Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

Baudelaire’s poetry returns often to the moment of sunset, the poignant melting of light into darkness, and the evocation of erotic pleasures in the half light. However, this sunset moment is also a little death; it brings a heightened consciousness of mortality and the passage of time. Love is the most delicious at that moment when it most resembles death.

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Many of Baudelaire’s love lyrics, including the notorious “A Carcass” (number 29), identify the loved woman with suffering in some way. Sometimes she is threatened with injury, sometimes accused of injuring the poet or reminded of impending death. His idealized goddess of Beauty is “a stone-fashioned dream” whose essence is paralysis, a mineral fascination in which all movement ceases (number 17, “Beauty”). “The Balcony” offers no overt violence to the beloved woman. Indeed it seems exceptionally gentle in its evocation of sweet memories.

The beloved woman is presented immediately as a powerful figure, the mother of memory in a poem devoted to memory, the “mistress of mistresses” in a poem devoted to love. These incantations are introduced and echoed in the repetition of the first stanza. Her physical presence is felt through all the senses; sight that persists through darkness, the voice that speaks “imperishable things,” touch of her breast and hand, scent of her blood, taste of her breath. She is, indeed, the human hearth, the glowing sun, source of warmth and light.

Yet the reader must remember that all these charms and all this happiness are expressed in the past tense. The beloved must recall them as memories and must lend her body to the poet for him to relive them. Although she is still physically present and available to his caress, the paradise of the balcony is gone. In every way that the beloved is physically real, warm, and living, thus capable of inspiring and rewarding love, she is also mortal, aging, and herself moving into darkness. In the recollection of their moments of greatest intimacy, the poet evokes the scent of her blood in the darkness, the taste of her breath, both delight and poison. Her breath is poisonous because it is not only proof of physical life but also a measure of mortality.

When the fifth stanza proclaims knowledge of an “art” as a means of reliving happiness, the poet is not speaking of his verse. Rather, this “art” consists of burying himself in the knees of the beloved, returning to her physical presence, which paradoxically must eventually fail him. The exceptional changes in the repeating fifth line of the stanza subtly acknowledge the futility of the poet’s attempt to return to past experience. The profound gulf of past time is too deep to sound, and the beloved, in whose physical beauty the past happiness is personified, will not transcend time to rise “rejuvenated” like the sun.

The poem itself, however, remains as incantation and invocation. Without the physical presence of the beloved—indeed, long after the death of both poet and loved woman—“The Balcony” continues to present the polished form, the glowing warmth of memory. The true art of the poet, his true evocation, lies in the verse he created to preserve the magic of happy memory.

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