“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 of winter light. The fourth quatrain presents the Italian sculptor and painter Michelangelo. His work is a vague place where one sees (pagan) Hercules figures mixed with Christs, where powerful phantoms rise straight up in twilight, tearing their shrouds.
In a break from the general pattern, the fifth stanza names its artist in the last line and addresses him directly. Pierre Puget, French Baroque painter and sculptor, is presented in terms of emotions—boxers’ angers and fauns’ impudence. A figure of contradictions, he found beauty in the lower classes, had a great heart, yet was swollen with pride, a sickly, yellow man, the melancholy emperor of convicts.
In the sixth quatrain, Antoine Watteau evokes a mad carnival, where hearts wander like butterflies in flames. Fresh and light surroundings are illuminated by lamps that pour madness on spinning dancers. The images are graceful but terrifying, tainted by flame and madness. The seventh stanza, dedicated to Francisco de Goya, presents visions drawn from a witches’ Sabbath, a nightmare where fetuses are cooked and old women and naked children tempt demons.
Eugène Delacroix is a lake of blood, haunted by bad angels, shadowed by a wood where strange fanfares pass under a troubled sky. The fanfares are compared to a stifled sigh from the music of Carl Maria von Weber. With these two figures, Baudelaire brings his catalog of immortal artists from the past to his own contemporaries.
The ninth and tenth stanzas join the individual qualities of these artists in their general human character; they are maledictions, blasphemies, complaints, ecstasies, cries, tears, Te Deums. The catalog of terms which takes up the first two lines of the ninth stanza is resumed in the third line as an echo repeated by a thousand labyrinths, multiple, repeated, and confined in the most elaborate of traps. The fourth line calls these voices a divine opium, both a deadener of pain and an agent of dreams. The tenth stanza expands their role to a means of escape or rescue from danger, a sentinel cry repeated...
(This entire section contains 665 words.)
a thousandfold, an order sent along by a thousand messengers, a beacon lit on a thousand citadels, a cry of hunters lost in great woods.
The eleventh stanza addresses God directly, qualifying the united witness of the great artists as proof of human dignity in suffering and passion, one sob rolling as a wave to die out on the border of eternity.
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.