Thoughts On Baudelaire’s “The Old Woman’s Despair”

By Christopher Woods

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Baudelaire is, without a doubt, a father of the prose poem form in contemporary writing. Yes, prose poems existed long, long before, notably in the Bible’s “Psalms Of David.” There are other historical examples as well. But for all practical purposes, one thinks of Baudelaire who made prose poems an accepted style with the publication of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857.

Recently, I read one of Baudelaire’s prose poems, “The Old Woman’s Despair,” in which an aging woman tries, unsuccessfully, to admire a newborn baby boy. As the woman approaches the baby, she is shocked that the baby sees her and begins to wail, as though frightened or repulsed by the old woman. The result is that the woman suddenly has a sad epiphany about being old and decrepit, and of no longer being able to please. She even compares all old women to scarecrows, and she bemoans the fact that, no matter that she wants to love little children, the aging process has made doing so utterly impossible.

This is a lovely prose poem, with great depth of emotion. However, I find it puzzling that the sadness of old women is not extended to old men as well. Men go unmentioned in this prose poem. I find this ironic as the poem is written by a male, and the baby in the prose poem is also male. Was Baudelaire simply writing about something he witnessed, an old woman frightening a baby? Would the prose poem have read differently if an old man had come close to the baby? And what if the baby was a girl? Should any of this matter?

Yes and no. If I were to write a poem with a similar character and situation today, feminists might have reason to complain. Why did I single out the old woman, and all old women for that matter? Why did I make the baby a boy who howled when seeing the old woman’s face? The fact that I am a male writer would no doubt also be suspect.

Did Baudelaire write a hatchet job on old women purposely? Was he sexist? Or, was he simply writing a prose poem about an interesting encounter between an infant and the aged, the bookends of life? In Baudelaire’s day, and in his personal experience, were aged women treated more harshly than old men? And, if so, are things any different today? Should we judge Baudelaire by today’s standards? And what does this mean to those of us who are writing today?

I remember when, as a child, I was frightened by the very old, both male and female, family members. Unfortunately for them, there were debilitating health conditions that made these old relatives frightening to me, simply by their physical appearances. I don’t remember that I distinguished between male and female in my fear.

In my own writing, and in my own prose poems in particular, I have written about old people, both male and female. I tend to take a sympathetic view of old characters, but it is not an approach I take on purpose. It simply happens. Does it happen because I live in a more politically correct time? If so, should that have an influence on me as a writer, as I describe my characters? All I know is that I have an inherent sympathy for most older characters, if only because they have, so very generously, made themselves available to me for my work. These people have seen a lot, and even better, survived a lot. They are at the edge of their lives, and the drama in that is universal, not limited to either sex.

Reading Baudelaire’s prose poem, I must confess that I was surprised by his take on old women exclusively. No matter how lovely and sad the poem might be, it comes across to me as chauvinistic, and possibly demeaning. But he may not have intended any of this. In the end, the poem is about a confrontation between two characters that, as I said, have come to represent the bookends of life.

Thinking about Baudelaire and his prose poem, I am now both encouraged and hesitant to look again at my own work, my own prose poems, and my own characters. What will I discover about them? And how much of what they are, and are not, is because of me? It is humbling, of course, but being observant and vigilant is simply another job for a writer, this one included.

– Christopher Woods