In this essay, I will be analysing two poems by Charles Baudelaire. Both of these poems are from the volume of French poetry called ‘Fleurs du mal’ (Flowers of Evil), from the first edition in 1857. I will not be analysing the original of these poems but their translations for a better consistency of this essay. Both of these translations are from William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil, published in 1954. First poem that I will be analysing is called ‘L’Idéal’ (The Ideal) and the second is ‘La Beauté’ (Beauty). I will be comparing these poems as well as finding contrasts between them, with the focus on how beauty was perceived in the Victorian era and how the ideas in both of these texts are still relevant till this day. More specifically, I will be focusing on the form, context, content and demonstrate my knowledge of the Victorian era with the focus on the historical, cultural and social influences.
The first poem I will be focusing on is called L’Idéal. It has four stanzas, first two both contain four lines and the remaining two contain three lines. The main themes of the poem L’Idéal (The Ideal) are beauty and artistic idealism – this poem is a critique of the beauty of artistic ideal. It explores the idea of unrealistic beauty standards and how they affect Baudelaire. He is struggling to find the beautiful woman that art portrays because reality is not like fiction. In relation to ‘Salon de 1859’, as Hadlock (1999) states, ‘Baudelaire’s frequent recourse to the “Nature as dictionary” formula also suggests a certain compatibility between Nature and art’. He further states that Baudelaire argues the concepts of the Ideal and the Nature are mutually exclusive (118). As the poem L’Idéal implies, the ideal in art is very separate from reality, nature, and results in unrealistic expectations and the ‘real need of my heart, profound as an abyss’ – longing for the ideal. We can also observe the contrast in the lines 7-8: ‘For I cannot find among those pale roses / A flower that is like my red ideal’. The red rose in this poem is a symbolism for a woman with unrealistic beauty standards that art, the ideal, has set for him, whereas the white rose symbolises the women that are natural and real. Because art has set unrealistic beauty standards for Baudelaire, he lusts for the ideal woman and is unhappy with real natural woman. In this poem, Baudelaire refers to the ‘Night, daughter of Michelangelo’, which is a statue – the ideal here is defined by an unrealistic object, an object that was created by someone’s ideal. He also talks about Lady Macbeth, which is a fictional character from Shakespeare’s tragedy, also created by someone and not based on reality.
In relation to the Victorian era, it was ideal for a woman to wear corsets, to eliminate a desirable shape. There the western ideal of golden hair, as Gitter (1984) states, it had become an obsession in the Victorian era. ‘In painting and literature, as well as in their popular culture, they discovered in the image of women’s hair a variety of rich and complex meanings, ascribing to it powers both magical and symbolic’ (936). People from this era took the ideal from art, paintings and literature, and understood the unrealistic nature of it by viewing golden hair as magical. They took these unrealistic beauty standards that they read about or saw in paintings, and applied them to realistic beauty standards.
The poem L’Idéal mirrors the Victorian era due to its idealism and lack of setting realistic beauty standards. It is mocking the cliché of romantic beauty and is still relevant now with plastic surgery. People lust for the unobtainable, they want what they can’t have due to social media setting unrealistic beauty standards with filters and photo manipulation.
The second poem that I will be focusing on is the poem La Beauté. This poem contains the same amount of stanzas as the poem L’Idéal, as well as the same amount of lines as previously described poem. The poem La Beauté (Beauty) has the main themes of beauty and the reality of it. This poem is written from a woman’s point of view as she tries to find the reality of beauty. The woman in this poem mocks the idea of finding beauty in the external an is happy that poets are focusing on her stature, as she acknowledges that it is taken from old statues, and indicates that people still have certain beauty standards that do not change. She is happy because the poets will spend the future wondering about the beauty of nature. ‘Poets, before my grandiose poses, / Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues, / Will consume their lives in austere study’ (lines 9-11).
In this poem, Baudelaire mocks the poets that are looking for beauty in the external. According to Heck (1981), D. J. Mossop insists that Baudelaire is describing ‘the aspect of beauty as absolute, as opposed to Beauty as relative; being absolute’ (85). In the final stanza of this poem, Baudelaire realises the true origin of beauty. ‘For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers, /Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful: / My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!’ (lines 12-14). These lines show a powerful image of eyes being compared to mirrors. Baudelaire realises that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Person’s or object’s worth is dependent on the eyes that are watching them. As Heck (1981) states, ‘The beauty of external objects must then coincide with one’s internal conviction and feeling’. He further states in relation to La Beauté, ‘the purity is no longer in the person of the goddess, but it is now merely a physical quality of the eyes’, (92) implying that the view of beauty depends on the observer.
