Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty” (Exercise #1)

Group Close Reading Exercise #1

Stanford students: This exercise is due by Wednesday, 9/26, at 10 am (or earlier). Visitors: You can participate in the comments below at any time; just choose two lines, write them down again in the comment field, and start annotating them. 

Task: For our first group close reading exercise, each of you (Stanford students) should please pick two consecutive lines from the poem (which was published in Les Fleurs du mal, 1857).  Please annotate these lines: “translate” your assigned two lines into your own words, closely capturing and weighing the ideas they may contain.  Use the color blue (or similar) for your annotation and end  with your initials or your chosen screen name so that we can keep track of individual contributions. (You may annotate either the French original or the English version below, but please use English for your own annotations.)

After you’ve transformed your two lines by putting them into your own words, you may then very briefly comment on any formal features you notice in the original (such as alliteration, an interesting metaphor, a rhyme scheme or meter feature, a contrast being introduced, etc.), or any confusions or questions you have about your lines or words.  No annotation should be longer than a short paragraph, however, please—this is not an essay!

Purpose: To pay close attention to the language and to the emergence of ideas in the poem, and to notice details as you slowly put the poem’s language into your own words.  Also, to allow you to notice, but not yet interpret deeply, obvious formal characteristics. We’re not looking for a comprehensive interpretation of the poem as a whole in this exercise (although one outcome will hopefully be that the poem overall appears much clearer to you after we’re finished with our crowd sourcing), but rather for an intelligent transposition, using creative collaboration to build a deep basis for subsequent interpretation.

We will discuss our common findings in class on Wednesday, 9/26 (together with the rest of the poems that are assigned for that day), and one or more of us will write up a summary of the results of our in-class discussion to post online. I will also put some brief lecture notes and biographical links for Baudelaire online under the “Lecture notes” category on this blog; please read them in preparation for class if you can.

Tip for your first journal/blog entry (due by Saturday noon or earlier each week, Stanford students only):  Your entry on our class blog this week could be a reflection on what you learned from the kind of close reading exercise we practice here (line by line, yours and others’), if you like. If you’d rather write about something else that particularly interested or intrigued you in the texts, discussions, interactions, or lecture bits this week, that’s perfectly fine—all the journal/blog entries are open-topic ones.  Feel free to email me with any questions.

Hymn to Beauty

O Beauty! do you visit from the sky
Or the abyss? infernal and divine,  Translation and comment: “Beauty, are you from heaven/Or from Hell? You are both diabolic and godly”. This poem begins by establishing a sense of ambiguity to the concept of Beauty (note the capitalization), pointing out that Beauty is not always pleasant, rather, it is equally likely to be unpleasant. The use of the word “and” implies that Beauty can also bring together both the good and the bad. It is possible that Baudelaire uses a stark contrast, one between heaven and hell, to illustrate the importance and depth of the Beauty referenced in his poem.- MG
Your gaze bestows both kindnesses and crimes,
So it is said you act on us like wine. Translation and comment: “[Beauty,] your gaze triggers sadness or joy, / For that reason, you could be compared to alcohol.” In the two final verses of the first quatrain of the poem, the poet underlines the paradoxical relation one may have vis-à-vis the elusive notion of Beauty. As it is the case for wine, and, more generally for alcoholic beverages and mind-altering substances, Beauty may either yield an artificially-induced feeling of ecstasy and plenitude, or produce a both overwhelming and frightening sensation in whomever is experiencing it, so to speak, face-to-face. More interestingly, and echoing Les Fleurs du Mal itself, perhaps Beauty may emerge out of the Evil, that is to say, it might be possible to sublimate the wickedness and extract the Beauty out of it.-R.C.

