Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"

Reuven Tsur

Baudelaire's "HYMNE"—Cliché or Masterpiece?


A la très-chère, à la très-belle
Qui remplit mon coeur de clarté
A l'ange, à I'idole immortelle,
Salut en immortalité!

Elle se répand dans ma vie
Comme un air imprégné de sel
Et dans mon âme inassouvie
Verse le goût de l'éternel.

Sachet toujours frais qui parfume
L'atmosphère d'un cher réduit,
Encensoir oublié qui fume
En secret à travers la nuit,

Comment, amour incorruptible,
T'exprimer avec vérité?
Grain de musc qui gis, invisible,
Au fond de mon Éternité!

A la très-bonne, à la très-belle
Qui fait ma joie et ma santé
A l'ange, à l'idole immortelle,
Salut en immortalité!

This poem is on the verge of the cheap cliché and the masterpiece. The masterpiece seems to do to the cheap clichés what, according to Sir John Davies quoted by Coleridge on imagination, the spirit does to the bodies.

Doubtless this could not be but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

The ensuing close reading will attempt to substantiate this claim; in so doing, I will liberally draw upon a theoretical framework expounded in my earlier work. The import of some of the key expressions in the first and last stanza can simply be looked up in the dictionary: "très-chère", "très-belle", "très-bonne" are unqualified praises, single-minded superlatives attributed by the least-sophisticated lovers to the objects of their desire. The relevant meaning of "Angel" suggests, according to the Random House College Dictionary, a person who performs acts of great kindness, or whose actions and acts are undeviatingly virtuous; the relevant meaning of "idol" suggests any person or thing excessively or devotedly admired. According to Le Petit Robert, "ange" means a perfect person; "idole" means a person or thing who is the object of some kind of adoration. As compared to these clichés, the clichés of Petrarcan love poetry are highly sophisticated poetic expressions.

The single-mindedness of these expressions is reinforced and, at the same time, greatly qualified by the syntactic and prosodic structure of these two stanzas. There are some conflicting syntactic-prosodic cues in these stanzas. Consider the first line: "A la très-chère, à la très-belle". Prosodically, it is eight-syllable-long, subdivided into two segments, four-syllable-long each. Syntactically, the segments contain two parallel phrases. The third line too contains two parallel phrases, beginning with the same function words as those in the first line, but of unequal length. Such short parallel segments reinforced by the anaphora "à la très" may be perceived as hypnotic reiteration, displaying fast alternation of roughly equal units. This sets the structure underlying the poem's joyful, enthusiastic or ecstatic tone. Such a structure may arouse a feeling of certainty; coupled with the appropriate contents, it may generate a "witty", "joyful", "enthusiastic" or "ecstatic" quality. This straightforward structure, however, is qualified by a typically divergent device, splitting the cognitive processing by syntactic means. The poem begins with a preposition, "à la", repeated four times(!), predicting a predicate ("salut"), which occurs as late as in the fourth line. During this period, the reader goes along with the text, but must still remember the beginning, bear in mind that the syntactic predictions of the reiterated preposition have not yet been fulfilled. The expected predicate turns out to be an exclamative formula, not a finite verb, that has the psychological atmosphere of greater than usual security, definite direction and patent purpose. The exceptionally long syntactic uncertainty undermines this security, renders it "false security", bestows on it something of the more diffuse kinds of emotion.1

Several words in this poem are derived from the domain of religion. Most of them occur in a wider than the religious sense. We have already mentioned the more general meanings of "ange" and "idole". "Hymne" too means a song of praise to God or a deity, but also suggests a song expressing joy and enthusiasm, celebrating a person or a thing. "Salut" means in the Judeo-Christian religions and Buddhism "eternal bliss"; in the Roman Catholic Church it may refer to several kinds of ceremonies; in this poem it serves as an exclamative formula by which one may wish someone health and prosperity. "encensoir" is introduced into the poem for the effects of the odour and smoke of the incense; but, for the same reasons, it is one of the props of religious ceremonies too. "Immortelle, immortalité, l'éternel, Éternité" have meanings with connotations of religious importance. Now all these words are neutral from the aesthetic point of view, and fairly banal from the religious point of view. But when they enter into this poem, they become part of a verbal imitation of a mystic-ecstatic experience, which is the text's aesthetic quality. In other words, in Baudelaire's poem, conceptual language conveys, or evokes in the reader's imagination, an experience that is very far from conceptual.