With the poem La Beauté, Baudelaire focuses on platonic idealism and mocks the poets that only look for beauty in the superficial. Poets from the Elizabethan era have portrayed beauty externally, for example focusing on women and nature as Baudelaire implies that he himself can find beauty in many different things. He implies that unlike other poets, Baudelaire doesn’t focus on the superficial with this poem and this description beauty is unique as well. He even calls other poets submissive and easily influenced by the standards of beauty in poems – ‘I have to enchant those submissive lovers’ (line 12).
The poems L’Idéal and La Beauté have a lot in common. Both of these poems focus on beauty, the idealised perception of it and the superficiality. Both poems focus on the topic of unrealistic standards of beauty, which are taken from the artistic creations of others. What is interesting here is the portrayal of statues. In L’Idéal, Baudelaire refers to Michelangelo’s statue as being one of his ideal beauty standards. He dreams of his perfect woman to look like a statue. In La Beauté, Baudelaire writes from a woman’s point of view. The woman in this poem poses for poets, taken an inspiration from classical statues and hopes that it will make the poets confront their unrealistic views of beauty by confronting them with the old.
The poem La Beauté comes before the poem L’Idéal and it is as if these poems tell one story, in which L’Idéal should come before La Beauté. In L’Idéal, Baudelaire focuses on his impossible ideals of beauty. He names fictional women as an example of what he’s looking for and wonders why natural women don’t look like the one he fantasizes about. On the other hand, in the poem La Beauté, Baudelaire writes from a different point of view – the point of view of a woman, in which the woman is beautiful and criticizes the non-realistic standards of beauty. She poses as an old statue in non-natural poses as she’s trying to mimic it and tries to confront the poets with the nature of beauty. She’s trying to make the poets see the truth. It is as if Baudelaire is one of those poets based on the poem L’Idéal. He himself is viewing beauty superficially. He does this to possibly confront his own perception of beauty and in La Beauté he realises the truth by writing from a point of view of a beautiful woman. According to Miller (1993), Mossop argues that Baudelaire’s La Beauté represents ‘absolute beauty’ and L’Idéal represents ‘relative beauty’ (322).
What is interesting about the concept of statues in La Beauté, in which the woman here poses for the poets inspired by the poses of other statues, is the way Baudelaire is using it to trick the poets. She is posing like a statue in order to trick the poets into appearing as the ideal and non-realistic image to make the poets see the true meaning of beauty. She is referred to as beautiful, as someone who is worshipped for their beauty, and yet she refers to herself as natural. Baudelaire does this to confront the idea of idealistic beauty. He does this with the use of personification, he brings the concept of beauty to life. It is as if he brought one of the fictional women from the poem L’Idéal to life to tell her story of how it feels to be worshipped for unrealistic beauty.
In the poem La Beauté, also points out the lack of humanity in fictional beauty standards. ‘And never do I weep and never do I laugh’ (line 8). This line implies that nothing in this word can make her weep or laugh, as she views everything as a spectacle. It is ironic that the personification of beauty views people as not real, and yet, people view the fictional concept of beauty to be realistic. With this line, the poet further points out to the reader that the fictional concept of beauty doesn’t exist and therefore can’t feel anything. Even though she is not real, she is more self-aware than the people she views as spectacle are about her.
In conclusion, Baudelaire mocks the idealistic standards of beauty and how they are based on non-realistic standards. Both of these poems are still relevant today with the rise of social media. Because of filters and photo manipulation, people have unrealistic standards of beauty. These people seem perfect, with their perfect skin and body but they are not real. They are a fiction just as the women Baudelaire describes in his poems. These photo alterations cause the portrayal of an idea of unrealistic beauty standards. This causes people to go under plastic surgery to fit into those standards that are not even based on reality. Baudelaire does a fantastic job with his poetry, which he uses to make people think and confront their unrealistic views of beauty.
Aggeler, W. (1954). The Flowers of Evil. Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild.
Hadlock, P. (1999). BAUDELAIRE’S “RÉALISME” AND THE PARALEXICON OF THE OTHER WORLD. Romance Notes, 39(2), 115-122. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43802981
Heck, F. (1981). “LA BEAUTÉ”: ENIGMA OF IRONY. Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 10(1/2), 85-95. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44627549
Gitter, E. (1984). The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination. PMLA, 99(5), 936-954. doi:10.2307/462145
MILLER, P. (1993). Beauty, Tragedy and the Grotesque: A Dialogical Esthetics in Three Sonnets by Baudelaire. French Forum, 18(3), 319-333. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40551723