The Poem

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“Benediction” is composed of nineteen quatrains written in regular Alexandrine, or twelve-syllable, lines with an alternating abab rhyme scheme. Charles Baudelaire’s choice of this traditional verse form contrasts with his innovative use of imagery that was to inspire a new symbolic form of expression in French poetry.

While the poem uses the third person, the poet it describes clearly represents Baudelaire himself. The autobiographical elements, however, are generalized enough for the poet to represent at the same time the romantic archetype of the poet as an inspired figure misunderstood by society.

The first five quatrains form the most clearly autobiographical section of the poem and emphasize the irony of the title, “Benediction.” The idea that a blessing from God is associated with the poet’s birth is suggested in the first line, where his appearance is said to be “by a decree of supreme powers.” Yet the child is anything but blessed when, immediately after his birth, his mother rejects him.

The mother’s rejection echoes Baudelaire’s own feeling of abandonment when, after his father died when Baudelaire was only six years old, his mother remarried, choosing a military man with whom the future poet had little in common. As this experience is translated into the poem “Benediction,” however, the mother rails against the defects of her child, whom she calls the “damned instrument” of God’s persecution of her. This rejection continues in quatrains 8 through 13 as friends and then specific women conspire to torment the poet.

Amid these rejections, quatrains 6 and 7 offer a contrasting hint of the poet’s salvation. An angel appears to guide the child amid the perils of the world. These quatrains combine elements of nature and of religion, as the poet “plays with the wind, chats with the cloud/ and becomes drunk while singing the way of the cross.” While the angel guides the child in these activities and seems to direct him toward the consoling elements of nature and of religion, the ambiguity of this passage makes it unclear whether the poet will actually achieve a satisfying life.

In the final six quatrains of the poem, the poet experiences a vision of hope. The reader sees him praying and blessing the same God against whom his mother had cried out. These prayers seem to be answered when the poet sees his suffering as a means to salvation: “I know that suffering is the only nobility.” The poet then describes a vision of “my mystic crown” that should be the emblem of his redemption. The crown, however, must be described in terms of the objects of the present world. It appears as “pure light” but also as a “diadem” surpassing the brilliance of gems, metals, and pearls. The poet’s need to express celestial light in worldly terms prefigures the loss of this vision that will become evident in subsequent poems of Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1909).

Forms and Devices

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Baudelaire’s collection of poems Flowers of Evil deals extensively with the elements of good and evil posited in its title. “Benediction” opens the first, and longest, section of the work, “Spleen et idéal” (“Spleen and Ideal”). Baudelaire’s concept of “spleen” incorporates the negative elements of fallen nature that contrast with the ideal he envisions at the end of this poem. The poet’s tragic fate lies in his consciousness that he is simultaneously drawn to each of these extremes.

Baudelaire created the basis for poetic symbolism by establishing groups of related images that work together to form highly nuanced constructs in his poetry. In “Benediction,” both positive and negative references continue the religious theme established...

(This entire section contains 518 words.)

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in the title. When his friends mock the poet, they sully the “bread and wine” he will consume, thus potentially corrupting a form of Holy Communion. Similarly, the woman, taking advantage of the fact that the poet adores her, assumes the role of “ancient idols,” leading him to a pagan form of worship that “usurps” the otherwise Christian devotion of the poem.

The positive vision of the “celestial crown” offers a radiant affirmation of the poet’s redemption. That is undercut, however, by certain elements both in this description and in the two quatrains in which the angel seems to protect the poet. Under the angel’s care, the child twice “becomes drunk”: once from the effects of the sun and once while singing the way of the cross. Drunkenness, as Baudelaire defined it in a prose poem, “Enivrez-vous,” was not limited to the action of alcohol, but it does imply a state in which the poet gives up rational control of himself. Thus the angel, even while he permits the child to run this risk, “cries to see him gay as a bird in the wood.”

This recognition of the child’s vulnerability is based in part on a definition of Baudelaire’s language drawn from sources beyond the present poem. This technique exemplifies another source of complexity in Baudelaire’s symbolism. The poems of Flowers of Evil are clearly meant to be read consecutively, as a whole. When, in the second line of “Benediction,” the poet appears in “ce monde ennuyé,” this phrase, describing ambiguously a world that is either troubled or bored, draws on the image of Ennui, the monster that Baudelaire described in his preceding poem, “To The Reader.”

In the same way, the final lines of “Benediction” undercut the vision of the “celestial crown” with images linked to the poet’s moral fall in subsequent poems. The “mortal eyes” seen as “obscure and pitiful mirrors” of celestial light foreshadow the eyes of the woman through whose seduction the poet will be separated from his ideal. Numerous repetitions of the images of both eyes and mirror develop this theme throughout Les Fleurs du mal.

The device of linking, through which images are reused from poem to poem, allows Baudelaire to add nuances to his central motifs as they recur in various contexts. The complexity resulting from this multiple redefinition forms the essence of his poetic symbolism.