Les fleurs du mal, Charles Baudelaire
Les fleurs du mal Charles Baudelaire
The following entry presents criticism on Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1868; The Flowers of Evil). For discussions of Baudelaire's complete career see .
Although Baudelaire is viewed as one of the world's greatest lyric poets, his importance in literary history rests almost entirely on one book, a volume of poems entitled Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). The book was a critical and popular failure during his lifetime, primarily because people were so shocked by its content—depictions of sexual perversion, moral corruption, and mental and physical illness. Yet this volume introduced themes and a species of self-contemplation that profoundly shaped the literature that followed it, particularly the poetry of the twentieth century. For many critics, The Flowers of Evil began the transition from High Romanticism to what we think of as modern poetry. T.S. Eliot considered this volume not only the beginning of modernism but also its crowning achievement; he called The Flowers of Evil "the greatest example of modern poetry in any language."
Baudelaire began writing the poems that would appear in The Flowers of Evil while living a life of self-conscious dissipation in Paris. Supported by an inheritance, he aspired to be what he called a dandy. Baudelaire described dandyism as "a cult of the self" and a "new kind of aristocracy" which valued elegance and, above all, distinction. Elegance and distinction involved sexual license as well as other freedoms. The poet frequented Parisian brothels, contracting a venereal disease, and experimented with opium and hashish, documenting his drug usage in poems such as "Poème du haschisch" ("Hashish Poem"). But a dandy was an aesthete above all, and Baudelaire wrote a number of critical pieces during this period. He was one of the first to recognize the talent of composers such as Richard Wagner and painters such as Edouard Manet. In 1846 he became acquainted with the works of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose critical writings stressed technical perfection and the creation of absolute beauty. In the estimation of Paul Valéry and other critics, this experience completed Baudelaire's poetic development. Other important influences on Baudelaire were the French writers Théophile Gautier, to whom The Flowers of Evil is dedicated, and Victor Hugo.
Baudelaire published the first edition of The Flowers of Evil in 1857. The detailed eroticism in some of the poems and the poet's frank depictions of lesbianism scandalized Paris. Reviewers called him a "sick poet," and even friends such as the critic Charles Sainte-Beuve withheld their approval. Proofs of the book were seized, and six of the offending poems were removed. Baudelaire and his publisher were prosecuted and convicted of offenses against religion and public morality. The six censored poems were published later that same year in Belgium as Les épaves, but the ban on the suppressed poems was not lifted in France until 1949. Baudelaire published a second edition of The Flowers of Evil in 1861. He was working on additional poetry for a third edition when he died, following a stroke, on August 31, 1867. This edition was published in 1868.
The Flowers of Evil is organized in six sections, which group the poems by themes—"Spleen and Ideal," "Parisian Scenes," "Wine," "Flowers of Evil," "Revolt," and "Death." In his journal, Baudelaire once wrote: "There are in every man at all times two simultaneous impulses — one toward God, the other toward Satan." This contest between two impulses underlies many of the themes in The Flowers of Evil. To some critics, this contest is a classic Christian struggle between good and evil. To others, the poet's fascination with sin and redemption is more closely related to his perception of a conflict between the ideal and the actual. For Baudelaire, the goal of art was to find redemption through beauty from the unpleasant aspects of human existence. Many critics believe the struggles that underlie The Flowers of Evil have less to do with religion than with the triumphs and defeats of the creative process.
Baudelaire's moral, psychological, and spiritual conflicts are particularly evident in the three cycles of love poems included in The Flowers of Evil. He wrote poetry for three different mistresses, traditionally identified as Apollonie Sabatier ("White Venus"), Jeanne Duval ("Black Venus"), and Marie Daubrun ("Green Venus"). Sabatier is treated reverently, in almost celestial terms, in poems that contrast with darker pieces about the other women. The latter works are more sexually explicit, and they contain elements of sadism. Collectively, the love poems provide an important and, to some, frightening commentary on Baudelaire's conflicting feelings about women, whom he appears to have alternately worshiped and loathed. Camille Paglia argues that Baudelaire demonstrates an aversion to women's sexuality—particularly their fertility—which is related to his devotion to art.
