3During the postwar years, Bishop was similarly dissecting wartime evil in “Roosters,” a long poem based on her observations of cock-fighting and military training at the naval base at Key West. While living there through the war, Bishop explored her own social “vices”—her addiction to alcohol and her lesbianism. She expressed desire and horrific guilt simultaneously in “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” which concluded that, as much as she loved Poe’s horror in his gothic literature, it insufficiently explained the power of his desire, which remained unaccounted for in his essays. To her mind, Baudelaire proved stronger at exploring the most hellish of pleasures. Like Stevens, Bishop found that Baudelaire’s violent tone, color, and line, and especially his word choice, allowed for precise sensual assaults in spontaneous rhythms.

4By looking into the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry lets malice kindle the passion of living art, we will see how Stevens and Bishop moved through the end of the Second World War and the end of Modernism’s critique of “Christianity [a] s an exhausted culture” (CPP, 914) to develop an evolving post-Christian deconstruction of binary oppositions. Such a deconstruction would adopt what used to be known as evil—for “The death of Satan was a tragedy / For the imagination” (CPP, 281)—into a broader, more creatively inclusive, sublime human ethics.

  • 3 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 862.

5In the 1930s, fresh out of Vassar College, where she claimed she “knew ‘Harmonium’ almost by heart,”3 Bishop started writing a poetry that was built cathartically on familial loss. In “The Man-Moth,” for example, the alienated urban night traveler of the title, whose name is based on a newspaper misprint for mammoth, may be saved only by recognition:

  • 4 Ibid., p. 12.

If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.4

  • 5 See Alice Quinn’s notes in E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 274.

6 Like Baudelaire in “Au Lecteur,” the speaker’s vulnerable existence depends upon the readerly double. While “The Man-Moth” is an urban poem most people associate with New York, Bishop left the U.S. after college, expanding her world in Europe, mostly residing in a Paris apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens. During her two extended stays in France between 1935 and 1938, she studied monumental architecture and aesthetics. Though poems such as “Paris, 7 A.M.” and “Sleeping on the Ceiling” contrast a hardened architecture with surreal, fluid escapes, ultimately, Parisian monumentality left her cold, as expressed in statuary poems similar to those Stevens wrote just before her, such as “Dance of the Macabre Mice,” “The American Sublime,” and “Owl’s Clover.” In the end, stony exteriors did not alleviate her childhood loss of her mother to a Nova Scotia mental hospital, nor did any “Monument” (in the language of her best-known poem on the subject) provide model or inspiration for a poet seeking fluid change. Stevens’ verse provided a dynamic linguistic model she riffed occasionally, but this poetic mentor did not plumb necessary gothic depths as Edgar Allan Poe did. As a poet in her late twenties, Bishop found a horror preserved in Poe’s work coupled with an ongoing curiosity that stayed throughout her career. Bishop never remained a protégée of any of her major mentors—George Herbert, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell—but Poe stayed with her. Even then, she expressed disappointment in Poe during an argument with a college friend in Paris, which led her to gulp gin in tears5— Poe had insufficient explanations for beauty, art, and metrical precision in his essays “Philosophy as Composition” and “The Poetic Principle.” Poe could not account for the power of his dark, tunneling, cathartic literature. Bishop thus turned to Poe’s admirer Baudelaire, who took the next step in making damnation real through vital, illicit desire. From 1938 through World War II, Bishop lived in Florida, read Poe and Baudelaire voraciously while luxuriating in the southern tropical warmth of Key West honky-tonks, living with loving women in a visually fulfilling environment. Her poetry swelled; she painted watercolors and gave them to friends.

  • 6 See, for example, R. P. Poggenburg, “Baudelaire and Stevens: ‘Esthétique du Mal, ’” p. 14-18.

