Charles Baudelaire Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2803

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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 of life and fantasy that the respectable middle class hides. In the very first poem of the book, “Au lecteur” (“To the Reader”), Baudelaire establishes an unusual relationship with his public. The poem begins with a list of vices—stupidity, error, sin, and stinginess—but instead of reproaching humanity and urging the reader to reform, the poet finishes the sentence with an independent clause containing a remarkable simile: “We feed our nice remorse,/ As beggars nourish their lice.” Over this humanity presides the Devil, described two stanzas later as the magician, not Hermes but Satan Trismegistus (three-times great), who turns the rich metal of the will into vapor like an alchemist working backwards. Building toward what will apparently be a crescendo of vice, Baudelaire, in stanza 7, lists sins that man would commit if he had the courage (such as rape, poisoning, stabbing, and arson) and then points to a still greater vice, which he names only three stanzas later in the conclusion: boredom (ennui). In the poem’s striking concluding lines, Baudelaire claims that the reader knows this “delicate monster,” and then calls the reader “Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!”

This strange poem, borrowing so much of its vocabulary and rhetoric from the tradition of religious exhortation, does not choose between good and evil. Instead, it promotes a third term into what is usually a simple dilemma: Boredom, as the greatest of vices, is an aesthetic concept that replaces traditional moral concepts of evil as that which must be avoided at all costs, a vice which “could swallow the world in a yawn.” In religious verse, the address to the reader as a brother is part of a call, first to recognize a common weakness and, second, to repent. Baudelaire does make an avowal of similarity but calls for an aesthetic rather than an ethical response.

“Beacons”

The largest part of Flowers of Evil evokes a struggle against boredom through the artistic use of the ugliness of everyday life and ordinary, even abject, passions. The poem “Les Phares” (“Beacons”) is an enumeration of eight great painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo, not as a celebration of human greatness but as a testimony to human sentiment and sensation, predominantly in the negative. Rubens is described, for example, as a “Pillow of fresh flesh where one cannot love” and Rembrandt as a “sad hospital full of murmuring.” The last three stanzas seem at first to point to a religious purpose in this art which depicts a swarming, nightmare-ridden humanity, for Baudelaire uses terms from religion: malediction, blasphemy, Te Deum. Humankind’s art is called a “divine opium,” but this drug is not offered upward as incense to the Deity. It is, rather, an opium for human hearts. The purpose of art is ambiguous in this conclusion, for it is the best testimony to human dignity but is destined to die at the edge of God’s eternity. In the historical context of French Romanticism, this vision of art serves at least to set Baudelaire apart from the partisans of “art for art’s sake,” a movement that Baudelaire himself called the “Plastic school.” Clearly, the visual beauty of the paintings alluded to is not their primary characteristic in “Beacons.” These works of art are great because of their representative quality and for the tension between their beauty and the suffering on which they are based.

“A Carcass”

The paradoxical search for an art that draws its beauty from ugliness and suffering appears in a spectacular way in another of the early poems of Flowers of Evil, titled “Une Charogne” (“A Carcass”). Baudelaire’s particular delight in the shocking combination of refined form with a crude and repugnant subject is noticeable in the very organization of the stanzas. There are twelve units of four lines each: The first and third lines of each stanza are rhyming Alexandrines (twelve-syllable lines), while the second and fourth lines are rhyming octosyllables. This division imposes a rhythm that heightens the contrast between refined gentleness and sickening sensations. As a whole, the poem is a monologue addressed to a person or character whom the speaker calls “my soul.” Although there is a certain ambiguity about the significance of the term (it could represent a division of the self into two parts, a common Baudelairean theme), the poet’s “soul” assumes the role of a woman to whom he speaks in words of endearment. He also recalls, however, the discovery, one summer morning, of a carcass lying near a pathway.

The poem’s opening stanza illustrates the way in which a tension is created between contrasting tones. The first two lines are addressed to the soul in terms that allow one to expect some pretty image, something that would fit the context of a beautiful, mild summer morning. The end of the second Alexandrine, however, names the object: a “foul carcass.” The discovery occurs as the speaker and his soul are coming around a bend in the path (détour), which parallels the transition from the first half of the stanza to the somewhat startling second half. The next eight stanzas continue to tell about the discovery of this cadaver in a tone that alternates, sometimes within stanzas and sometimes from one stanza to the next, between a distant aesthetic contemplation and a crude and immediate repulsion. The fourth stanza starts with a presentation of the point of view of the sky witnessing the “blossoming” of the carcass as if it were a flower, while the next two lines (“The stench was so strong that you thought you would faint on the grass”) take a distinctly human point of view, even rather sadistically delighting in the soul’s weakness. The speaker’s reaction is represented as quite different, much closer to that attributed to the sky. In stanza 7, he compares the sounds coming from the carcass, eaten by organisms of decomposition, to flowing water and wind and to the sound of grain being winnowed. Not only does this comparison permit the poet to find beauty in ugliness, but it also permits him to pay homage to the bucolic poetry of the Renaissance (exemplified in such poems as Joachim du Bellay’s “D’un vanneur de blé aux vents” (“From a Winnower to the Winds”), showing that classical themes can be presented in a thoroughly modern way.