During the nineteenth century, The Flowers of Evil was appreciated by only a small number of readers. But it was a select and highly influential group that understood Baudelaire's poetry. This thin volume shaped a generation of European literary figures who would in turn shape modern literature. Baudelaire influenced French poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud and French novelists such as Marcel Proust. In England, his admirers included Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, and William Butler Yeats. It was only in the twentieth century that Baudelaire received wide critical acclaim. This was mostly due to the writings of Paul Valéry, who emphasized that the influence of The Flowers of Evil transcended political and linguistic boundaries: "French poetry at length passes beyond our frontiers. It is read throughout the world; it takes its place as the characteristic poetry of modernity."
SOURCE: "Apropos of Baudelaire," in Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henri Peyre, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 110-131.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in June, 1921, as a letter to the literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française, Proust surveys some of the poetic achievements of Les Fleurs du mal.]
I doubt that a poem equalling Hugo's "Booz endormi" could be found in Les Fleurs du mal, that sublime but sardonic book, in which piety sneers, in which debauchery makes the sign of the cross, in which Satan is entrusted with the task of teaching the most profound theology. . . .
No one has written on the poor with more genuine tenderness than Baudelaire, that "dandy," did. The praise of wine might not be approved by the tenants of a good antialcoholic hygiene.
À ton fils je rendrai la force et la vigueur
Et serai pour ce frêle athlète de la vie
L'huile qui raffermit les membres du lutteur.
[To your son I shall restore strength and pink cheeks
And to the frail athlete of life I shall be
The oil to give new vigor to wrestlers' muscles.]
(Baudelaire, "L'Âme du vin")
The poet might retort that the wine is speaking there, not he. In any case, the poem is divine. How admirable the style is...
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SOURCE: "The 'Jeanne Duval' Poems in Les Fleurs de mal," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1948, pp. 86-93.
[In this essay, Pasinetti analyzes the relationship between Baudelaire's sense of poetic craft and his portrayal of a woman believed to have been Jeanne Duval.]
When we take poems XX-XXXV (first ed.) of the Fleurs du mal as the Jeanne Duval group, as is often done, we do not claim an interest in biographical study. On the contrary, when we accept Baudelaire's own ordering of the book and we isolate an area in it, our assumption is that that ordering did not occur at the documentary level (as a man would order his journal for purposes of record) but at the level where the poet has already invented himself into character. He is the "speaker of the poem," and knows it. Such "invention" is possibly implicit in the very definition of literature; it seems to have been, at any rate, very much Baudelaire's way of looking at it. It is his way of looking at other writers, as would appear for instance in Salon de 1846: "Et vous, ô Honoré de Balzac, vous le plus héroïque, le plus singulier, le plus romantique et le plus poétique parmi tous les personnages que vous avez tirés de votre sein!"
Our other obvious assumption—that a study of imagery is a good way to start coming to grips with poems—could also be temptingly justified on...
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SOURCE: "Baudelairean Themes: Death, Evil, and Love," in Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henri Peyre, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 170-77.
[In this essay, Prévost discusses a number of the themes that dominate Les Fleurs du mal, including death, evil, and the transforming power of erotic passion.]
Baudelaire certainly does not have the extreme variety of subjects, of themes, and of tones found in Victor Hugo. But his poetical themes are broader and more numerous than those of Lamartine, for example. The Fleurs du mal offers horizons of an amplitude seldom equalled in any other single volume. There would have been scant, if any, gain in the book's being two or three times larger; if Baudelaire, for sheer mass, equalled Hugo, he would be hardly tolerable. Under the variety of topics, an extreme suppleness of form, a distinctive unity of tone and of feeling is perceptible, with the same tension and the same will. Baudelaire's contemporaries did not fail to notice it, when they mockingly compared him to Boileau, and Sainte-Beauve, unjust as he was in his estimate of the poet's greatness, nevertheless saw his deliberate attempt to transform and transpose. Different as Baudelaire may be from Pascal, aesthetic impressions akin to those produced by the Pensées are frequently experienced by those who reread the Fleurs du mal. Each of them in his...