7In the early 1940s, Stevens worked through “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” as a compelling aesthetic, yet he felt prompted also to address the condition of the soldier explicitly in a coda. Henry Church’s letters from the European war theater kept him abreast of the action and enabled Stevens to write his dedication, which he ended with “The vivid transparence that you bring is peace” (CPP, 329), a great expression of Platonic human love. Stevens moved a long way from that opening to the soldier’s epilogue, but his imperatives to be abstract, to change, and to give pleasure could not account for wartime destruction. Written in 1944, “Esthétique du Mal” was an attempt to supply the missing part of his poetic quest for humanity. In a way one could say that Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal embodied the malice, evil, and dark desires Stevens needed to incorporate into his aesthetic arsenal at a time when death en masse was on everyone’s mind. Baudelaire helped Stevens reach a new wartime sublime that was a poetic breakthrough, enlarging the dark light of existence by imploding old-crutch dualisms and leading Stevens to a more successful poetry, as in “Credences of Summer.” In the first canto of “Esthétique du Mal,” an ephebe numbly sits by Mount Vesuvius, which “had groaned / For a month” (CPP, 277). Stevens begins the poem in an unfeeling Modernist manner similar to Eliot’s “Prufrock,” and yet the contrast between the desensitized young man and the potent volcano sets up the rest of the poem to solve this dilemma of detachment near the end of the Second World War. The problem is not only excessive death, but worn-out literary responses to it. Mundane repetition is found in Canto IV, “All sorts of flowers,” a translation of “Toutes sortes de Fleurs” in the previous line (CPP, 279), which has been widely linked to Baudelaire,6 and Canto X, “He had studied the nostalgias” (CPP, 283). Those cantos engage in retrospective criticism without allowing Stevens’ own poetic to make any progress.

8Quite a few critics have expressed reservations about “Esthétique du Mal,” as Jacek Gutorow rightly notes:

  • 7 J. Gutorow, Luminous Traversing: Wallace Stevens and the American Sublime, p. 114.

One can find “Esthétique du Mal” exceptional in its tonal frequencies and its spectrum of topics and images—but the poem has been generally recognized as a failure, and even obvious references to the idea of the sublime are strangely unenlightening. For all its originality and experimental vigor, “Esthétique” remains a bizarre blend of designs and miscarried solutions: an obvious sign that Stevens was still looking for an artistic means to his own mysterious end that would be so wonderfully depicted in “The Auroras” and “An Ordinary Evening.” Stevens’s Dantesque meditation is a forced work made of fragments impressive rather than logical: the free flow of images is not charted in any way and the result is that the poem loses its momentum after a few cantos. It becomes conspicuous when we compare “Esthétique” with other long poems composed at mid-forties: “Description without Place” and “Credences of Summer.” What is common to all of them, however, is that they are apparent post-scripts to Notes […].7

  • 8 See M. J. Bates, “Stevens’ Soldier Poems and Historical Possibility,” quoted in K. Chittick, “Evil (...)

9 While we can hear Gutorow clearing the deck in order to move on to these other poems, he does speak for many professional readers of Stevens. And although I think he somewhat misses the point in claiming that some of Stevens’ expressions of the “idea of the sublime are strangely unenlightening,” since to me the poet vivifies jaded aesthetes of the sublime in a deadened wartime, others agree with Gutorow. In the Fall 2012 issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, Kathryn Chittick begins by quoting Milton Bates’s wise observation that Stevens pursued history’s “‘moral possibilities’” more than its “political intricacies,” and she finishes by condemning the end of the poem, where Stevens turns his eyes to the American soil growing green corn instead of focusing on the charnel house.8 She has a valid point, but one could also argue that by bringing the poem’s setting back to American growth at the end, Stevens tries to look to the future.

  • 9 R. E. Monroe, “Figuration and Society in ‘Owl’s Clover, ’” p. 136.

10To follow Bates’s “moral possibilities,” we might turn to Canto XIII about the monk-assassin. In this canto, peaceful study in a Mediterranean cloister turns into an artistic composition of not simply variegated “Versicolorings” of blue and orange, but these jarring colors also lead to “The assassin’s scene” (CPP, 285). Monk and assassin are not so well defined. They are “variously interpretable figural emblems,” as Robert Emmett Monroe said of “Owl’s Clover,” and some of the rhetorical techniques of that poem work here to unsettle old ways of thinking categorically.9 In the evolving composition of the monk-assassin, “One feels its action moving in the blood” (CPP, 285). Stevens redefines the sublime with adrenaline that knows no boundary between good and evil. The monk’s evolving canvas, once assured as good, becomes fixed and therefore evil, the fatal, dominant X. This final fatalism is made worse by its continuity in “helpless” paternal delineation and the maternal fixation in Canto X that recalls Baudelaire and his mother.

