In this practical analysis, I will be analysing the poem Benediction from a volume of a French poetry book Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). This book was written by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. I will be doing a close reading of this poem, focusing on form, content and the context. More specifically, I will be focusing on the religious undertones and argue that certain passages in this poem have been derived from specific bible verses and Christian ideology as well as Baudelaire’s life. I will be using William Aggeler’s translation of this poem for the focus of this analysis.
The poem Benediction has strong religious elements that are often set in a Christian context, which is proven by references to the Bible and ‘thought to involve a revelation of the celestial world’ (McGregor, 1969, p. 278). In this poem, the poet is born and is rejected immediately by his mother after his birth. ‘Ah! Would that I had spawned a whole knot of vipers / Rather than to have fed this derisive object!’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 5-6) It is possible that this line is based on a verse from the Bible, the verse Matthew 23:33, that states ‘You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?’ (Coogan, 2010, p. 1781) These lines are related by the semantics of children being thought as something evil, being compared to vipers, when children are generally considered as a good thing – the miracle of life. A child is blameless, and yet the mother in the poem Benediction blames her actions on her new born child. Although the mother of the child is being so cruel to him and refers to him as an ‘object’, an angel guards the child and he grows up to be happy. God has brough the poet into this world, yet she treats him as if he was the Satan himself. Or perhaps, God is the Satan in her eyes, since he has brought this curse of a child upon her. As Powers (2010-2011, p. 78) states, ‘Often times, in Les Fleurs du Mal even God is portrayed as an evil force. In “Bénédiction,” for instance, the poet’s mother, in the role of the Virgin, considers her pregnancy as a curse from God, whom she blames for her suffering. Her apostrophe to God constitutes an indictment of his wickedness.’
This co-existence between good and evil is something that can be seen frequently throughout Baudelaire’s poems and it is also consistent with the Church’s belief – the benefits of human suffering in the spiritual context. The destiny of the woman in this poem is redeemed by referencing the Catholic theology (Powers, 2010-2011, p. 80). Many of Baudelaire’s poems include Biblical colouring, but this poem strikes a remarkable religious note (Avni, 1973, p. 302). Another example of this can be seen in the following lines: ‘Accursed be the night of ephemeral joy / When my belly conceived this, my expiation!’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 7-8). In these lines it can be seen that the woman in this poem considers her child to be the punishment for her night of passion. It’s possible that these lines are derived from the Bible as well, more specifically from Job 3: ‘Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived’ (Coogan, 2010, p. 2413). In this line from the Bible a man curses the day he was conceived. The mother in Benediction does the same thing, she curses the night her child was conceived. Line 57-58 also refers to human suffering as the punishment for the woman’s sins and it is justifying it as a purifying and disciplinary measure (Avni, 1973, p. 302). ‘Praise be to You, O God, who send us suffering / As a divine remedy for our impurities’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 57-58). These lines can be compared to lines from Job 34:14-33: ‘He has redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, and my life shall see the light’ (Coogan, 2010, p. 760). The idea of childbirth serving as woman’s salvation can be derived from Timothy 2:15 (McGregor, 1969, p. 279). ‘Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty’ (Coogan, 2010, p. 2087).
Rather than taking the blame for her actions, the woman in this poem blames her actions on her child and God. ‘Since of all women You have chosen me / To be repugnant to my sorry spouse’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 9-10). In this line, the woman blames God for choosing her to cheat. She is very selfish and the reason for that may be the era she lives in. It may be difficult for her to take the blame for her actions, because it was much more frowned upon for a woman to commit adultery than for a man in the period this poem was written in. When women committed adultery, it has almost always been recognized as a valid reason for a divorce, but when men committed the same act, women have rarely been entitled to seek divorce for the same offense (Thomas, 1959, p. 199).
Although this poem is written in the third person, it can be considered an autobiography. Baudelaire’s father died when he was a child and he developed a feeling of abandonment when his mother remarried a man from the military with whom he didn’t have much in common. In his childhood he went through a stage where he loved his mother passionately, but letters addressed to her from the later stage in his life suggest that he has tried to manipulate her for his own financial advantage (Lloyd, 2008, p. 11). In the poem Benediction, the mother clearly rejects her child which could be a reference to the poet’s own childhood.
Because Baudelaire often blurs the lines between good and evil, we can find examples of antonyms. For example, the words ‘suffering’ and ‘ecstasies’ that can be found in the fifteenth quatrain show that according to this poem, suffering is needed in order to reach the opposite, ecstasy. We can also find an example of a xenonym in the very last line of the poem – ‘mournful mirrors’. This is also an example of a personification and Baudelaire’s vivid imagery. The poem consists of nineteen quatrains that have been written by Baudelaire in a traditional regular Alexandrine, which contradicts his use of original imagery in his poems. An example of a strong imagery can be seen in the very first quatrain, in which the mother ‘Raises her clenched fist to God, who pities her’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 4). The use of terms that come from the bible can be seen in the following line: ‘And that you invite him to the eternal feast / Of the Thrones, the Virtues and the Dominations’ (Aggeler, 1954, line 63- 64).
In conclusion, Benediction clearly takes a strong inspiration from the Bible. His use of vocabulary and phrases with Christian undertones and the use of a traditional rhyme scheme combined with an innovative imagery shows us Baudelaire’s creativity in poetry. Although the fact that he uses Christian imagery in this poem, which is quite a traditional topic, he manages to express it in a new and original way.
Aggeler, W. (1954). The Flowers of Evil. Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild.
Avni, A. (1973). The Bible and Les Fleurs du mal. PMLA,88(2), p. 299-310.
Coogan, M. (2010). The new Oxford annotated Bible : New Revised Standard Version : With the Apocrypha : An ecumenical study Bible (Fourth ed.).
Lloyd, R. (2008). Charles Baudelaire. London: Reaktion Books.
McGregor, R. (1969). IS BAUDELAIRE’S “BÉNÉDICTION” CHRISTIAN AND BIBLICAL? Romance Notes, 11(2), p. 278-285.
Powers, S. (2010). Writing Against Theodicity: Reflections on the Co-Existence of God and Evil in Baudelaire’s Poetry and Critical Essays. Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 39(1/2), 77-98.
Thomas, K. (1959). The Double Standart. Journal of the History of Ideas, 20(2), 195-216.