Charles Baudelaire

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Charles Baudelaire World Literature Analysis

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In terms of the evolution of literary style, Baudelaire was very much a man of his time, but his time was one of transition. The Romantic poets of the generation before him had taken the essential first steps to free poetic expression from neoclassical constraints. Victor Hugo declared in his 1829 preface to Les Orientales (1829; Les Orientales: Or, Eastern Lyrics, 1879) that “the poet is free.” Hugo linked poetic expression to political liberty, a public dimension of the poet’s role that Baudelaire would not follow, but he also adopted the varied poetic forms and wide range of nature images that would provide Baudelaire with the building blocks of his own style. Later, Symbolist poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé would in turn draw on Baudelaire’s work to create a more complex and abstract poetic style. Later still, after Sigmund Freud transformed the view of the human mind, psychologists would explore subjective resonances of the images that Baudelaire had raised to the role of symbols. Baudelaire provided the link between two very distinct forms of expression.

The concept of “symbol,” as it was to evolve in the works of the Symbolist poets, differs greatly from the allegorical use of an image to represent one, specific, other idea. Allegory has been a rich form of expresson since even before Christian tradition began to posit a link between bread and wine (the objects) and the body and blood of Christ (the idea represented). With the effusive nature description of the Romantic poets, quantities of images multiplied, but their applications remained simple. Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem “Le Lac” (“The Lake”) repeatedly invoked nature through lists of images—“Oh lake! mute rocks! grottoes! shadowy forest!”—but these objects represented only their own role in the scene that he described.

With his sonnet “Correspondances” (“Correspondences”), Baudelaire defined a new way of seeing objects in nature. The poem opens with the assertion that a voice within nature speaks: “Nature is a temple where living pillars/ Sometimes let forth confused words.” Although the description of nature as a temple posits some form of religious revelation, the “confused words” that issue forth from it are not at once intelligible. They are symbols that must be interpreted: “Man passes through forests of symbols.”

The reader is left to wonder how to interpret the mysterious symbols, but in these lines Baudelaire has provided a key. The image of the forest joins the “living pillars” of the first line to clarify that the living trees of the forest provide the pillars of nature’s temple. Images that share a physical resemblance, trees and pillars, fuse to form a new concept, that of the place of worship displaced to the outdoors. The “correspondences” of the poem lie in the ways that various things resemble one another. The poet, who can perceive these affinities, can understand the mysterious unity of nature: “Like long echoes that fuse in the distance/ Into a dark, deep unity.” The first similarity noted in the poem, that of trees and pillars, is based on their visually observed forms. Now, Baudelaire changes to a fusion of sounds as the echoes merge, and the sestet of his sonnet finds affinities in perfumes. This appeal to diverse senses characterizes Baudelaire’s verse, where perfumes, especially, play a major role.

The most important function of the senses, however, lies in their interrelationships: “Perfumes, colors and sounds answer each other.” The verb “to answer,” with its implication of spoken language, recalls the “confused words” through which nature originally communicated. In the sense in which “response” implies exchange between participants, however, the verb posits a similarity between the...

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messages of the senses. Thus, with “there are perfumes as fresh as the flesh of children/ Sweet as oboes, green as fields,” the perfumes are in turn likened to the texture of children’s skin, the sound of oboes, and the color of fields. For Baudelaire, the perception of these messages of the senses, messages “containing the expansion of infinite things,” allows the poet to understand mysteries hidden to the casual observer.

The role of the poet at this point is crucial. Baudelaire shared with many of his contemporaries the concept of the poet as a person of uncommon insight, whose perceptions went far beyond those of the masses. Attaining this vision, however, resulted from painful experience. Baudelaire’s version of this suffering closely parallels the Fall of Man, as the poet, led astray from the beauties of the world largely by temptations associated with women, discovers that he has lost his transcendent vision.

A second sonnet much later in Flowers of Evil, “Obsession,” returns to the images of “Correspondences” but in a much more negative context. The temple of nature remains, but it terrifies the poet: “Great woods, you terrify me like cathedrals.” Conscious of his fallen state, the poet now flees those elements in nature that offer meaning: “How you would please me, oh Night, without these stars/ Whose light speaks a known language.” The language of the stars testifies to what he has lost. Another sonnet documenting the poet’s recognition of his fall places the reason for it clearly on his own debauchery. In “L’Aube spirituelle” (“Spiritual Dawn”), the enlightenment of his spirit corresponds to dawn awakening a reveler: “When in the house of debauchery the white and crimson dawn/ Enters together with the gnawing Ideal.” The memory of the Ideal torments him, because it has now become “the unreachable azure.”