11Blood is a saturated emblem in Canto VII, “How red the rose that is the soldier’s wound,” which was chosen as part of Oscar Williams’ war anthology in the forties. This section contrasts massive bloodshed as inescapable tribute to the fallen with a failed monumental sublime, “The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.” There is “no ease,” only “indifference to deeper death.” Surprisingly, this canto works its way out of entombed restlessness through a fellowship of mourning at night. As the living remember the dead, “the summer breathes for them […] a summer sleep, // In which his wound is good because life was.” If the logic is less than convincing here, it is enhanced by musicality and poetic layering. Life and weather move above the dead just as Stevens’ sounds intone the scene: “his fellows ring him round,” enliven “his wound,” and the soldier is laid to rest by the final gesture, “A woman smoothes her forehead with her hand / And the soldier of time lies calm beneath that stroke” (CPP, 281).

12André Gide wrote that

  • 10 Quoted in J. Richardson, Baudelaire, p. 183.

after Les Fleurs du mal, European poetry could no longer be the same. Musical perfection was not here a mere question of verbal sonority, it was also a certain choice of expression, no longer dictated only by logic, an expression which went beyond logic, through which the poet-musician fixed, as precisely as a definition, the essentially indefinable emotion.10

  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Ibid., p. xv.

13That is also why the poem’s choral rhyme matters: “Natives of poverty, children of malheur, / The gaiety of language is our seigneur” (CPP, 284). The symbolist aesthetic is a blooded abstraction; we feel it evolve, as Gide says further of Baudelaire: “this space between the imagination and the idea, between the word and the object, was exactly the place which poetry was to inhabit.”11 Stevens would take this linguistic enactment of the sublime to the next level in “Description Without Place.” However, at the end of “Esthétique du Mal,” the description asserts physical place on earth, making way for the muscular “Credences of Summer.” Stevens adventurously “conceived of a race / Completely physical in a physical world” where “The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals / Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat, / The rotund emotions, paradise unknown” (CPP, 286). Notice how physicality subdues metaphysicality through music, weather, and full fresh emotions. This Baudelairean “Voyage” into a new politics of the emotions stretches morality into previously unknown territory. Much of its success depends upon how it rings in the ear: “This is the thesis scrivened in delight, / The reverberating psalm, the right chorale” (CPP, 286). Stevens follows Baudelaire, who was characterized by Pierre-Jean Jouve in 1958 as “a beginning” because “after centuries of vapidness and speeches […] his creation heralds the great change of values—from the rational to the irrational, from the prosaism of thought to the mystery of invention.”12 The success and/or failure of “Esthétique du Mal” can be gauged by how readers respond to Stevens’ daring irrational poetics in relation to the context of wartime malady. Stevens admits in the poem’s very last stanza that war’s brutal “sight” is beyond conception:

who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
CPP, 287

14It is striking here how the sound propounds a successful round of verse even though logically “the dark italics” cannot be found. Perhaps Stevens finds a limit for poetry here, which sonically and emotionally can pump blood from the heart to the mind, yet not do anything about the horrors witnessed.

15“Credences of Summer” in 1946 begins with a misanthropic Baudelairean or Yeatsian opening: “Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered / And spring’s infuriations over […] the mind lays by its trouble” (CPP, 322). The war is over but a postwar malaise remains to taint the peak of summer, so Stevens develops the lingering challenge of sight from “Esthétique du Mal” in Canto II here:

Postpone the anatomy of summer, as
The physical pine, the metaphysical pine.
Let’s see the very thing and nothing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.

Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Look at it in its essential barrenness
And say this, this is the centre that I seek.
CPP, 322-323

16In these lines, Stevens moves away from the solar abstractions of “Notes,” adopts the physical earthiness of “Esthétique du Mal,” and appears to leave behind the linguistic mediations of “Description Without Place,” thereby anticipating his late, great poems of the “Thing Itself” in The Rock (CPP, 451). As with reading Yeats, “the old man standing on the tower” (CPP, 323), readers are rewarded by witnessing the developing poetics of the oeuvre, spiraling forward to new heights and circling back to retrace worn steps. “Credences of Summer” ends with living “Circus Animals”: “The personae of summer play the characters / Of an inhuman author, who meditates / With the gold bugs, in blue meadows, late at night” (CPP, 326).

