The term poète maudit, or “cursed poet,” was coined by Paul Verlaine. His little book Les poètes maudits (1884) interleaved his own honorific prose with poems by some of the poets he most esteemed but whose very greatness assured that they were known only to the cognoscenti. It was their obscurity—society was indifferent to them because they were hard to understand—that prompted Verlaine to speak of them as cursed. This cultivated sense of neglect, even oppression, at the hands of the bourgeois philistines became the classic pose of the avant-garde.
But the curse seemed to be as much moral and spiritual as social, contributing to the presumption that a true artist must suffer agonies of genius. Verlaine himself happened to be about as cursed as they come: alcoholic, wife beater, child abuser, jailbird, syphilitic, down-and-outer. In no small part because of Verlaine’s own harrowing life, the meaning of maudit has come to include not only the troubles such poets suffer from society but also the troubles nature inflicts on them and the ones they inflict on themselves, body and soul.
The paradigmatic poète maudit was Baudelaire (1821–67). His Les fleurs du mal (1857), or The Flowers of Evil, is the most famous book of nineteenth-century French poetry and one of the most famous in world literature. The poems, which were revolutionary in their intermixtures of the sordid and the beautiful, reflected a spiritual extremity that the modern era has long savored, one both hell-bent and heaven-storming.
Baudelaire knew his share of hell on earth, much of it self-inflicted. In his youth he took as his mistress a bald, frightful-looking, broken-down prostitute. From her he contracted the syphilis that would ravage and kill him. As he wrote to his mother at the age of thirty-three, his was a life “damned from the beginning.”
Blighted loves were only part of the story. As a young dandy he tore through an inheritance that would have set him up comfortably for life, and his family appointed a legal guardian to supervise his finances, an insult that galled him to no end. Laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) became an addiction. He was a virtuoso at wasting time, and he loathed himself for the irremediable injury he did to his talent.
Damned from the beginning? The man who believes himself cursed tends quite naturally to blaspheme in outrage. What more does he have to lose? The section of Les fleurs du mal titled “Révolte” opens with a sad mockery of Christ, who was so credulous as to think his Father suffered with him in his agony. Quite the contrary, the poet declares in “Le reniement de Saint Pierre” (“Saint Peter’s Denial”):
—Ah! Jesus, remember the Garden of Olives!
In your simplicity you prayed on your knees
To the one who in his heaven laughed at the sound of the nails
That ignoble executioners drove into your living flesh.
The final line of the poem trembles with Baudelaire’s bitter rage: at the Father so cruel toward his trusting children, and at the children so foolish as to trust him without question. The poet finds what satisfaction he can in brazen defiance: “Saint Peter denied Jesus ... he did well!”
The next poem in the series, “Abel et Cain,” goes a step further. To turn one’s back on God is insufficient; the true unbeliever must overthrow him. “Race of Cain, ascend to heaven, / And hurl God down to earth!” And “Les litanies de Satan,” the third and last poem in “Révolte,” serves as a hymn to the master of the cursed. Damnation on earth confers rich privilege, the poet claims. For what greater privilege can there be than to know the truth about God’s injustice, which the insipid Christian believers hide from themselves?
Baudelaire did find something better in the end. Suffering cleanses, even sanctifies, he came to believe, and he turned away from Satan and toward God. “Bénédiction,” which he wrote years after the Satanic verses but which is the second poem in Les fleurs du mal, relates the abuse the Poet (the capital is his) endures from mother, wife, and indeed everyone else he turns to in hope of finding his love reciprocated. All comes out right in the end, however, for God reserves a place of honor in heaven for the gifted and gentle soul he has chosen for this odd fate.
“Be blessed, my God, who gives suffering
As a divine remedy for our impurities
And as the best and purest essence
That prepares the strong for holy delights!”
Yet Baudelaire gave a peculiar slant to the notion of purgative suffering, one that became a reassuring consolation to countless dissipated and morally corrupted artists. Baudelaire’s supreme hero, Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales he translated and whom he memorialized in two major essays, killed himself with drink, but according to Baudelaire he also enjoyed artistic triumphs lubricated by alcohol. Poe was the archetype of the poète maudit, embodying a fateful combination of creative power and self-destruction.
