The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 its importance. It seems to be alive, but it depends on the movements of the woman to animate it.

With the adjective “mocking,” however, Baudelaire introduces an element of uncertainty. Why would the sound of the jewels mock the poet? If the poet desires inspiration from them, would these living jewels somehow foresee that his creative desire would be frustrated? The mockery Baudelaire perceives in the jewels reflects...

(The entire section is 514 words.)