  • 13 Quoted in ibid., p. 116.

17Despite the effort to see with the hot fire of sight the thing itself without evasion by a single metaphor, “Credences” ends with a Baudelairean fanciful decoration of nature— “The Huge Decorum” (CPP, 326). His correspondences, supposedly based on the universal analogy of nature, were not Whitman’s “uniform hieroglyphic.” Baudelaire preferred a mystical supernature imagined with painterly abstraction, as his friend Levallois remembered: “He rarely took part in our rustic pleasures, he found the green of the trees too insipid. As he used to say, with his poker-faced expression: ‘I should like the fields tinged with red, the rivers yellow, and the trees painted blue. Nature has no imagination.’”13 While Stevens is not this dandy, his imagination cannot be prescribed, for its spontaneous demands are never satisfied.


  • 14 E. Bishop, One Art: Selected Letters, p. 222.
  • 15 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 50-52.

18During World War II, when Elizabeth Bishop was surrounded by the military preparations of American soldiers at their base in Key West, Florida, she investigated seemingly masculine forms of destruction in diverse poems, such as “Seascape”—which positions an authoritative lighthouse in clerical dress staring coldly at the raging sea—and “The Soldier and the Slot Machine”—a posthumously published poem in which the mechanical desire of the soldier’s gambling habit can be likened to Bishop’s alcoholic consumption. Violence without made its way into her own “Esthétique du Mal,” which was entitled “Roosters.” This dramatization of masculine cock-fighting interrogated the “exhausted culture” of Christianity, as would other satirical historical poems written after the Florida years, such as “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” While these aggressive sublimes are clearly criticized by her, Bishop as a self-proclaimed “minor female Wordsworth”14 would harness nature’s power with subtlety in “At the Fishhouses.”15 However, it was in Florida that Bishop turned to Baudelaire as a model to incorporate aggressive desire into poetry. Her primary mentor up to that point had been Marianne Moore, but as she wrote “Roosters,” Bishop disagreed with Moore’s editorial advice.

  • 16 Ibid., p. 64.

19Bishop’s transition away from Moore can be observed at the end of A Cold Spring, which includes “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” a poem seeking inspiration from Moore while at the same time waving adieu, followed by a guilt-free lesbian love poem, “The Shampoo.” The Moore poem includes the line “Manhattan / is all awash with morals this fine morning,”16 while “The Shampoo” ends as follows:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 66.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.17 

  • 18 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 208.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 207-212.
  • 20 G. Herbert, quoted in E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 208.
  • 21 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 211.
  • 22 The Bantam New College French & English Dictionary, p. 81.

20The lines embody Bishop’s poetic aesthetic taste as she defined it later in one of her notes: “The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery. My three ‘favorite’ poets—not the best poets, whom we all admire, but favorite in the sense of one’s ‘best friends, ’ etc. are Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire.”18 This was written for a talk entitled “Writing poetry is an unnatural act…” that Bishop never actually gave but that she prepared in Rio de Janeiro during the late 1950s or early ’60s.19 Posthumously published in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, her notes for the talk include a revealing series of examples from other poets as well (such as Simone Weil’s favorite lines from Herbert: “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back, / Guiltie of dust and sinne,” and ending, “‘You must sit down, ’ sayes Love, ‘and taste my meat. / So I did sit and eat’”).20 From Baudelaire, Bishop retained the following fragment: “‘Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon… ’ where charbon,” she wrote, “is the telling word—surprising, accurate, dating the poem, yet making it real, yet making it mysterious—.”21 “Charbon” is coal, while “charbon ardent” is live coal. More importantly, Baudelaire also reworks the French phrase “être sur des charbons ardents” (meaning, to be on pins and needles) even as “ardeur” means ardor or intense heat.22 In Baudelaire, then, Bishop finds a poet more than capable of combining accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery (which can derive from multiple connotations) in a poetic line.

21Baudelaire arises prominently in “The Bight,” a signature poem written in 1948, on Bishop’s 37th birthday, in Garrison Bight, Florida:

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

22 The poem also ends with a back-handed tribute to Baudelaire, Bishop’s chosen companion by the sea on her lonely birthday:

  • 23 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 46-47.