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SOURCE: "The Interpretation of the Fleurs du Mal" in Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry, New Directions Books, 1953, pp. 175-99.
[In the following excerpt, Turnell argues that Baudelaire uses the imagery of urban crowds to escape the solitude of the poetic process.]
I have already suggested that the 'Tableaux Parisiens' are not incidental glimpses of the city, but an attempt by the poet to re-establish contact with the world of common experience, to escape from the self. The attempt naturally fails, but it produces some of his finest and most original poetry.
The chapter contains eighteen poems. They record a 'circular tour' of the city lasting twenty-four hours, and three of them—Le Soleil, Le Crépuscule du soir, and Le Crépuscule du matin—mark the changes from morning to night, from night to dawn.
The first poem is a panorama of the city. The poet imagines himself in the traditional garret and adopts, ironically, the pastoral tone:
Je veux, pour composer chastement mes églogues,
Coucher auprès du ciel, comme des astrologues,
Et, voisin des clochers, écouter en rêvant
Leurs hymnes solennels emportés par le vent.
He looks down across
Les tuyaux, les clochers, ces mâts de la cité,
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SOURCE: "The Art of Suggestion," in Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal, Edward Arnold Ltd., 1960, pp. 22-32.
[In the following excerpt, Fairlie demonstrates how Baudelaire's careful choice of words shapes the overall effects of his poetry.]
'Manier savamment une langue', said Baudelaire, 'c'est pratiquer une espèce de sorcellerie évocatoire' [Oeuvres completes, 1954, p. 1035]. It is only by the most acute and exact sense of the exciting possibilities of words, their associations, their sounds, and the ways of combining them, that the poet can create ideas, feelings or sensations. 'Il n'y a pas de hasard dans l'art . . . L'imagination est la plus scientifique des facultés' (621). Far from thinking of poetry as a matter of vague divine inspiration separated from man's other activities, he compares it not only to music and to mathematics for the fascination of its controlled patterns, but also to cooking and cosmetics for its capacity to produce the most subtle effects from the most exact gradation of ingredients:
La poésie se rattache aux arts de la peinture, de la cuisine et du cosmétique par la possibilité d'exprimer toute sensation de suavité ou d'amertume, de béatitude ou d'horreur, par l'accouplement de tel substantif avec tel adjectif, analogue ou contraire (1383).
The art of suggestion lies sometimes in choosing and...
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SOURCE: "Gautier, Baudelaire, and Huysmans," in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 421-30.
[In the following excerpt, Paglia analyzes the role of sexuality in general and women in particular in Les Fleurs du Mal.]
Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (1857) is dedicated to his "master," Gautier. Baudelaire translated Poe and hailed him as his second self. Poe's spiritual father was the Coleridge of the mystery poems. Thus Coleridge, coming through Poe to Baudelaire, daemonizes Gautier, with his Byronic breeziness. Baudelaire's new Decadent tone is haughty and hieratic. His poems are ritualistic confrontations with the horror of sex and nature, which he analyzes with Sade's cutting rhetoric. The chthonian is his epic theme.
Baudelaire grants mother nature neither Rousseau's benevolence nor Sade's vitality. Poe's Coleridgean nature is hostile but still sublime, a vast swirling seascape. But Baudelaire is a city poet for whom there are no more adventures. He adopts Cleopatra's Late Romantic fatigue. Baudelaire makes ennui hip, an avant-garde pose. Ennui certifies the sophisticate's excess of experience: one has seen and done everything. Unlike Poe, Baudelaire invents no secondary male personae for himself. His subject is the self as artificial enclave, like the citadel of Poe's Masque of the Red Death, which...
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SOURCE: "Poet as Passant: Baudelaire's 'Holy Prostitution,'" in Unreal Cities: Urban Figuration in Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, and Williams, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. 39-56.
