‘Baudelaire’ was published in American poet Delmore Schwartz’s collection, Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems (1959), which was the recipient of the Bollingen Prize. The title of the poem is an allusion to French poet and literary innovator Charles Baudelaire. This piece depicts the final years of his life, ridden by poverty, hopelessness, and depression. It is written in the form of a speaker’s request to his mother to send him enough money to sustain him for three weeks.
‘Baudelaire’ by Delmore Schwartz presents a speaker describing his pitiful condition to his mother and urging her to send him money.
This piece begins with an emotive portrayal of the speaker’s life. He cannot sleep soundly as when he lays down to sleep several incoherent voices, having no relation to his personal affairs, haunt him. He is bankrupt and has accumulated debts that have started to eat him from within. However, he tries to write a collection or two in order to earn some money. It is not enough to sustain him for a month. With an elaborate depiction of his workplace, which is ironically a café near the post office, he urges his mother to send him some money.
You can read the full poem here.
When I fall asleep, and even during sleep,
I hear, quite distinctly, voices speaking
You are always armed to stone me, always:
It is true. It dates from childhood.
Delmore Schwartz’s poem ‘Baudelaire’ is about French poet Charles Baudelaire, who, in his late years, went through bankruptcy and depression. Hopefully, his mother helped him to wade through much of his difficulties. But, in the case of Schwartz, he had literally none to assist him during his late years. He underwent similar troubles with money, alcoholism, depression, and much more. But, there was nobody to relieve him from his pain.
Through this piece, Schwartz sheds light on the last years of the fellow poet Baudelaire. He vividly describes his mental state alongside a glimpse into his personal affairs. The first-person narrator of the poem describes how he could not sleep well at night. While asleep, he can clearly hear voices speaking some commonplace and trivial phrases that have no relation to his life. This symptom is common in those who suffer from depression. Sleepless nights are a common occurrence in the case of the speaker.
In the second stanza, in the form of a personal letter, he addresses his mother. There is no time to be happy. His debts have grown immensely and his bank account is under judicial review. Quite straightforwardly, he tells his mother that he has lost the ability to think, or the ability to make an effort spontaneously. However, in such a situation, his love for her grows. He knows she would always be there to stone him with her urgency. She is always like that right from his childhood.
For the first time in my long life
I am almost happy. The book, almost finished,
Tomorrow the same comedy enacts itself
With the same resolution, the same weakness.
In these stanzas, the speaker tries to forget his alarming financial state and feels happy knowing the fact that he has finished his book. He compares his work to a lasting body of a monument to his artistic obsessions. Furthermore, he compares the piece of art to the emotions “hatred” and “disgust.” It makes clear that the speaker hates his work. He does it partly for his lifelong obsession and partly out of need.
For the most part of his day, he feels depressed and weak. His rising debts and inquietude make him weaker each day. Whenever he tries to start fresh, Satan (a manifestation of his procrastinating self) advises him to rest for the day and play. He could work at night.
At night, he finds himself in a more befuddled state. He feels terrified by the arrears, bored by sadness, and paralyzed by his inabilities. Somehow, he makes a promise to himself knowing that he is actually lying: “Tomorrow: I will tomorrow.” The tomorrow never comes and the same comedy enacts itself each day, with the same resolution and weakness.
I am sick of this life of furnished rooms.
I am sick of having colds and headaches:
And doubt that the sum is accurate,
Please send me money enough for at least three weeks.
In the fifth stanza of ‘Baudelaire,’ the speaker’s tone is more helpless and desperate. He tells his mother about his disgust at the way he lives and the way he suffers from a cold and headache. His mother would be aware of his condition, but she is not aware of the suffering of her son as a poet. No matter what, he has to write poems. He has to force himself to write, thus making the work more fatiguing than other occupations.
The poet uses the epistolary technique in order to describe the speaker’s condition. The narrator quickly jumps to the present day as if he is writing a letter to his mother: “I am sad this morning.” He tells her not to reproach him for his careless attitude to his own career. It is not that he does not try at all. He writes from a cafe near the post office amid various noises, such as the click of billiard balls, the clattering of dishes, and the pounding of his own heart.
He has been asked to write a history of caricature as well as a history of sculpture. Quite mockingly, he asks his mother whether it would be better if he writes a “history of the caricatures of the sculptures” of her he has in his heart. In this way, he tries to convince his mother that he still loves her, not for the sake of the money she sends her each month.
In the last quatrain, the letter comes to an end. The purpose of writing this vivid personal account becomes clear. The speaker concludes by expressing his familiarity with his mother’s “countless agony.” She might have thought that it is not necessary or the sum requested by him is not accurate. But, he needs that amount in order to sustain him for at least three weeks.
Structure and Form
‘Baudelaire’ consists of a total of seven stanzas. It begins with a quatrain, followed by an eight-line stanza. There are three quatrains in total and the rest of the stanzas contain varying lines. The overall poem is in free-verse without any set rhyme scheme or meter. It is written from the perspective of a speaker in first-person, who requests his mother to send him money after describing his hapless condition. The speaker of the poem is none other than the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who in his late years struggled with poverty and depression. Schwartz also underwent a similar phase in his late life.
Schwartz makes use of the following literary devices in his poem ‘Baudelaire’:
- Enjambment: There are several run-on lines in this piece. For instance, the second and third lines of the poem are enjambed: “I hear, quite distinctly, voices speaking/ Whole phrases, commonplace and trivial”.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the following lines, “I know nothing. I cannot know anything./ I have lost the ability to make an effort.”
- Metaphor: In the third stanza, the speaker compares the book to a “monument to my obsessions,” and subsequently to his “hatred” and “disgust.”
- Allusion: There is an allusion to French poet Charles Baudelaire in the title. The poet also alludes to the biblical character, Satan in the fourth stanza.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “long life,” “saying sweetly,” “My mind,” “billiard balls,” “costs you countless,” etc.
This poem is about a speaker’s request to his mother to send him enough money that would sustain him for at least three weeks. The speaker describes his depressing financial and personal affairs in an alarming tone in order to evoke sympathy in his mother’s heart. Overall, this piece is an emotive epistolary poem that depicts a son’s enduring love for his mother.
The title of the poem is a direct allusion to French poet and literary innovator Charles Baudelaire. It provides a glimpse of the last years of the poet’s life. During that time, he had financial shortcomings and his mother helped him out of his trouble. Schwartz also suffered from a similar condition. Thus he could connect and sympathize with his fellow poet while writing this poem.
This piece taps on a number of themes, including poverty, depression, and mother-son relationship. In this poem, Schwartz describes the life of a struggling poet probably in his late years. Despite his financial shortcomings, he somehow finds himself devoted to his “obsession” though it is what he deplores the most.
The speaker of the poem is French poet Charles Baudelaire. It could be poet Delmore Schwartz himself as both went through a similar situation in their late years.
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