Themes and Meanings

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Baudelaire’s hero in Flowers of Evil strives for a poetic vision that parallels Christian salvation. Just as the Fall resulted from the temptation of Eve, woman becomes the agent of the poet’s separation from his vision of the ideal. Immediately before “The Jewels” in the first edition of Flowers of Evil—the only edition where it was to appear in Baudelaire’s lifetime—a series of three sonnets, “Beauty,” “The Ideal,” and “The Giantess,” defines an ideal of beauty presented in female form. Following “The Jewels,” “Exotic Perfume” continues the association of synesthesia with the woman saying that her perfume causes the poet to “see happy shores spread out” before him.

The vision the woman offers, however, is one of a false paradise. Only ten poems later in the 1857 edition, the poet both literally and figuratively awakens. In “One night when I was with a frightful Jewess,” Baudelaire sees the act of love linked with death and dreams of “the sad beauty of which my desire is depriving itself.” The vision of beauty, represented in the earlier sonnets by a statue or a giantess, cannot be translated into a living woman.

Because various elements of female beauty cause Baudelaire to believe, for a time, that he can regain transcendent vision through love, he is drawn into distractions that cause him to waste his life in this false pursuit. The central attraction of woman in this regard is her eyes—eyes that often reflect the light of heaven and thus become confused with it. Consequently, in “The Jewels,” it is especially significant that the woman dominates the poet through her hypnotic eyes.

In the same way, the choice of the jewels themselves as the focal point of this poem underlines the deceptive elements that, from the first, have impeded the poet’s vision. The poet’s only direct access to celestial light occurs at the beginning of Flowers of Evil, when “Benediction” offers him a glimpse of his “mystic crown.” Poetry, however, which is incapable of portraying this pure light, must fall back on images of the crown and the jewels that compose it, translating the celestial into earthly images.

The light reflected by the gems in “The Jewels” thus recalls to the poet images, though false ones, of his initial vision. Yet the gems in this poem are not confined to the ones worn by the woman. As the poet compares her charms to evil angels, he says they remove his soul from its solitary “crystal rock.” The contrast between the purity of this single crystal and the multiplicity of the woman’s jewels parallels the concentration of transcendent experience compared with the fragmentation echoed in the numerous and contrasting images used to describe the woman.

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