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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: August 2006

9 - Art and its representation


Baudelaire was the most visual of French nineteenth-century poets. His professed aim was to 'glorify the cult of images (my great, unique and primitive passion)' ['glorifier le culte des images (ma grande, mon unique, ma primitive passion)' (OC I 701)]. Imagery of the most original and disconcerting kind is central to his poetic practice, whether in the verse of Les Fleurs du Mal or the prose poetry of Le Spleen de Paris. His tendency is to favour the concrete notation as against the abstract, so that the emotions of happiness, grief or longing are expressed not through sentiment or the cold abstractions of an outmoded Romantic rhetoric, but through parallels between the physical and the mental worlds, through what T. S. Eliot was to call 'objective correlatives'. In his view, poetry and indeed all modern art was an 'evocative magic' ['sorcellerie évocatoire' (OC II 118)], 'a suggestive magic containing both object and subject, the world beyond the artist and the artist himself' ['une magie suggestive contenant à la fois l'objet et le sujet, le monde extérieur à l'artiste et l'artiste lui-même' (OC II 598)]. Baudelaire's similes and metaphors are never weak or humdrum; they spring dramatically into life with a physicality so powerful as to give an acute sense of the tactile, and because the gap within the figure, between the tenor and the vehicle, is so great as to produce a creative explosion in the mind of the reader.

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