Friday, January 18, 2013

The Immortal Carcass

When I was reading Baudelaire's "A Carcass", I felt that the speaker seemed to be forcing himself to see the carcass as attractive. The whole poem contains contrasting images of the carcass as something ugly and then something beautiful. I think that the speaker (and I talk of the speaker as an entity separate from Baudelaire) is repulsed by the carcass, and he knows that there is something profound about the decaying body and he manages find beauty in that, but, in the end, he still finds the corpse to be revolting.

Baudelaire begins the poem where the speaker is recalling the time he and his lover come across the carcass - and he is reminding his lover of this (not the most romantic conversation, but whatever floats your boat). At first, the speaker presents the corpse in a rather casual, almost pleasant manner: "Remember, my love, the object we saw that beautiful morning in June by a bend in the path a carcass reclined on a bed sown with pebbles and stones." The sun is shining. It's summer. He's talking to his love. Even though he's talking about a carcass, the speaker presents the carcass in a relaxed and comfortable manner. But then, in the next stanza, his honest reaction to the carcass comes out. the speakers called the carcass "a lecherous whore, sweating poisonous fumes". I don't know about you, but that is not a pleasant description.

So then, the speaker continues to describe the corpse in a negative manner. He calls the corpse rotten and creates this image of the carcass being cooked in the sweltering hear. But then, after these disgusting images, the speaker refers to the carcass as "a hundredfold gift of all she'd [Nature] united in one." After drawing up this revolting image of a rotting corpse, the speaker goes on to call it a gift. With the direction the poem has been going in where the corpse is depicted as unattractive, the reference to the carcass as a gift can only be read as sarcasm. As though the speaker is saying that this disgusting dead body with maggots and flies feasting on it shows that Nature is capable of creating unattractive things as well as beautiful things. The speaker has continued to portray the corpse in a negative light and he has shown that he is capable of using sarcasm (the sarcasm comes back at the end).

Now we come to the flies. The speaker describes the flies twice and in two very different ways. At first, the speaker describes the flies negatively. He says, "The flies buzzed and droned on these bowels of filth." Not a nice image. The flies are revolting, the carcass is revolting, the whole scene is revolting. The speaker carries on describing just how revolting this corpse is, saying, "It rose and it fell, and pulsed like a wave, rushing and bubbling with health. One could say that this carcass, blown with vague breath, lived in increasing itself." The carcass is moving because of all these maggots and flies and whatever else goes on inside of dead things. Not matter how you look at it, this is not an attractive image. It might just be the worst image in the poem. So - after this repulsive image - where does the speaker go? Back to the flies and their buzzing sound. But what does he say this time? "...this whole teeming world made a musical sound like babbling brooks and the breeze, or the grain that a man with a winnowing-fan turns with a rhythmical ease." The speaker now portrays the flies in a positive way. Their buzzing is a nice, pleasant sound. That is quite the change from the previous image. It's almost as if the speaker gets so intense on describing how horrible and rotten this corpse is - and then remembers that he's supposed to see the beauty in it. (similar as to how he portrayed the carcass in the first stanza).

Now let's look at the last three stanzas of "A Carcass". The speaker is talking to his beloved. We have already established that the speaker is capable of using sarcasm so it should not seem out of place that the last three stanzas are loaded with sarcasm. The speaker uses phrases like "sun of my nature and star of my eyes" while telling his beloved that she too will become a rotting corpse. But then he tells her that while she might be a rotting corpse in the ground, her lover will immortalize her in this poem. (This poem that is mainly about a rotting corpse).  Well, let's look at the facts. 1) The speaker tries to portray the corpse as beautiful. 2) He tells his beloved not to worry when she's a carcass in the ground, because she can tell the worms that she is immortalized in this poem. So then, the speaker does not believe in immortalizing her in the poem, because he considers that being a corpse is beautiful. But then he describes the carcass as "horrible, filthy, undone" which is something men should never say their lovers will be. So, the speaker considers corpses to be repulsive and he tells his lover to brag to the worms that she is immortalized in this poem. But why would the worms care? And, for that matter, why would a corpse care?

My conclusion is this: The speaker thinks the corpse is disgusting. His lover will become a corpse one day. That is common knowledge. The speaker has spent the poem trying to convince himself and his lover to overcome their initial reaction to the corpse and instead come to appreciate that there is more to the corpse in appearance. In the last stanza, the speaker says, "...the worms who cherish your body so tine..." Death feeds life. He can immortalize her in the poem (but as he sarcastically says to his beloved - tell it to the worms) or he can immortalize the carcass that one day we will all become. Yes, the carcass is repulsive. The speaker had to overcome this fact before he could move on and come to understand the beauty of the carcass.

(Okay, this ended up being way longer than I thought it would be. Can this count as three blog posts?)

1 comment:

Laura N said...

I think this essay is very interesting, Lindsay. Personally, I think Baudelaire’s word choice in the 6th stanza, even though he’s referring to the activity of the insects on the body, is very beautiful and doesn’t make me too disgusted. I believe that if you took the first two lines out of context, “It rose and it fell and pulsed like a wave, rushing and bubbling with health” it is a beautiful image, maybe of a stream, or a beach. This metaphor is extended into the next stanza comparing the activity and sound around the corpse as music and the babbling of a brook.
Next, I think that juxtaposing beautiful images with the carcass for example: the carcass to a whore, a alluring and sexual image with a repulsive one; the stench to the flower, a pleasant image with a nasty one; the activity on the body and the buzz of the insects to the flow and music of the babbling brook; is a way to re-associate a negative idea (death) to a positive one (life). I think the main purpose of the poem is to encourage his lover to not fear death so that she can live more freely. Perhaps, accepting that death is a fact of life and that death can bring on new life can liberate someone to enjoy the present. Fear is sometimes paralyzing because it keeps us from confronting realities such as death. The juxtaposition of these images, positive diction, and rhythmical verse gives a different perspective on death, and makes one think about it more.