The Poet, a guide for Mankind

(This post was written by a Stanford student- CAN.)

In his poem Correspondances, Baudelaire depicts Nature as a majestic but indecipherable force, which only the poet, through both horizontal and vertical “correspondences” or synesthesias, can reveal and translate to the human world, and thus deliver to human understanding.

In the first stanza, Baudelaire sets up Nature to be both majestic and impenetrable. The metaphor “La Nature est un temple”, Nature is a temple,  announces the religious undertone of the poem, and shows, from the very beginning, the poet’s desire to reveal nature to man through analogies and comparisons.  Trees, similarly, become “de vivants piliers”. This oxymoronic expression suggests that trees are equally part of the religious edifice that the poem depicts, to cater to human understanding. This metaphor is interesting for several reasons. First, the trees are personified as leaving “de confuses paroles”, confusing speech. One could imagine that this voice, this speech which Baudelaire alludes to, is that of a priest or religious intermediary, thus making the trees be the connection between heaven and earth, just as they connect the ground and the sky through their roots and their branches—creating a vertical movement, a vertical correspondence. The trees would therefore become one of Man’s first points of contact and understanding of Nature, in an otherwise obscure environment.

Baudelaire indeed emphasizes the idea of confusion through his diction : “confuses paroles”, “ forêts de symboles”, “confondent”, “ténébreuse”, “profonde”, and “nuit” (confusing speech, groves of symbols, shadowy, profound, night) are all terms that connote a lack of clarity and understanding. On the other hand, Nature is observing the passers-by with “des regards familiers”—familiar looks.  The fact that the stanza, which is all about confusion and the barrier which separates Man from a real understanding of Nature, ends with the word “familier” introduces the notion that this poem is in fact about bringing understanding to mankind—and that the poet himself is the intermediary, the vehicle of this understanding.

The structure of the poem, which is a Sonnet, is particularly adapted to this didactic purpose. Indeed, it seems as though Baudelaire sets up the two first quatrains to reveal the nature of the problem, and the two tercets to be the answer, the explanation, the key to Man’s understanding. The second stanza is full of imagery, which already announces the poet’s desire to bring understanding through form, style, and mastery of language. Indeed, the first line’s meaning and content “Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent”, is emphasized by its style and form : the “échos” which the poet refers to are found in the repetition of the “k”, “l”, and “d” sounds from “Comme” , “de”, and “longs” to “qui”, “de” and “loin”.  The next two lines seem to form a transition from the problem to the solution: the antithesis “ténébreuse (…) unité” and the opposition between “la nuit” and “la clarté”, night and clarity, indicates a progression from confusion to understanding, from and opacity to transparency.  Finally, the last line of this second quatrain reveals the poet’s motus operandi : “Les parfums, les couleurs, et les sons se répondent.” This perfectly dosed alexandrine line is written in iambic tetrameter, thus introducing three of the ways through which the poet intends on revealing and translating Nature to mankind: through “perfumes”(the sense of smell), through “colours” (the sense of sight), and through “sounds”, (the sense of hearing), and by making these all “correspond.” In French, the end of the line is somewhat even stronger, as it ends in the reflective action verb “se répondent”. The fact that the verb is reflexive, adds to the idea of entanglement of the senses—they are inextricably linked, and you cannot evoke one without being hit back by the other.

The poet then proceeds with his didactic purpose: he uses a series of comparisons invoking the senses he just mentioned, to explain elements of Nature. In the first line of the third stanza, he compares “des parfums frais” with “des chairs d’enfant”. As such, the sense of smell (“parfums”) and touch (“frais”) are both invoked to make sense of the “chairs d’enfants”, the baby’s skin. What is more, the “haubtois” (oboes) are said to be “doux”(soft), thus linking the sense of hearing to the sense of touch, and the “prairies” are “verts” (green), thus linking the sense of vision associated with the color green to a sense of smell and touch associated with the word “prairie”. These “horizontal synesthesias”, which link elements of the human world, are the tools which the Poet has at his disposal, in order for the average Man to make sense of the Natural World. As such, the Poet becomes a sort of prophet, a guide, between the supernatural or sublime, and every day life. One can argue that this poem is therefore also revealing of Baudelaire’s implicit point of view on the status and role of the poet, just as Mallarmé reveals his thoughts on the Poet’s function in his Vers en Crise.

The images in this third stanza all connote a sense of purity and innocence, and seem to introduce a tinge of nostalgia to the poem, what with the presence of the baby’s skin, the mellowness which describes the oboes, and the color green.  However, Baudelaire marks his will to branch away from these with the sharp punctuation “—”, which he places at the beginning of the last line of the stanza, for emphasis. This formal break with the rest of the stanza is then mirrored in the content of the last line which announces “d’autres, corrompus, riches, et triomphants”—others, corrupted, rich, triumphant,full. Both the word “others” and the meaning of the adjectives which ensue, serve to distinguish what is to follow from the serenity and peace which pervaded from the images he just conjured.
The final line of the stanza is once more in iambic tetrameter, and introduces three caracteristics: “corrompus, riches, et triomphants”, which one can associate to the nouns he introduces with the linking comparison “Comme”: “l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin, et l’encens.” The association is also present through the rhyme scheme, as these two lines end with the nasal sound “en” (“triomphant” and “enfants”). Interestingly enough, the comparison remains implicit in the English translation: the connecting “Comme”, which one would expect to see translated as “Like” or “As”, is nowhere to be found, as is the rhyme: the line rhymes with the very last line of the poem in English (“full” and “soul”), as opposed to the line which mentions the plants.  However, it is clear from the French version that “L’ambre, le musc et le benjoin”, which are translated as “Musk, ambergris” and “benjamin”, are the opulent yet “corrupted, rich, and triumphant” elements which the poet formerly alluded to. Interestingly enough, these three nouns are all associated with women, which one could argue reflects, in contrast to last stanza’s childhood nostalgia and purity, the adult age. Amber, musk, and benjamin are all fragrances that can be used in perfumes and benjamin, in particular, was typically used as part of oriental perfumes and in cigarette aromas. These three fragrances therefore possess a certain aphrodisiac power, which certainly did not elude Baudelaire when he chose them.

Finally, these fragrances connect with the word “transports” (rapture) in the last line, which connotes a violent movement of passion, and which affects both “l’esprit”, the spirit, and “les sens”, the senses. As such the traditional mind/body dichotomy reaches a sort of harmony by the end of the poem, thanks to the poet’s mastery of language, but also Nature’s powers. The fact that the poem ends on the word “sens” is particularly meaningful as the senses become the key to the whole poem: they are the door through which humans can decipher the natural world, as they are the vehicle through which the poet delivers it to human understanding. It must here be noted that every sense is invoked in the last two lines: the plants, “l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens” , invoke the senses of smell, touch, taste, and vision at once, and all that is missing is the sense of hearing. Conveniently enough, Baudelaire ends the poem with the active verb “chantent”, singing, thus completing the puzzle and ending in a sort of apotheosis of the senses, which one could argue creates a reference to climaxing during the physical act of sex—the ultimate awakening of the senses.

Posted by CAN

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

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