“Invitation to the Voyage,” the dark jewel in the crown of Baudelaire’s prose poems, is many things. For me, lately, it has become a touchstone for understanding what is modern—and, for that matter, postmodern—in poetry. The modern quality of Baudelaire’s prose poem shows best when we hold it up in contrast against its most significant background: Dante’s Vita Nuova. Both “Invitation to the Voyage” and the mixed prose and poetry of the Vita Nuova are drenched in yearning for a woman who is more than just a woman: she is also a gateway to something infinite and eternal. But the differences between Baudelaire’s eternity and Dante’s are striking, and go beyond matters of religious doctrine to the far more serious issue of the nature of the literary image.
Aesthete that he is, Baudelaire gives us, in “Invitation to the Voyage,” an image of a place that is somehow the antithesis of the ordinary world—a place that isn’t described in isolation, but through contrast to our busy, vulgar world. It shines in the beyond, this other, better place where “slower hours” than ours “contain more thoughts, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper and more significant solemnity.” The nature of the place isn’t defined with any exactness, but evoked by a series of images—tall windows divided into leaded glass panes, a bright, shining array of kitchen copper, the light of sunsets settling richly on the walls—is it an aesthetic place? A place of interiors and artifice? A place of order? Of dignified domesticity? It’s hard to say, exactly, except that there’s a mood of quiet and order and timelessness. It isn’t just an indefinite place, though: it is also an impossible one, or contradictory: it might, says Baudelaire, be called “the China of Europe.”
If anything is certain about this place to which Baudelaire would flee, it is that it is a country made in the image of his beloved—a point on which he insists. Everything made in the country, he tells her, “is made in your image”—indeed, it is a country entirely “in your image.” As the prose poem reaches its climax, we read “These treasures, this furniture, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, these miraculous flowers, are you. They are you, too, these great rivers and these quiet canals.” The beloved is this escapist paradise, into which Baudelaire himself enters in his mind. Continuing with his image of rivers and canals, he writes “these vast ships that drift down them, laden with riches, and from whose decks rise the monotonous songs of laboring sailors, they are my thoughts which slumber or rise and fall on your breast.” It is the beloved who, in embodying or signifying the better, purer, more timeless place, brings Baudelaire away from this world and toward the eternal: she leads his river-faring thoughts “gently toward the sea, which is infinite.” This infinity isn’t the beloved, exactly, though: it is a place the poet reaches via love for her, a place where his thoughts can stay only for a while before they weary of it, and “now enriched… return to you from the infinite.”
The debt Baudelaire owes to Dante is profound. Firstly, there is the way the beloved woman connects to the other, better world. The best way to describe the relationship of the two in “Invitation to the Voyage” is to lift a passage on the Vita Nuova from the scholar and translator Barbara Reynolds, who says Dante writes of Beatrice in a manner that represents “not personification or symbolism, but the perception that actual persons can be images of qualities beyond themselves.” That is: a real person, rather than an allegorical figure, an imaginary metaphor, or a symbolic creature is the image and pathway to a world better than the one around us. The concept is new with Dante, and ranks among his greatest inventions. It is a concept very much alive in contemporary poetry, as we see, for example in Lorenzo Thomas’ poem “God Sends Love Disguised as Ordinary People,” where we needn’t go further than the title to see the notion that real individuals in our lives represent something greater and more eternal than themselves.
What is more, the specific qualities of the world Baudelaire associates with the beloved hold much in common with the world to which Dante ascends via Beatrice. For both poets, the beloved is the gateway to a love not only of the beloved herself, but of eternity. Dante’s initial love for Beatrice in the Vita Nuova begins with the senses, with his glimpse of her on the street. The book recounts the transformations of this love: from a love governed by the sensual attraction, to a love of the poetry of love, to a despair of love at the death of Beatrice, to an abortive revival of earthly love for “Lady Pitiful,” the woman who looks on him compassionately in his bereavement. Had Dante allowed this new love to flower, the Vita Nuova would have been a startlingly secular book, one in which the pleasures of this life follow upon one another cyclically, one dying love leading to another. But the new secular love, a “little spirit, newly sent by Love,” that “Its longings and desires before me brings” is banished. Dante tells of how, before this little spirit could grow, his “heart began to repent sorrowfully of the desire by which it had so basely allowed itself to be possessed for some days.” Instead, he turns his gaze upwards, to love Beatrice in Heaven—and this brings about the final, most profound transformation of his love. His love becomes “a pilgrim spirit” and “ascends into the heavens.” The final poem of Vita Nuova traces the journey:
Beyond the widest of the circling spheresA sigh which leaves my heart aspires to move.
A new celestial influence which Love
Bestows by virtue of its tears
Impels it ever upwards.
Just as Baudelaire’s voyage on the river of the beloved guides him to the infinite sea, Dante’s quest for Beatrice guides him away from the moral to the eternal.
Of course Dante’s is specifically Christian—indeed, when he depicts Beatrice following one Giovanna (the Italian feminine of John) he makes her a female Christ, appearing after John the Baptist, and his association of her with the number nine (the age at which he first saw her, among other things) underlines her specifically Christian perfection, since nine is the square, or perfection, of the trinity’s three. This is one key difference between Dante and Baudelaire: Baudelaire’s infinity is indefinite and visited only momentarily—it lies outside of any particular doctrine or orthodoxy. In contrast, Dante takes pain to affiliate his sense of the infinite with specifically Christian iconography and dogma.
