I recently found myself thumbing through a well-worn edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857) and thinking about chance and accidental poetics.
La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse,
Et qui dort son sommeil sous une humble pelouse,
Nous devrions pourtant lui porter quelques fleurs.
(My emphasis. La pelouse is the word for lawn)
[The kind-hearted servant of whom you were jealous,
Who sleeps her sleep beneath a humble plot of grass,
We must by all means take her some flowers.] 1
Several months after the publication of Les Fleurs du mal Baudelaire wrote to his mother complaining that she had not noticed this particular poem which recalls memories from his childhood.2 The poem, in fact, addresses his mother directly. In turn, it has always been assumed that the kind-hearted servant she was jealous of in the first line is Mariette, the maid who looked after the poet as a child. This is one of two autobiographical poems in the volume; for reasons of discretion, he adds, he left them both untitled.
Paul Valéry, the unsentimental, cerebral craftsman of French poetry and great admirer of Baudelaire had other things to say about the poem:
“La servante au grand coeur” This famous line of verse contains an entire Balzac novel in its twelve syllables. People have gone so far as to explain it as the story of a maid!
The truth is much simpler. It is clear to a poet that the line of verse came to Baudelaire. … He buried the cook under the lawn against all custom but in keeping with the rhyme… [Il a enterré la cuisinière dans une pelouse, ce qui est contre la coutume, mais selon la rime]
(Valéry’s emphasis) 3
In other words, what had determined the story of the servant’s death in the two opening lines of the poem was not a real referent, Mariette, but the phonetic coincidence of two words: jalouse and pelouse. If Baudelaire buried the kind-hearted servant under the lawn it was, Valéry argues, because of a convention of poetry that overrode social conventions: you don’t bury servants under the lawn… Unless, by chance, the words rhyme. For a poet, he asserts, “it is clear.”
Baudelaire, we know, associated the writing of poetry with flânerie. Just as the flâneur roams through the city, open to whatever chance brings his way, the poet is similarly open to chance. The chance encounter of syllables and phonemes is as significant in his poetry as the chance encounters of people that don’t always “make sense.”4 In the poem “Le Soleil” (“The Sun”) (1857) Baudelaire describes his poetic process as a jerky walk along cobble streets, fencing with indeterminate forms, stumbling over words, bumping into lines of verse and, on the off chance, catching the whiff of a rhyme.
… Je vais m'exercer seul à ma fantasque escrime,
Flairant dans tous les coins les hasards de la rime,
Trébuchant sur les mots comme sur les pavés
Heurtant parfois des vers depuis longtemps rêvés.
[I go alone to try my fanciful fencing,
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme,
Stumbling over words as over paving stones,
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.]
Words drawn together by sound are drawn together in meaning and nowhere is this so evident as in the accented rhymes that terminate lines of poetry—like jalouse and pelouse. If, in these lines, the “fantasque escrime” phonically invites “les hasards de la rime,” conceptually it invigorates the chance act of writing poetry with wild lunges and parries in all directions. Rhymes appear on the corner of the street by chance [par hasard]. Acoustic signifiers, like the sound of clicking foils—fantasque escrime—give shape to the poem.
Thus, for instance, the repetition of the syllable “- illes” in lines 14–15 of the poem allows for the unexpected rhyme of a cripple’s crutches (béquilles) with sweet young girls (jeunes filles). Illuminated by a solar poet, from a phonetic accident of chance a metaphor is born.
C'est lui [le soleil] qui rajeunit les porteurs de béquilles
Et les rend gais et doux comme des jeunes filles
[He [the sun] rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls]
The coincidence of rhyming signifiers can constitute a kind of metaphor but “rhyme,” Ross Chambers notes, “is chancy.” He refers specifically to rhymes at the end of a line of verse that negotiates signifiers and signifieds. “The line’s basic task is to construct a context of semantic betweenness … [that] renders plausible the juxtaposition at the line’s end of the unlikely rhyming partners that otherwise have only the accident of phonetic resemblance in common.”5
To rephrase Chambers along with Baudelaire: “stumbling over words as over paving stones,” it is by chance that the poet may align accidents of phonetic resemblance with meaningful statements. Phonological play can bury a maid in the garden or turn crutches into girls dancing in the sun. Such are the “hasards de la rime.”
- Translations from The Flowers of Evil are by William Aggeler. The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954) Other translations from French are my own.
Letter of 11 January 1858.
- Quoted in Paulhan, Jean. Paul Valéry, ou, La littérature considérée comme un faux. Paris: Editions Complexe, 1987: 120.
See, for instance, the prose poem, “Le Mauvais vitrier” [“The Bad Glazier”] in which the chance sighting in the street of a glazier carrying a stack of window panes provokes the narrator to drop a flower pot from his window and smash his wares.
Ross Chambers. “Concerning Metaphor, Digression and Rhyme (Fetish Aesthetics and the Walking Poem)” in Alexis Grohmann, Caragh Wells, eds. Digressions in European Literature: From Cervantes to Sebald. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011: 52.