Symbolism, Aestheticism and Charles Baudelaire

Known as the founder of French symbolism (though not himself part of the movement), and often associated with the artistic decadence and aestheticism of the later nineteenth century, Baudelaire was born in Paris where he lived a bohemian life, adopting the artistic posture of a dandy, devoted to beauty and disdainfully aloof from the vulgar bourgeois world of materialism and commerce, as well as the pose of the flâneur, frequenter and consumer of the city streets. Baudelaire is often credited with expressing one of the first modernistic visions, a vision of the sordidness, sensuality, and corruption of city life, a disposition that profoundly influenced modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Baudelaire’s famous or infamous collection of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), was published in 1857 and became the subject of a trial for obscenity in the same year for including some lesbian poems. Baudelaire contracted syphilis and was paralyzed by a stroke before his death.

Notwithstanding his lifestyle and his artistic views, Baudelaire was a believer in original sin, and was deeply repelled by the commercialism of the modern world, which he regarded as a fallen world. In his Journaux intimes Baudelaire stated that man is “naturally depraved,” and ridiculed the idea of progress.5 He saw progress as possible only within the individual; he affirmed the importance of ultimate questions concerning the purpose of human existence, and was profoundly antipathetic to bourgeois values, describing commerce as “in its very essence, satanic” and as “the vilest form of egotism.” He did not welcome developments toward democracy and held that there “is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy” (IJ, 69).

In general, the French symbolists, including Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, reacted against the explicit rationalism, materialism, and positivism of the bourgeois world and, like the Romantics, exalted the role of poet and artist. Baudelaire’s ideas about beauty may have been inspired by the German philosopher Schelling, and from 1852 he was also deeply influenced by Poe (though he arrived independently at many of his analogous insights), and shared his views on poetic autonomy and the poetic imagination. His famous sonnet Correspondences is a succinct expression of his symbolist aesthetic, seeing the material world as a “forest of symbols” pointing to an ideal world. This alleged system of correspondences was a common idea in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it could be seen as a gesturing of the factual toward the ideal (and truly real) or as a synaesthetic correspondence between the data of the various senses such as sight, sound, and touch. Hence, in this influential notion, Baudelaire adapts toward his own ends an idea that had already informed many aesthetic theories (such as those of Swedenborg, SchellingGermaine de Staël, and Sainte-Beuve). In his sonnet, Baudelaire sees the earth and its phenomena as a “revelation” of heavenly correspondences, and it is the poet who must decipher these.

Much of Baudelaire’s important criticism is contained in his Salons, which were reviews of yearly exhibitions at the Louvre museum. In general, Baudelaire’s criticism moves toward an aesthetic of modernity, which might also be called a symbolist aesthetic that both distinguishes itself somewhat from Romanticism (in its views of imagination and nature) and anticipates certain dispositions of modernism. Baudelaire had little sympathy with any endeavor toward an objective criticism. In his Salon of 1846 he insisted that “the best criticism is that which is amusing and poetic; not a cold, mathematical criticism which… deliberately divests itself of every kind of temperament.” In fact, he urges, criticism “should be biased, impassioned, partisan” though it should be written from a point of view “that opens up the widest horizons.”6 Baudelaire at this time sees Romanticism as “a manner of feeling,” and equates Romanticism with modernity: “To speak of Romanticism is to speak of modern art – that is, of intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration toward the infinite” (BLC, 40). However, Baudelaire initially rejected what he saw as some of the excesses of Romanticism: in an 1851 article on Pierre Dupont (1821–1870), an author of light verse and patriotic songs, Baudelaire exhibits his transitory allegiance to the socialist and democratic ideals of Proudhon, ideals that underlay the 1848 revolution in France. In this article, Baudelaire says of the “Romantic School” that by “excluding morality . . . the puerile Utopia of the school of art for art’s sake was inevitably sterile. It was flagrantly contrary to the spirit of humanity” (BLC, 52). He adds that after the poet Barbier “proclaimed in impassioned language the sacredness of the Revolution of 1830 . . . the question was settled, and art was thereafter inseparable from morality and utility” (BLC, 53). Likewise, the poetry of Pierre Dupont, says Baudelaire, echoed the misfortunes and hopes of the later revolution of 1848. He speaks of the reign of King Louis-Philippe as one of “debauchery” (BLC, 53, 57). Baudelaire denounced in this essay the Romantic “creations of idleness and solitude,” which violate the “spirit of action,” and defined poetry as “the negation of iniquity” (BLC, 60). Significantly, the period of the 1848 revolution coincided with the early days of literary realism, which spanned roughly the years 1844–1850, and Baudelaire had displayed some sympathy for this movement, sustaining cordial relations with the figureheads of realism such as Gustave Courbet and Champfleury. However, partly inspired by his continued study of figures such as Poe and Joseph de Maistre, which deepened his revulsion for the bourgeois world, Baudelaire developed more aristocratic sympathies in both politics and art. In his notes for a planned article on realism, he described realism as “rustic, coarse, dishonest and even boorish,” and in fact questioned whether realism had any meaning at all. “Every good poet,” he wrote, “was always realistic.” Prefiguring his more mature views, he states that “Poetry is what is most real, what is completely true only in another world.” The present world, he maintained, is merely a “dictionary of hieroglyphics” pointing to the world beyond (BLC, 87–88).