[In the following chapter from a longer work, Sharpe examines how the "Parisian Sketches" section of Les Fleurs du Mal transforms the urban experience into a metaphor for the poetic process.]
Although Blake and Wordsworth begin the poetic exploration of the apocalyptic modern metropolis, the unreal city of the nineteenth century finds its laureate in Baudelaire. Baudelaire's poetry is revolutionary because it insists on the motley splendor of the entire city and all its inhabitants, no matter how bizarre, perverse, or degraded. Baudelaire dedicates himself to creating a new, comprehensive urban aesthetic that can take in "tous les hôpitaux et . . . tous les palais." Previously, only Blake had consistently seen the city as a vast, interlocking system of social forces that possessed both a moral and a symbolic dimension burning luminously behind the details of mundane urban existence. Yet if Blake revealed how "mind-forg'd manacles" shackle the lives of representative citizens (the Sweeper, the Soldier, the Harlot), Baudelaire managed to particularize the archetypal urban situation of the wandering poet into something more personal, more intensely threatening, and at the same time more typical...
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SOURCE: "The Poetics of the Commonplace in Les Fleurs du Mal," in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 57-65.
[In the following article, Robb discusses Baudelaire's use of common words and phrases in Les Fleurs du Mal.]
Much attention has been lavished on the commonplace in recent years, and it would be futile, not to say unoriginal, to attempt another rehabilitation of the cliché as an expressive literary device. Neither would it be particularly profitable, in a short study, to analyse the manner in which a poet such as Baudelaire exploits and renovates literary stereotypes. The very definition of the stereotype poses several problems: when does a certain figure become a cliché? Is the writer aware of its status as a cliché, or is its use associated with a particular intertext? The commonplace under scrutiny here bears only a distant relation to the literary cliché, and provides a more reliable basis for textual analysis. The word will be taken principally to designate a type of figure generally recognized by speakers of a particular language to express a particular truth, whether explicitly, in the form of a saying, or implicitly, in an expression.
In the case of Baudelaire, the use of such figures has been noted and studied primarily in Le Spleen de Paris. Baudelaire himself draws attention to this feature of his prose poems, and his...
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SOURCE: "The 'Pseudo-Narrative' of Les Fleurs du Mal, in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 46, No. 6, 1991, pp. 321-39.
[In the following essay, Unwin argues that Les Fleurs du Mal conveys the suggestion of a story, which the critic calls a "pseudo-narrative."]
'Le seul éloge que je sollicite pour ce livre est qu'on reconnaisse qu'il n'est pas un pur album et qu'il a un commencement et une fin.' Thus wrote Baudelaire to Vigny on sending him the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Reluctant students of poetry are indeed often relieved to discover that the collection can be approached in terms of its thematic development. This is not only a matter of recurrent images and symbols in the poems (for such unity is apparent in most poets' work.) Nor even is it what is now commonly referred to as the 'architecture' of the anthology, that is to say, the juxtapositions, contrasts and counterpoints created by the arrangement of poems. Rather, there is a progression of what might be identified as 'states of mind,' an outline of the various stages in the poet's spiritual Odyssey, the suggestion almost of a series of events. This being so, it is possible on a certain reading to bypass something of the formal and technical aspect of the poetry, and concentrate on what we shall call the 'pseudo-narrative': that is, the artist's memory of a lost paradise and his mission to recreate it aesthetically;...
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SOURCE: "The Two Versions of Les Fleurs du Mal and Ideas of Form," in The Ladder of High Designs: Structure and Interpretation to the French Lyric Sequence, edited by Doranne Fenoaltea and David Lee Rubin, University Press of Virginia, 1991, pp. 100-37.
[In the following essay, Houston examines the structural differences between the 1857 and the 1861 versions of Les Fleurs du Mal.]
