In “The Jewels,” a poem composed of eight quatrains in regular Alexandrine lines, Charles Baudelaire records a portrait of his mulatto mistress dressed only in her jewelry. While the description will not seem excessively graphic to the modern reader, this poem was one of the ones responsible for the censure and withdrawal from sale of the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1909).
The principal development of the poem follows a seduction scene in which the woman seduces, and thus psychologically dominates, the poet. The stage is set during the first two quatrains while the woman remains relatively passive. The poet is attracted to her, but his attention remains focused on her jewels. The only indication that the woman already controls the situation comes in the first line, where she is said to wear the jewels because she knows the poet’s heart. Yet rather than conveying a form of manipulation, this phrase may also be read as her desire to please him.
The description of the jewels contains elements that will fascinate the poet through a simultaneous appeal to his various senses. By the third quatrain, this fascination begins to have its effect. The poet appears below the woman, in a position suggesting adoration, while she smiles at him from the “height of the sofa.” Still, she remains passive, merely accepting his love that “rises up” to her.
In the fourth quatrain, the woman becomes active. Her eyes are still those of a “subdued tiger,” but they contain all the implicit danger of the beast. As she moves in an increasingly sensual manner, the poet notes her “metamorphoses.” These movements continue through the ensuing quatrains until the poet must admit that she can “trouble the repose” of his soul.
Although the poet must see the danger the woman presents when he describes her breasts as more seductive than “the Angels of evil,” he does not heed the warning implicit in this insight. His admiration continues in the seventh quatrain, where he is still fascinated by the contradictory elements, combining feminine and masculine allusions, that make up her beauty.
Thus the final image of the lamp “resigned to its death” figures both the passage of time and the final disposition of the poet. The ebbing lamplight signals an end to the love scene, but a fire in the hearth, also dying to embers, continues to flare up periodically with a “flaming sigh.” The sigh may echo the poet’s satisfaction or his resignation. If it contains elements of the latter, he has accepted the troubles to his soul as the price of pleasure. Danger and beauty remain inextricably linked in the last line, where the firelight “inundated with blood [the woman’s] amber-colored skin.” The blood, a clearly symbolic application of the red color imparted by the dying fire, suggests the threat of violence, but the poet’s attention remains fixed on the beauty of the mingling colors.
Forms and Devices
The poet’s fascination with the woman’s “sonorous jewels” reflects the importance Baudelaire accorded to synesthesia as a source of poetic inspiration. In his sonnet “Correspondences,” he defined this fusion of appeals to various senses, specifically the harmony of perfumes, colors, and sounds, as “having the expansion of infinite things.” Thus objects capable of producing synesthesia offered a special opportunity to the poet to grasp those transcendent ideas that should be expressed in poetry.
The poet desires the woman in “The Jewels” both for her own beauty and for her potential role in his inspiration. He reminds the reader in language reminiscent of “Correspondences” that he loves “things where sound is mixed with light.” The light caught by the “radiant world” of the gems is joined by sound as the woman moves. The jewels striking against one another “throw off while dancing a lively, mocking sound.” Characterizing the jewelry as a “world” and its sound as “lively” emphasizes...
(The entire section is 1,005 words.)