Baudelaire wrote three major essays on Poe, the first published in 1852 and used in a revised version as an introduction to his first translations of Poe. In this highly influential account of Poe’s life and works, Baudelaire expresses his own and Poe’s antipathy to utilitarian literature, though his own view is not as strident as Poe’s; he part vii: the later nineteenth century accepts that poetry may have a usefulness that is ancillary to its main purpose, which is aesthetic. He points to the discrepancy between Poe’s sensibility and that of his country; the latter he sees as steeped in material values “disproportionately emphasized to the point of being a national mania.” Poe was alienated by his country’s “lack of an aristocracy,” a circumstance in which the “cult of the Beautiful” could only degenerate and disappear (BLC, 94). Baudelaire points out that, as a “true poet,” Poe believed that “poetry . . . should have no object in view other than itself ” (BLC, 100). Baudelaire even “explains” Poe’s drunkenness as arising from this basic incongruity between the poet and his environment.

It was in his third essay on Poe, which formed the preface to his second volume of translations of Poe (1857), that Baudelaire engaged in detail with Poe’s critical outlook, citing many of the views expressed in Poe’s essay The Poetic Principle. Once again, Baudelaire stresses how Poe was at odds with, and sought escape from, the values of his bourgeois world: “From the midst of a greedy world, hungry for material things, Poe took flight in dreams.” For Poe, however, these dreams were “the only realities.” Stifled by this oppressive atmosphere, says Baudelaire, Poe “pours out his scorn and disgust for democracy, progress and civilization” (BLC, 119). Baudelaire saw Poe not only as an aristocrat, but also as the “Virginian, the Southerner, the Byron gone astray in a bad world” (BLC, 120). Poe’s “Southern” temperament reacted against both North American puritanism and commercialism: Poe reacted against “a country where the idea of utility, the most hostile in the world to the idea of beauty, dominates and takes precedence over everything” (BLC, 126). Baudelaire establishes a special kinship with Poe in regard to the latter’s affirmation of “the natural wickedness of man.” Poe saw a mysterious force in man which is ignored, according to Baudelaire, by modern thought: “This primitive, irresistible force is natural Perversity,” which Baudelaire himself sees as original sin (BLC, 121). Clearly, in much of this essay, Poe’s views become the mouthpiece for Baudelaire’s own sympathies, and Baudelaire reiterates Poe’s antipathy to progress and civilization as his own: progress is the “great heresy of decay,” on which Poe vented his spleen. The concept of progress merely compensates for man’s fallenness: “Civilized man invents the philosophy of progress to console himself for his abdication and for his downfall” (BLC, 124).

Baudelaire is in accord with Poe on a number of issues: the mediocrity of the entire bourgeois system of values and their political incarnation in the form of democracy, the natural fallenness of humankind, the autonomy of poetry, and the aim of poetry as beauty. Baudelaire sanctions the fundamental views expressed in Poe’s The Poetic Principle: that an essential function of art is to produce a totality and unity of impression or effect, that a poem is a poem only insofar as it “uplifts the soul,” that poetry “has no other goal than itself,” and as such must not be subjected to the “heresy of teaching a lesson which includes as inevitable corollaries the heresy of passion, of truth, and of morality.” Baudelaire acknowledges, however, that poetry can “ennoble manners” and raises “man above the level of vulgar interests” (BLC, 130–131). Having said this, Baudelaire insists just as much as Poe on a separation, even a polarization, between the endeavors of poetry on the one hand and of science and philosophy on the other: “Poetry cannot . . . be assimilated to science or morality; it does not have Truth as its object, it has only itself . . . Cold, calm, impassive, the demonstrative mood rejects the diamonds and the flowers of the Muse; it is then absolutely the inverse of the poetic mood” (BLC, 132). Finally, Baudelaire accepts completely Poe’s formulation of the “poetic principle” as “human aspiration toward a superior beauty.” This notion may lie behind the system of correspondences between visible and spiritual worlds that Baudelaire himself was to formulate. He develops Poe’s notion into the statement that the “immortal instinct for the beautiful . . . makes us consider the earth and its spectacles as a revelation, as something in correspondence with Heaven” (BLC, 132).