Your eye contains the evening and the dawn;
You pour out odours like an evening storm; Translation and comment: “Looking into your eyes, I see both night and day/ Smelling you, I smell the odor of a dark, damp night.”  The initial paradox of the beginning stanza is continued here, with the explicit juxtaposition between night and day.  Perhaps Baudelaire includes these specific images in order to allude to the Biblical seven days of Creation- which both segues into the dark religious tones that will linger over the entirety of the poem, and also serves as a nice structural touch- by alluding to night and day, Baudelaire commences the “body” of his poem with what was the commencement of Creation itself, perhaps insinuating that he finds himself created (or re-created) in the image of the Beauty, and that this is the first level of his exploration of her.  In the second line, I find it interesting that the word is not translated to “fragrance” or “scent” but the deliberate “odours,” which has such negative connotation.  This evening storm that he describes is not refreshing nor welcome in its wetness, but damp and smelly- there is probably an intended sexual element to these “odours” that the Beauty emits. -J.S.W.
Your kiss is potion from an ancient jar,
That can make heroes cold and children warm. Translation and comment: “Your kiss is like medicine coming down to us through the ages /That can simultaneously cool down heroes  and nurture children.” I notice the emphasis on “ancient” here–this is not a new type of beauty but one that has actually been paradoxical for ages.  One possible reading of the lines (in English) is that it gives people the drug or the help they need, at the moment they need it: cooling down self-reliant heroes after a fight and warming up utterly dependent children who need protection from the elements and want to be soothed.  Another, more correct reading (when one looks at the original lines in French–this in one instance where the translation seems skewed) is not quite so positive: Beauty emasculates the hero, the icon of masculinity (heroes need to be fired up before a fight, not cooled down).  In that reading, Beauty may be OK for children (Beauty feels like a nurturing mother to them), but it’s dangerous for men (who lose their fighting power).  -petradt

Are you of heaven or the nether world?
Charmed Destiny, your pet, attends your walk; Translation and comment: “Do you emerge from the black abyss or do you come down from the stars? / Charmed Destiny follows your petticoats like a dog.”In this couplet, the speaker uses, not for the first time, the polar relationship between heaven and hell to characterize the Beauty of his poem. The speaker goes on to elevate Beauty’s importance by degrading that of destiny, saying that even fate is Beauty’s pet. Doing so also reinforces the paradoxical nature of Beauty’s charms, suggesting that Beauty’s wide range of characteristics, from the “infernal” to the “divine,” in taking control of destiny, leaves everything uncertain. Destiny, acting as Beauty’s pet, may be heavenly or hellish, all depending on Beauty.–M.P.

You scatter joys and sorrows at your whim,
And govern all, and answer no man’s call.

Beauty, you walk on corpses, mocking them;
Horror is charming as your other gems,
And Murder is a trinket dancing there
Lovingly on your naked belly’s skin. Translation and comment: “Murder is nothing but a quaint adornment / That teases and caresses at the service of Beauty.” With this metaphor, the poet takes what would be a negative and morally laden act (murder) and re-imagines it as an aesthetic decoration in service of Beauty. The poet’s capitalization of “Murder” grants it the same personification that he grants to “Beauty,” introducing an element of sensuality between the two “individuals.” He then, however, inverts the power of its presence by asserting it is no more than a “trinket.” This transformation into a trivial thing deliberately challenges the moral shock that murder invokes and pushes readers to accept it as an attractive addition to aesthetic pleasure instead. In turn, Baudelaire establishes the space of art and Beauty as, in a way, morally blind: that which would be found socially immoral or disgusting may in art become a powerful and sensual aesthetic. – A.A.

You are a candle where the mayfly dies
In flames, blessing this fire’s deadly bloom. Translation and comment: “Beauty, you lure a short-lived insect to its death/Then you are the warmth and brightness gracing that death.” Here, the speaker suggests that beauty consumes short lives, but then pays tribute to them once they are gone.  First, Beauty is the candle, a light that a mayfly is drawn to in its short life.  Then, Beauty is a flame, honoring the very life it consumed.  In its two roles as a candle and a flame, it is a killer and blesser within a single entity.  Beauty consumed the mayfly first by absorbing its attention in its brief hours of life, and then by burning it in a “deadly bloom.”  Baudelaire suggests that beauty is an obsession and a cause of death, but also a blessing that honors the dead. – YG

The panting lover bending to his love
Looks like a dying man who strokes his tomb.