The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
Awful but cheerful.23 

23Bishop seems to play with Baudelaire’s Symbolist theory from “Correspondences” by messing with natural harmonies: “water […] doesn’t wet anything” and turns to gas; next there is the marimba music heard by Baudelaire, then the “old correspondences” as perhaps memories of old friends become natural litter. Bishop is herself in correspondence with Baudelaire here, and the poem reads like one of her many letters to friends. She uses Baudelaire’s technique of synesthesia in the first unnatural image of the almost dry sea bottom, which is depicted like a low burn with the “gas […] turning to marimba music.” In sum, Baudelaire and Bishop are janitors of this natural dump together, since “The bight is littered with correspondences” that have histories—physical and linguistic stuff dredged “up a dripping jawful of marl.” Instead of the symbolic natural economy of “Correspondences,” there are leftovers because excess is central to her Floridian poetics. The final two lines, “All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful,” become Bishop’s signature as they were inscribed on her tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts. In other words, one might say that Baudelaire helped Bishop, a poet with a fastidious reputation, be “untidy” and “awful,” in both the bad and sublimely good senses of the latter word.

  • 24 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 49.

24If Baudelaire helped Bishop dredge up her illicit desires in Florida, then the most powerful poem in this regard is probably the posthumously published poetic draft “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” which illustrates two conjoined accomplishments: overcoming Poe’s limited poetics that do not account for his dark desires and expressing herself in a fully embodied poetics. As a lesbian, Bishop felt alienated in her time and somewhat unnatural in her so-called sexual inversion. The poem is set “in the block of honkey-tonks” in Key West described as “cavities in our waning moon”24:

  • 25 Ibid.

Easily through the darkened room
the juke-box burns; the music falls.
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the separate throats,
and the hands fall on one another
down] darker darkness under
tablecloths and all descends,
descends, falls […]25 

  • 26 Ibid., p. 50.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 272.

25Scrawled on the right side of the page are the words “blue as gas” (echoing her use of Baudelaire in “The Bight”) then “blue as the pupil / of a blind man’s eye” (recalling the old man’s “pale blue eye,” the “eye of a vulture,” in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”). Then after the hedonistic lines quoted above, the last stanza makes an explicit argument: “Poe said that poetry was exact. / But pleasures are mechanical / and know beforehand what they want / and know exactly what they want.” This barroom scene becomes an argument about poetics in which Bishop overturns Poe’s ideas about measuring poetic aesthetics with metrical exactitude: “—how long does the music burn? / like poetry, or all your horror / half as exact as horror here?”26 Jotted below “To Edgar Allan Poe” in the manuscript version, Bishop “addresses Poe directly […]: ‘you said that poetry was exact / but so is pleasure.’”27 While poetic meter might be easier to measure, pleasure’s “more than rational distortion”—in Stevens’ phrase (CPP, 351)—has more power in Bishop’s poetics at this point.

  • 28 Ibid., p. 271.
  • 29 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 274.
  • 30 E. Bishop, One Art: Selected Letters, p. 396.

26In a 1938 letter to a friend, Bishop wrote, “Lately I’ve been doing nothing much but reread Poe […].”28 While her admiration for Poe’s senses of horror, beauty, and sadness stayed with her to some extent (she visited his grave in the pouring rain in 1948), she had that incident in Paris in 1935, “drinking a large glass of gin and weeping profusely,” and later in 1963, she “compare [d] William Burroughs to Poe” when conversing with Robert Lowell, who exclaimed, “I’m so happy I’m not a drug addict.”29 When Bishop lived in Brazil, the two of them often conversed about his translations of Baudelaire. Bishop, who thought Baudelaire was most skilled at harnessing the power of a word in the rhythm of a line, would usually insist on choosing words for their connotative and metrical emphasis while maintaining open suggestibility. Her letter to Lowell of March 1, 1961, offers this critique: “Sometimes it seems to me you sort of spoil his joke, or give his show away, by bringing in his horrors too soon.”30

  • 31 B. Costello, “Bishop and the Poetic Tradition,” p. 89.
  • 32 Ibid.