We have already seen, how the straightforward words in the first and last stanza are amplified and diffused by the cognitive processing of the prosodic-syntactic structure. In order to better understand the emotive and aesthetic significance of the semantic structure of stanzas 2-4, I wish to mention, briefly, a theoretical framework which I have elaborated at considerable length in my paper "Oceanic Dedifferentiation and Poetic Metaphor", and elsewhere (Tsur, 1992: 323-324 and passim). In this work, I am relying on Ehrenzweig (1965), who combines gestalt-psychology with psychoanalysis to explore art; he demonstrates throughout his admirable book how in music and painting, artistic experience involves some lowly-differentiated "depth-perceptions" behind the highly differentiated "surface-perceptions" of articulate gestalts. Let me quote at some length from a later book by Ehrenzweig (1970: 135), where he speaks of "a creative ego rhythm that swings between focussed gestalt and an .oceanic undifferentiation":

The London psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Marion Milner, have stressed the importance for a creative ego to be able to suspend the boundaries between self and not-self in order to become more at home in the world of reality where the objects and self are clearly held apart (Ehrenzweig, 1970: 135).

Seen in this way, the oceanic experience of fusion, of a "return to the womb", represents the minimum content of all art; Freud saw in it only the basic religious experience. But it seems now that it belongs to all creativity (ibid.).

As the ego sinks towards oceanic undifferentiation a new realm of the mind envelops us; we are not engulfed by death, but are released from our separate individual existence. We enter the manic womb of rebirth, an oceanic existence outside time and space (ibid., 136).

Why should such a rhythm help man "become more at home in the world of reality"? Ehrenzweig has a psychoanalytic answer. A cognitive explanation would point out that hard and fast categories (that eventually amount to cognitive stability) are indispensable for such elementary abilities as recognizing a person or a place as the same person or place, or identifying a series of vastly different sound-stimuli emitted by different speakers as the same word. But this cognitive stability is bought at the price of relinquishing subtle and minimal pre-categorial cues, perceivable only by intuition, which are equally indispensable for survival. What is crucial for our present inquiry is the opposition focused gestalt ~ undifferentiation. One of man's greatest achievements is his cognitive differentiation. This accomplishment, however, plays the tyrant to him: the less differentiated processes become less accessible to him, as well as less reliable. The passages quoted from Ehrenzweig imply, in fact, that religion, art, and creativity in general, are among the means that may help to better define these less differentiated processes, or yield some heightened consciousness of them.

The suspension of the boundaries between self and not-self by the creative ego is thus said to lead to oceanic undifferentiation. In this state, we are said to be released from our separate individual existences; as such, it is similar to death. On the other hand, in this state, energy may be revived and released, which leads to the opposite extreme, the state of ecstasy. Ecstasy may be said to consist in a state of oceanic undifferentiation, loaded with enormous energy; which is why in ecstatic poetry we so frequently encounter death-imagery loaded with undifferentiated energy.

In Baudelaire's "Hymne" we do find, indeed, a state of suspension of "the boundaries between self and not-self", in which the speaker feels "released from [his] separate individual existence". The central poetic device for this is what Ehrenzweig calls "thing-destruction" and "shape-destruction". "L'air" and soluble salt in stanza 2 are shape-free substances (salt having dissolved and lost its shape). "Vie, âme, le goût, l'éternel" imply lack of constant shape (abstractions, or liquid and gaseous states), "inassouvie" and "goût" connote taste, whereas line 2 of the stanza taste and smell. The thinglessness and complete merger of these qualities contribute to the almost ecstatic passion dominant in the poem. "L'éternel" has the force of the sublime, enhanced by "verse"--connoting a powerful action. "Mon âme inassouvie" suggests powerful craving (for eternity? or for the qualities represented by "elle"?, or for the liquids connoted by "inassouvie"?), while the abstract noun eliminates, so to speak, the physical ingredient of the verb "verse". The physical liquid aspect is returned by the implications of "verse". "Le goût de l'éternel", in turn, denotes two abstractions (of different orders), removing, again, the physical ingredient, leaving a supersensuous intense experience.