The pains Dante takes to specify the specific nature of the eternity to which he ascends are at least as important in differentiating him from Baudelaire as the Christian nature of his eternity. Not only does he work with Biblical allusion, Christian numerology, and other semiotic systems to control the way the poems of Vita Nuova are read: he structures the book in such a way that most of the poems are sandwiched between contextualizing prose passages and little critical interpretations of their meaning—including helpful indications of what he meant in each part of the poem, and where exactly the parts should be divided. Moreover, he makes his wishes for hermeneutic clarity explicit, writing that poets must be able to “justify what they say,” for "it would be a disgrace if someone composing in rhyme introduced a figure of speech or rhetorical ornament, and then on being asked could not divest his words of such covering so as to reveal a true meaning." "My most intimate friend and I," Dante adds, "know a number who compose rhymes in this stupid manner."
Dante is, indeed, very clear about the way the love that begins with the senses directed at a woman can lead to a love of the divine (or, one should add, for a woman’s sense-based love of a man to do so—Dante allows for both forms of heterosexual desire, although his views of same-sex desire were less tolerant, as readers of The Inferno know). So very clear is Dante about the relation of earthly to divine love that his views, announced at the end of the thirteenth century, endure and become a doctrine, still articulated in full force more than two centuries later in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. In Castiglione they appear as part of the ideological equipment of all civilized gentlemen:
… speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colors embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense...
The attempt to delimit specific meaning and to control it is central in Dante and, as the legacy of European literature for centuries after he wrote demonstrates, largely successful. It is also entirely understandable for someone who wrote about eternity in a time when religious orthodoxy was enforced at the end of pikes and halberds. And this is by no means something limited to Catholicism or to the middle ages: in the seventeenth century, the great English protestant writer John Bunyan prefaced his Pilgrim’s Progress with a poetic “Apology” in which he goes to pains to prove that his allegory contains nothing but “sound and honest gospel strains,” perhaps like those sung by Cromwell’s soldiers on their way to behead that Catholic sympathizer, Charles the first.
Here, in the insistence on a clearly defined meaning, we see the principal point of difference between Dante and Baudelaire, and the point at which we can begin to pinpoint what is modern about the latter poet. Baudelaire’s prose poem is suggestive, not definitive. It evokes meanings, but does not delimit a specific meaning. Baudelaire was not the first to work with elusive poetic images: indeed, he draws upon a rich Romantic heritage, including the works of Coleridge, whose theory of the symbol (as opposed to the allegory) can serve almost as a statement of poetics for Baudelaire and his kin. Coleridge uses the term “symbol” inconsistently over the course of his career, but it is his sense of the word in The Statesman’s Manual that is important here. In that work Coleridge tells us that, unlike the allegorical figure, the symbol is characterized “above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.” It connects us to the ever-changing yet timeless eternity that Coleridge calls “the infinite I AM.” As the scholar James C. McKusick puts it, with Coleridgean symbol, “the form of the sign is determined by the form of the referent” – and when the ultimate referent is the infinite I AM, as it must at some level be in true works of imagination, the form will, like its referent, be dialectical, a process of coming together and diffusing.” That is, with symbols, we never come to a definite meaning, but watch the process of meanings come together and fall apart; are evoked and dismissed and replaced continuously in the rapt mind of the reader. We’re pretty far from Dante’s ideal situation, in which the meaning of the poetic image can—indeed must—be paraphrased by any poet aspiring to a state beyond stupidity.
The emphasis on an ultimately elusive poetic image grows over the course of the nineteenth century, reaching a kind of apogee in the works of the French symbolists of the fin de siècle. Mallarmé, for example, tells us that the poem ought to present an array of “resonant meanings and associations” rather than specific referents. As he put it in an 1891 interview published in L’Echo de Paris, “the contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song…. to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol.” This art of suggestion rather than delimitation is at the very heart of the symbolist enterprise: Paul Verlaine insists, for example, that the poet “must not/select [his] words without some vagueness.”
In the early twentieth century the notion of the modern poetic image as suggestive rather than definitive becomes codified by that great tribe of rationalizers of the irrational, the Surrealists. André Breton cites Baudelaire as an inspiration in the First Manifesto of Surrealism, where he proclaims that the most powerful poetic image is that which presents the greatest degree of arbitrariness; that
which takes the longest to translate into everyday language, either because it contains an immense amount of apparent contradiction; or because one of its terms is strangely hidden; or because proclaiming its sensational nature, it has the appearance of ending weakly… or because it is of a hallucinatory nature...
He then cites examples, including Lautréamont’s “the ruby of Champagne,” Louis Aragon’s “the frosted gleam of freedom’s disturbances” and his own “on the bridge the dew with a she-cat’s head rocks itself to sleep.” The grand point of such images is not that they communicate a meaning already determined by the poet, but that the mind, “at first confining itself to submitting to them, soon perceives that they stimulate its powers of reason… it goes onward, borne by these images which delight it.” The night of confusion through which such obscure images take us is, for Breton, the confusion that leads us to discovery, to new and unpredictable insights, and so it becomes “the most beautiful night of all, the night of the lightning-flash: day, compared to it, is night.”
Après les Surrealistes, le déluge: the decades between the First Surrealist Manifesto and the present brim over with poetic language and images that cultivate the indefinite, that seek by their strange beauty to refute Dante’s assertion that the poet ought to be able to write a clear prose summary of his meaning. From the New Critical heresy of paraphrase to the midcentury American “deep image,” from the drifting syntax of John Ashbery to the elliptical juxtapositions of Anne Carson or Graham Foust, to Michael Stipe’s ambiguous lyrics (styled after Patti Smith, herself a student in the school of Baudelaire and Rimbaud) our proximate heritage consists of a thousand versions of the poetics of evocation, rather than definiteness. It is a tradition inviting us to discovery rather than educating us in dogma, and in that sense the modern poetic image is not an illustration of an idea, but something altogether different: it is an invitation to the voyage.