27Much of Bishop’s thinking came from reading Baudelaire’s mostly sympathetic essays on Poe. According to Ashley Brown, Bishop even “kept a photograph of Baudelaire near her writing desk,” as Bonnie Costello has pointed out.31 Baudelaire’s emphasis on desire enabled Bishop’s quarrel with Poe to turn into a dark celebration of lust and vice, as illustrated in her remark, quoted by Costello, that “Poetry, as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and yes Shakespeare demonstrated, is as much a part of the brothel and the slaughterhouse as the garden and the glade.”32 The cover image of The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop features Bishop sitting on the steps of the Square Roof Brothel in Key West. The marginal setting and mixture of cultures at Key West afforded many homosexuals a certain amount of freedom, acceptance, and experiences beyond most other places at the time.

  • 33 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 582.
  • 34 Ibid.

28Poe helped Bishop cross generic boundaries between poetry and prose, as in her story “In Prison.” At the beginning of “In Prison,” the speaker “can scarcely wait for the day of [her] imprisonment” for, she says, “It is then that my life, my real life, will begin.”33 Yet in the next paragraph, she notes, “my friends, particularly those who happen to be familiar with my way of life, may protest that for me any actual imprisonment is unnecessary, since I already live, in relationship to society, very much as if I were in a prison.”34 The notion of natural desire made unnatural is also key to Baudelaire, and it becomes fundamental to Bishop’s poetics as expressed again in “Writing poetry is an unnatural act…” There she writes,

  • 35 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 211-212.

My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. […] Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you. […] Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye. […] spontaneity occurs in a good attack, a rapid line, tight rhythm—35

29To Bishop, the Emersonian illusion of a transparent eyeball clearly does not hold. “Writing poetry is an unnatural act” and the trick is to make the unnatural and irrational seem rational and natural, the strange familiar. What is needed, ironically, is a “perfectly useless concentration,” as Bishop wrote in response to Anne Stevenson, her first critical author, in 1963:

  • 36 E. Bishop, Prose, p. 414.

There is no “split.” Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never see full-face but that seems enormously important. I can’t believe we are wholly irrational and I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic—and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.36

  • 37 S. Rosenbaum, “Bishop and the Natural World,” p. 76.

30In “Bishop and the Natural World,” Susan Rosenbaum links Bishop’s Darwin letter with her grandmother’s glass eye to suggest that “By particularizing and blurring the rational, scientific gaze, Bishop brings an expanded view of nature, both human and nonhuman, to the fore.”37 Her poems’ vertiginous “adaptations of Surrealism” are often dizzying backward glances as there is troubled experience in the fog of memory, though sunshine burns it away. We can see how Bishop shares this mystical sublime with Baudelaire in the following description of a trip of his to Cape Town, South Africa. Baudelaire revealed “his ideal of man” while discussing the paintings of Eugène Fromentin:

  • 38 Quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 66.

One must presume that I myself am somewhat affected by a nostalgia which draws me towards the sun; because, for me, from these luminous canvases, there arises a heady vapour, a vapour which soon condenses into desires and regrets. I catch myself envying these men […] whose eyes, which are neither awake nor asleep, express, if they express anything, only the love of rest and the sense of happiness inspired by boundless light.38

  • 39 B. Costello, op. cit., p. 89-90.

31That “experience and dream converge and blur, sometimes through intoxication” is particularly obvious in Bishop’s “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” where, according to Bonnie Costello, “Baudelaire’s trademark synesthesia adds to this dreamlike quality, as does a syntax that confuses the sense of transition from inner and outer worlds.”39

  • 40 Quoted in J. Longenbach, “The World after Poetry: Revelation in Late Stevens,” p. 188.

32Baudelaire’s heady vapors are too easily written off as degenerative intoxications. For Bishop such ecstasies were “poisonous and fabulous,” as she wrote in 1939, in “Pleasure Seas,” because inner and outer worlds attain a free exchange, enabling present passion to go into the past for reconstruction. As Maurice Blanchot remarks in The Writing of Disaster, “We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future, it is rather always already past.”40 Blanchot’s idea is encapsulated in Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” a dramatic monologue from Geography III in 1976. Bishop retrospectively voices her Brazilian alienation and return to the USA by depicting a shipwrecked Crusoe sitting unassumingly with his legs dangling over the edge of a volcano, one of many volatile and vertiginous ash-heaps in the narrative of a life. “Ay-mi! / One feels its action moving in the blood” (CPP, 285), as Stevens wrote in “Esthétique du Mal.”

