Themes and Meanings

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Baudelaire constantly scrutinizes the role of the poet and artist in human society. “Benediction,” the poem that opens “Spleen and Ideal,” shows the poet rejected at birth by his mother, reviled by the world, but sustained by the aid of an angel and his own devout aspirations. “The Beacons” presents a number of artists whose works made them spokesmen for humanity. Among them, Puget stars in the role of unhappy artist; he is clearly presented as joining the sublime and sordid aspects of humanity. Not only does the formal structure of the fifth stanza set Puget apart, but he is treated differently thematically, with the themes and emotions of his work brought to the forefront.

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The poet Baudelaire was also a music enthusiast and was as well known for his art criticism as for his verse, particularly for his essays on the Paris salons of 1845, 1846, and 1859. His address to the great masters in “The Beacons” comes from a connoisseur of the fine arts as well as literature. In “The Beacons,” Baudelaire associates varied sensual images, speaking of the works of visual artists in terms of scent, sound, light, and form.

Light and shadow are evoked throughout the poem. In the first stanza, both the river and cool flesh are reflective surfaces for a certain kind of light. The second stanza brings the contrast of light and shadow, with a mirror (essentially a reflective surface) qualified as profound and somber. Rembrandt’s dark world is cut through by winter light, cold but powerful in its contrast. The third stanza, however, emphasizes smell and hearing, with a sharp contrast of sublime and sordid elements, into which light intrudes abruptly.

In Michelangelo, the quality of the light is attenuated, vague, and dusky. The atmosphere is ambiguous, threatening with its evocation of physical power and suffering (both Hercules and Christ died in horrible torment), its linking of ancient mythology with Christian themes.

In the sixth stanza, Watteau’s light is hectic, the light of flaming butterflies or of lamps which pour madness on the dancers below. Here light implies color with the images of a carnival, of butterflies, of fresh and light settings. Goya’s world, dark as a Black Sabbath, still has a light-reflective mirror and the naked flesh of children, while Delacroix’s lake of blood, with its combination of liquid surface and deep color, is shaded by more color, the evergreen fir wood. The common quality of shade from evergreen woods echoes the light effect of the da Vinci stanza.

The ninth and tenth stanzas unite all these evocations of visual images with scent and sound, including Puget’s emotions, in a blend of impressions. They are finally transmuted into vocal expressions, both curses and Te Deums. The poet’s accomplishment, to transform the visual arts into words, is made explicit in these stanzas.

Only the third line of the tenth stanza, the image of the beacon light, remains visual, and from this line the poet took his title. As the reader is drawn back to the title, he must acknowledge the unity imposed on apparently episodic or particular material. All these voices (with full consciousness of the synesthetic union of visual and vocal) are gathered into one, just as the poem is gathered into one great cry, and this wave is thrown forward as witness toward God and His eternity.

Art lends a measure of immortality to the individual; Baudelaire recognizes this in his choice of a range of artists readily recognized and venerated by the public. “The Beacons” argues that great artists lend a voice to humanity and plead eternally for human dignity.

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