Themes

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Artist as a Translator

“Correspondences” creates a sense of proximity between the speaker and the natural world; where men can only “wander among the symbols in those glades,” the speaker, a poet, sees the relationship from afar. Unlike the average observer, the artist can understand the “symbols” set before him and is fluent in the “mystic speech” of nature. Due to the artist’s altered sight, the foreign language of the “living colonnades” clarifies before him, allowing him to see the component parts—both “sweet” and “corrupt” that comprise its divine unity. 

As such, the artist has a responsibility to translate, and “Correspondences” does exactly that. The speaker explains the obfuscated message transcribed into the marrow of nature’s sensations and details why such sensations are so deeply affecting: they are encoded with nature’s divine writ. Artists such as the speaker have unique insight and must act as a filter, absorbing the unique insight they glean, then legibly presenting it for their readers to better understand their world. 

The Dialogue Between Nature and Humanity

The title implies exchange and refers to an extended dialogue or conversation between the poem’s subject, nature, and those touched by its mystical communication. In the beginning, the speaker compares nature to a “temple,” drawing a connection between the natural world and man-made places of worship. In so doing, the natural realm assumes an appearance of divinity, as its “living colonnades”—the load-bearing pillars which act as temple walls—speak in “mystical” tongues. The conversation replicates the divine dynamic, too, as the “symbols” of nature’s truth seem foreign and beyond human ken. Observers look on in wonder, taken by the sensory overload nature’s majesty inspires, and their reaction is one of reverence. 

Linguistically, nature and man are mismatched; one speaks existential truths about the nature of being while the other perceives this “speech” as senses both “sweet” and “corrupt.” Interactions with nature seem akin to religious ecstasy, as the encounters are indescribable and evade articulation but profoundly affect the physical and spiritual self. Indeed, the speaker poses the dialogue between nature’s “mystic speech” and man’s wonderstruck observance as something of an imbalanced dynamic in which the natural world can speak, see, and comprehend, whereas man can only look on in befuddled wonder at the complex beauty before him. 

Romantic Beauty versus Authentic Beauty 

The continued presence of Romanticism—a literary era that prioritized emotion, sensation, and natural beauty—in the nineteenth century heavily influenced contemporary writers, including Baudelaire. The Romantics penned works on the beauty of the natural world, writing of scenic scapes and their overwhelming influence on the human soul. In terms of subject matter, Baudelaire's work closely replicated his contemporaries. However, the French poet chafed at the Romantics' misrepresentative view of the world, perfectionism, and idealization of nature. "Correspondences" reflects this disconnect by engaging the conventional themes and tropes of the era and then unconventionally discussing and restructuring them. Rather than focusing simply on the “sweet” perfumes and “familiar” sensations of the natural world, he directly engaged the “others”: those perfumes, often ignored, that are “rich, corrupt, profound.” Indeed, Les Fleurs de Mal embraced the duality of life, marrying pure and erotic natural scenes with grotesque, unappealing images to authentically represent the truth of life in nineteenth-century France. Baudelaire’s romanticism rejected perfection to embrace the perverse beauty of reality and, in so doing, prepared the literary and artistic landscape for the onset of twentieth-century Modernism.

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