“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.)