Charles Baudelaire: Romantic, Parnassian, and Symbolist

Often compared to the American poet Edgar Allen Poe, the French poet Charles Baudelaire has become well-known for his fascination with death, melancholy, and evil and his otherwise eccentric yet contemplative style. These associations have deemed him as a “patron saint of modernist poetry” while at the same time closely tying his style in with the turbulent revolutionary movements in France and Europe during the 19th century (Haviland, screens 5-10).

By comparing three of his poems, “Spleen,” “Elevation,” and “To One Who Is Too Gay,” from his masterpiece The Flowers of Evil, three evident commonalities can be found throughout the works in the influence that the three 19th-century styles of Romanticism, Parnassianism, and Symbolism had on his poetry. Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821 in Paris, France to the parents of Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Defayis (Christohersen, Biography).

It was his father, Francois, who taught Charles to appreciate the arts, because he was also a mildly talented poet and painter himself. In February 1827, Francois died when Charles was only six, after which Charles and his mother developed an extremely close relationship until she remarried in 1828 to Major Jacques Aupick (Veinotte; Christohersen, Biography). The family moved to wherever Aupick was posted for the military and Baudelaire began is education at the College Royal in Lyons, then transferred to the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris.

It was at the latter that he began to write poetry and develop moods of depression, and in 1839 he was expelled for being unruly. Eventually he became a student of law at the Ecole de Droit but in reality lived a “free life” and it was here that he came into contact with the literary world for the first time. He also contracted VD, which was to be the cause of his death years later. Aupick, hoping to draw Baudelaire away from the lifestyle he was living, sent him on a ship for India in 1841.

Baudelaire jumped ship and returned to France almost a year later, but his travels came to be an enormous influence on his work. On his return, Baudelaire received a huge inheritance from his parents but spent it so rapidly on drugs, clothes, fine foods, fine wines, books, and paintings that he was later denied access to his inheritance and was made a legal minor. Another significant part of Baudelaire’s life was women.

Three women in particular are extremely significant in how they influenced his writing and what they represented in his philosophy of life. These three women were Jeanne Duval and Marie Daubrun, both actresses, and Apollonie Sabatier, a well-known French-hostess. On August 31, 1867, at the age of 46, Baudelaire ended up dying in his mother’s arms of the VD he contracted earlier in his life (Christohersen, Biography). Although remembered most for his poetry, as a writer he was also an art and literary ritic, translator, and author (Veinotte).

One of his “earliest passions” had been art and literary criticism, partly due to his father’s influence on his interest of amateur art. He eventually came to be called “the poet-critic,” and a large number of his major criticisms appeared in the annual series of “Le Salon” for many years (Christohersen, The Critic). Other significant criticisms were found in his essay called “The Painter of Modern Life” and in a collection of his criticisms published posthumously called “Romantic Art.

Other major works include “La Fanfarlo,” a short story and fictional autobiography; Poe translations in “Extraordinary Stories,” “New Extraordinary Stories,” and “Grotesque and Serious Stories”; collections of poetry in “The Flowers of Evil” and “The Artificial Paradises”; and prose in “The Spleen of Paris” (Christohersen, The Poet). During his lifetime “The Flowers of Evil” gained the most publicity, although the majority was not positive, it was even questioned under court and mandated to be revised due to its obscene and immoral content.

Influencing his work, the history of 19th-century France was overwhelmed by the aftermath of the Revolution, and breaking from the style of classicism grew Romanticism, Symbolism, and Parnassianism. Particularly, in The Flowers of Evil, from which the three chosen works for this paper originate, Baudelaire “combines the passion of Romanticism with the Parnassian perfection of form”, yet is also seen as the “founder” of symbolism (Harris 78; Haviland). It is in these three styles that three common elements can be found in the poems “Elevation,” “Spleen,” and “To One Who is Too Gay.

To begin with, in “Elevation,” the romantic and the symbolic style tie in very closely through the “appreciation of external nature” associated with romanticism, but at the same time using nature symbolically to suggest the “ideal,” which is associated with symbolism (Merriam-Webster, “Romanticism” and “Symbolism”). He expresses that he is soaring above “ponds,” “valleys,” “woods,” “mountains,” “clouds,” and “seas” to connote that he is above earthly worries and above the material life of mortal men.

