The Idea of Beauty and The Baudelairian Bestiary

(Written by a Stanford student–RC)

In a Selection of Les Fleurs du Mal

Both bohemian and dandy, Baudelaire is and remains a literary UFO: Is he a Romantic poet, or rather a product of the nineteenth-century Parnassianism, as his famous dedication to Théophile Gautier (the “poète impeccable,” “parfait magician ès lettres françaises,” “très-vénéré Maître et ami” etc.) in the very first pages of Les Fleurs du Mal suggests? By analysing some poetic schemes, semantic fields, and literary topoi in a short selection of poems, I propose to put forward one of the reasons that makes Baudelaire hardly classified within the main streams of the nineteenth-century French poetry. Indeed, on one hand Baudelaire could be brought close to the Romantic of the first and second generation (e.g. Lamartine, Hugo, Musset, and Nerval) because Baudelaire carries a self-evident spleen, that is a sort of existential malaise also called melancholia (cf. Victor Hugo’s famous word: “La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste”), and therefore he meets the cliché of the suffering Romantic poet. On the other hand, however, Baudelaire’s poetry builds on what one could call ‘the dialectic of the Poet and the Muse,’ moreover he draws his inspiration from the Greek and the Pagan mythologies, which are common features of the Parnassianism, and more generally the Symbolism of the late-nineteenth-century poetry (e.g. Mallarmé, Valéry, Verlaine, and Rimbaud).

In the short selection of poems taken into consideration for this blog entry, I will argue that a certain kind of “Baudelairian bestiary” is used by the poet in order to depict some of the features of what he calls: “Beauty.” The impossibility to describe Beauty properly—even by using a peculiar symbolism inspired by animals and fairy-like creatures—will eventually appear as an important cause of the poet’s sufferings.

In “J’aime le souvenir…” a wolf is mentioned although “Beauty” does not seem to be directly present in the poem. Cybèle (Ancient Mother Goddess) is associated with a “wolf full of common tenderness.” Yet, the name of the goddess could be objectively seen as a French homophone for: “Si belle” (so beautiful). Cybèle, and by extension, Beauty are thus associated with a “wolf full of common tenderness.”

In “La Beauté,” it is Beauty who is speaking: “Je suis [si] belle, ô mortels!” She (Beauty) is the goddess who inspires the poet. She is also characterized as a “sphinx incompris,” a “cœur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes.” In “La Géante,” the poet explains that, back in the old days, Nature was conceiving “each day a hatch of monstrous spawn.” Among those horrific creatures, there was the giantess. In a nice metaphor, the poet explains that he would like living near a young giantess, “comme aux pied d’une reine [the giantess] un chat voluptueux [the poet].” Here, the monstrous creature is also associated with a certain type of beauty. It seems that the notion of beauty is starting to evolve and mutate since the giantess is alternately referred to as “monstrueuse” (monstrous, hideous) and “magnifique” (magnificent, beautiful).

Finally, in “Hymne à la Beauté,” the true nature of Beauty is disclosed at last. Beauty is a “monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu!” While trying to characterize beauty once and for all, the poet gets lost: “De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène, / Qu’importe, […] – fée aux yeux de velours.” Beauty is neither a heavenly creature nor a creature coming straight from hell. She is not an Angel either. A chimera such as a mermaid (both an earthy and a watery creature) would be closer, but that’s not quite it, the poet says. A fairy with “velvet eyes?” Above all else, Beauty is a fairy-like creature belonging to a different world: the Platonic world of Forms (εἶδος) and Ideas (ἰδέα). She manifests herself through different forms: as it is the case in “La Muse malade,” by appearing as a “green succubus” or as a “rosy imp” in the oneiric world of the dreams and nightmares. Beauty disrupts the muse’s slumber. The Muses—who are both the goddesses of the inspiration for the poet and, to some extent, the embodiments of Beauty—cannot compete when confronted with the pure Idea of Beauty. In other words, even the most beautiful women who ever lived on earth would appear ugly if compared with the Idea of Beauty itself. -R.C.

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

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