(This post was written by a Stanford student–HJ.)
Baudelaire’s representation of beauty and art in his poetry is quite peculiar in the way it embodies the ideals of the French decadence. In his paradoxical representation and overall personification of beauty in Hymn to Beauty, we can understand art more fully.
I will argue that Baudelaire’s reason for his juxtapositions in Hymn to Beauty to the point of paradoxes is for the reader to understand that beauty can be found in all forms of being:wretchedness and well-being as well as badness and goodness to name a few. In this way, Baudelaire is trying to show how beauty’s purpose should not be concerned with the form it takes, rather the immediate experience of it that makes life essentially better.
The first sentence of the poem begins by asking beauty itself whether it comes from heaven or hell. This line’s significance comes from the use of “or” as a disjunction or alternation between the two possible origins of beauty. In fact, Baudelaire uses “and” for all his representation of beauty in the remainder of the poem excluding the final two stanzas, which state the irrelevance of the comparisons. Then, in the last line of the stanza, Baudelaire states that it “bestows both kindnesses and crimes” and therefore “acts on us like wine”, representing beauty as both fickle and unpredictable.
The following four stanzas list the paradoxical ways in which beauty works. By stating “your eye contains the evening and the dawn” Baudelaire is showing how time does not affect beauty because it is present both day and night. Furthermore, the line “that can make heroes cold and children warm” works to show that it can give mercy to the helpless, yet wear away at the powerful. This effectively utilizes imagery to present the wide spectrum of beauty’s whim.
The fourth stanza is dedicated entirely to beauty’s awful ways. The purpose of this is most likely to profoundly present beauty in a way that is often unassociated with beauty–that beauty isn’t simply a thing found in good but also in evil and delving deep into the latter form.
The fifth stanza is rather interesting. It presents two moments of death, which would be associated with the more horrible side of beauty but then explains them with poetic imagery and deeper meaning. First, with the mayfly’s demise being “in flames, blessing this fire’s deadly bloom”, the image of a candle momentary bursting in light gives a meaning to the mayfly’s death. The second, with a “the panting lover bending to his love” which shows beauty in the love or bond the lover has with the departed person by stroking the corpse of his lover “like a dying man who strokes his tomb.” Once again giving meaning and significance to an awful moment.
Finally the final two stanzas explain how the broad range of forms beauty can take does not matter, declaring “what difference, then, from heaven or hell.” Whatever form beauty is experienced through by a person, its purpose is to “make The world less dreadful, and the time less dead.” which makes logical sense in that beauty’s form in darkness makes it a horrible moment less so and meaningful.