It was 155 years ago today that French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was published, leading to his prosecution for obscenity charges. He was heavily fined and struggled with a ban against the work for years. Still, the volume centering on themes of eroticism, memory, death, corruption, and decadence had a number of admirers who applauded the poet’s unyielding words. Madame Bovary author Gustave Flaubert told Buadelaire he had “found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism,” while others called the work “immense, prodigious, and unexpected.”
Although his tempestuous, bohemian lifestyle and philosophies garnered much attention, Baudelaire’s radical use of composition and verse resonated and had a significant impact on later poets and the literary world at large. He wasn’t alone, however. We explored several other early radical poets past the break. As always, feel free to leave your own picks below.
Qiu Jin (1875-1907)
Revolutionary Chinese heroine, feminist, and activist Qiu Jin founded a radical women’s journal, attempted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, and rallied for women’s rights to marry freely and receive an education. After her own experiences with foot binding, she even attempted to ban the ancient, sadistic practice. Her poems are imbued with the same spirit of defiance and empowerment, evident in lines like: “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes / I alone rode over the East Sea’s winds for ten thousand leagues.”
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves owes a lot to French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The writer’s 20-page work Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) employed experimental free verse and blank spaces, signifying an innovative shift into Modernism. The fractured work dealt with several unprecedented, existential concepts and questions, centering on the aftermath of a shipwreck, a mysterious figure, and a set of dice.
Lola Ridge (1873-1941)
Anarchist, feminist poet Lola Ridge conquered capitalism, gender and race issues, and radical politics in her long form works. She wrote an unflinching view of New York City’s Lower East Side in her first book The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918). Ridge didn’t shy away from troubling subjects as in Lullaby — about the murder of an African American baby at the hands of white women during the St. Louis race riots — and Frank Little at Calvary — describing the lynching of an Industrial Workers of the World organizer.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
In 1933 at Germany’s former Opernplatz (now Bebelplatz) the Nazis burned over 20,000 books, amongst them the works of 19th century poet Heinrich Heine. The spot is now marked with a line of Heine’s that reads: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” The oft-banned author’s radical political views and writings — marked by satirical barbs, and critical disillusionment with authority — eventually led to his exile to Paris.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
While other children were reading fairy tales, a young “mad Shelley” was beginning to study politics and the works of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Later, he often signed his name with, “Democrat, Great Lover of Mankind, and Atheist.” His outspoken views quickly found the poet ostracized. Shelley believed in non-violent protest, didn’t look kindly on the institution of marriage, snubbed his nose at the aristocracy (usually at his own detriment), and hung out with maverick writers like Lord Byron. His 1821 poem Epipsychidion openly advocated his free love ideals:
“I never was attached to that great sect / Whose doctrine is, that each one should select / Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend / And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend / To cold oblivion, though it is in the code / Of modern morals, and the beaten road.”
Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper aka Michael Field (1846-1914/1862-1913)
Renown for their groundbreaking contributions to women’s literature, Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper wrote poetry under the pen name Michael Field. Their relationship evolved into a romantic one, the male pseudonym allowing them entry into British literary circles, but more importantly, giving them free rein to explore female sexuality and desire (often inspired by the works of ancient Greek poet, Sappho).
Antonin Artaud (1896-1948)
Better known as a dramatist who conceived of innovative and unusual theatrical concepts for this Theater of Cruelty, French avant-garde figure Antonin Artaud’s writings and poems are equally mesmerizing and surreal. A visceral intensity connects both arts, but Artaud struggled to publish his works, often rejected. In a series of letters to The New French Review head Jacques Rivière, the artist confronted the editor seeking answers.
“Do you think that a poem which is faulty but which has fine and powerful things in it can be considered to have less literary authenticity and power of action than a poem which is perfect but without great inner resonance? For me, it is no less than a matter of knowing whether or not I have the right to continue thinking, in verse or prose.”
His radical view of the art pops up throughout his work, as in this excerpt from No More Masterpieces. “The idea of a detached art, of poetry as a charm which exists only to distract our leisure, is a decadent idea and an unmistakable symptom of our power to castrate,” he shared, further emphasizing his need to reject all preconceived notions.
“Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed. Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us, deadens our responses, and prevents us from making contact with that underlying power, call it thought-energy, the life force, the determinism of change, lunar menses, or anything you like. Beneath the poetry of the texts, there is the actual poetry, without form and without text.”
Gerald Massey (1828-1907)
Before Bill Maher was connecting the Egyptian god Horus and Jesus Christ in his documentary Religulous, English poet Gerald Massey was writing about the two figures and their similarities. Massey also challenged Darwin’s theory of evolution with his poems centering on Spiritualism, examined Shakespeare’s sonnets, and started his own journal at 22 years old. “Massey’s considerable output during four years of active involvement with Republicanism and the Christian Socialists’ Co-operative ventures, played an essential role in the dissemination of radicalism to the working class.”
Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
Female, lesbian, independently wealthy: Amy Lowell was everything American poets weren’t during her time. She was a key figure in the imagist poetry movement, and unafraid to confront its biggest name, Ezra Pound, who essentially called her a bored, rich woman looking for something to do. Lowell published her own poetry — and that of others — and was an eccentric, obsessive book collector. “God made me a business woman, and I made myself a poet,” she once said. That’s determination and style we can certainly get behind.
William Blake (1757-1827)
Just read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and you’ll see exactly what we mean. Blake brought his A-game to the revolution, and it has bite. The poet’s fierce satire about the repressive evils of church and state was admired by the likes of Georges Bataille, which is like getting two radicals for the price of one.