  • 41 B. Hatlen, “Stevens’ Revisions of the Romantic Sublime in ‘Esthétique du Mal, ’” p. 132.

33Through Baudelaire, Stevens, and Bishop we can see how 120 years of poetry can transform a metaphysics of the sublime into complex human forces of artistic desire that help us understand contemporary warmongering. Baudelaire showed that Christianity’s setup of paradise and hell could not prepare the urbanite to experience the city within these bounds. Baudelaire’s illicit desires extend into innovative expressions of nature. But where Baudelaire’s verse can dissipate in intoxicated escapes, Stevens grounds his experiential heights. As Burton Hatlen has argued, Stevens’ “‘Esthétique du Mal’ works its way from a transcendental sublime that has degenerated into a pallid aestheticism to a robust affirmation of the immanent sublime […].”41 Stevens’ “passion for yes” (CPP, 282) unfolded in his central “poem of the earth” (CPP, 730) is physically experiential rather than belief-driven. An irrational urge as such (like Bishop’s mechanical desire), it is full of imperfection, and “This force of nature in action is the major / Tragedy” (CPP, 285). Since we are ourselves responsible for our highs and lows, we no longer attribute them to the gods. “The death of Satan” means that, without the convenience of a hellish domain for our vices, we might risk a certain “Sympathy for the Devil,” or more accurately, the burning passions that caused him, as Bishop shows. Now we can say “pleased to meet you” so that “all fools [are not] slaughtered” ( “Credences of Summer”). “This is destiny unperplexed, / The happiest enemy” (CPP, 285).

34In a way, then, we might conclude that Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal came to full bloom in the dynamic earthly language of Stevens and Bishop. Their embodiment of violence, desire, and creative energy into an innovative irrational rationale provides sublime ethical challenges for poets, readers, and contemporary citizens.


1 W. Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 34.

2 Ibid.

3 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 862.

4 Ibid., p. 12.

5 See Alice Quinn’s notes in E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 274.

6 See, for example, R. P. Poggenburg, “Baudelaire and Stevens: ‘Esthétique du Mal, ’” p. 14-18.

7 J. Gutorow, Luminous Traversing: Wallace Stevens and the American Sublime, p. 114.

8 See M. J. Bates, “Stevens’ Soldier Poems and Historical Possibility,” quoted in K. Chittick, “Evil in Stevens’ ‘Esthétique du Mal’ and Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima,” p. 176.

9 R. E. Monroe, “Figuration and Society in ‘Owl’s Clover, ’” p. 136.

10 Quoted in J. Richardson, Baudelaire, p. 183.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. xv.

13 Quoted in ibid., p. 116.

14 E. Bishop, One Art: Selected Letters, p. 222.

15 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 50-52.

16 Ibid., p. 64.

17 Ibid., p. 66.

18 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 208.

19 Ibid., p. 207-212.

20 G. Herbert, quoted in E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 208.

21 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 211.

22 The Bantam New College French & English Dictionary, p. 81.

23 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 46-47.

24 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 49.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 50.

27 Ibid., p. 272.

28 Ibid., p. 271.

29 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 274.

30 E. Bishop, One Art: Selected Letters, p. 396.

31 B. Costello, “Bishop and the Poetic Tradition,” p. 89.

32 Ibid.

33 E. Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, p. 582.

34 Ibid.

35 E. Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 211-212.

36 E. Bishop, Prose, p. 414.

37 S. Rosenbaum, “Bishop and the Natural World,” p. 76.

38 Quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 66.

39 B. Costello, op. cit., p. 89-90.

40 Quoted in J. Longenbach, “The World after Poetry: Revelation in Late Stevens,” p. 188.

41 B. Hatlen, “Stevens’ Revisions of the Romantic Sublime in ‘Esthétique du Mal, ’” p. 132.


Professor of English & Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto. His first book was Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), and he has guest-edited two special issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal. Since 2004 he has been Editor of The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin. He has recently co-edited two books: Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions (Virginia University Press, 2012), and The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Since then he has published three essays on affinities between Stevens and Bishop.

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