Baudelaire had to believe in this fateful combination because his self-love demanded it. He was a hashish and opium addict who came to hate his habit but could not give it up. Yet if the visions or raptures induced by drugs enrich a poet’s consciousness, then the damage they also cause would be an acceptable price to pay. The Poe he imagines intoxicated himself partly because he could not stand himself sober. Baudelaire writes in Edgar Poe, sa vie et ses oeuvres (Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Works, 1852), “I am told that he did not drink like an ordinary toper, but like a savage, with an altogether American energy and fear of wasting a minute, as though he were accomplishing an act of murder, as though there was something inside him that he had to kill, ‘a worm that would not die.’” Poe’s drunkenness—and by extension Baudelaire’s—thus becomes a spiritual discipline of sorts.
In Baudelaire’s telling, the intoxication made Poe a superior poet, which is to say, a superior man. Killing the worm gave the writing life. “I think that very often,” Baudelaire wrote, “Poe’s drunkenness was a mnemonic device, a deliberate method of work, drastic and fatal, no doubt, but suited to his passionate nature. Poe taught himself to drink, just as a careful man of letters makes a deliberate practice of filling his notebooks with notes.” In Baudelaire’s understanding, alcohol loosed imaginative forces in Poe that sobriety did not offer. “One part of what delights us today was the cause of his death,” and Poe’s spiritual heroism, indeed his poetic sainthood, rested in his embrace of the life-poisoning alcohol for the sake of his art.
This is how legends, and cults, get started. Baudelaire’s version of Poe’s life, which is in large part Baudelaire’s concoction, became bohemian gospel. In the eyes of Baudelaire, Poe was downright holy: “I am adding a new saint to the martyrology; I have the story to tell of one of those glorious unfortunates, too rich in poetry and passion, who came into this lowly world, following in the footsteps of so many others, to perform the rude apprenticeship of genius among baser spirits.” Venerating Poe, Baudelaire was establishing his own claim to sanctity. He is a man who rises above others to attain creative beatitude. “A tendency to mysticism,” he claimed, had been part of his character since childhood.
The overwhelming tendency at this stage of his life, however, as syphilis began its final assault and he knew little time remained, was a frantic desire to change his ways—above all, to work hard every day, “blindly, without aim, like a madman,” and to say his evening prayer without fail, like “a captain posting his sentinels.” The final journal entry lists some “immutable rules” that he hoped would bring order and comfort: “To pray every morning to God, the source of all power and all justice; to my father, to Mariette, and to Poe, as intercessors; that they may give me the necessary strength to fulfill all my appointed tasks.”
Time was sadly running out. Baudelaire hoped Mon cœur mis à nu, his final work, would be his summa; it is in fact a scattering of fragments. Paralysis struck him; he could not move; he could not speak. If life denied him, however, perhaps death did not. On his deathbed he received the last sacraments, and he died in his mother’s arms, peacefully, it is said. Perhaps his life, damned from the beginning, proved blessed at the very end. If so, Baudelaire took a perilous and crooked road to get where he wanted to go.
Paul Verlaine (1844–96) adopted Baudelaire as his intercessor. “It is to Baudelaire that I owe the awakening of poetic feeling, and what is deep in me,” he wrote, and his youthful discovery of Baudelaire brought sensual craving and artistic ambition surging to the surface. At the age of twenty-one Verlaine wrote, “It is Charles Baudelaire who presents the sensitive man, and he presents him as a type, or, if you like, as a hero.” He is a seer “with his sharpened, vibrant senses, his painfully subtle mind, his intellect steeped in tobacco, his blood burned up by alcohol.” Cursed indeed—but therefore blessed.
Verlaine abandoned himself to Baudelaire’s heroism. Drink, to which he became addicted, made him insanely violent. He could not be trusted with absinthe in his system and sharp objects at hand. One night, when Verlaine wanted to go on drinking and his closest friend thought he’d had enough, the poet charged after his companion with a swordstick. Coming home drunk on another occasion, he demanded 200 francs from his mother and attacked her with a saber when she didn’t deliver.
