Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
“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 clear indication of how powerful he thinks Beauty to be.
In the second half of this stanza, the poet expresses fear for Beauty’s great power. That power is not used wisely. It could lead to ruin, but then again, the poem also admits that it could lead to love. The one constant that the poet identifies in Beauty’s use of power is that it is always going to be used erratically. As line 12 tells readers, Beauty rules, but does so without responsibility.
Once again, the poem returns to the idea of Beauty as a frightening creature. Its personification in the form of a beautiful woman is retained in line 13, where it is presented as someone whom the poem’s speaker has watched dancing. The dancing referred to, however, is perversely on a grave, where more solemn behavior is expected. In line 14, at the very center of the poem, Baudelaire states clearly one of the poem’s main points, about the relationship between Beauty and Horror, calling Horror a “dazzling jewel,” implying that it is used to make Beauty even more appealing than it naturally is. If Horror is a decoration, though, Beauty also uses Murder like a move in a game, a stratagem. In this case, the game pits Beauty against “useful fools,” who presumably would not appreciate Beauty’s charms without the presence of danger.
The “man-fly” referred to in line 17 is a moth, which is attracted to a candle or other source of heat and light, flying toward it and then burning up as a result. In the same way, the poem implies, men are drawn to beauty, knowing that it will end in their own destruction. As it is presented here, men do not merely accept their destruction by Beauty, but actually welcome it, thinking of it as martyrdom, as if they are dying for an important, noble cause. Lines 19 and 20 draw a direct comparison between a lover giving in to desire and a person who knows that he is destined to die and so goes to his grave eagerly. The center of this connection between love and death is that Beauty is the motive for both.
Baudelaire makes it clear in this stanza that this poem is not a philosophical reflection on all aspects of Beauty, such as where it comes from, but is only concerned with the practical effects of Beauty as he experiences it. He says that he is not at all interested in its origins, but only with the thrill that he draws from contact with it. The images that the poem uses in line 23 show how desperate its speaker feels for any slight glimpse of Beauty, longing for a glance at her eyes or even just her feet. At the end of this stanza, Beauty is referred to as a Goddess, which is a concept that runs through all of Western civilization, one familiar to the mythologies of ancient Greeks and Egyptians.
The first line of the last stanza serves as a sort of summary of the poem, restating the most significant ideas about Beauty that have been raised. It reminds readers of the senses that one can use to experience Beauty, and of the poem’s uncertainty about whether it is good or evil. Baudelaire goes on to ignore the question of good or evil, though, saying that he does not care about morality, that Beauty is so important to him that it does not matter whether it is “a blessing or a curse.” The reason for this, which has not been brought up earlier, is the despair that he feels toward life in general, which he characterizes as “the dead hours of this grim universe.” He expresses his willingness to accept whatever Beauty has to offer, whether it is heavenly or hellish, as long as he can experience Beauty’s light within the darkness of his existence.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support