“Hymn to Beauty” comes from the “Spleen and Ideal” section of Charles Baudelaire’s book Les Fleurs du Mal (which translates into English as Flowers of Evil or Flowers of Suffering). First published in 1857, it has become one of the most widely read and influential collections of poetry ever to come out of France. Like Edgar Allan Poe, whose works Baudelaire was instrumental in introducing to French audiences through extensive translations and critical works, Baudelaire viewed the universe with acute sensuality that leaned toward a fascination with the supernatural and the macabre. At the same time, his own aesthetic theories led him to the conclusion that beauty, mysterious and unknowable as it was, was the artist’s main concern. Baudelaire is considered to be a precursor to the French symbolist movement that developed decades later, at the end of the nineteenth century, and included Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. Most modern and postmodern poetry was influenced in one way or another by symbolism.
Baudelaire’s book Les Fleurs du Mal was subject to government censorship when it was published. Both Baudelaire and his publisher were forced to pay hefty fines for poems that were deemed indecent. In addition, six poems were removed from the second edition, published in 1861. After the poet’s death, several editions were published with different configurations of his poems. “Hymn to Beauty” is included in the recent compilation Charles Baudelaire: Complete Poems by Routeledge, translated from the French by Walter Martin.
“Hymn to Beauty” begins with a question that might seem strange to readers who only think of beauty as a pleasant experience. Baudelaire asks Beauty (which is capitalized, as a proper name) whether it is demonic or divine, whether it comes from heaven or hell. The poem is unique in showing that Beauty is as likely to be horrifying as it is to be wonderful. This ambiguous relationship is one that continues throughout the entire poem. In the last two lines of the first stanza, the way that Beauty can hold conflicting ideas together is compared to the effect of wine, because, like inebriation, beauty throws all things, including good and evil, together at random. Wine has been considered since antiquity to raise the animalistic, instinctual side of human nature, and the poem points out that, under the influence of Beauty, even the most severe moral opposites are hard to discern.
The personification of Beauty is continued in the second stanza with a mention of Beauty’s eyes. Though Baudelaire may have had someone in particular in mind when he wrote this poem, most likely his mistress, Jean Duval, the image of Beauty here is described as an idea that has been imbued with human traits. Traditionally, beauty is linked with serenity and self-contentedness, but the Beauty that Baudelaire imagines in line 5 is closer to the “demonic” image of the first stanza, with flaring suns and burning sunsets that suggest the fires of hell. This fiery imagery is balanced, however, by the calm image in line 6 of “phantom fragrance”— not only is its source so subtle that it cannot be identified, which is what makes it a “phantom,” but the use of the pleasant word “fragrance” contradicts the harshness of the demon imagery that precedes it. Line 7 recalls the intoxicating effect of wine with its mention of drugs, while line 8 continues the idea of Beauty turning natural order around, as the social roles played by men and boys are reversed.
The poem’s original question, from lines 1–2, is repeated in line 9. As a twist on the poem’s constant personification of Beauty, Fate is introduced. Instead of being talked about as a person, though, Fate is presented as a dog that follows after Beauty, “faithfully.” It is rare that a poet would consider Fate weaker than anyone or anything, and the fact that Baudelaire shows Fate as Beauty’s faithful pet is a...
(The entire section is 1,307 words.)