Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Baudelaire’s hero in Flowers of Evil strives for a poetic vision that parallels Christian salvation. Just as the Fall resulted from the temptation of Eve, woman becomes the agent of the poet’s separation from his vision of the ideal. Immediately before “The Jewels” in the first edition of Flowers of Evil—the only edition where it was to appear in Baudelaire’s lifetime—a series of three sonnets, “Beauty,” “The Ideal,” and “The Giantess,” defines an ideal of beauty presented in female form. Following “The Jewels,” “Exotic Perfume” continues the association of synesthesia with the woman saying that her perfume causes the poet to “see happy shores spread out” before him.

The vision the woman offers, however, is one of a false paradise. Only ten poems later in the 1857 edition, the poet both literally and figuratively awakens. In “One night when I was with a frightful Jewess,” Baudelaire sees the act of love linked with death and dreams of “the sad beauty of which my desire is depriving itself.” The vision of beauty, represented in the earlier sonnets by a statue or a giantess, cannot be translated into a living woman.

Because various elements of female beauty cause Baudelaire to believe, for a time, that he can regain transcendent vision through love, he is drawn into distractions that cause him to waste his life in this false pursuit. The central attraction of woman in this regard is...

(The entire section is 458 words.)