The contrast between the spiritual ideal and fallen man parallels the radiant imagery that Baudelaire adopted from his trip of 1841 set against the depression of his life in Paris. Opposing images contrast the two ideas: “The sun has blackened the flame of the candles” (from “Spiritual Dawn”), but the dynamic element is the interaction between the two. The sun of the Ideal serves to darken the candles that light the debauchery.

“The Trip”

First published: “Le Voyage,” 1861 (collected in The Flowers of Evil, 2006)

Type of work: Poem

After retracing the frustration of the journey of his life, the poet posits the ultimate new beginning in the departure of death.

Baudelaire wrote “The Trip” in 1859, and in 1861 he added this poem to the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal; he found in it the ideal poem with which to conclude this work. The overall structure of Flowers of Evil is loosely autobiographical, beginning with the birth of the poet in the initial “Bénédiction” (“Benediction”) and progressing through the emotional; the work also addresses the spiritual experiences of his life. “The Trip” begins again with the poet’s childhood and serves as a final summary of the work before it offers a new, concluding hope.

The initial image is that of the child who can travel only in his imagination: “For the child who loves maps and engravings/ The universe satisfies his vast appetite.” Yet immediately, the voice of the poet’s experience intrudes to declare that this naïve enjoyment surpasses the reality of actual travel: “Oh how big the world is in lamplight/ How small the world is in the eyes of memory.” The contrast of the vast and narrow perceptions of the world coincides with Baudelaire’s dual vision. The poet perceives the vastness, while the fallen man sees the world close in around him.

The first section of the poem narrates a joyful departure: “One morning we leave, our minds enflamed.” While the experience seems quite comfortable, the travelers find their will lulled to sleep: “Rocking our infinite nature on the finite seas.” The physical limits of the ocean are contrasted this time with the unlimited potential of the human soul, lulled into unconsciousness. Baudelaire’s choice of the verb “to rock” recalls his prefatory poem to Flowers of Evil, “Au Lecteur” (“To the Reader”), where the devil rocks the human soul before seducing it down to hell. As if this analogy were not warning enough, the following quatrain introduces the image of Circe, the seductress who sought to lure Ulysses to his doom in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). In “The Trip,” however, Circe represents the danger inherent in all women, as men are “drowned in the eyes of a woman/ Tyrannical Circe with her dangerous perfumes.”

A technique basic to Baudelaire’s symbolism involves the progressive refinement of the definition of his central images as the same object or idea is repeated in varied contexts. In this final poem of his collection, much of the vocabulary has already acquired multiple connotations through previous usage. Thus, the woman’s eyes and dangerous perfumes have become negative in the sense of contributing to the poet’s seduction but remain positive in the appeal of their beauty. Such ambiguities caused the confusion that led the poet to lose sight of his ideal.

The travelers recognize the danger inherent in Circe, and “so as not to be changed into beasts, they become drunk/ On space and light and burning skies.” To avoid the woman’s domination, the “being changed to beasts” that threatened Ulysses and his crew, they become drunk. Yet this drunkenness, too, has been predefined in Baudelaire’s lexicon as a source of danger. Already in “Benediction” the child-poet “disinherited becomes drunk on sunlight” as he enters the hazardous world, and the clustering of images of sun and drunkenness has been in several poems linked to dangers. Thus, while “The Trip” recapitulates to some extent the life of the poet, it draws on the poems that have gone before to give very precise definitions to its terms.

The central segment of the poem narrates the voyage, first, in part 2, still in Baudelaire’s voice, and then in parts 3 through in a dialogue between the naïve child and the experienced travelers. In response to the child’s repeated questions, the travelers finally declare that all that they have seen has been “the boring spectacle of immortal sin.” Again, the language carries multiple meanings. While sin, especially oft-repeated, may indeed be boring, “Boredom” was also the name of the monster who, in “To the Reader,” seduced men into losing their souls. Parts 7 and 8 return to the poet’s own voice, providing in these two final sections a symmetry with the two opening sections of the poem. Baudelaire’s conclusion concerns that “bitter knowledge that is gained from travel,” and he compares the long frustration of travel to the story of the Wandering Jew. After relying on his own symbol vocabulary in the earlier parts of the poem, Baudelaire now expresses himself through traditional myth.

His last scene, paralleling the earlier use of Circe, is that of the Lotus Eaters, another of the perils that faced Ulysses. Their song invites the poet once again, “Come to get drunk,” but he recognizes the danger: “By the familiar accent we recognize the specter.” This ghost is that of the seductive woman: “Swim toward your Electra!/ Says the woman whose knees we used to kiss.”

The voyage ends with the poet seemingly alone, though he still speaks in a plural “we” that potentially incorporates all humankind. In the final section, composed of only two quatrains, the poet invites death: “Oh Death, old captain, it is time! raise the anchor!/ This country bores us, oh Death! Let us set sail!” The maritime imagery redefines death. It will be a departure like any other, and as such it is nothing to be feared.