She got out of town, but there were other women to abuse. Threats against and attempts on the life of his wife, Mathilde, were standard poetic procedure. Verlaine couldn’t be trusted with matches any more than with swords: He tried to set his wife’s hair on fire. Not even his infant son was safe from his maniacal rages. Put out by a cross word from Mathilde, he picked up the three-month-old boy and hurled him against the wall.
Verlaine was twenty-seven, with a wife and a substantial poetic reputation, when the sixteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud, the most precocious literary genius ever, wrote to him from the provinces and sent him some poems. Verlaine invited him to Paris, and the pair soon became lovers. Violence was in Rimbaud’s line as well: He would carve up Verlaine’s arms and legs with a knife just for sport. Supercharged, Verlaine wrote a spate of love poems. The two men combined their genius on a fragrant encomium to the anus as cynosure of beauty and sexual pleasure. Verlaine bolted from Mathilde, headed with Rimbaud to London, quarreling with him repeatedly. One quarrel prompted Rimbaud to say he was leaving Verlaine for good; Verlaine shot him in the wrist. The wound was not grave, but, probably in part because a medical examination showed evidence of recent sodomy by Verlaine, the court gave him the maximum sentence of two years of hard labor.
Prison changed Verlaine utterly; or sort of, off and on. There he wrote many of the poems in Sagesse (Wisdom, 1881), the book that proclaimed his religious conversion and made him one of the most celebrated Catholic poets of France. Like Baudelaire, Verlaine thanks God for the suffering that raised him out of the darkness. The poem “Écrit en 1875” (Written in 1875) apostrophizes the prison where his soul was put right.
O be blessed, fortress which I left
Ready for life, armed with sweetness and provided
With Faith, bread and salt and a coat for the road
So lonely, so hard and so long, no doubt,
On which one must strive for the innocent heights.
And may the author of grace be loved, forever!
Later in life Verlaine described the dynamic of his conversion. Christ’s agony called out to Verlaine’s own and made the suffering savior real and absolutely necessary for the cursed poet. “For me, Jesus is The Crucified. He is my God because he suffered, because he suffers still. I see Him before my eyes, covered with dreadful wounds, sweating in his final agony, as the peasant women of Judea actually saw him.” Verlaine knows Jesus with the radiant intensity of a poet’s vision. He sees him with a cursed poet’s intimate embrace of life’s horror.
But Verlaine was prone to backsliding. He rushed to see Rimbaud a month or so after his release from prison. Bar-hopping and fierce arguments revived the beast in Verlaine. He was not a hypocrite; he wanted to be holy, but he was too far gone in his alcoholism and his sexual passion for Rimbaud. Drunk, he attacked Rimbaud, and Rimbaud knocked him out cold; peasants found the unconscious Verlaine by the riverside the next day. In a letter to a friend, Rimbaud registered his satisfaction in having separated Verlaine from his newfound odious piety: “The other day Verlaine arrived in Stuttgart with a rosary in his paws, but three hours later he had denied his God, and made the ninety-eight wounds of our Blessed Lord bleed again.”
Verlaine struggled mightily for spiritual purchase. He read St. Teresa and St. Thomas Aquinas and John Bunyan. He translated English hymns. He taught at a Catholic boarding school and was so demonstrative in his religiosity that the students nicknamed him “Jesus Christ.” Literary critics called him the most Christian poet of the nineteenth century. But he went on drinking like a drunk. Continuing to teach became impossible. He fell in love with one of his pupils and lived with him after his graduation, until the young man died of typhoid fever—another reason for Verlaine to propel himself toward oblivion.
Verlaine yearned for a chance at normality, but he dragged his ugly past wherever he went. When he sought reinstatement as a Parisian civil servant—a job he had despised in younger days—the authorities disqualified him for moral turpitude. Poverty, degeneracy, and decrepitude were his lot from then on. Angel and brute, he wrote, exist simultaneously in every man—Baudelaire had written in his journal of the soul pulled between God and Satan—and the religious poems would give way to the sensual, “because I must also give voice to the Beast within me.”
