Alistair Rolls: Baudelaire’s Paris: A New, Urban (Prose) Poetics

Prose poetry is essentially an urban form, although we should do better to refer to it as both essentially and existentially an urban form. A cursory look at the development of the prose poem in mid-nineteenth-century France provides an insight into just why and how this form came to embody the modern metropolis in which it is invariably set and with which it coincides.[1]

As Baron Haussmann’s wave of urban renewal swept through Paris, bringing it—expropriations and all—from the Middle Ages right up to the cutting edge of Modernity, with which it became instantly synonymous,[2] Charles Baudelaire was achieving fame as the author of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). But even as his fame spread, Baudelaire’s disenchantment with the lot of the poet, and his verses, was leading him towards a new mode of expression. Where, famously, he had previously painted the poet as, inter alia, an albatross, majestic in the air but clumsy on the ground, he now sought to bring poetry down from the abstract objectivity of the Heavens into the mundanity of the city streets. And if he chose to smash the verse form of his art against the cobblestones of Paris, it was precisely because the city was as much beyond his comprehension as his poems were to the man in the street. The Paris that he remembered was fast becoming a mythology as the Paris that met his senses morphed ever faster into a space that was not his. In short, Paris was no longer what it had once been. And yet, of course, Paris was still undeniably Paris, with all that this signified. The new poetics that Baudelaire created captured this tension between the Paris that was and the Paris that was not. It was a poetics to encapsulate this paradox, both overarching it and pulsing at its heart: it would simultaneously present Paris in its everyday, prosaic reality and re-present it in all its poetic associations.[3] The new poem symbolized a new critical stance in relation to the modern world and quickly became the instant-belated lens of Modernity itself: the oxymoronic ‘prose poem’ got both inside Paris (with the close-up of the developing art of photography) and soared above it (like the Montgolfière that adorned posters of the expositions universelles), capturing it doubly, (re)presenting it as the auto-antonymic capital of the alienating new urban experience.

The oxymoronic nature of the prose poem cannot be overstated—it is markedly not a prosaic form of poetry or a poetic form of prose. It makes no attempt to synthesize the binary terms of the albatross’s predicament. Instead, Paris is now both on the wing and on the ground, poetic and prosaic, at the same time. As Baudelaire notes in his prefatory letter to Arsène Houssaye, his collection of little prose poems, or Paris Spleen “has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally”.[4] In this way, every line of every prose poem serves no purpose other than to pose the conundrum of prose poetics, and in so doing to perform Parisian self-alterity. Thus, the poems typically balance on a central axis, ostensibly offering two distinct halves (a poetic one and a prosaic one). But on closer inspection, the poetic half exalts the Beauty of “things” and the prosaic half teems with capitalized Abstract Values; indeed, the central axis itself (marked by a knock on a door or a disingenuous adverb of concession) functions as a problematic limen, both demarcating and promoting transgression.

Nowhere is this structure more flagrantly displayed than in the French title itself, Les Petits Poèmes en prose : Le Spleen de Paris, which lends itself to a chiasmatic analysis. The axis is the colon that separates title from subtitle, and the two halves, thus formed, reference each other across it. Notice how the littleness of the prose poems is elevated by French title capitalization on the one side and how the visceral reality of spleen is identically altered on the other.[5] The initial oxymoron of the prose poem suggests, chiasmatically, that Paris (in all its glory) opposes spleen, but the capitalization of Paris, which cannot be written any other way, simultaneously veils and symbolizes its double meaning. Paris then both opposes spleen in the subtitle and picks up the upwards motion of Spleen (its elevation from the splenetic to the ethereal), tending to overarch the dynamics of the combined title. In this way, Paris equals prose poem, always already. Which means, of course, that in addition to being, always and only, prose poetry, the prose poems are also, always and only, Paris, whether their action is set in a city street, a desert island or nowhere at all. Hence, the famous “Any Where out of the World”, which is all about aspiration to travel and not about travel per se. For, in all the prose poems, intense motion (and counter-motion) is brought back to earth as powerfully as it transcends. This is the centrifugal and centripetal power of the city. And this is why prose poetry is, essentially and existentially, an urban form.


Alistair Rolls,

The University of Newcastle, NSW

[1] For a history of the British prose poem, see Nikki Santilli, Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002)

[2] Arguably, Paris was not only synonymous with Modernity as it unfolded in France, but the French capital’s ultra-reflexive reappraisal of itself made it metonymic of Modernity worldwide. See, for example, David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York; London: Routledge, 2003) and Patrice Higonnet, Paris, capitale du monde (Paris: Tallandier, 2006).

[3] For an excellent reading of presentation versus representation (or re-presentation) in Baudelaire’s prose poems, see Michel Covin, L’Homme de la rue : Essai sur la poétique baudelairienne (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000).

[4] I am quoting here from Louise Varène’s translation of Les Petits Poèmes en prose : Le Spleen de Paris, published as Paris Spleen (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. IX.

[5] For a more detailed analysis of Baudelaire’s title along these lines, see Covin, op. cit.