On “Beauty”

(This post was written by a Stanford student, L.H.)

First of all, I will post the translation (by Richard Howard) that I used for the purpose of this poem, as it differs significantly from the one examined in class.


Conceive me as a dream of stone:

my breast, where mortals come to grief,

is made to prompt all poets’ love,

mute and noble as matter itself.

With snow for flesh, with ice for heart,

I sit on high, an unguessed sphinx

begirding acts that alter forms;

I never laugh–and never weep.

In studious awe the poets brood

before my monumental pose

aped from the proudest pedestal,

and to bind these docile lovers fast

I freeze the world in a perfect mirror:

the timeless light of my wide eyes.

To speak of beauty, to discuss its features and attributes, to judge which things do and do not fall under its aegis, is an activity that requires no great perspicatiousness. Many have done it without saying anything new or interesting, many will continue to do so.

To speak for beauty, on the other hand–to inhabit its personified (even deified) form and make bold declarations from its very lips–this is an endeavor that cannot but belie profound fascination, deep meditation, and daring imagination on the part of the speaker.

One cannot but be overwhelmed by the influence of these three features on the poem “Beauty”, part of Charles Baudelaire’s anthology Les Fleurs du Mal. This poem is full insights and observations made from the point of view of “Beauty” itself, which is characterized as a proud ice queen, majesterially surveying her domain with a cold, indifferent gaze. The language of the verse reinforces this image by means of its rigid sonnet form, classic and unyielding, and the nouns that are embedded into the body of the poem at reguar intervals drive home the point with their rich connotative physicality. Examples of such words include “stone”, “snow”, “ice”, “freeze”, “pedestal”, and “mirror”; they anchor the poem to its main theme with their uncompromising hardness. In addition to her cold flintiness, Beauty is also mysterious: she is compared to an “unguessed sphinx”, as unreadable as a “dream of stone”. Poets may kneel all they want before her high throne, but she remains mute and unswayed, such that her poor mortal worshippers eventually “come to grief” at her feet.

Baudelaire’s characterization of beauty, as exemplified in this poem, may have become a common-enough trope in the world of literary ideas, but I am unsure that it is easy to come to terms with its radical subversiveness even today. One learns that Baudelaire’s conception of beauty was innovative, sure enough, but often when one has been told that something was a “great innovation”, its innovativeness is taken for granted and any genuine surprise or shock becomes impossible. But once one sits down to truly consider what Baudelaire has done in this poem, it gradually dawns on one that this new incarnation of “beauty” is a formidable one indeed–distressing, not to mention morbid.

For there exists a universal tendency to synonimize the notion of “good” with that of the “beautiful”. We may think that we have now escaped this temptation, now that it has been some time since plump cherubs and the Blessed Virgin were the de rigueur ways in which beauty manifested itself to the public. That is to say, the most beautiful things (or the things that deserve to be most beautiful) are no longer religious in nature. But even today, we use the term “beauty” to justify certain choices and outcomes, we apply the adjective “beautiful” to indicate superior placement in some particular value system that we possess. The concept of beauty is inextricably tied to some evaluative preference, or even a moral statement. We have always exploited beauty in some way or another, always used it as a means to an end–whether it be the religious aims of yesteryear or the more diverse (advertising, urban development) ones of the present day. But through and through, we’ve never questioned the temperament of beauty itself, never questioned whether it was really as pliant and submissive as we had assumed.

Baudelaire was not an aesthete for nothing: in his view of the world, beauty and aesthetics are not merely subsidiary concepts. Beauty, in fact, is the deiess that governs the world, though most of it is oblivious of this fact–save the poets who pay homage at her shrine. And though he counts himself among the ranks of these worshippers, Baudelaire has a further role to play. He is a sort of tortured prophet for this goddess, who cannot help but write hymnals (take the “Hymn to Beauty”, for example) in her praise all day long. All his work is dedicated to Beauty, but at the same time he is also exceedingly disillusioned with her. It is not a mere lapse of faith that plagues him, it is a crisis that lies at the foundation of his faith: for though Beauty demands worship, she is unmoved by humanity’s strivings and tribulations. To her fervent flock, all that she deigns to give is a reflection, an incandescent illusion produced by the “perfect mirror” of her eyes. And yet it is towards this shimmering mirage that Baudelaire must journey, though he knows in his heart that the vision before him is nothing but a false hope. It is a bitter, cynical prophet that writes here of his queen, yet at the same time he cannot help but be held in thrall by her splendor. He knows he has set himself up to fail: but he can to nothing but precipitate towards his downfall, drawn like a moth to a flame*.

*image used in “Hymn to Beauty”


1 Comment

Filed under Week 1 Reviews: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Pater (and some Wilde)

One response to “On “Beauty”

  1. This is beautiful! Or, since the term is now so fraught, I will say instead that it is poetic. (Lovely seems degraded in comparison to beautiful now, doesn’t it?) I love the portrayal of Baudelaire as disillusioned worshipper. As I read your final paragraph in particular, I wondered: to what other end could Baudelaire strive? What other journey might he take? I venture the argument that there is no other–that although the quest for Beauty is doomed to end in failure, there is no other path which is not equally doomed and therefore no other path which is worth taking. In the decadent imagination, life is a bronze cast of eternal suffering. When Wilde wrote the prose-poem of the Artist, he did not specify that only the protagonist’s life was of eternal suffering; life is eternal suffering in general unless we recast it into the image of the moment of pure pleasure. Unless we invoke Beauty, follow it, even worship it, life will be nothing but suffering. No matter how morbid, how distressing, how terribly painful the faith Baudelaire holds despite his cynicism, at least his faith allows him the moment of reforging and redemption. Morality does not, history does not, religion does not. I think the most beautiful (and I mean that with all of its complications and morbidity) thing about this poem is the image that we’re all just moths doomed to die, but at least the decadents have a flame worth dying for.

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