The poet knew he was cursed, and Verlaine tried to take pleasure and pride in being among the distinguished company of heroes. In the sonnet “À Charles Baudelaire,” from the 1892 collection Liturgies intimes (Intimate Liturgies), he addresses the dead poet whom he did not know but to whom he feels himself bound by ties of sanctity and sensuality.
And if I have any right to be among your witnesses,
It is because, in the first place, and it is because somewhere else,
near the Feet joined
First by the cold nails, then by the swooning ecstasy
Of women of sin—those so anointed,
So kissed, mad chrism and starving kiss!
You fell, you prayed, like me, like all
The souls whom hunger and thirst on the way
Pushed beautiful with hope to reach Calvary!
Calvary just and true, Calvary where, then, these doubts,
Here, there, grimaces, art, weep for their failures.
Eh? To die simply, we, men of sin.
There are few poets of his era harder to translate, or even to construe, than Verlaine, with his gnarled syntax and elliptical sense. But he is writing here about poetic souls united in their knowledge of Christ’s suffering. It is a knowledge tied to their carnal knowledge, the “cold nails” of profligate sin that have made them suffer all the more and brought them at least within reach of salvation—though the final line suggests they may have come to Calvary just to die, not necessarily to be saved. With poems such as this Verlaine claims his glorious place among the adepts of spiritual pain, and perhaps of something like hope.
This poetic glory—Verlaine was one of the great poets of the nineteenth century—came at an extortionate price. He was unhappy in just about every way possible. He recklessly bedded down with woman after woman, most of them prostitutes, and lived alternately with two, one a common whore, the other a somewhat more respectable sometime demimondaine, both of whom he loved in his fashion and wrote poems about. They all contributed to his loneliness and misery. As for diseases, venereal and otherwise, you name it, he had it: arthritis, bronchitis, gastritis, endocarditis, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, gonorrhea, syphilis. Four of the last nine years of his life he spent in hospitals. The damage was so extensive that the doctors could not pinpoint what killed him.
What was the real cause of his suffering? In a certain mood, Verlaine indulged in the self-pity and self-glorification of the artist rejected by the vulgar world. In a different mood, as in his sonnet to Baudelaire, he understood that his own failures caused his sufferings, and he even rejoiced in his sin because it brought him the happiness of atonement. A forced exaltation colors both these moods, though the second comes nearer the truth. There Verlaine saw that it was not simply the indifference of society that had ruined him: He had fouled his own soul.
A man’s character is his fate, and Verlaine had a bad one. True enough, but in some cases that amounts to saying a man’s fate is his fate is his fate. Perhaps Verlaine ought to be pitied more than reviled. Unlike Baudelaire (or Baudelaire’s imagined hero, Edgar Allan Poe), for the sake of his art he did not drink or cultivate mental disorder or deliberately destroy himself. Alcohol consumed Verlaine because he was susceptible to alcoholism, and once he became addicted he was unable to stop drinking, as are many who have not a line of poetry in them. He partook of the common suffering of the children of Adam because he was a child of fallen nature and could not help himself. He needed the crucified Christ. Only such a God both endured and transcended the human agony that the malignancies in Verlaine’s own nature seemed fated to impose upon him.
Of the cursed poets, Verlaine is perhaps the most sympathetic figure: Although his poetic gift marks him as extraordinary, in every other respect his weaknesses are all too human. There are heroes of exceptional stature, the greatest of whom are gods, and there are lesser heroes exemplary in their suffering precisely because of their ordinariness. Christ harrowed hell; Verlaine got stuck there. The climb up and out was too steep. Verlaine tried and tried, but he could not make it, at least not in this world.
Rimbaud (1854–91), whom Verlaine praised at length in Les poètes maudits, embraced the role of cursed poet as well, although without his sometime lover’s admixture of redemptive hope. In his wondrous youth, the years from sixteen to twenty, when he was ablaze with poetry, he blamed Christianity for his earthly suffering. Blasphemy came as readily to him as devotion does to the millions he despised. He scrawled excremental imprecations against God on the public benches of his hometown.