Explanation of couplet: The lover experiencing the moment right before sexual climax is compared to a dying man, while the other lover is compared to his desired tomb. The subject of this entire stanza is about the irresistibly destructive powers of beauty. A most effective example of an irresistible attraction to something which will annihilate itself in the moment it achieves its desired intensity is sexual pleasure. The idea Baudelaire evokes here is that the experience of beauty contains Thanatos – an erotic derive for destruction, especially of the self. -Voland (is back after his post was deleted.)

Translation and comment: “The lover /is the same as a dying man going to his grave.” In these lines, Baudelaire conflates sex with death, a hallmark element of the Decadent movement. For Baudelaire, Love is Doom. Though he portrays the lover as a virile, vital character through the use of the word “panting,” the truth is that this love will cease; he is no different than  a man on his death bed. Both strive towards an unattainable ideal, and because of this, the lover will find his end in what he desires most.  Baudelaire infuses these juxtaposed images with a sense of futility—if love is doom, then what’s the point? In this case, Baudelaire shows that love, like death, is necessity. It is inescapable. There can be no rational interpretation to this situation. Thus, love becomes an aesthetic activity; it is transcendent when performed for the sake of Beauty.  Alcibiades.

What difference, then, from heaven or from hell,
O Beauty, monstrous in simplicity?
If eye, smile, step can open me the way
To find unknown, sublime infinity?

Translation and comment: “If your eye, your smile and your step opens for me the door/Of infinity that I love and never knew.” While the above English translation drops the modifier “your” (ton), the French language requires articles or modifiers like “your” before all nouns such that the repetition of “your” emphasizes there is a specific you who does these things for Baudelaire, rather than eyes, smiles or steps in general. Further, the English translation provides “sublime” for “que j’aime,” which I translated as “that I love.” Sublime in English, particularly in 19th century poetry, harbors too many connotations that the original French does not suggest. My translation emphasizes this is an infinity that “I,” the speaker, loves and translating “n’ai jamais connu” as “never knew” also places these ideas firmly within the speaker’s mind, whereas “unknown, sublime” do not suggest any particular focalization. This translation reasserts the relation between the “you” and the “I” that the above English translation loses. – ER

Angel or siren, spirit, I don’t care,
As long as velvet eyes and perfumed head

Translation and comment: “In whatever form beauty is made does not matter. Simply, art in beauty of visual stimulus and of fragrance.”These lines express the idea that beauty’s relevance is not dictated by morals. It is the experience of beauty that makes is worthwhile and it utilizes a complex sentence structure to create a more rhythmic flow and emphasis of the separation of the experience of beauty from the morality of it. -HJ  
And glimmering motions, o my queen, can make
The world less dreadful, and the time less dead. Translation and comment: “As long as you continue to be beautiful and entrancing, the world will be better off and life will be more enjoyable.” These lines seem to echo some of the Decadent ideas (at least what we discussed briefly in class.) It does not matter whether beauty is good/moral or evil because it makes our fleeting lives richer and fuller. Maybe beauty can be tied to the Decadent view of art and these lines may suggest the idea of “beauty for beauty’s sake.” IPN

–Translation by James McGowan

Hymne à la Beauté (published in Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857)

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Tu contiens dans ton oeil le couchant et l’aurore;
Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux;

Translation and comment – “In your eye are held the Sun’s waking and its slumber/Perfume spills from you like a storm from the evening sky.” Beauty, no longer a mere property, becomes a full-blown entity here, with its own agency and its own intentions. No longer are we the ones to notice it in this or that incarnation; rather, it is She who notices us, at our own peril. I found striking the image of Beauty’s eye – one gets the sense of a single, formidable, infallible eye, one whose gaze we would scarcely be able to meet, let alone hold, as though looking at the Sun. Perhaps Baudelaire had in mind an all-seeing eye, the “eye of Providence,” if he had the opportunity to be exposed to iconography from ancient and Eastern religious imagery. This suggestion would seem to be reinforced by the setting and rising of the sun that Beauty’s eye is said to not only witness but contain; one imagines two shapes, the one circumscribed in the other. In the second line, the sensuous artificiality of perfume metaphorically “spills into” the fluid overabundance of a sky ripe with storm. However alluring the imagery, however, we are warned – the last words of each line, “l’aurore” and “orageux,” both make us think of another word, “l’horreur,” as though foreshadowing the latter’s appearance in the fourth stanza. DJM

Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore
Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.

