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The role of death in Baudelaire's poems

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THE ROLE OF DEATH IN THE POEMS OF BAUDELAIRE

My M.A dissertation in the field of poetry is titled “the role of death in the poems of Baudelaire” This study seeks to answer the following questions:

“What is the signification of death in Baudelaire’s works?

How is death portrayed in Baudelaire’s poems?

For the purpose, I have chosen four poems from his well known work “Les fleurs du mal”/ “The flowers of evil”. This collection was first published in 1857 and comprised 94 poems, divided into five parts: Spleen and Ideal, Flowers of evil, Revolt, Wine, and Death. To this original collection some more poems were added as also another section titled Parisian landscape” between Spleen and Ideal“ and “Wine”. This new and revised version was published in 1861 and contained 129 poems. The final version was published in 1868 with 151 poems.

The title “Les fleurs du mal” in itself is a paradox. The word “mal” signifies misery, suffering, pain in one’s life which is manifested through the presence of melancholy, anxiety and fear of death. Through this title, Baudelaire tries to show the reader beauty of evil. Unlike other Romantic poets that use the description of nature to convey their emotions, Baudelaire chooses to convey beauty through horrifying and repulsive images. Thus, he evokes the coexistence of “Spleen and Ideal”. ”Spleen” signifies all that is wrong with the world like despair, death, solitude, murder. In contrast, “Ideal” represents transcendence over i.e overcoming and going beyond the reality of spleen. Baudelaire’s prosody of the soul involves a complex struggle between opposing tendencies: between “two simultaneous postulations”, one towards God, the other towards Satan.

The duality of human nature as represented by “spleen and Ideal” is found in “The structure of les fleurs du mal”discovered by Barbey d’Aurevilly. the two opposite poles “L’azur” le ciel, symbols of Good or God as an ideal and “le gouffre” as abyss or depths of despair representation of hell which symbolizes the spleen. And “ici” represents one’s existence on earth. Man on the earth is attracted by the ideal he aspires to touch the sky however the duality of his nature pushes him towards the attractions of evil. Caught in this conflict, man resorts to different means to escape from his mundane existence. As reflected in the collection “fleurs du mal” man seeks refuge through certain temporary sources of evasion, which serves undeniably to him as a source of creating artificial paradise notably, in wine, in the abuse of drugs, in escape through travel even exile and in carnal pleasures. He even revolts against society in his quest to escape from Ennui the state of perpetual despair. Finally realization dawns on him that the only way to escape from the spleen is Death. Death will finally drive the person towards “l’azur” where he will find the ultimate peace, satisfaction and a perpetual release from the oppressive real world of breach of law and peace, indeed which is in itself a hell “un gouffre”. Therefore, in the cyclic universe of Baudelaire, death is the only solution to end one’s miserable life and considered as a liberator of all pain and suffering. That is the reason why Baudelaire has strategized by presenting death in the last part. Death signifies last idyllic source to end the cycle of spleen and a resort towards utopian existence and exalts redemptive and liberating promise of death.

The poems that i have chosen are: “La mort des amants”, “La Mort des pauvres”, “La Mort des artistes”, “Rêve d’un curieux”. Baudelaire in all these four poems present a positive role of death.

Today, i will be presenting an analysis of “La Mort des amants”. “La Mort des amants” opens the last section of “La Mort”. This poem as the title indicates talks about the death of two lovers. In this poem, Baudelaire shows progressively a gradual elevation of the lover’s relation from earthly love to spiritual love.The two lovers in this poem are Baudelaire and Madame Sabatier. Baudelaire met her around 1849 at the time when she held a salon, frequented by the writers, painters and sculptors of the time, where she was known as “La Présidente”. And between 1852-1857 Baudelaire adored her in silence. All poems that Baudelaire has dedicated to Madame Sabatier belongs to the Madame Sabatier cycle in which he celebrates the spiritual, virtuous and eternal love as he tried to emphasis in this poem. In “La Mort des amants” Baudelaire incarnates death as a symbol of eternal love.

Like most of the poems in the collection la mort des amants is also a sonnet comprising of of two stanzas of 4 lines each ( quatrain in French) and two stanzas of 3 lines each ( tercets in French). Each line contains 10 syllables divided into two equal parts of 5 syllables each. This balance helps to bring out the reciprocal love and harmony between the two lovers. The poet chooses alternating ryhmes “tombeaux” with “beaux” and “dernières” with “lumières” to manifest the presence of two alternate ideas ,one idea of love and the other of death. The association of these two images of love and death presents the possibility of sublimating the love of two lovers through the passage of death.

Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,

Les divans profonds comme des tombeaux,

Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,

écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.

In the first verse, Baudelaire has revealed again the two amalgamated images of love and death through the description of place where the two lovers find themselves. The poet evokes their presence by using the 1st person plural and its corresponding forms “nos” “nous”. While describing their surroundings he expresses the physical aspect of love through the use of terms such as lits ( bed) and divans (couch). However there is the appearance of the first paradox, the depth of the couch is compared to that of a grave (tombeaux). Thus death is present from the very beginning. In the same stanza there is on the one hand the perfume of flowers and the presence of odeurs legeres. Which is an oxymoron for how can a disagreeable smell be described as leger? Thus from the very first stanza the duality of life and death is present.

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