"Le goût de l'éternel" evokes a feeling of fulfilment and heavenly pleasure, but, again, it is only the taste, not eternity itself, that is poured into the soul. Taste and scent are less differentiated senses than sight and sound. When we speak of an abstraction or of the domain of a higher sense in terms of a less differentiated one, we foreground some less differentiated aspect of the target domain, inaccessible to straightforward conceptual language. "Le goût de l'éternel" evokes a feeling of fulfilment and heavenly pleasure, but, again, it is only the taste, not eternity itself, that is poured into the soul. Taste and scent are less differentiated senses than sight and sound. When we speak of an abstraction or of the domain of a higher sense in terms of a less differentiated one, we foreground some less differentiated aspect of the target domain, inaccessible to straightforward conceptual language. Taste and scent suggest in this poem the immediate experiencing of lowly-differentiated sense information bringing the experiencer into contact with some inaccessible, more real reality (this is the case, as well, in the ensuing stanzas with "Sachet toujours frais", "Encensoir oublié", and "Grain de musc qui gis, invisible, / Au fond de mon Éternité!". Thus, "le goût de l'éternel" presents the imagination with some intuitively perceived, nonconceptual aspect of eternity. Thus, "le goût de l'éternel" presents the imagination with some intuitively perceived, nonconceptual aspect of eternity.

"Elle" refers to a flesh-and-blood woman; "elle se répand" is bound to eliminate her solid shape, retaining an idealised, airy essence and refreshing quality. The salty air could have spread in "my body" (expanding a fresh and acute awareness of every bit of the body, or bringing life like blood); the speaker could also have said that there is a mystic communion, by fusing her and my souls. Instead, he uses a metonymic transfer, "dans ma vie", suggesting all these implications, but, in addition, uses the least concrete noun relevant. It enhances the shapeless, thing-free quality, indispensable for the immediate "melting with emotion", but it has a long-term significance too: she has changed my life, my very inner self"; "her influence is present in all my actions"; "she fills me and my life meaning". The receptive disposition of the speaker is enhanced by the facts that (1) the activities "se répand" and "verse" are done by "elle", and (2) they mean "expanding" and "pouring into ...".

Elsewhere (Tsur, 1992: 299-300) I discuss the use of perfumes and jewels in Mediaeval Hebrew précieux poetry, as opposed to metaphysical poetry.

A possible (extreme) means for creating what may be regarded as "cheap or easy effects" is the use of jewellery, or of sophisticated perfumes as metaphoric vehicles. This we find, typically, in the Mediaeval poetic .x.genre; devoted to the triple theme of drinking, love, and the description of the garden in which these activities take place. Pagis (1970: 257), in his study of the poetics of Mediaeval Hebrew secular poetry, says: "The poet neglects many details of reality; on the other hand, he brings up typical details whose metaphoric presentation suggests the luxuries of a refined culture: the odour of blossoming is like rare perfumes, the wine is like a ruby set in crystal; flowers, too, resemble a variety of gems, the whole garden itself is like rich embroidery or jewels of pure flattened gold". Artistic pleasure typically arises when some emotional or perceptual tension is replaced, or rather resolved, by some structure that induces a feeling of stability. Jewels, rare perfumes, rich embroideries, "gold to airy thinness beat" are paradigms of pleasurable sensations with no need to undergo first the experience of perceptual or emotional tensions.

In a term borrowed from Gombrich (1963: 15) I said that the jewels and fragrances provide "direct gratification". Mediaeval poets use perfumes and jewellery to suggest some directly achieved and intense pleasure, to amplify natural sights and odours. Baudelaire too has excessively wide recourse to olfactory imagery; and he too uses them to suggest the amplification of sensations. But he goes far beyond this. Consider, for instance, the sestet of his famous programmatic sonnet, "Correspondances":

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
-- Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.

