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Symbolism 101: Charles Baudelaire’s Influence


Many consider that the fin-de-siècle French poets known as the symbolists connect their romantic forefathers to their surrealist descendants. Their conceits and frameworks are based on vast, irrational, intuitive correlations. The "symbols" for which they are designated are genuine world emblems that gather supernatural importance in the lack of a defined narrative or place, as contrast to the essentially emotional world that dominates their work.

Charles Baudelaire is one of the most prominent symbolists. In 1857, he released his major book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). The book's gloomy, metaphysical and diverse realms revealed hitherto forbidden themes and techniques, and as a result, Baudelaire was alternatively acclaimed and reviled as a blasphemous and even putrid author. This article of the symbolism series discourses the great influence of Charles Baudelaire, a true revolutionary when all aspects of art and inner thoughts are considered.

Symbolism 101 Is Divided Into Five Chapters:

  • Symbolism 101: An Introduction

  • Symbolism 101: Charles Baudelaire’s Influence

  • Symbolism 101: Death And Eroticism In Gustav Klimt’s Works

  • Symbolism 101: Paul Verlaine, The Prince Of Melancholy

  • Symbolism 101: Paul Gauguin’s Bold Experimentation In Aesthetics

In the late 19th century, a new literary movement emerged in France, known as the Symbolist Movement. Symbolist writers sought to express individual and emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive use of highly symbolized language. As Mallarme writes, the function of symbolism is to depict not the thing but the effect it produces. Baudelaire was born in Paris, where he lived a bohemian life, adopting the artistic posture of a dandy, devoted to beauty and disdainfully aloof from the vulgar bourgeois world of materialism and commerce, as well as the pose of flâneur. He embraced the dandy's aesthetic position, committed to beauty and distant from the vulgar bourgeois world of materialism and business.

Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire was later known as the father of symbolism. Many of his poems contain symbolist characteristics. Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a book of poems, was published in 1857 and became the subject of an obscenity prosecution due to the inclusion of some lesbian lines. Baudelaire is recognized with conveying one of the first modernist ideas; a picture of city life's ugliness, sensuality, and depravity, a temperament that inspired modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Modernity, for him, was a good counterweight to progress: while art is timeless, it is also nourished by everything new, such as the advent of visual art, which Baudelaire experienced. All of those elusive characteristics that art can capture make up modernity.

One of his most famous and controversial poems is “The Litanies of Satan”, published in Les Fleurs du Mal. Symbolists considered that craft is at the heart of poetry, in that it involves labor and calculation. This poem by Baudelaire displays delicate craft as it is very well structured, filled with figurative language and symbols. It follows the structure of a Litany meticulously. It shifts from a preaching to a prayer. There is a parallelism, as he keeps repeating the same sentence: “O Satan, take pity on my long misery!” (Baudelaire, 2008). The poem sympathizes with the devil and even praises him. “You who of Death, your mistress old and strong, Have begotten Hope – a charming madcap!” (Baudelaire, 2008) is a personification, where Death is Satan’s partner in crime and Hope is someone charming but impulsive. The poem is not an overflow of emotions like the poems of the previous Romantic Movement. It is not spontaneous, but deliberate.

Gustave Courbet 1849, portrait of Charles Baudelaire
Gustave Courbet 1849, portrait of Charles Baudelaire

Furthermore, the poem takes place in a surrounding away from human interaction and personal experiences. It has no moral concern nor social utility. It is also separate from the writer’s everyday life, as Baudelaire himself was a priest and a devoted catholic, contradictory to his poem, which is a praise and a prayer for Satan. Praising the devil who is naturally wicked has undoubtedly no moral concerns, hence no morals at all. This also is a symbolist characteristic as symbolist artists and poets considered art to be separate from moral concerns, as Gautier expressed it “L’art pour l’art” (Gautier, 2006) which translates to art for art’s sake. The poem portrays Satan as the lord of the rejected and the oppressed. The speaker is calling upon Satan, asking him to take pity of him because he has to live in a world under the reign of God. The poem was considered blasphemous and angered the audience, but the speaker is not necessarily expressing his devotion to the devil because his art is detached from his own experience. However, Baudelaire became eventually known as the father of modern occultism. This poem succeeds in demonstrating several symbolist characteristics, whereas Baudelaire used numerous symbols in order to convey a more profound meaning and offer a sense of ulterior reality.

Illustration from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (Original edition)
Illustration from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (Original edition)

Baudelaire was highly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, and he wrote three major essays about him while also translating some of his works. The disparity between Poe's sensibility and that of his country, which he sees as steeped in material values, is highlighted by Baudelaire. Baudelaire expresses his and Poe's own antipathies to utilitarian literature in this highly influential account of Poe's life and works, though his own position is not as strident as Poe's. The late nineteenth century acknowledges that poetry may have a utilitarian value in addition to its artistic value. Poe's viewpoints become the conduit for Baudelaire's personal sympathies throughout most of his essays. A poem is only a poem if it "uplifts the spirit," and as such, it must not be subjugated to the "heresy of imparting a lesson, whether it's about emotion, truth, or morality," according to the Poetic Principle. Baudelaire, like Coleridge, sees the imagination as breaking traditional connections and inventing new ones based on fundamental imperatives contained inside human subjectivity, within the soul itself. Inasmuch as they inform the workings of imagination, the fields of truth and morality are now allowed to infiltrate the very depths of the aesthetic world. They are essentially submerged under the grip of the authority that forms the aesthetic, notwithstanding Poe and Baudelaire's departure from it. They are reintroduced to the aesthetic; this time as objective forces pressing on it from the outside.

Baudelaire expresses: "Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my imagination to the triteness of actuality."(Baudelaire, 2008). The true poet, he says, should rely on his imagination. What arranges the world is not divine providence or canons of truth or morality, but the power of imagination. His libertine writings, particularly his poetry on lesbianism, sparked uproar and prompted the trial. Baudelaire despised optimism, but it was just this that kept him going. He is a sentry guarding against the ever-present menace of naivety. He embraced the idea of original sin. He believed that evil had a source and that humankind had been permanently damaged, which inspired him to write Les Fleurs du Mal.

Les Fleurs du Mal: first edition with author's notes
Les Fleurs du Mal: first edition with author's notes

The more obnoxious features of his personality, as well as his man-made paradises, were less of a problem. His scandalous character, on the other hand, is more relevant now: Baudelaire was the quintessential renegade. He is still the ineffable figure of the doomed poet, whose method of thought is impossible to fathom. In reality, all those who continue to investigate his work do so in order to obtain a better comprehension of what he wrote. While the readers like straight lines; he nurtured contradiction, had a penchant for ambiguity, and all things sinuous. Nonetheless, his depth fascinates us all.


Baudelaire, C. (2008). The flowers of evil. OUP Oxford.

Baudelaire, C. P. (2010a). The painter of modern life. Penguin UK.

Baudelaire, C. (2014b). Baudelaire on Poe: critical papers. Courier Corporation.

Benjamin, W. (2006). The writer of modern life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Harvard University Press.

Gautier, T. (2006). Mademoiselle de Maupin. Penguin Classics.

Picture References

Baudelaire, C. (1857) Les Fleurs du Mal: first edition with author's notes

Carjat, É. (cca. 1862) Portrait of Charles Baudelaire [Photograph, Woodburytype] British Library. London, UK

Courbet, G. (1848-9) Portrait of Charles Baudelaire [oil on canvas] Musée Fabre, Montpellie, France

Veber, J. (1896) Illustration from “Les Fleurs du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire

Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

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