Perfume and Baudelaire

‘Some perfumes are as fragrant as a child,
Sweet as the sound of hautboys, meadow-green;
Others, corrupted, rich, exultant, wild…’

From ‘Correspondences’, Charles Baudelaire, trans. James Huneker

The poetry of Frenchman Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) was recommended to me by a friend who told me to look out for examples of synaesthesia, an experience in which the different senses are intermingled. In ‘Correspondences’, the poet seems to be describing this mixture as he hears the sound of the oboe and sees the colour green while smelling the light, fresh fragrances that he associates with children.

Baudelaire is well-known for the inclusion of scents in his writing. I can think of no English poet who focuses so closely on fragrance (though ‘Elegy 4’ by John Donne is one in which it plays an important part). Most of the perfumes he evokes, though, are not of the sweet and childlike, meadow-green variety. He clearly prefers those at the ‘rich, exultant, wild’ end of the spectrum—those we might classify as oriental.

The poem ‘The perfume flask’ (Le flacon) describes ‘some old box / Brought from the East’ which, when opened, releases an intoxicating odour that has been powerful enough to survive years of enclosure. It’s an intriguing perfume but, however lovely it once might have been, it is now decayed, associated in the poet’s mind with darkness, phantoms and death. The image of the ‘ghosts of long-dead odours’ that sleep in a chrysalis and, once disturbed, ‘make faint flutterings as their wings unfold’ is as macabre as it is fantastical. The colours—‘rose-washed and azure-tinted, shot with gold—are mesmerising but I, for one, would be eager to shove these weird winged creatures straight back into their exotic box and slam the lid, locking it tight.

The picture of a nightmarish fluttering thing, released from captivity after many years of slumber, reminds me of the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter novels—scraps of Lord Voldemort’s shattered soul encased in antique objects for years, and still dangerous. I even wonder if J.K. Rowling (whose university degree was in French and Classics) was at all influenced by Baudelaire in her depictions of the dark side of human nature.

My friend warned me that this writing stems from a strange and troubled mind! Just as sights, sounds and smells are mixed together in it, though, intermingled with its deep sadness is a keen awareness of beauty.

So, those rich perfumes in ‘Correspondences’…

‘Have all the expansion of things infinite:
As amber, incense, musk, and benzoin,
Which sing the senses’ and the soul’s delight.’

I wonder which was stronger for him in the end—the delight or the darkness?

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