Baudelaire’s Clock

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All of Charles Baudelaire’s writings stand on their own, but many of them bear nearly identical, overlapping titles (i.e. “Cats,” “Cat,” and “The Cat”). Though I am at the mercy of translation from French to English, I’d argue that these overlapping titles are conscious, calculated moves on Baudelaire’s behalf. On the surface, many of these instances of title duplication reveal little, if any, patterns across the source material of Baudelaire’s writings. But, in the following paragraphs, I wish to turn to Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” and use a reading of it to then scrutinize his prose-poem “The Clock.” These pieces appear quite different, yet many identical themes are evoked, which yield interesting insight into the mental machinations of Baudelaire. For the purposes of this essay, I will henceforth refer to “The Clock,” from Baudelaire’s Poems, as the “Midnight” version, and “The Clock,” from Paris Spleen, as the “Noon” version.

Before turning to comparisons, it would be wise to briefly unpack each poem individually, beginning with the Midnight version. This poem explores the obvious existential implications of “Time” in human life, and begins by characterizing the clock as an “Impassive god! whose minatory hands / repeat their sinister and single charge: / Remember!” Here, the movement of clock hands represent the passage of time; the clock serves as a mnemonic device of one’s ever-aging life. But Baudelaire characterizes this reminder as “sinister” which suggests something beyond the mundane: mortality. Or, in other words, “Remember!” your time is limited, and you are on your way to the grave. The poem continues with images of theatre and, implicitly, performance on a stage being the metaphor for one’s brief life: “One pirouette, the theatre goes dark.” And as this theatre goes dark–as time marches on, and death approaches–the poem’s narrator remarks how “each instant snatches from you what you had, / the crumb of happiness within your grasp.” No happy messages here. The clock is a mnemonic token of death to the narrator, moreso than the literal ticking away of one’s own life.

Perhaps the most profound stanza present in this Midnight version of “The Clock” is the third: “Thirty-six hundred times in every hour / the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies /in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past, / who passing lit and sucked your life and left!” The mosquito incarnation of the present moment–”Now”–is both hilarious and shudder-inducing; for time, as Baudelaire is presenting it, is always out of our “grasp,” it is beyond our control: “Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins / on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.” The narrator is frantically pointing to the Clock, impelling the reader to “Remember!” how fugitive each passing moment truly is. And there is some irony embedded in this Midnight version, given how, regardless of this apprehension of mortality-remembrance, “Time” defeats us in the end.

The “Noon” version of Baudelaire’s “The Clock” is, on the surface, a much more lighthearted departure from the menacing “Impassive god” of the Midnight version. This version, as a prose-poem, contains cats, a little boy, and notably takes place in broad daylight. It begins, “The Chinese can tell the time in the eyes of cats,” which is a very provocative and unscientific assertion. For who in the West has ever heard such nonsense? But the narrator, passively and credulously, observes a “missionary, strolling through a suburb [who] had forgotten his watch.” This missionary asks a little boy the time, and the “ragamuffin” (boy) darts off to catch a “very fat cat,” which correctly yields the time: “he declared without hesitation: ‘It’s not quite noon.’ Which was correct.” A surprising and accurate clock is revealed to the narrator in the form of a cat. This leads the narrator to reflect upon his own cat which, when he gazes into the “depths of her adorable eyes,” he always sees the hour “distinctly, always the same hour, an hour vast, solemn, and grand as space, without divisions into minutes and seconds–a motionless hour unmarked by the clocks, but light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye.” This “hour” the narrator describes has an uncanny quality about it, especially given our unpacking of the Midnight version of “The Clock.” That is, one can’t help assign this “motionless,” “solemn,” “unmarked,” time as something akin to death.

If Baudelaire’s intention is to divorce the Midnight version from the Noon version by setting up a bright sunny day with a children and cats, then he did an awful job. But Baudelaire was no fool; the prose-poem continues with a question to the narrator: “‘What are you looking at there so attentively? What are you seeking in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the hour there, you idle, wasteful mortal?’–I would reply without hesitation: ‘Yes, I see the hour; it is Eternity!’” The words “idle” and “wasteful mortal” suggest the connection between time and death as explored in the Midnight version. This hour, “Eternity,” may in fact be everything outside of “Now” (borrowing from the Midnight version).

The form of the Midnight version is that of linear quatrains, whereas the form of the Noon version is that of paragraphs. The Midnight version is constrained moreso to the realm of conceptual analysis and reflection, images and ideas, rather than narrative or plot. The Noon version, as a prose-poem, reads almost like a story, with time passing within the prose-poem itself. Baudelaire may have intended to embed the link between time and death, from the Midnight version, into the Noon version’s light-hearted imagery of the Orient. The “pretentious gallantry” found within the Noon version serves to mask these ideas within the setting and story of the prose-poem itself, whereas the Midnight version does not feign to do so; the Midnight version is explicit in its message, whereas the Noon version requires a more scrupulous reading.

The parallels, however, between the Noon and Midnight versions of “The Clock,” provide some synthetic reading regarding the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry, his prose, and even his conceptual positions, are implicated by, and are found within, each of his poems. By name, by time, or by theme, Baudelaire’s inner turbulence, regarding his own antagonistic relationship with death and time, spills onto all the pages he penned.

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