December 8, 2017

Story of Udaipor: Told by Lalla-ji, the Priest - Baudelaire's Passage To India

Paradie Humaine, 1891
Felecien Rops
Lalla-ji the Priest must have been a handy fellow to have at parties as his specialty seems to be outrageous tales of the grotesque and arabesque sort. In "Story of Udaipore:  Told by Lalla-ji, the Priest" we become the witness to a full blown spectre of morbid decay and horror that places Laurence Hope squarely in the tradition of the French Decadents, marking her as the only Decadent poet to have been produced by Raj era India.

Eight years before the birth of Adela Florence Cory, a French magistrate found Charles Baudelaire guilty of "offense to public morals" and banned 6 pieces of his newly published poetry collection entitled, "Les Fleurs du Mal" (1857).  The six "dammed poems" were “Lesbos,” “Femmes damnés,” Le Léthé,” “À celle qui est trop gaie,” “Les Bijoux,” and “Les Métamorphoses du Vampire.”  They remained officially censored until the trial verdict was finally overturned almost 100 years later in 1949.  In the meantime, Les Fleurs du Mal was read both widely in France and abroad, and went on to be considered a critically acclaimed masterpiece of early modernism and "one of the most important and influential collection(s) of poetry to come out of the 19th century, and an essential bridge between Romanticism and Modernism..."  It also became the foundational "bible" of both the Symbolist and Decadent movements, both of which became international in scope.
In 1861, a second, enlarged edition of Les Fleurs du mal was published, but the six banned poems would not be republished again until Baudelaire’s 1866 collection Les Épaves, published in Belgium...The offensiveness of the texts, the court held, lay not only in their context, but also in their “realism.” According to the judges, the poems “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency.”...Les Fleurs du mal suffered from the controversy, becoming known only as a depraved, pornographic work." (link)
Les Épaves (The Scraps) was, a smaller collection of 23 pieces.  Right up front, the first six pieces were the now infamous "poèmes
damnés" or dammed poems.  It was printed in Brussels by the near destitute Baudelaire and his publisher friend in 1866.  One of the most well-known and widely read of the six "cursed poems" was "Metamorphosis of The Vampire" which bears an uncanny similarity to Hope's weirdly dreamy "Story of Udaipor" - so much so, that I will argue that Hope's poem was either directly influenced by Baudelaire's "Metamorphosis", or somehow Adela Florence Nicolson came up with almost exactly the same macabre theme and surprise ending as one of the great masters of 19th century literature, in the cultural isolation of the Indian NW frontier. When considering the relative likelihood of both possibilities, one must reasonably conclude that in "Story of Udaipore" Laurence Hope demonstrates Baudelaire's direct influence on her work. 

Parallelism in "Metamorphasis of a Vampire" and "Story of Udaipore: Told by Lalla-ji, the Priest"

Jean Delville, 1890
In no way does Baudelaire obscure the theme or message of "Metamorphosis of a Vampire".  It relates in detail a man's romp with a beguiling femme fatal figure of utmost male sexual fantasy.  As if she's been directed to "talk dirty to me" the fantasy figure proclaims her various irresistible charms that pleasure any man into worshipping her as the very "moon, the sun, the sky and the stars!".  All too soon, the moment climaxes into a harsh awakening.  His own member or perhaps her mouth seems to be "an old leather bottle with sticky sides" and his imaginary "puppet" of fantasy (or perhaps his real mistress/prostitute) is not at all what he imagined, but instead a rather horrific skeletal jumble of old bones wheezing harshly.  The cold reality of this awakening comes as a depressing shock, as his pleasure has turned now into a desolation characterized by an obnoxious metallic grating sound like a "weathercock" or an old sign creaking on a windy morning.  

Baudelaire's work is, as Poe counseled, short, to the point, and with great effect.  Although the poem could be divided up in to four eight-line stanzas, the first two stanzas are joined and the next two are joined, essentially dividing up the work into a first section of fantasy, and a second one of reality.   The lines are Alexandrine with generally 12 syllables, usually with a caesura type beat between the two phrases per line.   

Thus it is important to note that in "Story of Udaipore", Hope uses much longer lines than she normally does.  She uses seven syllable iambic phrases, two to a line, with a caesura type break between the two phrases per line.  Although her syllable count is 14 per line, and not 12, I would suggest she has extended her usual line form in approximation of Baudelaire's longer French Alexandrines.  

Hope's poem is not as short or pointed as Baudelaire's.  She employs a repeating chorus that injects a weirdly musical chant into the atmosphere, and delineates an arc from Moghra flower (jasmine) fragrance that "intoxicates the sense" while "love's young fancies play', to love that is "blind" and "burnt away".

The mood is hypnotic and dreamy with waving palm trees, a slowly sinking sun, and the tinkling of temple bells as the boat drifts "toward the further shore".   The male fantasy character now takes form, with "darkly luminous" eyes, who speaks, like Baudelaire's partner, "persuasively" so that the poet can not resist and "say him nay".  She is fully enveloped in the dreamboat lover with "sable hair" - "And all the youth awake in him, all love of Love in her".   The couple "do Love service" - the same act of lust as in "Metamorphosis," just put much more delicately, as the flowers in his hair fall into her curls.

Ecstacy, 1908
Gulacsy Lajos
As in "Mohamad Akram's Appeal To The Stars", Hope's silver sky at night indicates intoxication and magic in the air.  Hours pass and the moon rises like a beacon "white and cold on high".   Suddenly the poet is awake, and frightened.   Just as in "Metamorphosis" there is a wind, or "cold breeze", while the harsh sound of a "prowling jackal's hungry cry" serves to audibly signal reality is at hand, just like Baudelaire's "weathercock".  Just as in Metamorphoses, the author comes to a horrific realization - to her "terror and dismay" she sees that her fantasy lover is actually a monster, a diseased Leper laying next to her in the cold white light. 

