Baudelaire and Dickinson: Religion for Moderns

Where do we find spirituality in a world without absolutes?

Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson offer two alternative paths.

Let us compare two poems written about the same subject – a clock.

Baudelaire anthropomorphized the clock as a living god who cuts our lives into small pieces in order to destroy our pleasure, while at the same time masking our inevitable failure. Recognition of measured time recreates the religious fear of judgement at death.

“Où le Repentir même (oh! la dernière auberge!),
Où tout te dira Meurs, vieux lâche! il est trop tard!”.

Dickinson’s stopped clock is a metaphor for death. While the clock works it symbolizes the arrogance of a technological world that thinks it can hide the purity and futility of life. When it dies, doctors cannot resurrect it, the pendulum of purity has stopped – it is too late.

Baudelaire sees the everyday world containing symbolic meanings. We feel the world affect us intimately. Nature and life take on a numinous quality.

Dickinson sees the everyday world as illustrations of abstract concepts. We see the abstract through concrete examples. Nature and life take on an otherwise hidden unity.

For traditional Western religion, each individual saw themselves as part of a grand creation; each individual saw themselves struggling against fear and death.

Baudelaire and Dickinson each take one aspect of that dynamic. Dickinson helps us understand that creation. Baudelaire’s immerses us in spirituality.

Dickinson’s feelings are cool and rational; Baudelaire’s burn with fervor.

Dickinson is a scientist, trying to go behind the veil of intellectual incomprehensibility. We read into the object. Baudelaire is a mystic, trying to go behind the veil of spiritual incomprehensibility. The object reveals itself to us.

Let us look at two more poems, again on the same subject – this time drunkenness.

Baudelaire commands us to be always drunk to escape the horrible burden of time. But drunkenness of what? He gives three possibilities — wine, poetry or virtue.

Immerse yourself in life whatever the challenges (natural or man-made). You have a moral choice: the dissolute life, the aesthetic life, or the virtuous life.

For Dickinson it is not about a moral choice. Immerse yourself in nature, a liquor that was never brewed. Her immersion is not in the intellectual understanding of nature, but the perception of the individual as a part of nature.

This immersion is more important than any preoccupation with sin or redemption. Dickinson is the envy of the heavenly hosts. Embrace nature, do not hide from it.

“Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!”

Both ask us to decide. Both ask us to act with certainty.

Neither resorts to the despair of Philip Larkin, or the intellectual pretensions of T.S. Eliot.

Creating meaning where no meaning really exists is a lie, but it is the only way we can live.

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