First, of the three adjectives "corrompus, riches et triomphants" (corrupted, rich and triomphant), the last two could occur in the Mediaeval poets' nature descriptions too; but not the first one. Baudelaire's odours are not only ripe, but sometimes overripe; he indulges not only in direct gratification through pleasurable sensations, but also in painful excesses. In one of the Jeanne Duval poems of sensuous love, "Le Léthé", he writes:

Dans tes jupons remplis de ton parfum
Ensevelir ma tête endolorie,
Et respirer, comme une fleur flétrie,
Le doux relent de mon amour défunt.

Sensuous indulgence for Baudelaire involves corruption too. "relent" means persisting bad odour; "Le doux relent de mon amour défunt" suggest a sophisticated "after-scent" of a no-longer-existing ambivalent emotion; "ét respirer, comme une fleur flétrie" suggests indulgence in such an "after-scent".

Second, for Baudelaire (but not for the Mediaeval poets), the olfactory sense is a lowly-differentiated sense2, the indulgence in it leads to regression from the more rational modes of experiencing the world. In other words, the indulgence in odours and perfumes constitutes regression from rational consciousness in two respects: there is a regression from well-organised gestalts to gestalt-free and thing-free qualities; and from the more differentiated senses (like sight and sound) to a less differentiated sense. These sensations are evasive, diffuse, yet exceptionally intense. Third but not least, in Baudelaire, this indulgence and regression does not occur for indulgence's and regression's sake; it is subdued to an "altered state of consciousness"; in "Correspondances", for instance, "l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens" lead to a peak experience, "Transport of the spirit and the senses"; in "Hymne", exposure to the beloved one leads to a mystic fusion of ego with non-ego.

Now "Hymne" is one of the idealising Madame Sabatier poems, characterised by a pure spiritual attitude; its odours too are pure, fresh and uncorrupted. And its tone, though highly enthusiastic, cannot be said to be "ecstatic". It suggests a more evasive kind of altered state of consciousness, an attenuated variety of a peak experience. As I have already suggested, in the second stanza "I" and "she" are turned, through semantic manipulations, into thing-free and gestalt-free entities, experiencing a merger, a "mystic communion", so to speak. Two of the perfumes mentioned in "Correspondances", "le musc" and "l'encens" occur in "Hymne" too. But, again, they undergo here certain semantic manipulations. Consider the ambiguity of "atmosphère". In this poem it suggests the air that fills "a dear recess", as well as the dominant mood or emotional tone of some place or a work of art. This ambiguity is not accidental; "atmosphère" is the gestalt-free and thing-free quality par excellence, that fills all the space around, and whose presence is perceived but one does not know how. The various perfumes, too, are prototypical thing-free and gestalt-free qualities, and serve to "saturate" the atmosphere (in both senses) with intense, pleasurable sensations, just as the air impregnated with salt is saturated with pleasurable sensations.

"La nuit" too, in the third stanza, is a thing-free and gestalt-free quality that fills the entire space around, and also renders sight, the most differentiated (most rational) sense, ineffective. But one can perceive the scent of the hidden "encensoir" that secretly smokes across the night. In other words, the more differentiated sensations are are rendered impossible; only the less differentiated ones are accessible. Now it should be noticed that this "encensoir" is not only at some far away, unspecified place, imperceptible to the eye: it is also forgotten; it is the source of intense but invisible, diffuse information that fills all the surrounding space, and is devoid of any possible purposiveness (that is what "oublié" suggests here). Thus, we are presented with a verbal imitation of feeling, or intuiting, rather than knowing, our environment and some inaccessible remote reality.

I have said that "Hymne" conveys some attenuated variety of a peak experience, or, if you like, some attenuated romanticism. I have elsewhere quoted Bowra on the Romantic imagination. The Romantic poets sought to discover, with the help of their imagination, the transcendental order inaccessible to the senses, in nature, that is accessible to the senses. In English .x.Romanticism;, says Bowra (1961: 271), "five major poets, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, despite many differences, agreed on one vital point: that the creative imagination is closely connected with a peculiar .x.insight; into an unseen order behind visible things". The Romantic poets call the unlimited reality with which they seek communion "Infinity", "Eternity" or "Nothingness", rather than "God";3 sometimes they merely seek integration with surrounding Nature (Tsur, 1992: 412). Those evasive, undifferentiated, diffuse scents in Baudelaire's poem give information about some remote, invisible, inaccessible reality; they yield "a peculiar insight into an unseen order behind visible things". "Mon Éternité" is a curious expression. "Éternité" is some unqualified, absolute existence; the possessive pronoun renders it particularly private, subjective; it is, perhaps, infinity somehow internalised. Romantic poets would like that, perhaps: it suggests the sublime as an internal experience. The "grain of musk" is infinitesimally small, and "lies still" at the bottom of my eternity, at the remotest, least accessible point (as at the bottom of the sea). Yet the speaker experiences it most intensely.