The argument has been made that Hope was "only" influenced by Swinburne - and indeed in "Poems and Ballads" (1866) he published a poem called "The Leper".  But reading the Swinburne poem it is immediately clear that "Story of Udaipore" does not take inspiration from it either in meter or, most importantly, content.  Swinburne's narrator is wholly consumed with desire that never changes or alters into shock and repulsion, or recognizes any major intrusion on his inner dialogue whatsoever.  Further, the main pivot of Swinburne's tale is that the beloved slowly sickens and the narrator slowly gains more control of her, relishing the control he commands over her dead body - an opposite story arc.  As discussed above, the narrators of both "Story of Udaipore" and "Metamorphosis" are first enraptured by a compelling figure of fantasy, make love, then are shocked awake into horror and despair.  Both hear a harsh sound and find they are laying with some ghastly being.  (We've all been there, right?) 

In fact, reading Swinburne's "The Leper" with it's lilting short lines and medieval nuances only drives home the point of how very unlike it is to Hope's "Story of Udaipore", and how very much more like Baudelaire's "Metamorphosis"  Hope's work actually is.

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Baudelaire's Passage To India

Unfortunately, the mechanics of how Hope may have been exposed to Baudelaire's work has to be left up to pure speculation, given the total lack of everyday correspondence and biographical details on our dear Violet and her writing process.  Yet, many roads lead to Rome, or to Bombay for that matter, and somehow Baudelaire passed into Violet's hands upon one of them -- 

Forbidden Fruit, 1865
A. Toulmouche
A French-Belgian Professor of Languages Jacques Philippart ran the school Violet and her older sister Isabel attended in England near London and situated, poetically, on Montague Road.  While it seems rather unlikely that any proper schoolmaster would introduce his young charges in Victorian England to subversive banned poetry, it is not out of the question.  Perhaps Adela and her sister ran across the poem in the Belgian edition of Les Épaves in Professor Philippart's personal library?  Or understood from him and his wife that Baudelaire wasn't to be read by proper young ladies, prompting them to search it out at a booksellers? 

Perhaps young Adela came across a copy of Les Épaves or just some of the banned poems during her studies on the Continent, prior to her first voyage to India in 1882?  Little is known of this period, but she did write poetry prolifically, studied painting and art, and seemed to develop a schoolgirl crush on one of her classmates.  Perhaps in this artistic and well-to-do coterie of young students, forbidden French poetry was circulated.

Hope's family were freethinkers and writers, probably as socially liberal and intellectual as a military family in Raj India could be.  Hope's father Colonel Arthur Cory owned a half share and edited the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore; later he started the Sind Gazette in Karachi, with input from his eldest daughter Isabel who took over his duties when he became ill, and eventual ownership.  Did newspaper publisher (and poet in his own right) Colonel Cory run across or order a copy of Les Épaves to see what the fuss was about and to discuss it over with friends at his Club?  Did Isabel?  Issues of free speech and public standards of decency are always of interest to those in the publishing business and as both a newsman and poet, Cory may have been more attuned to literary currents on the Continent than the average British colonial. 

Hope's younger sister Annie Sophie took the ironic anti-establishment pen name Victoria Cross and published outre novels dealing with absolutely taboo topics such as sexual affairs across the color line, female lust outside of marriage, infanticide and more.  Annie hobnobbed with the British Decadents and was in The Yellow Book, publishing her bestselling Anna Lombard in London the same year that Hope was first published,.   She lived in London and Europe during her sister's years in Mhow - was she a sisterly conduit for Baudelaire's interesting "dammed poems", so well known to the Aesthetes and Decadents?  


As discussed previously, Colonel Malcolm Nicolson, Hope's husband, grew up in the French town of Boulogne, where as a future master linguist he must have certainly gotten a head start by learning to read and speak French early on.  Perhaps he had a certain fondness for his second "mother tongue" and its well known literary controversies.   Was Baudelaire's passage to India facilitated in part by Malcolm, who influenced and supported his wife's literary output in so many ways?  Perhaps he brought Baudelaire's verses with him to India, or ordered a copy of Les Épaves for her after they were married.  He certainly would have been helpful at translating any French text, although presumably Adela would have had at least some working knowledge of French from her time at the Belgian run boarding school she attended in England.
However it happened, a close inspection of "Story of Udaipore: by Lala-ji, the Priest" reveals it to be clearly en hommage to "Metamorphosis of the Vampire", one of Baudelaire's officially denounced but influential "condemned poems".   It is generally presumed that Hope wrote most of the Love Lyrics in her nearly ten years stationed at Mhow, where the native servants relieved their mistresses entirely of household duties.  The wickedly long, dusty hours and hours of days upon days would stretch forward relentlessly; but could be passed more swiftly with imaginative escapades and escapes into dreamlike scenarios... inspirations of cool lapping waters, silver skies, cold breezes and funereal scent-laden flowers would have come like a soothing balm to our sensation seeking poet - refreshingly daring and rather chilling.

Note:  In recording the poem, I attempted to capture the languorous quality of the verses, and the eeriness of the repeating refrain.  "Story of Udaipor: Told by Lalla-ji the Priest" is recorded in the third section of India's Love Lyrics and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview, and will not be available  on Librivox until the entire book has been recorded.

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