Connolly on Billy (2015)


Billy, Dominique. Les Formes poétiques selon Baudelaire. Honoré Champion, 2015, pp. 484, ISBN 978-2-7453-2697-3

            Thomas C. Connolly, Yale University

In the nine chapters that make up this substantial book, Dominique Billy undertakes an exhaustive examination of the poetic structures employed by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du mal. The undeniable achievement of this book is to demonstrate in detail the great formal variety of the collection, although reasons for such experimentation, and the relation of poetic content to form, are not at the forefront of Billy’s concerns. The book includes chapters on the formal transformation of individual poems, the structure of couplet rhymes, couplets, quatrains, cinquains (e.g. “Le Balcon”), and more complex forms (eg. “Le Beau navire”). Chapter seven examines the limited influence of popular song on Baudelaire, “Une gravure fantastique” providing one of the exceptions. Chapter eight examines Baudelaire’s sonnet, a form that offers not only brevity and intensity, but also the resolution required for a unified work of art. The final chapter looks at the “pantoum” of “L’Harmonie du soir.”

A curious feature of the first half of the book is the repeated use of statistical tables and graphs to illustrate structural tendencies in poems or poetic forms. Often, these are employed where a simple phrase would convey the same information more clearly and concisely. For instance, the small table on p. 112 is designed to inform the reader that alternate rhymes are more commonly used in poems made up of dodecasyllabic quatrains, and embraced rhymes in those made of octosyllabic quatrains. Sometimes, the information presented in a table is so complicated that Billy is required to explain what the table shows at some length, thereby undermining the need for the table in the first place. More generally, given the relatively low value of figures, and the small size of samples (e.g. 90), the overall validity of a statistical model is open to question. It may be that a reader of Baudelaire finds it useful to know that “l’indice global de discordance” in verse endings of “Le Masque” “passe alors de 0,38 à 0,63” (105), but this could also be expressed in other ways. The tables are undoubtedly both accessible and useful when different versions of the same poem are compared (132–33), or where alternative versions of rhyming words are juxtaposed (146). Significantly, the values here are verbal and not numerical.

The most interesting feature of the book is the way it provides an archaeology of various poetic forms. Reading “À une mendiante rousse” in light of its formal genealogy takes us to a poem by Pontus de Tyard via Victor Hugo and Théodore de Banville and beyond Baudelaire to Paul Verlaine’s “À Clymène” (131), information that will transform any teaching of this poem in a classroom setting. Also fascinating is Billy’s demonstration of the ways Baudelaire erases the traces of his juvenile “ronsardisme” by gradually removing its Marotic orthography and other archaisms (131). In contrast to Banville, Baudelaire does not appear to have been interested in medieval song, except in the degree to which it presented new perspectives on poetic form (189). This reconfirms Albert Cassagne’s century-old conclusion: “il fréquentait peu ou point les anciens poètes [...] mais c’était un acharné chercheur de nouveauté” (Versification et métrique de Ch. Baudelaire, Hachette, 1906, p. 105).

Billy draws repeatedly on Graham Robb’s La Poésie de Baudelaire et la poésie française 1838–1852 (Aubier, 1993). Notwithstanding this critic’s excellence, “nous partageons naturellement l’appréciation de Robb” (157) is a refrain that recurs perhaps more than is necessary. Reference to other critics is often enlightening if somewhat uncritical, and yet a lack of dates either in the body of the text or in the footnotes means that, except for the more informed reader, pronouncements of other critics appear almost timeless. A more precise sense of the historical dimensions of Baudelairean criticism would only enhance the reader’s grasp of the critical reception of his poetic forms.

The question of foreign influence swirls around the book, without being engaged in a sustained manner. We know that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, an important source for Baudelaire’s cinquain, imitates Johann Peter Hebel (200), and that Émile Deschamps’s couplets, inspired by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, provide Baudelaire with an ababa rhyme scheme (168). But generally, Billy pursues a French-centered approach, such that he takes issue with François Jost’s claim that Baudelaire’s sonnets “relèvent de l’héritage littéraire de plusieurs pays” (260). The reality, claims Billy, is that Baudelaire’s sonnet form is firmly inscribed in a national tradition. Similarly, Billy tends not to draw on the extensive critical literature produced by non-Francophone critics (Graham Chesters and Felix Leakey excepted). Clive Scott, author of several books on poetic forms, is referred to on a single occasion for a lone article written in French in 1998. Despite the wealth of detailed formal interpretation of Les Fleurs du mal that Billy’s book provides, one is left to wonder what such a book might look like if it were more open to the formal influences of foreign literatures, and to a greater engagement with non-Francophone criticism.