Never those beauties in old prints vignetted,
Those shopworn products of an worthless age,
With slippered feet and fingers castanetted,
The thirst of hearts like my heart can assuage.
To Gavarni, the poet of chloroses,
I leave his troupe of beauties sick and wan;
I cannot find among those pale, pale roses
The red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.
Lady Macbeth, a soul strong in crime,
Aeschylus’ dream born in a northern clime—
Ah, you could quench my dark heart’s deep desiring;
Or you, Michelangelo’s daughter, Night,
In a strange posture dreamily admiring
Your beauty fashioned for a giant’s delight!
(translation: F.P. Sturm)
This poem is Baudelaire’s critique of the artistic ideal of beauty. He asserts that beauty expressed through art is unrealistic, and the result is a “dark heart’s deep desiring” for something that does not exist.
In the second stanza, he contrasts “pale, pale roses” with the “red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.” The roses here symbolize women, the red rose being an artistic representation of the idealized female form, and the pale rose being a real woman.
Baudelaire’s argument is still valid today. We still have an ideal of what beauty should be, and this ideal is something that no amount of plastic surgery can bestow upon a person. We all have flaws and imperfections, and I think what Baudelaire is asserting here is that it is our imperfections that convey our true beauty, those unique qualities that are specific to an individual.
As long as we lust after the ideal of beauty, we will always be disillusioned, unhappy, and burdened with the longing for something we will never attain.