Charles Baudelaire

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How can one identify symbolism in "A Carcass" by Charles Baudelaire?

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The poem is part of the cluster "Spleen and Ideal." The narrative is formed as a recollection. In the Richard Howard translation, the first line goes as follows:

Remember, my soul, the thing we saw that lovely summer day?

It is unclear, in my view, if the narrator is speaking to an actual lover or his soul ("mon âme"). In French, there would be a bit of a play on words here between "mon âme" and "mon amour." 

Baudelaire illustrates here the grim and grotesque sight of death. It is the flesh of a nameless animal (Howard translates "la charogne" as "carrion"), which indicates that it could be anything. A human being, another animal, can feel its own vulnerability and mortality here: "On a pile of stones...legs in the air, like a whore..." The simile comparing the corpse to a "whore" illustrates something direct and shameless about death.

All of this takes place on a summer day ("l'été"). It is important to think about how summer is often used metaphorically to talk about a phase of life, as well as the crude things that summer heat can do to a rotting corpse. In the poem, nature consumes and transforms the body, while heaven is passive:

And heaven watched the splendid corpse like a flower open wide --

The carrion provides life to other beings, "flies" and "maggots," as well as "an anxious bitch" waiting for him/them to pass along so that she can "resume her interrupted feast."

In the last three stanzas, it seems as though the narrator is addressing a real companion, one that he elevates from the gross carrion by comparing her to elements of the universe ("you, the light of my life, the sun and moon and stars of my love!") and a symbol of regal power ("my queen"). However, in the last stanza, as he imagines the "kisses" of "the worms" "[eating] you up," he insists that he has "kept the sacred essence, saved the form of my rotted loves!" This last line suggests that it is not just one person whom he loves, or has loved, turning into a rotting corpse, but everyone he has loved. All of them now are a part of his soul -- his being. By watching the carrion rot, splayed and picked apart, he sees what will happen to his beloveds and to himself.

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This poem is one of Baudelaire's "corpse poems" from a larger work THE FLOWERS OF EVIL. In the poem, the speaker is taking a stroll with his lover when he comes upon the carcass. In order to explore the symbolism of this poem, ask yourself what the carcass might stand for. Also note the use of contrasts in the poem (a hint to the symbolism) - it is a beautiful spring morning, and yet the speaker comes upon a decaying carcass. See the link below for a helpful discussion of this poem if you get stuck, but I hope you will think it through yourself first! If you speak French, I highly recommend you read the poem in the original French - so beautiful in its use of language.

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