Translation and comment:  ‘Your kisses like a drug and your lips a cup which renders the heroes weak and the children strong.’ It could be argued that a sense of sensory intoxication is conjured in this extract by Baudelaire through his use of classical allusions to drugs and the idea of a loss of control. ‘Philtre’, ‘baisers’ and bouche’ are immediately visually arresting  and reminiscent of classical Greek/Victorian hedonism ( ‘philter’ being commonly used in Victorian literature), thereby presenting Beauty as an object to be lusted after, as there is a distinct allure of intoxication that goes beyond our conventional idea of abstract, concrete Beauty. Baudelaire is literally enthralled by the smell and atmosphere of Beauty, mirrored in the title itself, which presents Beauty as an aspirationary force that can subvert humanistic tendencies i.e. rendering heroes weak. DF

Sors-tu du gouffre noir ou descends-tu des astres?
Le Destin charmé suit tes jupons comme un chien;
Tu sèmes au hasard la joie et les désastres,
Et tu gouvernes tout et ne réponds de rien.

Tu marches sur des morts, Beauté, dont tu te moques;
De tes bijoux l’Horreur n’est pas le moins charmant,

Translation and comments : “You walk on the dead, Beauty, which you then mock; / Of your many gifts, Horror is not the least charming”  In these lines, the speaker personifies the object’s traits, emphasizing both Beauty and Horror by capitalizing the two. The word Beauty is locked between two commas, dividing the line evenly, thus also reflecting a sort of written beauty and harmony. In contrast, the comma one would expect before the word “horror” is not present, thus creating  a sense of imbalance and imperfection in the second line. The two lines are filled with oppositions, such as the antithesis between the Beauty and the Horror, and the near-oxymoronic expression of the “charming” Horror.  The fact that the word Beauty is somewhat awkwardly inserted between the noun phrase “les morts” (the dead) and the subordinate clause “dont tu te moques”(which you mock), adds a sort of ironic undertone to the first line, furthered by the two commas delimiting the word “beauty”, as though the author were second guessing the nature of this Beauty. – CAN

Translation and comment: “You walk on the dead, Beauty, you have no regard for their souls; / Horror is not the least attractive charm on your bracelet of crimes,” Much like the notion of synesthesia which we discussed in class, Baudelaire seems to have a similar condition in which a mélange of two paradoxical sensory experiences come together as one. The concept of beauty as a social norm is one that should please the eye; it is not one that should terrify, and much less immerse the soul in an almost hysteric state of terror. Baudelaire speaks of an attraction to some type of other-worldly force that is not only intoxicating but also alluring. There is almost an overwhelming sexuality that he speaks of, but also a sensuality which combines the senses and creates an inebriated notion of paralysis. Beauty is mind altering, it is poisonous, but mostly it is terrifying. -MCR

Et le Meurtre, parmi tes plus chères breloques,
Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement.

L’éphémère ébloui vole vers toi, chandelle,
Crépite, flambe et dit: Bénissons ce flambeau! Translation and comments: “ Like a bedazzled mayfly to the flame, I am drawn to you. / Crackling & sputtering as I die, I bless you.”

 The adult mayfly has an ephemeral (hence the name in French, “éphémère”) adult life – only a day or two during which it flies in a mating frenzy, ending in fertilization and laying of eggs, followed by death for each partner.  B) This passage also makes the connection between sex and death.  A common euphemism for orgasm in French is la petite mort, as one loses consciousness (hence the “little death”) for a few seconds. WildeFranc

L’amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle
A l’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau.

Que tu viennes du ciel ou de l’enfer, qu’importe,
Ô Beauté! monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu! Translation and Comments: “Whether you come from heaven or from hell–what matter!/O Beauty: enormous, dreadful, innocent monster that you are!” These two lines are especially interesting to me because they express the amorality of aestheticism. In other words, the cult of beauty does not discriminate good from evil, as long its beauty is indisputable. Traditional depictions of beauty would at least make the pretense of linking it to godliness or purity, but here Baudelaire drives home the point–using commas to separate the key words, a technique that forces the reader to emphasize each adjective equally–that his deity, Beauté, may in fact be a monstrous, terrifying god, a force that is malign as well as beneficent. Either way, his worship of it is absolute. 
Si ton oeil, ton souris, ton pied, m’ouvrent la porte
D’un Infini que j’aime et n’ai jamais connu?