The vocabulary continues to draw on Baudelaire’s previous usage, where sea voyages have been numerous and “boredom” has acquired multiple associations. Similarly, the next lines draw on the contrasts of light and darkness that have characterized Baudelaire’s dual view of the world—“If the sky and the sea are as black as ink,/ Our hearts, you know, are filled with light”—and his call for poison in the last quatrain repeats another recurring motif. This repetition of the familiar seems to reassure the reader that there is nothing new in this latest voyage.

“By Association”

First published: “Parfum exotique,” 1857 (collected in The Flowers of Evil, 2006)

Type of work: Poem

A woman’s perfume inspires the poet to see a vision of an earthly paradise.

“By Association” details one of the many forms of departure that tempted Baudelaire throughout Flowers of Evil prior to his ultimate departure in “The Trip.” The poem was published in the 1857 edition of Flowers of Evil, as well as in the 1861 edition, where it was situated between two other poems, “Hymne à la Beauté” (“Hymn to Beauty”) and “La Chevelure” (“The Head of Hair”), on the general subject of the beauty of women. “By Association” also exemplifies Baudelaire’s technique of developing both ideas and imagery through a sequence of related poems.

“Hymn to Beauty” addresses beauty in general, though clearly in female form, and reflects the dualism that Baudelaire recognized in this subject. The opening lines, “Do you come from deep heaven or from the abyss/ Oh Beauty?” recognize the danger of woman. Yet by the end of the poem, the poet willingly takes whatever risk that he must: What does it matter, if you—velvet-eyed fairy/ Rhythm, perfume, light, my only queen—you make the universe less ugly and time less heavy?” The attributes that Baudelaire ascribes to the woman reflect her duality. The allusions to “rhythm, perfume, light” recall the multiple sensory stimuli that contributed to the poet’s vision in “Correspondences.” Yet the reference to her eyes, the instruments by which women often overpower the poet elsewhere in Flowers of Evil, alludes to her potential dominance and links this poem to the one that is to follow.

“By Association” begins with the poet’s eyes closed, in contrast to those of the woman, which are presumably open: “When with closed eyes on a warm autumn evening/ I breathe the odor of your warming breast.” The poet’s closed eyes imply that he is abandoning himself to the sensations provided by the perfume, sensations that still evoke, as they had in “Correspondences,” a visionary experience: “I see stretched out before me happy shores/ Dazzled by the fires of a monotone sun.” The vision, drawing on the suggestion of “exotique” in the title of the sonnet, conjures a setting frequent in Baudelaire’s imagery. The “shores” suggest a sea voyage, while the dazzling sun suggests a tropical destination.

Dangers lurk even in this idyllic landscape. The sun described as “monotone” recalls Baudelaire’s negative “boredom,” and the second quatrain describing “a lazy island” anticipates the Lotus Eaters of “The Trip.” The island is also inhabited by “women whose eyes astonish by their frankness.” Yet the poet does not take warning from the power expressed in the women’s eyes. The sestet describes an earthly paradise to which he is “guided by your perfume.” In describing this paradise, Baudelaire briefly abandons the contradictory images that have rendered many of his visions ambiguous: “While the perfume of the green tamarind trees/ That circulates through the air and widens my nostrils/ Combines in my soul with the song of the sailors.” The fusion of perfume and music returns to the experience of “Correspondences.” This imaginative departure inspired by the woman continues in the following poem, “The Head of Hair,” where the perfume of her hair carries the poet as far as “languorous Asia and burning Africa.” Yet in the following, untitled poem “I adore you as the vault of night,” the danger of passion reappears, as Baudelaire realizes that his experiences with the woman “separate my arms from the blue immensity.”

Baudelaire’s linking of themes and development of ideas from poem to poem through Flowers of Evil invites the reader to approach the work as a unit, both for the story that it traces of the poet’s life and for the progressive development that it makes possible for his slowly evolving symbols.

“The Swan”

First published: “Le Cygne,” 1861 (collected in The Flowers of Evil, 2006)

Type of work: Poem

Images of exile cause the poet to meditate on his own solitude.

In “The Swan,” a poem appearing much later in Flowers of Evil than “By Association,” Baudelaire’s perspective has considerably evolved. Numerous disappointing experiences with women and other distractions have persuaded him that what he has lost through his dissipation has been of more lasting importance than what he has enjoyed. He now finds himself removed from his once-clear vision of his ideal.