To sum up:
Baudelaire uses in "Hymne" such uninteresting love clichés as "angel, idol", and such straightforward superlatives as "dearest, most beautiful, best". He also has recourse to parfumes and odours which in précieux poetry are used to suggest easy, direct gratification, rather than overcoming some difficulty which is the essence of artistic creation. But these "cheap" devices of love poetry are turned into a masterpiece through prosodic and syntactic organisation, and the semantic manipulation of the words. The single-minded exclamative formula of the first and last stanza assumes a more diffuse and complex emotional quality by splitting the direction of its cognitive processing by prosodic and syntactic means. The poem conveys the mystic union of an ego with a non-ego, through the suspension of boundaries and the abolishment of gestalts through semantic manipulation. In mystic poetry, love and sexual relationship serve as metaphors for the mystic union of ego with non-ego. In Baudelaire's poem, the infusion of ego with non-ego as a gestalt-free quality with suspended boundaries performs the mystic union of love. The use of excessive artificial perfumes serves to amplify sensuous indulgence; but these are also treated as diffuse information about some remote, inacessible and invisible reality--that is, they act as the verbal imitation of some mystic experience.

1. A conspicuous English instance of a poem beginning with a preposition is Paradise Lost. Here the predicate that governs the initial "of" is "Sing" at the beginning of the sixth line.

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into our world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Heav'nly Muse ...

The complex emotional effect of such split attention can readily be seen by contrasting this word order to a more straightforward one, in which the preposition follows immediately the verb, as e.g., in "Heav'nly Muse, Sing / Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit ...", etc. [back]

2. This statement should not be construed as support for the intentional fallacy; it does not refer to Baudelaire's or the Mediaeval poets' private fantasies, but to publicly accessible rhetorical manipulations in their poems. Baudelaire's lines "Et respirer, comme une fleur flétrie, / Le doux relent de mon amour défunt", serve to foreground some nameless feature of love that is not immediately associated with its stereotype, and refers to the indulgence in some diffuse sensations originating in love, when love itself is no longer accessible. The major part of my discussion of "Hymne" is concerned with similar rhetorical manipulations. The Mediaeval poets, by contrast, use the artificial or prototypical fragrances to describe and amplify natural scents, or such social interactions as fame, rumour, friendship; they use these fragrances to present pleasant sensations as more pleasant, and outstanding experiences as more intense. They amplify the stereotypic features of those notions and sensations. [back]

3. This practice is most familiar with the religious mystics as well. [back]


Bowra, Sir Maurice (1961) The Romantic Imagination. London: Oxford UP.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1965) The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing. New York: Braziller.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1970) The Hidden Order of Art. London: Paladin.

Gombrich, E. H. (1963) "Visual Metaphors of Value in Art", in Meditations on a Hobby Horse--And Other Essays on the Theory of Art. London: Phaidon.

Pagis, Dan (1970) Secular Poetry and Poetic Theory: Moses Ibn Ezra and his Contemporaries. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute (in Hebrew).

Reuven Tsur (1988) "'Oceanic' Dedifferentiation and Poetic Metaphor". Journal of Pragmatics 12: 711-724. (=Reuven Tsur (1989) "'Oceanic' Dedifferentiation and Poetic Metaphor", in Asa Kasher (ed.), Cognitive Aspects of Language Use. Amsterdam: North Holland).

Reuven Tsur (1992) Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Amsterdam: Elsevier (North Holland) Science Publishers.

This research was supported by a grant from the ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"

Original file name: Hymne - converted on Saturday, 14 August 1999, 17:50

This page was created using TextToHTML. TextToHTML is a free software for Macintosh and is (c) 1995,1996 by Kris Coppieters