In a previous post, we shared several relatively short poems that express horrific themes. In this post, we share Charles Baudelier’s “Carrion,” a strange rhyme, indeed, and appalling.
First, the poem; then, the commentary:
Remember, my soul, the thing we saw
that lovely summer day?
On a pile of stones where the path turned off
the hideous carrion--
legs in the air, like a whore--displayed
indifferent to the last,
a belly slick with lethal sweat
and swollen with foul gas.
the sun lit up that rottenness
as though to roast it through,
restoring to Nature a hundredfold
what she had here made one.
And heaven watched the splendid corpse
like a flower open wide--
you nearly fainted dead away
at the perfume it gave off.
Flies kept humming over the guts
from which a gleaming clot
of maggots poured to finish off
what scraps of flesh remained.
The tide of trembling vermin sank,
then bubbled up afresh
as if the carcass, drawing breath,
by their lives lived again
and made a curious music there--
like running water, or wind,
or the rattle of chaff the winnower
loosens in his fan.
Shapeless--nothing was left but a dream
the artist had sketched in,
forgotten, and only later on
finished from memory.
Behind the rocks an anxious bitch
eyed us reproachfully, waiting for
the chance to resume
her interrupted feast.
--Yet you will come to this offence,
this horrible decay, you, the
light of my life, the sun
and moon and stars of my love!
Yes, you will come to this, my queen,
after the sacraments,
when you rot underground among
the bones already there.
But as their kisses eat you up,
my Beauty, tell the worms
I've kept the sacred essence, saved
the form of my rotted loves!
Some time after the incident (“the thing we saw/ that lovely summer day”), still haunted, it appears, by the sight, the speaker of the poem recalls having seen, while walking with his lover, the dead and bloated carcass of a maggot-infested beast. In describing the animal’s “corpse” as he reminisces about the sight to his girlfriend, thus keeping alive in his memory the appalling sight, he mixes distasteful images and adjectives that bespeak unpleasant qualities and states with images and adjectives that express agreeable and pleasant characteristics and conditions:
“thing,” “carrion,” “whore,” “sweat,” “gas,” “rottenness,” “corpse,” “flower,” “perfume,” “flies,” “guts,” “maggots,” “scraps of flesh,” “vermin,” “carcass,” “music,” “water,” “wind,” “fan,” “bitch,” “feast,” “offence,” “decay,” “queen,” “sacraments,” “kisses,” “Beauty,” “worms.”
The negative images and descriptive words and phrases suggest his disgust, but, strangely, it is a disgust that merges with attraction. He is fascinated, it seems, with what he considers the beauty of death as it is represented in the concrete and vivid spectacle of an animal’s decomposing carcass. The rotting nature of the body seems to show life’s dirty little secret, as it were: the reality (death, or nothingness) that is hidden at the center of existence.
Nature does not discriminate in its destructiveness to accord with human perceptions and prejudices of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and value and insignificance, but kills and dismantles all. In doing so, it feeds upon itself, life deriving sustenance from the effects of death, as the flies feed upon the carcass and lay eggs that, as “maggots,” can later “finish off/ what scraps of flesh” remain, the crumbs, as it were, of the flies and dogs’ “feast.”
The speaker next personalizes death by applying the lesson he has learned from having seen the dead animal to the eventual fate of his girlfriend, observing that she, too, “will come to this offence,/ this horrible decay,” despite her religious faith, as indicated by the “sacraments,” and “rot underground among/ the bodies already there.” Death will not spare her, any more than it has spared others of her faith or, for that matter, those of no faith. Again, death is indiscriminate in its destructiveness, and neither faith nor disbelief avails against one's demise.
He ends his reminiscence and commentary upon the experience of having come across the dead animal’s rotten and bloated body by foreseeing, as it were, an ironic future situation, asking his lover to imagine herself, conscious despite her death and being devoured by “worms” whose “kisses eat” her, that he, in having survived her (for a time, at least), has “kept the sacred essence” and “saved/ the form of” his “rotted loves.” Moreover, he makes her, his “queen,” an embodiment of “Beauty,” addressing her as such.
This appellation may refer to the last lines of John Keats' “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats wrote. Regardless of what these closing lines of Keats’ poem may mean (critics continue to debate the issue), it is truly chilling to suppose, as Baudelaire’s speaker seems to imagine, that the truth, concerning “Beauty,” is that it must, like a lovely woman, end in death, in nothingness, and in absurdity, just as love itself must end.
In such a poem, there is no hope, nor is there any reason to suggest that the repulsive and the beautiful, in the final analysis, signify any difference. If death and destruction are the end of life, of beauty, and of love, death, ugliness, and apathy are no better or worse than one another, and good and evil themselves become but moot and meaningless points.