Baudelaire’s adaptation of Poe’s idea that poetry gestures toward a supernal beauty beyond this world is reflected in his definitions of the imagination. Baudelaire notes that for Poe, “Imagination is the queen of faculties.” What is interesting, however, is that the definition of imagination offered by Baudelaire is not Poe’s but his own, implying a system of correspondences that is not formulated in Poe’s work: “Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives immediately and without philosophical methods the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and the analogies” (BLC, 127). In his Salon of 1859 Baudelaire further developed his ideas of the imagination, saying that this “queen of faculties . . . affects all the other faculties; it rouses them, it sends them into combat . . . It is analysis, it is synthesis . . . It is imagination that has taught man the moral meaning of color, of outline, of sound, and of perfume. In the beginning of the world it created analogy and metaphor. It decomposes all creation, and from the materials, accumulated and arranged according to rules whose origin is found only in the depths of the soul, it creates a new world, it produces the sensation of the new” (BLC, 181). Like Coleridge, Baudelaire sees the imagination as destroying conventional associations and recreating according to primordial imperatives found within human subjectivity, within the soul itself. Such a function falls within an aesthetic domain. Interestingly, however, the spheres of truth and morality, which Baudelaire had been at such pains to demarcate and distinguish from the aesthetic sphere, are now allowed to reenter the very depth of the aesthetic realm inasmuch as they inform the workings of imagination. Baudelaire states that

“Imagination is the queen of truth,” and that “it plays a powerful role even in morality… the strongest weapon in our battles with the ideal is a fine imagination with a vast store of observations at its disposal” (BLC, 182). Hence, even though truth and morality are rigidly expelled by Poe and Baudelaire from the province of the aesthetic, they are effectively subsumed under the control of the very power which creates the aesthetic, the power of imagination. They are once again brought into relation with the aesthetic, not as objective forces imposing on it from the outside but as forces subject to redefinition, subject to the control of the aesthetic, and distilled from the essence itself of subjectivity.

Significantly, Baudelaire’s notion of imagination is articulated in reaction against the classical precept that one should “copy only nature.” Baudelaire’s rejoinder to this precept is: “Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my imagination to the triteness of actuality” (BLC, 180). Baudelaire later issues a challenge: “Who would dare to assign to art the sterile function of imitating nature?” (BLC, 300). This classical function of art is, in his eyes, as demoded as the “phantoms of reason,” which should not be confused with “the phantoms of imagination; the former are equations, the latter living beings and memories” (BLC, 312). The true poet, says Baudelaire, should be “really true to his own nature” and avoid “borrowing the eyes and emotions of another man.” In short, he should rely on his imagination (BLC, 181). What we call “nature” is part vii: the later nineteenth century merely the starting point of true reality, which is far more comprehensive: “The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of food which the imagination must digest and transform. All the powers of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination, which commandeers them all at one and the same time” (BLC, 186). What arranges the world, then, is not divine providence or the canons of truth or morality; all of these are now subjected to the aesthetic power of imagination, which is now newly invested with the functions of truth and morality in their subjectively reconstituted and reauthorized form.

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10 replies

  1. Wow, I had just heard about Bauldelaire’s involvement with Poe recently, it really interests me and this was really well written. I’m kind of surprised by the realism that he used, the sense that there is nothing to come from this defeated logic of protest in literature, that the poem itself is for itself, and not others, and not even that logic itself, either. The poem is not a call to action, and he even goes as far as to say the poem negated the spirit of action. I don’t know much about the earlier breaks from the romanticism and classic perceptions of nature and action toward realism, but this seems really surprising to me. That realism is never for the reality of the poem itself makes sense, I guess, and that instead must derive itself from the limited reality of actual in the sense that “classical literature should only copy nature”, realism seems like it wasn’t only for the poem or the defining of nature, but rather the reality of existence and actual involvement. I hadn’t really thought about this in depth before, but this article made a lot of sense to me and has a lot of interesting material.


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