Charles Baudelaire World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3711

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 3711 words.)

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