Shambhala Sun | September 2014
About a Poem
Willis Barnstone on Baudelaire’s “Our White House”
Our White House
Outside the city I have not forgot
Our white house, small but in a peaceful lot,
Her chipped Pomona and her old Venus
In a skimpy grove hiding their bare bust,
And twilight sun both dazzling and superb
Behind the pane where its immense eye burned
Wide open, and the intense curious
Pondered our long silent meals and the eye
Of sun mirrored in candlelight to merge
On frugal tablecloth and curtain serge.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is often called the father of
modern poetry. A drunk, a sinner, and a street stroller, he was also an
impeccably dressed dandy and an unusually courteous gentleman. He was sentenced
to prison for a year for his “obscene” writing, specifically his series of
poems alluding sympathetically to Sappho and her lesbian friends, but the
sentence was commuted. Baudelaire wrote about the lowest ranks of society—the
beggars, the blind, and the freezing prostitutes and sneak thieves on winter
streets. A master of sonorous prosody, he rendered many poems hard to forget.
In “Our White House,” the poet speaks as a city man, off to
the country to visit his maternal refuge, probably on a Sunday evening.
Baudelaire’s twice-widowed mother, whom he adored, was Caroline Archenbaut
Defayis Aupick. She angered him by not turning over all his inherited estate,
but her prudence ultimately guaranteed him a lifetime allowance to carry him
through the years. They also fought because she didn’t approve of his “black
Venus,” Jeanne Duval, on whom he lavished moneys he didn’t possess, and because
of his dissolute ways that led to his early death. But his mother was loyal to
him and his art, and he died in her arms in hospital. Then in her remaining
years, she devoted her life to editing his work and enhancing his name, making
him the most fabled poet in the French language. In many ways Baudelaire was
closer to his mother than to any other person, as we may observe in their
silent dinner in this short poem.
The first lines reveal Baudelaire’s nostalgia for their
modest house with rundown neo-classical statues. Our white house is peaceful,
he states. “Her chipped Pomona and her old Venus” and the skimpy trees are a
sorrowful patch of nature. But then, the poet declares the grandeur and beauty
of the sun and intimately humanizes the heavens, speaking of the “curious sky.”
He also reveals the material setting of the table, citing the “frugal
tablecloth.” The poem ends not with drapes made of linen, cotton, or silk, but
cheap serge curtains.
The power in the poem resides in its understatement.
Baudelaire is writing a poem about his mother’s house, which is also about him
and his mother and their full relationship. To do so he paints the sun and sky,
the garden, the table, and the candlelight of intimacy, and only then does he
yield one key personal phrase: “our long silent meals.” The voyeur sun
witnesses the scene.
On a personal note, Baudelaire is a French poet I’ve been
attached to since my student years in Paris. One afternoon in my room on la rue
Jacob, a young woman, whom I’d seen for only a few moments at a cafe, came to
the door with the unexpected gift of a pre-war leather-bound edition of
Baudelaire’s poems, and then she left. I now take this same volume to France
each summer and, though the Baudelaire corpus of poetry is not large, I never
finish reading it.
Willis Barnstone’s many books include The Restored
New Testament, The Gnostic Bible, and the volume of poetry Moonbook and
Sunbook. He lives in Oakland, California.