Some of his poems, too, were crude acts of vandalism. Here is a stanza from “Les pauvres à l’église” (The Poor in Church):
And all, drooling the stupid and begging faith,
Recite the infinite complaint to Jesus
Who dreams on high, yellowed by the livid stained glass window,
Far from bad scrawny men and from wicked paunchy ones.
Rimbaud was not only a pagan—there are honorable and virtuous pagans—but a barbarian, a hateful despoiler of hallowed beauties.
It is of course precisely the sort of anti-Christian fury that has made Rimbaud the great hero for subsequent generations of self-styled iconoclasts. Surrealists, Beat poets, student revolutionaries, punk rockers, clever lycéens, and legions of the semi-educated who preen themselves on being thoroughly modern—as Rimbaud insisted we all must be—hold him in supreme reverence. His very irreverence makes him virtually divine in their eyes. He is a renegade from bourgeois proprieties, a man with the courage to give the finger to everything and everybody that stood in the way of his desires.
Rimbaud was a genius—but to what use did he put his prodigious gift? In the fragmentary “L’homme juste” (The Just Man), Rimbaud pulls out the stops as he vents his contempt for those who think themselves better than he:
“I am cursed, you know! I am drunk, crazy, livid,
Whatever you want! But go to bed, right away,
Just man! I want nothing from your torpid brain.”
“And you are the eye of God! the coward! When the cold
Soles of divine feet would trample on my neck,
You are a coward! O your forehead that swarms with lice!
Socrates and Jesus, holy and just, disgusting!
Respect the supreme Cursed One of bloody nights.”
To be cursed is to stand outside the circle of light where the self-righteous congratulate themselves that they are not like him. Yet it is the cursed outcast to whom the universe intimates its precious secrets. It is the cursed who is anointed.
There are mysteries to know, and there are gods to worship. In “Soleil et chair” (Sun and Flesh), which Rimbaud originally titled “Credo in unam,” the poet swings between utter rejection of any gods whatsoever and joyous worship of pagan divinities.
—And yet, no more gods! no more gods! Man is King,
Man is God! But Love, that is the great Faith. . . .
I believe in you! I believe in you! Divine mother,
Aphrodite from the sea!—Oh! the way is bitter
Since the other God hitched us to his cross;
Flesh, Marble, Flower, Venus, it is in you I believe!
Yes, Man is sad and ugly, sad under the vast sky,
He has clothes, because he is no longer chaste,
Because he has soiled his proud head of a god,
And he has withered, like an idol in the fire,
His Olympian body in filthy slavery.
To Rimbaud the ancient Greek gods and goddesses seem all the richer by comparison with the pallid starveling Christ. One knows the divine through the heat of sun on flesh, and the ecstasy of flesh on flesh.
In Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell), his signature piece of visionary prose and poetry, he blames his earthly damnation on his baptism and Christian childhood and looses a proto-Nietzschean cry of hatred for the superstition that has made humanity barren, along with a cry of hope for the future that will right the wrong.
When shall we go beyond the shores and the mountains, to salute the
birth of the new work, the new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons,
the end of superstition, to celebrate—the first!—Christmas on earth!
The song of the heavens, the march of peoples! Slaves, let us
not curse life.
Rimbaud believed he had found the way out of hell.
We must be absolutely modern.
No hymns. I must hold what has been gained. Hard night! The dried blood smokes on my face, and I have nothing behind me except that horrible tree! . . . A spiritual battle is as brutal as a battle of men; but the vision of justice is the pleasure of God alone.
. . . I shall be free to possess truth in one body and soul.
His writing, his poetic spirit, seemed to have everything to do with this “new wisdom.” A “Christmas on earth” made it possible to endure the all-out attacks of bourgeois respectability, the harsh whips of conventional morality, and damnation by the Christian God. But he soon had enough of that whole business. Evidently, after 1874, when he was twenty, he did not write another poem. He gave up wanting the spiritual adventure of a God-abandoned, God-abandoning life, something that he above all other modern poets is known for wanting.