He goes on to say that he is farther than the “sun,” “the distant breeze,” and the “spheres” of outer space to describe a state even beyond these abstract objects which are usually associated with divine beings (Baudelaire, “Elevation”). In this poem, he uses symbolism by representing the earth as a metaphor for physical life and representing objects beyond the earth as a spiritual “elevation” of the soul. Baudelaire’s “spiritual nostalgia for the ideal” and his adherence to “the standard Romantic connotation of soul and to the concept of elevation” associates him with the Romantic poets (Nalbantian 128).

At the same time, his use of imagery in nature that describes “the soul’s aspiration for the ideal” and the “implication of intuition into the language of flowers and mute things” are greatly associated to the symbolist movement (Nalbantian 128; Jones 114). The next poem, “Spleen,” is the complete opposite of “Elevation” because instead of soaring high above the earth, Baudelaire is describing the earth as a “lid” which oppresses his spirit into misery (Auerbach 149-150).

The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with melancholy, fear, moral degradation, and agony. This “predilection for melancholy” that Baudelaire outlined in most of his works was greatly associated with the romantic movement (Merriam-Webster, “Romanticism”). Yet, the immense misery described in “Spleen” is even said to be “far more intense than the declamatory [“sickness of age”] of Baudelaire’s Romantic predecessors” (Peyre).

Particularly, this poem is “replete with metaphors” including the sky as a heavy lid over his spirit, Hope as a trapped bat banging against walls and ceilings, and pouring rain as prison bars (Auerbach 150). These metaphors which associate his despair to the Romantic movement also make “Spleen” a significant work of “Symbolist verse” (Carter 61). “To One Who Is Too Gay,” is much harder to define than the other two poems because it changes the context of cheerful words like “love,” “flowers, “clear sky,” and “ecstasy” and give them evil connotations in the conclusion for making him miserable and giving him the desire to destroy or harm them.

The way he looked at and treated “the torments of love” was incomparable in the romantics, but the style he used to write the poem showed clear influences from the Romantic style regardless of its content (Auerbach 160). When looking at the dictionary definition of “romanticism” and applying it to “To One Who Is Too Gay” it is almost valid to say that this poem is more Romantic than both the other poems mentioned earlier.

It emphasizes “imagination and emotions,” presents an “exaltation of the primitive and common man,” appreciates “external nature,” forms “an interest in the remote,” and exalts his “predilection for melancholy” (Merriam-Webster). Undoubtedly though, this poem is a significant example of Symbolism. Beginning the first stanza by comparing her “head,” “gestures,” and “air” to a landscape and her laugh to a “fresh wind in a clear sky,” Baudelaire continues to saturate every stanza in this poem with similes and metaphors (“To One Who is Too Gay”).

This poem, in particular, was written about Apollonie Sabatier, who represented an “ideal” and a “spleen” throughout many of his poems because he came to view women as divine and sacred, yet describing love and sex with the attitude that lovers shall one day “die and rot” (Haviland). The next style which is not analyzed above is the Parnassian school of poetry that influenced the remarkable “form, number, and rhythm of [Baudelaire’s] verse” (“Every Saturday” 80). For example, while examining the original, untranslated versions of the three poems, you notice the specific rhyme schemes in each.

Elevation” and “To One Who Is Too Gay” both use the rhyme scheme ABBA, CDDC, etc. , and both poems carry on consistent rhythms throughout each stanza. “Spleen” uses ABAB, CDCD, etc. , yet portrays even greater “travail,” “labor and difficulty” than the forms of the other two (“Every Saturday” 80). “Spleen” uses the alexandrine meter which emphasizes that it is “a serious poem, to be spoken slowly and gravely” (Auerbach 150). It shows great “structural control” because the first and second stanza speak of the sky and earth, respectively, and the third connects these two stanzas by speaking of the rain.

Each of the first three stanzas begin with “Quand” or “When,” and other notable literary devices he uses in this poem in particular include his alliteration, his use of nasal words, and his punctuation (Peyre). In conclusion, it is the combination of Baudelaire’s eccentricity as well as the influence that his life and culture had on his writing that have made him such a significant figure in French 19-century literature. By selecting and analyzing “Elevation,” “Spleen,” and “To One Who Is Too Gay,” three significantly contrasting poems from The Flowers of Evil, his style acts as an important common element throughout all three.

Although an important figurehead in modern poetry, he is similarly dubbed as having an enormous influence on the Romantic movement, the Symbolist movement, and the Parnassian movement, as much as he was influenced by these movements himself. And because of the turbulence of this revolutionary period in France, it is fair to say that Baudelaire’s greatness could have only been derived from “standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton).

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