Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2803
Although Charles Baudelaire was close to the major Romantic artists and poets, his work announced something new and difficult to describe. Baudelaire did not introduce a fundamentally new aesthetic principle but made important changes in the proportions of idealism and realism, formal beauty and attention to ideas, social commitment and alienation from society—all categories through which the Romantic poets had expressed their conception of literary art. More than most Romantics, he wrote poetry based on the ugliness of urban life and drew an intense beauty from the prosaic and the unspeakable. Although major Romantics, including Victor Hugo, had broken down many restrictions on subjects that could be treated in poetry, Baudelaire went further, choosing such topics as crime, disease, and prostitution as his points of departure. While many Romantics suggest a transcendent redemptive quality in art, a spiritual enlightenment that gives readers a kind of religious or social pathway to liberation, Baudelaire tantalizes the reader with religious hope but then pulls it away, suggesting that all hope is in the moment of artistic insight and not in the real future.
The image of the poet as prophet or spiritually superior dreamer, typical of Hugo or Alfred de Vigny, flickers occasionally through Baudelaire’s work, but it generally yields to an image of the poet as a sensitive and marginal individual whose only superiority to his contemporaries is his consciousness of his corruption and decadence, something Baudelaire expressed as “conscience [or consciousness] in the midst of evil.” Baudelaire thus prepared the way for the decadent poets, and for those poets of the twentieth century who conceived of their work as primarily individual and not social. In this regard, it is significant that Baudelaire introduced Edgar Allan Poe to the French. Poe subsequently came to be a major influence on Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry and even played a role in contemporary French psychoanalysis.
In terms of poetic form, Baudelaire’s major innovation was undoubtedly in the prose poem, which existed before him but achieved status as a major form principally through Paris Spleen, 1869. In his verse, Baudelaire often used the highly restrictive “fixed forms” with their set repetition of certain verses, such as the pantoum, in which the second and fourth verses of one stanza become the first and third of the following four-verse unit. Such forms were common among the Romantics, but Baudelaire’s combination of this formal perfection with surprising and even shocking subjects produces a dissonant and unforgettable music. Baudelaire thus avoids the pitfalls of the school of “art for art’s sake,” which he denounced for its exclusive attachment to surface beauty.
Flowers of Evil
Baudelaire insisted that Flowers of Evil should be read as a structured whole and not as a random collection of verse. Whatever one may think about the authority of such claims, the six major divisions of the book, beginning with the longest section, eighty-five poems, titled “Spleen et idéal” (“Spleen and Ideal”), and ending with the six poems of “La Mort” (“Death”), seem to outline a thematic and perhaps even chronological passage from aspirations toward a transcendence of pain, suffering, and evil (in the earliest section) through the exploration of various kinds of intoxication or escape—glimpsed in the sections “Le Vin” (“Wine”), “Flowers of Evil,” and “Révolte” (“Rebellion”)—only to end in death, seen itself as a form of escape from the disappointments or boredom of this world.
“To the Reader”
Throughout Flowers of Evil , a major theme is the uncovering of man’s own contradictions, hypocrisies, desires, and crimes: all the aspects...
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