De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, — fée aux yeux de velours,

Translation and comment: “Of Satan or of God, what does it matter? Angel or Siren/ What does it matter, if you restore,– fairy with velvet eyes, ” In these two lines, the capitalized Beauty used earlier in the poem is equated with a variety of Christian and mythological concepts, suggesting a connection to the divine or a greater power. In exploring the essence of Beauty, Baudelaire juxtaposes good and evil, Satan and God, reflecting the contradiction proposed in the first two lines of the poem. This comparison of good and evil is strengthened by the use of punctuation and the alexandrin form, which splits the line evenly at “qu’importe.” The same split occurs in the next line, which continues to explore the sensory aspects of Beauty found earlier in the poem. The contradictory “De Satan ou de Dieu” and “Ange ou Sirène” may recall Burke’s treatise on the sublime, which argues that the sublime requires an element of terror. KJO.  
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! —
L’univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?

— Charles Baudelaire

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7 responses to “Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty” (Exercise #1)

  1. L’amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle
    A l’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau.

    A gasping lover reaching for his love
    Like a dying man caressing his tomb.

    • Thanks for participating, bloomingberry! Any thoughts on what you see or/and appreciate in those two lines? Quite a startling comparison, a lover and a dying man looking forward to being dead …

  2. Lady Angela

    Sors-tu du gouffre noir ou descends-tu des astres?
    Le Destin charmé suit tes jupons comme un chien.

    Do you emerge from the black abyss or descend from the stars?
    Destiny, charmed [by you], trails behind your skirts like a dog.

    I love the juxtaposition of mythic and modern images here. First the cosmic antitheses of the first line: ascending/descending, abyss/skies, dark/bright, smoke/starlight; hell/heaven; infernal/celestial; sinister/benign; demon/goddess… Then the urbane evocation of Beauty as a fashionable woman, her rustling skirts (which I picture as snug above the knees, flaring out below, black satin with a lace overlay), and at her heel, a stylish little dog. Not a toy poodle – that would be too frivolous — but a small dog, a decorative dog suitable for walking in the Tuileries. I picture the dog on a thin ornamental leash even though it’s not going to run away, to mark how it’s under beauty’s thrall like everyone else and it follows her out of devotion.

  3. Lady Angela

    L’éphémère ébloui vole vers toi, chandelle,
    Crépite, flambe, et dit: Bénissons ce flambeau!

    The bedazzled mayfly flies toward you, candle,
    He crackles, bursts into flame, and says, “Let us bless this torch!”

    Wonderful intensification and a fantastical slip from the small humble “candle” to the grand ceremonial and even pagan “torch” — the moths perform a ritual of self-sacrifice and transformation which seems half accidental (“dazzled,” confused), half purposeful. And it is not clear whose blessing is being asked — who are the “us” implied by the plural Bénissons? whom/what is to be blessed — is “this torch” the candle of Beauty, or the flaming moth-victim? There’s a fantasy of ecstatic oneness with the dazzler-destroyer in the moment of destruction.
    As in the other “Beauty” sonnet he also depicts beauty as passive and static, all-powerful without being active or intentional — Beauty simply stands there in its dazzling irresistible self, and people/moths react to it and make meaning out of it, create a relationship to it.

    • That’s a great reading, Lady Angela. In class we also talked about the connotation of petticoats here (highly eroticized, and Destiny gets a prime view …), and about the metaphorical network of bewitching qualities (“charmed”, but also elsewhere in the poem). This beauty is a femme fatale, for sure, and maybe a pretty witch. Thanks for your comment! We will never look at Paris Hilton’s dog the same.

  4. Pingback: Digital Pedagogy, Close Reading, and Learning in Public | Literature Illuminations

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