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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 604 words.)