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Modern Poetry: a philosophical introduction

Lecturer: Mark Hewson

Originally Taught: Summer School 2017

This course will present an introduction to three modern poets – Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme – and discuss the idea of "modern poetry" in general. In particular, it will develop a framework for reading the poetry by discussing contemporary discourse on modernity. This has been a key term in philosophy, social theory and other disciplines in the last 20 years or so. The question of modernity concerns the inner connections linking the decline of religious belief, the emergence of the rights of the individual and the freedom of critical reason as well as infrastructural developments such as industrial capitalism and urbanization – all the factors, in other words, that distinguish our present-day mode of life. The course will consider the poets studied as working out the consequences of this mode of life for poetry and art.

The three poets to be studied here have been a constant reference in the movements practising a modern poetry which have appeared in very many countries in the 20th century. These movements have often been in close relation to political radicalization and philosophical thought – above all, when philosophy has separated itself from the hegemony of reason and logic. This proximity has therefore to be considered to be part of the phenomenon of modern poetry. Modern poetry, in other words, is not just a field of literary history, like others: its interpretation is also a philosophical topic, and it has figured as such in the thought of Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Derrida, Blanchot, Badiou, Rancière and others. In reading the poets, this course will prepare the way for an engagement with the philosophical discourse on modern poetry.

Each lecture will be divided into two parts: in the first hour, we will study key poems from each of the poets: in the second, we will study historical and philosophical reflections on modern poetry. There will also be some discussion of the concept of modernity.

The syllabus lists works to be discussed by each of the poets: some will be studied in detail, others referred to more quickly, so if students are advised to read along in advance, if they can.

All texts will be read and discussed in English, with occasional comments on points of translation.  At some point, it becomes necessary to read poets in their own language, but it is possible to get somewhere working with translations (certainly further than one gets by not reading them at all) – especially if the aim is less on poetic appreciation per se and more to think about the idea of modern poetry and modernity


  • (from The Flowers of Evil)
  • To The Reader; Correspondances; Hymn to Beauty; The Carcass; Spiritual Dawn; The Flask; Poison; Invitation to the Voyage; Spleen 1, IV; Obsession; The Swan; The Damned Women; Abel and Cain; Death of the Paupers; Destruction; Dream of a Curious Person; The Voyage; The Gulf (Le Gouffre)
  • (from Poems in Prose)
  • The Double Room; Crowds; The Eyes of the Poor; Loss of Halo


  • “The Letter of the seer”
  • A Season in Hell


  • Selected letters (from 1864-1868)
  • Poetry: The Azure, Renewal, Herodiade, Funeral Toast, With the sole care to voyage (Au seul souci de voyager), A Lace is abolished (Une dentelle s'abolit)
  • Prose poems: The demon of analogy, Spectacle Interrupted, Glory.
  • Prose: Sketched at the Theatre, Crisis of Verse, Music and Letters, Restricted Action, The Book: Spiritual Instrument

Historical and Philosophical Texts

The second part of each lecture will be devoted to historical studies on modern poetry and philosophical reflections on modernity. Some of these texts are very substantial, and the discussions will necessarily be selective. The aim will be to draw upon these texts in order to develop a working concept of modern poetry.

1. Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature
Paul de Man, “The Double Aspect of Symbolism” in Yale French Studies, 1988.
Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

2. Walter Benjamin, “On some motifs in Baudelaire”
Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

3. Martin Heidegger, “What are Poets For?”, in Poetry, Language, Thought.
Paul Bénichou, The Consecration of the Writer 1750-1830; Selon Mallarmé.

4.Georges Bataille, “Letter to René Char”
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (especially ch 7, “Literature and the original experience”); “The Disappearance of Literature”, in The Book to Come.

5. Alain Badiou, “The Age of the Poets”, Manifesto for Philosophy
Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the world (“Conclusion”, on the aesthetic).

Additional Reading:

  • Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism. Joanna Richardson, The Bohemians: La Vie Bohème in Paris, 1830-1914.