The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

“Gambling” also translated as “Gamblers”) is a twenty-four line poem, divided into six stanzas. Each line contains twelve syllables and is thus an Alexandrine, which has been a traditional verse form used by French poets for centuries. Each stanza observes the same abab rhyme scheme.

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Charles Baudelaire included this poem in the section entitled “Tableaux parisiens” (Parisian Scenes) in The Flowers of Evil; “Parisian Scenes” is the second of the six sections in the book. In “Parisian Scenes,” Baudelaire described diverse aspects of daily life in Paris from personal perspectives.

This poem is a third-person narrative for the first three stanzas. In the last three stanzas, Baudelaire switches to first-person narration. These two different perspectives enable one to appreciate more thoroughly the complexity of the narrator’s subjective perceptions.

In the first three stanzas, one finds an apparently objective description of self-destructive men and women who spend their evenings in Parisian gambling casinos. He compares the women to garishly dressed prostitutes and the men to poets who “squander” their talents in such unproductive activities as gambling.

In the fourth stanza, the narrator informs the reader that this scene seems nightmarish to him. He sees himself in the casino observing the gamblers, he looks at them from a corner of the room. Although he is repulsed by the whores and poets who demean themselves by “selling” their “honor” and “beauty,” he is nevertheless envious of these gamblers, who can concentrate their attention so exclusively and so passionately on such a frivolous yet addictive diversion, one which will restrict significantly their personal freedom of action. Although the narrator is revolted by the moral degradation shown by the gamblers, he realizes that their behavior mirrors similar self-destructive tendencies in himself as well.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

“Gambling” illustrates well Baudelaire’s belief that a truly original writer should be a visionary realist who expresses profound insights into everyday scenes and situations which readers can recognize easily. Baudelaire describes the physical and moral degradation caused by the addiction to gambling. In the first three stanzas, Baudelaire states that the poets and aged whores are frequenting a casino whose “shabby armchairs,” “dirty ceilings,” and “dusty chandeliers” seem to suggest the emptiness in the lives of the gamblers. The gamblers will find neither wealth nor aesthetic pleasure there. In a vain effort to impress their customers, the whores put on excessive mascara and cheap earrings, but their makeup and jewelry make one only more conscious of the lack of moral and physical beauty both in the whores and in the amoral men who purchase their services. The men who frequent this casino are equally superficial. Baudelaire states that the poets are “famous,” but their fame is presumably in their own minds. The hours which they spend in casinos could have been used to create poems, but they have chosen to “squander” their talents here.

By the end of the third stanza, it appears that “Gambling” will be a fairly predictable poem about the moral degradation which can result from this addictive behavior. A significant transition occurs, however, in the fourth stanza. The scene in the casino provokes in the narrator a terrifying nightmare. He imagines that he is seeing himself in this degrading scene. Although he claims to be indifferent to the gamblers, he still feels “envious” of their “stubborn passion.” Baudelaire stresses the identification which the narrator feels for the gamblers by ending the fourth stanza and beginning the fifth stanza with the same French word, enviant, which can mean both “envious” and “envying.” Their passion results in nothing worthwhile, but by means of the oxymoron in the words “deadly gaiety” (funèbre gaïeté in French), Baudelaire conveys the painful truth that “gaiety” brings both ephemeral pleasure and eternal suffering. Although their lives may seem meaningless to many people, these gamblers may have, in fact, done something positive: They prefer “pain to death, and hell to nothingness.” Self-destructive, they are nevertheless still alive, and some hope for moral improvement exists simply because they are not yet dead.

Baudelaire has often been described as a visionary poet because he enables his readers to appreciate more thoroughly the moral and psychological complexity in situations which they might well see with their own eyes. This poem permits and even requires two different interpretations because readers can never determine with certainty whether the depressing casino scene describes people whom the narrator actually saw or whether it is the artistic representation of a nightmare experienced by the narrator. Each of these interpretations, however, complements the other. In the first three stanzas, Baudelaire has his readers “see” the self-destructive behavior of these gamblers, but in the fourth stanza, the narrator “sees” himself “in a corner of that hushed den.” This nightmarish vision enables the narrator first to see and then to understand the psychological similarities between himself and these pitiful gamblers.

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Themes