Intense ambition remained, but it was directed toward the goods that most men pursue. Rimbaud became a merchant in East Africa, infamously running guns to a savage warlord. He hoped to make a fortune, return to France, marry a decent woman, father a son, and raise him to be an engineer, a solid citizen. Matters turned out otherwise. The pile of money he made was largely lost in the endemic African turmoil. A terrible illness, perhaps bone cancer, ate into his leg. He made it back to France, where amputation was performed. It did not save him. He died in Marseilles at the age of thirty-seven.
There are three basic responses to the spectacle of the cursed poets and their suffering. Artists and their rooting section have traditionally blamed the bourgeois, dubbing them philistines for their failure to understand poetry and to appreciate the emotional turbulence supposedly necessary for poetic genius to flourish. By this way of thinking, conventionality stifles true art, and therefore transgression serves as the proper path toward original rather than derivative art—and authentic rather than soulless life. Of course, this line of defense seemed more plausible in Baudelaire’s day than in our own: Moral aberration is not nearly so despised now as it was then. But it endures. Indeed, the liberating fantasies of transgression now have the protections of tenure and the emoluments of endowed chairs. Rimbaud has become the poet laureate of our new bourgeois conventions.
The moralizers provide the second response. They are quite satisfied to see the literary types ruined for their wickedness. Such gratified loathing was more common in the nineteenth century than it is now, when irreligion and sexual disorderliness are not uncommon among the respectable. Nevertheless, in certain instances custom dies hard. The 1857 judicial ban on publication of six Baudelaire poems that violated public morality was not lifted until 1949, after years of efforts to get the ruling overturned. The popularity of Allen Ginsberg is often cited as proof that anything goes if you’re a poet these days, but there are still many who despise him and his kind.
Neither response does justice to the cursed poets of nineteenth-century France, men whose verse did so much to shape modern literature. Truth be told, one finds it difficult to sort out the injuries that others inflicted upon them, and those they caused to themselves. Verlaine’s inborn predisposition to alcoholism and the monstrous things he did while drunk; Rimbaud’s abandonment by his father when he was six and his blasphemous rages against the Father who indifferently permits his children’s suffering: It would take a bourgeois moralizer of the old school to condemn these men unequivocally for what they made of their lives, considering what they were given.
And yet the cursed poets were not passive victims either. Baudelaire’s imagined picture of Edgar Allen Poe’s drunken genius created a powerful mythology, and the cursed poets were cursed in part because they considered themselves sworn members of an elite brotherhood, an order of poets who would dare, and endure, anything for their art. Thus they came to revere as essential to their vocation the wildest transports and the most searing afflictions, whatever their origin.
One can see why the cursed poets believed they had been chosen for so terrible and sublime a fate. Their mythology of genius born in suffering helped make their hard lot endurable, as countless adolescents who have read J. D. Salinger can testify. But it also drove them deeper into misery—drove them to seek out misery, to cherish drunkenness, madness, ordeal, as a source of poetic inspiration. That wisdom comes of suffering, at least for prophets and tragic heroes, is an ancient truth; but is it wisdom to chase after suffering, as though the evil of the day were insufficient?
There is something perverse about these poets and their view of their calling. Their loneliness, drunkenness, disease, the early deaths of or abandonment by their fathers, the tauntings and beatings they took from their schoolmates: These and other blows became the fundamental truths about the world and the stuff of their poetry. They did not imitate Christ’s selfless suffering. Instead, with a poet’s vanity, each relished in his own way his martyrdom, championed it, flaunted it.
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud: They were remarkable artists, yes, among the greatest of their time. But the perversity of unhappiness cherished and cultivated constricts their excellence: The pursuit of unhappiness assumed too large a place in their souls.
Yet they were better men than the twenty-first-century intellectuals who have supplanted them as cultural heroes. Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud fought for their souls, even if theirs was not exactly a winning fight. Today’s intellectuals scorn the very notion of a soul.
They loathe the religious traditions of the West, and they love to strike the pose of fearlessness before the abyss, especially after the manner of Nietzsche. Among the supposedly best-educated persons of our time, the idea of a disenchanted world, grim and cruel, has largely replaced the living spiritual reality of which poets used to sing. The poètes maudits have yielded to the intellectuels maudits. The poetry is fading, but modern men always learn new ways to curse and be cursed.
Algis Valiunas is a contributing editor at the New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.