Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire’s most famous work, is classical in its clarity, discipline, and form, yet Romantic in its subjectivity, spirit of revolt, and macabre elements. Baudelaire’s collection contains none of the historical or narrative poems typical of contemporaneous poetic works. The poems of Flowers of Evil were written at various dates, but their grouping and emotional tenor lend coherence and heighten intertextual relation. In the enlarged second edition, the book opens with “Benediction,” describing the poet’s birth, and closes with a vision of death and promise of rebirth in “The Voyage.” The punning title suggests the poems are products of “evil” and “illness” (both meanings of the French word mal). At the same time, they adorn evil. True poetry, like a flower, beautifies whatever it touches.
In the first and largest section, Spleen and Ideal, the poet discards previous criteria of ideal beauty and instead finds poetry in the hideous realities of everyday life. Although entitled Spleen and Ideal, the cycle tends more toward the ideal. The first twenty-one poems are all related to the problems facing the artist and to the nature of beauty. Within these poems, there are two subcycles: One considers the grandeur, the misery, and the ideal of beauty; the other considers the three women important to Baudelaire and different permutations of love.
“Benediction” depicts the poet persecuted by society and redeemed by posthumous fame. “The Albatross,” one of the most famous poems of the collection, treats the Romantic theme of the poet’s isolation. The poem builds the traditional antithesis between the genius of the poet and his inability to adapt to an indifferent society. “Correspondences” evokes Platonic correspondences between visible forms and higher reality, as well as those between the senses. “Beacons” delineates the work of eight writers and artists as proof of humankind’s dignity. “A Former Life” revels in the sensuous pleasure of exotic beauty. “Beauty” suggests true beauty is passionless, while passion is animal. “The Ideal” and “The Giant” reveal that beauty is always strange and monumental. In “Hymn to Beauty,” art results from attraction to good and evil simultaneously. In the end, beauty’s chief value is its power to satisfy a longing for the infinite and an escape from the misery of the human condition.
The love poems in Spleen and Ideal divide into three groups, each devoted to a particular woman and the type of beauty she represents. Memory is both Baudelaire’s theme and method in the love poems. His emotions reveal a mingling of love and hate, loathing of his own weakness and of his mistress’s cruelty. The poems celebrating Jeanne Duval evoke physical passion and despair aroused by a woman incapable of appreciating his art or love. The sensuality of “The Jewels” is both cerebral and aesthetic. “Exotic Perfume” and “Her Hair” are both inspired by scent, which offers an exotic escape from reality. Baudelaire sees himself as a victim of desire in “The Vampire” and compares his tormentor to a cold, aloof feline in “The Cat.” “The Balcony,” however, traces feelings of nostalgia and anticipates a reconciliation. Madame Sabatier’s cycle of poems parallels the sequence of experiences in the cycle devoted to Jeanne. The poems begin with a celebration of the blonde Venus’s grace and end with contradictory emotions of love and hate. In “Evening Harmony,” the poet’s ecstasy is expressed in terms of religious adoration. The cycle of Marie Daubrun associates her beauty with autumn’s misty skies. “The Invitation to a Voyage,” another of Baudelaire’s famed verses, returns to a lost Eden that he shares with his beloved. The cycle of Marie ends with a baroque poem, “To a Madonna,” that combines love, hate, jealousy, and revenge in a rich, ornate style.
The rest of the poems in Spleen and Ideal first adopt a lighter tone before yielding to a somber mood, enhancing the irony that Baudelaire felt was fundamental to literary creation. Spleen is a metaphysical malady, a paralysis of emotions, a feeling of isolation, a lack of desire. Nature reflects his fear in “Obsession.” “The Thirst for Nothingness,” one of the better-known Spleen and Ideal poems, reflects the utter despair of the poet by images of absence. The most sadistic of the poems, “The Self-Torturer,” seems an ironic commentary on his...