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Thoughts on “The Punishment of Pride” by Charles Baudelaire

In those old times wherein Theology
Flourished with greater sap and energy,
A celebrated doctor—so they say—
Having stirred many careless hearts one day
Down to their dullest depths, and having shown
Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne—
Tracks he himself had never journeyed on
(Whereby maybe pure spirits alone had gone)—
Frenzied and swollen by the devilish pride,
Like to a man who has climbed too high, outcried:
“Ah, little Jesus, I have lifted thee!
But had I willed to assault thy dignity,
Thy shame had matched they present fame, and lo!
Thou wouldst be but a wretched embryo!”

Straightway his reason left him; that keen mind,
Sunbright before, was darkened and made blind;
All chaos whirled within that intellect
Erewhile a shrine with all fair gems bedeckt,
Beneath whose roof such pomp had shone so bright;
He was possessed by silence and thick night
As is a cellar when its key is lost . . .

Thenceforth he was a brute beast; when he crossed
The fields at times, not seeing any thing,
Knowing not if ’twere winter or green spring,
Useless, repulsive, vile, he made a mock
For infants, a mere children’s laughing-stock.

(translation by Sir John Squire)

On my first read through of this poem, my immediate question was: Who is the doctor Baudelaire is referring to? My initial thought was John Dee, but upon my second pass, I didn’t think so. Dee did not have a tragic ending such as the poem depicts. Then I thought, “Lucifer?” No, Lucifer’s pride and fall predates the time when Theology flourished. So I did a little investigation online, and it seems that Baudelaire was referring to Doctor Faustus in this poem. That made sense to me, although, I think the dominant theme of the poem is universal and could be applied to many figures, historical and fictional. Just like the myth of Icarus—if you dare fly to close to the Sun, you will inevitably fall and suffer.

While the concept of pride leading to a fall is evident on the surface of this poem, I also got a sense of a secondary caution that is less obvious, but just as important. This is a warning to those who are called to follow the mystical arts.

We are told that the doctor traveled “Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne.” I interpret this as the practice of occult rituals, with the intention of experiencing direct contact with the divine. While I applaud those who seek to glimpse the ineffable, every guidebook for those stepping onto the paths of mysticism emphasizes the importance of remaining grounded. Once you begin on the labyrinth, it is easy to lose one’s self and suffer the anguish of mental illness.

So the cautionary message Baudelaire is conveying to the seeker is two-fold. Remain humble in your accomplishments and in the light of divine majesty; and remain balanced and grounded, not allowing your spiritual quest to consume you to the point where you neglect and lose touch with earthly experience.

Thanks for sharing in my thoughts, and as always, if you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section.

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