Critique of Baudelaire's Poem 
Correspondences (1852-56?)
 by Henri Dorra* 

    The diverse sources of this poem have been amply studied. Baudelaire acknowledged that the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg had advocated the principle of correspondences and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier that of analogies. The sociologist-philosopher Pierre Leroux, deeply interested in the history of religions, eloquently evoked universal harmony, correspondences, and musicality in his "De la poésie de notre epoque" ("Pertaining to the poetry of our time") of 1831:
Poetry is the mysterious wing that glides at will in the whole world of the soul, in that infinite sphere, one part of which is colors, another sounds, another movements, another judgments, and so forth, all vibrating simultaneously, according to certain laws, so that a vibration in one region communicates itself to another region. The privilege of art is to feel and express these relationships, which are deeply hidden in the very unity of life. From these harmonic vibrations of the diverse regions of the soul an accord results, and this accord is life; and when this accord is expressed, it constitutes art. And it so happens that when this accord is expressed, it is a symbol, and the form of its expression is rhythm, which itself partakes of the symbol: that is why art is the expression of life, the reverberation of life, life itself. Poetry, which chooses for its instru-ment the word and creates with words the symbol and the rhythm, is an accord, as is music, as is painting, as are all the other arts: so that the fundamental principle of all art is the same, and all the arts get fused into art, all the poetries into poetry. 
    Leroux himself was unquestionably affected by the study of the history of religions in Germany. By the early nineteenth century Germany's major poets and philosophers had become fascinated both with the role of the symbol in the development of religions and with its aesthetic potential. Undoubtedly influenced by Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit(Ideas on the philosophy of the history of humanity), 1784-87, by Johann Gottfried von Herder. Immanuel Kant, in The Critique of Judgment, 1790, commented on allegorical associations, which are but a special case of symbolic ones - the allegory being a universally understood symbol that is consequently devoid of mystery:
"Jupiter's eagle, with the lightning in its claws, is an attribute of the mighty king of heaven, and the peacock, his stately queen. They do not, like logical attributes, represent what lies in our concepts of the sublimity and majesty of creation, but rather something else-something that gives the imagination an incentive to spread its flight over a whole host of kindred representations that provoke more thought than admits of expression in a concept determined by words. They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations strctching beyond its ken."
Leroux is likely to have been influenced by the thought of Friedrich Creuzer, one of several historians of religion continuing the tradition initi-ated by Herder. Creuzer was the author of an important work on the myths and symbols of antiquity that appeared in German in 1810-12 and, much augmented, in a French translation by Joseph Guigniaut from 1825 through 1851. Leroux would have read, as Guigniaut put it in notes to this work, that
the idea of something of primitive origin, something divine, in the symbol, has no other source . . . than the set of ancient beliefs that animated the whole world, its forces, its phenomena, and placed man in a perpetual relationship with the gods made in his image. In this way, the link between the sign and the signified object, far from being arbitrary, rests on the universal laws of nature.
Although he did not stress the intrinsic aesthetics of the symbol, Guigniaut waxed eloquent on the simplicity, variety, and harmony of the essentially symbolic ornamentation of Cologne cathedral.
     Whether the symbol or, in Kant's sense, the allegory reveals relationships "deeply hidden in the very unity of life," as Leroux put it; or opens for the mind "a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken," as Kant put it; or establishes a "link between the sign and the significant object [thati rests on the universal laws of nature," as Guigniaut put it; or is associated with "long echoes that mingle in the distance in a tenebrous and profound unity," as Baudelaire put it, it constitutes a correspondence between our perception of matter and the eternal truths of a spiritual order. Both Leroux and Baudelaire, moreover, accepted the notion of correspondences between sensory perceptions - Leroux adding judgment to the rest. For him, "the wing of poetry . . . glides at will . . . in the sphere of colors, sounds, movements," and even "judgments." And for Baudelaire there was a parallelism between "perfumes, colors, and sounds."
     Although others in France helped spread the ideas of German historians of religion, poets, and philosophers, the names Creuzer, Guigniaut, and Leroux stand out. They transmitted to the French romantic generation the concept of the symbol and its aesthetic implications as understood by Herder, Kant, Schiller, Goethe, Moritz, W. F. Schlegel (whose student Creuzer had been), and others. It was the German poets who believed that the sym-bol could be drawn from everyday life. Hegel, whose work on aesthetics was translated into French between 1840 and 1851, preferred the symbol drawn from nature to that drawn from ancient religions. Much influenced by German thought, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley noted that the objects ofthe world can generate a play of associations: "Poetry . . . awakens and en-larges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unappre-hended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil of the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were unfamiliar."
     It is uncertain whether Baudelaire knew the writings of Joseph Görres, a friend and colleague of Creuzer's, at the time he wrote "Correspondences." The following passage by Gorres, however, may be a source for the reference to symbol-covered pillars in the first line ofthe poem: "Priests based the great principles of all cosmogony on [the holy books] - a great, powerful, and nobel row of pillars, which keep on appearing in all myths, unchanged."
    Baudelaire's sonnet can be regarded as the preliminary manifesto of the French symbolist movement. It evokes nature in the metaphor of a temple whose treelike pillars are alive. The "correspondences" are links between the sensory and the spiritual that musicality further stresses through the harmony and expressiveness of the prosody. 
    In the verse "comme de longs echos qui de loin se confondent," for instance, the poet, aside from establishing a harmonious repetitive pattern of the French nasal "on" sounds, suggests how the vastness and "profound tenebrous unity" of the universe dulls the reflection and mingling of distant sounds; in both effects Baudelaire complies with the principle of musicality. Likewise, the sounds "frais," "verts," "doux" constitutejauntier harmonies expressing the excitement of sensuous impressions; these sounds also contribute to musicality.
     As for the play of associations, Baudelaire provides an example of its effectiveness in the series of similes in which he evokes the harmonious and expressive potential of musicality:
Some perfumes are as fresh as the flesh of children, 
Sweet as the sound of oboes, green as pastures 
-- And others corrupt, rich, and triumphant. 
     "Confused words," furthermore, just like the "forests of symbols" and vast "profound tenebrous unity," evoke the aesthetics of mystery.
      And no one can deny the subjectivity of this vision of nature.


Nature is a temple in which living pillars 
Sometimes emit confused words; 
Man crosses it through forests of symbols 
That observe him with familiar glances. 

Like long echoes that mingle in the distance 
In a profound tenebrous unity, 
Vast as the night and vast as light, 
Perfumes, sounds, and colors respond to one another. 

Some perfumes are as fresh as the flesh of 
children, Sweet as the sound of oboes, green as pastures
-- And others corrupt, rich, and triumphant, 

Having the expanse of things infinite, 
Such as amber, musk, benzoin, and incense, 
That sing of  the flight of spirit and the senses.


La nature est un temple où de vivants pilliers 
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles; 
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles 
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers. 

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent 
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité, 
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté, 
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent. 

Ii 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.

*from Symbolist Art Theories by Henri Dorra,
1994 by University of California Press

Return to Top