In 1857, upon the publication of the first edition, Barbey d'Aurevilly made his well-known reference to the "architecture secrète" of Les Fleurs du mal, and the phrase is often quoted, although it patently contains false associations. To begin with the adjective secrète, architecture is the most overt of arts; moreover, it is one that shows a pronounced fondness for symmetry, whether exemplified by a Gothic cathedral or a classical temple, the two architectural forms most likely to have occurred to a reader in Barbey's day. Symmetry, however, as the Encyclopédie had long before put it, risks being the ruin of other arts, despite its basic role in architecture. Nevertheless, we should be inclined to censure those who mindlessly repeat the phrase rather than Barbey himself, since the criticism of his period was notoriously lacking in adequate terms to describe literary forms.
The more common word applied to works of some complexity was composition, a not very old...
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SOURCE: "Fragmentation and Irony in Les Fleurs du Mal," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1991-92, pp. 177-86.
[In this essay, Harrington examines the complex sense of self that Baudelaire reveals in Les Fleurs du Mal.]
Fragmentation commands special significance in Les Fleurs du Mal and stresses an often contradictory split occurring at many levels such as the structural opposition between spleen and ideal. Thematic polarities of love and hate, time and space, good and evil, God and Satan abound in Baudelaire's work. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the position of the fragmented self that shapes the core or nucleus upon which other forms of fragmentation acquire meaning. It finds expression in various ways: the self identifies with others, thereby engaging in an interplay of its own absence and presence. The divided self also calls attention to the distancing of the poetic voice from the poem's movement, while at other times a self-conscious split alienates the self from its own identity.
Baudelaire touches upon this concept in Les Paradis artificiels, explaining how differentiation between object and subject is abolished as the self voluntarily renounces its own identity in favor of the object or "other." His crucial quotation in Mon Coeur Mis à Nu, "de la vaporisation et de la centralisation du...
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SOURCE: "Baudelaire and the Vicissitudes of Venus: Ethical Irony in Fleurs du Mal," in The Shaping of Text: Style, Imagery, and Structure in French Literature, edited by Emanuel J. Mickel, Jr., Bucknell University Press, 1993, pp. 113-30.
[In the following essay, Kaplan explores the relationship between ethics and sexuality in Les Fleurs du Mal.]
Respectful attention to literary context often helps resolve thorny theoretical issues. The "architecture" (or overall thematic structure) of Les Fleurs du Mal can be delineated, with some certainty, through analysis of certain sequences (or cycles), and Baudelaire's deliberate revisions of the first (1857) edition provide empirical confirmation. Here, quite briefly, are the changes. The second (1861) edition, which remained definitive, marks a radical shift from a poetics of transcendent Beauty to a poetics of compassion for imperfect, and afflicted, people. Most of the thirty-two added poems embrace the world as it exists.
Baudelaire altered the first and final sections of Les Fleurs du Mal the most radically, and introduced a new one, Tableaux parisiens. He added poems to the "Beauty Cycle" (nos. 17-21) in the first section, Spleen et Idéal, which depict the poet-narrator's conversion from aesthetics to ethics; two of the new pieces, "Le Masque" and "Hymne à la Beauté" (nos. 20-21),...
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Carter, A. E. Charles Baudelaire. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 139 p.
Provides an account of Baudelaire's life and a critical overview of his poetry.
de Jonge, Alex. Baudelaire, Prince of Clouds: A Biography. New York: The Paddington Press Limited, 1976, 240 p.
Offers both an account of Baudelaire's life and a critical evaluation of his work. Excerpted in NCLC, Volume 29.
Hyslop, Lois Boe. Charles Baudelaire Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 180 p.
Examines the relationship between Baudelaire's life and his poetry.
Auerbach, Erich. "The Aesthetic Dignity of 'Les fleurs du mal'." In Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, pp. 149-69. New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1959.
Discusses the influence on Baudelaire of the treatment of sexuality in the European literary tradition, particularly medieval Christian traditions of love. Excerpted in NCLC, Volume 6.
Balakian, Anna. "Those Stigmatized Poems of Baudelaire." The French Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4 (February 1958): 273-7.
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