The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Balcony” first appeared as number 34 in the “Spleen and Ideal” section of the first, banned edition of Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, first translated in 1931) and as poem number 36 in the second, definitive edition (1861). The poem consists of six five-line stanzas in the “enveloped strophe” form—that is, the first line of each stanza reappears as its last line. The first, third, and fifth line of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth.

In “The Balcony” a first-person voice, closely associated with the poet himself, speaks to a beloved woman using the familiar form of address, reserved in nineteenth century French for the most intimate relationships. The first stanza apostrophizes the beloved as “Mother of memories, Mistress of mistresses” and invites her to remember an earlier period of shared love. These memories are located in the home, or hearth; their time is evening, and the tone of the stanza, as of the poem in general, is elegiac and directs the reader’s attention to a lost past of beauty, caresses, sweetness, and charm.

The second stanza is written in the imperfect tense, indicating habitual action in the past. The scene is set in early evening, either by the glow of a coal fire or of sunset on the balcony of the title. In an atmosphere of warmth and enclosure, the breast and heart of the beloved are offered to the poet; they say “imperishable” things.


(The entire section is 482 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Charles Baudelaire chose the enveloped strophe form for several poems in Les Fleurs du mal. In “Reversibility” (number 44), a beloved woman is addressed as an angel and implored for her prayers. The repeated formulas shape the poem as an incantation, a way of controlling the powers of beauty, joy, and health attributed to the angelic woman. In “Moesta et errabunda” (Latin for “sorrowful and wandering woman”), number 62, the poet invites the beloved to escape with him from the monstrous city to the purity of the ocean, a return to the innocent “green paradise” of childhood.

In these poems, and particularly in “The Balcony,” the repetitive stanza structure establishes a powerful echo, musically evocative and strongly nostalgic. Each stanza looks backward and forward simultaneously. The returning note of the last line changes subtly by progression through the rest of the strophe. In “The Balcony,” where the central theme of the poem is a wish to re-create a happy past, coupled with the image of rebirth in the setting sun, this formal feature is especially important.

Within the polished, formal universe of the poem, the dominant images are the glowing hearth and the setting sun. The hearth, necessarily, is enclosed within walls, but the balcony also is defined as an enclosed space, since first the “pink veils” of sunset light, then the wall of descending night cut it off from the world, the profound space which lies outside the circle of warmth. The body of the beloved is an intimate part of this circle. “Mother of memories,” she is breast, heart, blood, eyes, breath, feet, knees, the “dear body” to which the poet must have recourse to relive these happy moments.

The setting sun offers a final redemptive image in “The Balcony.” As the ultimate source of light and warmth, descending each evening into the sea, it is a universal symbol of age and death. However, each day it returns “rejuvenated” to repeat its cycle of life. The past is a “gulf we cannot sound,” deep as space beyond the walls of the balcony, deep as the seas, yet the daily return of the sun in its rising and setting allows the rebirth of hope.