In the following stanza, the speaker’s drift continues from a purely aesthetic contemplation of the object to a comparison of the carcass to an artist’s preliminary sketch in the artist’s memory. This reverie is broken off in the ninth stanza by the return to the supposed summer morning scene and the recollection that a dog was waiting for the couple to leave so that he could get her meat.

The last three stanzas are quite different, for they depart from the scene, which is in the past, and look forward to the future of the speaker’s beloved “soul,” foreseeing the time when she will be like that carcass. Yet, even in this section (a form of envoi, a traditional closing message to the addressee of a poem), the alteration of tone continues. In the tenth stanza, where the speaker declares “You will be like this filth,” he still continues to refer to her as “my angel and my passion.” This contrast leads toward the final stanza in which Baudelaire, again recalling the poetry of the French Renaissance, proclaims the immortality of his poetry (“I have kept the form and divine essence/ Of my decomposed loves”) in contrast to the fleshly mortality of his “soul,” his beloved.

It is impossible to assert that this conclusion is a straightforward poetic doctrine. Perhaps the poet, after having cast the “soul” in the paradoxical role of decomposition, is exercising a final irony toward his own poetry. In any case, it is clear that “A Carcass” represents Baudelaire’s reworking of traditional texts from classical and Renaissance tradition. His way of using the tradition sets him apart from those Romantics he called the Pagan school, who preferred to assume the posture of outright return to pre-Christian belief by denying historical evolution. One reason Baudelaire objected to this position was that he himself possessed a deeply tormented Christian character, described by some as Jansenist (that is, as belonging to the most severe, pessimistic, and ascetic form of seventeenth and eighteenth century French Catholicism), penetrated by the sense of sin and guilt. He could not imagine a simple return to classical “innocence.” Baudelaire also had an acute sense of the passage of time and of historical change. In calling the work of the neopagans “a disgusting and useless pastiche,” he was implicitly drawing attention to his own use of antiquity in a resolutely modernist manner, one that did not copy the ancients but assimilated their ideas into a representation of the reality of modern life.

“The Swan”

The poignancy that Baudelaire achieves with such an approach can be seen in his “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”), dedicated, like two other poems in the section “Tableaux parisiens” (“Parisian Pictures”), to Victor Hugo, a deep believer in the historical movement of poetry. “The Swan” is divided into two numbered parts, one of seven and the other of six stanzas. In the first section, the speaker begins by addressing the legendary figure Andromache, the Trojan Hector’s widow, captive in the city of Epirus. The Parisian speaker’s memory, he says, has been made pregnant by the thought of the “lying Simoïs swelled by your tears.” This allusion to the legends of Troy is the key to understanding the rest of the first part of the poem, most of which seems merely to tell of an event in the speaker’s own life, an event without apparent connection with Andromache. He was walking across the new Carrousel Square when he recalled a menagerie that once stood on that spot. A swan had escaped from its cage and was bathing its wings in the dust of a gutter.

The allusion to Andromache is now clearer, for the “lying” Simoïs was a replica in Epirus of the small river that once flowed at the foot of the walls of Troy. In an attempt to make the widow happier, her captors had constructed this imitation, described by Baudelaire as “lying” because it is not only false but actively and disappointingly deceitful. It can never replace the Simoïs but can only remind Andromache of the discrepancy between past and present. In the second part of the poem, Baudelaire explains the multiple analogy that had been left implicit in the first part. Returning to the present (the first part had been composed of three chronological layers: the legendary past of Andromache, the moment when the speaker saw the swan, and the approximate present in which he recollects the swan), he exclaims, “Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy/ Has moved!”

What had seemed in the first part to be a comparison only between the widow and the swan now includes the speaker. Each of the three has an immovable memory on the inside—the speaker compares his to rocks—which cannot match the mutable outside world. This dissonance between mind and world is expressed not only in the image of the swan but also, more subtly and pathetically, in the temporal organization of the poem. Between the time he saw the swan and the time of the creation of the poem, the swan has vanished and the old Carrousel has been changed into the new. The chronological layering of the text has the same function as the simile. Furthermore, the changes in Paris, composed of monumental constructions of carved stone, give the city an ironic and metaphoric significance. Monuments, like the palace of the Louvre near which the menagerie stood, are usually associated with memory. They are meant to last longer than individuals. Here, however, the city represents change. Baudelaire has thus united a commonplace of certain Romantic poets (the indifference of nature to man’s suffering) with a classical poetry of cities (Troy, Epirus, Rome) to produce a thoroughly modern poetic idiom.

The conclusion of “The Swan” continues the interplay of literary allusion, for it opens still further the analogy involving Andromache, the swan, and the poet to include an African woman exiled in a northern climate, sailors, captives, and the conquered. There is a decidedly epic quality to this expansion of the analogy to include vast numbers of modern exiles. Baudelaire did not, unlike many Romantics, believe in long poems, and he seems here to be condensing the grandeur of the epic into the brevity of the personal lyric. The many components of this epic analogy, stretching from Andromache to the suggestively open-ended last line (“Of captives, of the conquered . . . of still others!”), are reminiscent of the multiple symbolic figures (the artists) of “Beacons.” With this latter poem “The Swan” also shares the vision of suffering as a defining characteristic of life, for exiles “Suck at the breast of Sorrow as if she were a good wolf.” This image is a way of tying in the Roman epic of Romulus and Remus while emphasizing the voluntary or consoling aspect of pain and suffering.

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