The imagery of “The Swan” functions on two levels of complexity. The surface meaning remains deceptively simple. Baudelaire enumerates several examples of exile—Victor Hugo, Andromache, and the swan—and proposes them as simple analogies for his own separation from “old Paris.” Hugo’s name appears only in the dedication, but it would have been sufficient to remind the readers of Baudelaire’s time that Hugo was in exile on the island of Guernsey. Andromache appears in the poem as she was after the fall of Troy, widowed and captive in a strange land: “Andromache, I think of you! This little river/ Poor, sad mirror where once shone/ The immense majesty of your widow’s pain.” The sad mirror of the river reflects not only Andromache’s present suffering but also her former, happier life. The analogy of the river with the Seine, by which Baudelaire stands, “Suddenly fertilized” his “fertile memory,” and he regrets, as he walks by the place du Carrousel near the Louvre, that the city of Paris is changing around him. As he passes a place where “animals were once sold,” he meets “a swan that had escaped from its cage.”

With the appearance of the swan, the complexity of the imagery changes. The bird suffers superficially because, in strange surroundings not adapted to its needs, it cannot find water to drink: “Rubbing the dry pavement with his webbed feet/ On the rough ground dragged his white plumage/ By a dry gutter the beast open[ed] his beak.” Yet the wings dragging on the pavement convey the degree to which this animal is out of place in its surroundings. Baudelaire imagines the emotions of the swan, “his heart filled with the beautiful lake of his birth.” The water that he needs is not merely what is necessary to drink but that of his homeland. The swan thus becomes the “strange and fateful myth” that figures Baudelaire himself. Yet Baudelaire remains in his native Paris. The nature of his exile becomes clear only through suggestions begun with the exotic webbed feet and “beautiful lake of his birth” of the swan that suggest the more tropical climates emblematic of Baudelaire’s ideal.

Baudelaire sees himself like “the man in Ovid,” an allusion to Ovid’s distinction that man looks toward heaven and animals toward earth. Yet he looks at “the ironic and cruelly blue sky,” cruel because it now mocks the poet’s futile aspiration. In the second part of the poem, Baudelaire repeats this revelation, detailing the suffering of each creature in exile and adding the image of the Negress: “I think of the skinny and consumptive Negress/ Tramping in the mud, and seeking, with haggard looks/ The absent coconut trees of proud Africa.” The plight of the woman, perhaps inspired by the example of Jeanne Duval, reinforces the haunting presence of tropical nature contrasted at the end of the poem with “the forest where my Spirit is exiled.”

“A Voyage to Cythera”

First published: “Un Voyage à Cythère,” 1861 (collected in The Flowers of Evil, 2006)

Type of work: Poem

A traveler sees on the island of Cythera an emblem of his own fate.

“A Voyage to Cythera” shows the full evolution of the motif of departure in Baudelaire’s work. In earlier poems, the poet shared the innocence exemplified by the child at the opening of “The Trip.” Thus, in “By Association” he saw no reason not to abandon himself to the imagined departure inspired by the woman’s perfume. “The Swan” reflects his recognition of separation from the ideal, but in a context of sadness rather than despair. The images of death in “A Voyage to Cythera” finally document the extent of the poet’s fall.

Baudelaire borrowed the circumstances of this poem from a story that Gérard de Nerval had told of his own visit to Greece in his Voyage en Orient (1851; Journey to the Orient, 1972). The poem opens with the familiar scene of a happy sea voyage: “My heart, like a bird, fluttered joyfully/ And soared freely around the rigging.” The joyful bird representing the poet’s heart recalls the use of the same image in “Elévation” (“Elevation”), a poem at the beginning of Flowers of Evil, and serves to show from what heights the poet has fallen. Immediately, the imagery of this joyous scene suggests the fall: “The ship rocked under a cloudless sky/ Like an angel drunk on radiant sunlight.” The negative implication appears, not in the literal meanings of the words, but in special nuances that Baudelaire has attached to them. The rolling ship echoes the rocking action by which “Boredom” rocked humanity’s will, and the drunken angel recalls the angel of “Benediction” who observed the child’s drunkenness.

When the island of Cythera, once sacred to Venus, becomes visible to the travelers, it is devoid of its former charms, “proud ghost of the antique Venus.” Baudelaire recalls the island’s past, “Where the sighs of adoring hearts/ Roll like incense on a rose garden,” and the perfume recalls Baudelaire’s own seduction. Like Baudelaire, the island has changed. On its banks now stands a gibbet, upon which hangs the body of a man already being devoured by beasts of prey. Faced with this grotesque image, Baudelaire recognizes in it the emblem of his own condition: “On your island, oh Venus! I found standing/ Only a symbolic gibbet where hung my own image.” His spiritual death was linked to women, even as this man’s death was to the island that represented love. In his fallen state, the poet can only reach out to God: “Oh Lord! give me the strength and courage/ To contemplate my heart and body without distaste.” The strength for which he prays may indeed provide the courage with which he will face death in his ultimate departure in “The Trip.”


Charles Baudelaire Poetry Analysis


Baudelaire, Charles