Thoughts on “Beauty” by Charles Baudelaire

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it displaces lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;

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!

(Translation by William Aggeler)

In this poem, Baudelaire explores the ideal of physical beauty manifest in the female form. The opening stanza conjures an image of sculpted beauty, which I suspect may be an allusion to the Venus di Milo. The beauty of the ideal physical form is an inspiration to other artists, and in Baudelaire’s case, poets in particular. But as the poem progresses through the next three stanzas, a darker image emerges.

As a society, we tend to place physical beauty upon a pedestal, on “a throne in the sky.” The problem is that this ideal is really not attainable, and those who appear to attain that level of physical perfection do so at a great cost. They essentially become statues, hardened on the inside and unable to express human emotion, never weeping and never laughing because that might affect the outward appearance.

While most of the poem seems to be a warning to individuals seeking to attain physical perfection, the last stanza also issues a warning to those who worship physical beauty. The woman whose eyes are as mirrors is letting the enchanted lover of beauty know that his soul is a reflection of her stark, cold inner self. By seeking inspiration from the external, the poet and artist end up compromising their deeper artistic wellspring, hence drying up their true emotions and becoming like stone.

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