The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Beacons” uses a catalog of artists to illustrate the relation of the artist to humanity and to God. It is the sixth poem in Charles Baudelaire’s principal collection, Les Fleurs du mal, set early in “Spleen et idéal” (“Spleen and Ideal”), a section that examines the competing drives of willful degradation and artistic elevation.

In the original French, the poem was written in eleven quatrains using Alexandrines, twelve-syllable lines traditionally chosen for elevated subjects. The rhymes follow a simple, alternating abab pattern. The title, which can mean watch fires, as well as beacons, is echoed and explained in the tenth stanza. Each of the eight artists addressed in the first eight stanzas is characterized as a beacon, a warning or guide, in the darkness.

Each of the first eight quatrains addresses and defines the work of a sculptor or painter drawn from periods ranging from the Italian Renaissance through the nineteenth century. The first stanza is dedicated to Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, whose work evokes a river of forgetfulness, a garden of indolence, a pillow of flesh, all images of detached opulence. On this pillow of flesh no one can love, although life flows and moves in it.

In the second quatrain, Leonardo da Vinci is a profound, dark mirror where charming, sweetly smiling angels, weighed down with mystery, appear in the shadow of glaciers and pines which enclose their world. Rembrandt is presented as a sad hospital, filled with murmurs, decorated with a great crucifix, where weeping prayer rises from filth, a dark space slashed by a ray...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Charles Baudelaire used verse, couched in traditional form, to express personal anguish and aspirations in a way that made him a model for new generations of poets. In “The Beacons,” the poet uses the Alexandrine verse and a regular rhyme scheme. The rhetorical pattern of the poem is regular as well. All but one of the eight first stanzas begin with a proper name. Only one is addressed directly (Puget); the others are treated as objective examples through their works. The parallel construction of these seven stanzas emphasizes the deviation of the fifth stanza. In this one stanza, emotion is emphasized. The poet’s own emotions and the emotions expressed in his works are described. Here the reader is invited to pause and contemplate the figure of an unhappy invalid who combines qualities from the highest and lowest strata of human societies (“emperor of convicts”).

Although the first eight stanzas are treated independently, none is an independent sentence. They do not end until the ninth stanza, where they are resumed as “these curses, these blasphemies.” Baudelaire uses the mechanism of repetition on several levels. The repeated parallel structure of the first eight stanzas is the most obvious example, but in the first two lines of the ninth stanza he uses the repetitive catalog of verbal complaint forms. In the ninth and tenth stanzas the poet employs repeated parallel grammatical constructions and repeats the word “thousand” four times. The cumulative effect of these multiple repetitions on a formal level reinforces the theme of echo and multiplicity, the swelling wave of voices rolling onward toward God’s eternity.