That Which Forges Art: On Baudelaire’s "La Pipe"

The Pipe
Charles Baudelaire (trans. Joshua Rocks and Ashok Karra)

I am the pipe of an author;
One sees, in contemplating my mien
Of Abyssinian or Kaffir,
Whether my master is a great smoker.

When he is filled with sorrow,
I smoke like a cottage
Where they prepare supper
For the return of the laborer.

I entangle and I nourish his soul
Within the web mobile and blue
That rises from my mouth in fire,

And I roll a calming cloud
That charms his heart and heals
His mind of its fatigue.


It is the image one almost gets that is most intriguing in this poem. I am always tempted to picture the author breathing fire ever so slightly, and that fire rising and becoming smoke. If only that “my” in the third stanza was absent!

Still, it is the image that the author himself is burning away that makes the whole poem. The personified pipe has a function, but its agency is undercut by the first stanza. What the pipe is – that’s something entirely up to what the author wants to smoke.

The contrast between the author and the laborer is instructive, too. The laborer’s cottage is staffed with other people who prepare food. The cottage smokes, not the laborer – he eats. And he need not be captured, either.

Whereas the soul of the author wants to fly away, leave its mortal shell. It needs to be captured and nourished. But what is this soul that wants to fly away?

We could say that the soul is invisible: when healed, it is being burned by the fire and passions of sorrow are being released. What is left might as well be proclaimed “entangled” by the web, one can’t see it anyway.

But to say that would miss the full significance of fire – it would pretend that fire was entirely external to man, as opposed to constitutive of man.

If the soul is fire burning away, then it is the rising smoke too. While “cloud” gives us an impression that something is moving away from the author to make him calmer, “web mobile and blue” indicates that there is something the author can conjure up on command – it always belongs to him – and that it can capture something else.

That “something” is itself, though? How is something that alienates itself also, at the same time, capturing itself?

The fire is the soul, the tension between sorrow and that want of healing. That tension means the soul isn’t static: it is indeed the smoke, too. What “captures” the soul is actually the process of the soul coming into full being. It is nourished precisely by moving away from the author for just a second, just like what an author writes moves from him for a little bit of time. The heart is “charmed” in that time, the mind “heals,” and the key is that this cycle is going to happen again until there is nothing left to burn. One can see the rather dark teaching here: underlying the soul’s movement is a will to nothingness. It is not merely that life occurs in time – it is that the soul only exists in attempting to leave the body.

1 Comment

  1. I am not a Poetry buff except for some of the US History ones Midnight ride of Paul Revere And Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree the Village Smithy Stands. So you have broadened my somewhat limited interests a bit. Thanks

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