As is the case with many nineteenth-century modernists, Baudelaire’s writing was intimately related to the city in which he lived. His verse, his prose poetry, and his essays all addressed the dizzying experience of the industrialized, rapidly growing, protean metropolis of Paris. Although he was a prolific critic and essay writer, Baudelaire considered Les Fleurs du mal the collection that would make his reputation. When the primary reaction to the publication of the first edition of the volume in 1857 was prosecution for obscenity and the proscription of several poems from subsequent editions, his reputation was indeed made, if not perhaps exactly as he had expected it to be done. Still, as the biting descriptions included in the selections from the diary of the Goncourt brothers suggest, Baudelaire carried the paradoxes and vices of his poetry into the obsessive details of his public persona as well.
In many places in his writings (including the opening poem of Les Fleurs du mal, “To the Reader,” and the intentionally provocative prose poem from Paris Spleen , “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!”), Baudelaire outlined what he referred to as his Satanism, a loose collection of attitudes the basic tenet of which was that anything regarded as good by the Catholic religion, bourgeois morality, or the natural philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was best refuted by turning it on its head and taking the viewpoint of the devil, whose role was to negate any attempt to address the world in a positive fashion.
The first edition of Les Fleurs du mal contained 100 poems; subsequent editions expanded it to over 150 poems, most of them fairly brief. The book is divided into several parts. The first and by far the longest part is “Spleen and Ideal,” from which the majority of the selection included here is taken. Parisian Scenes” is explicitly devoted to the landscape and people of the city (“The Swan,” “In Passing,” “Twilight: Evening” and “Twilight: Daybreak” belong to this part). “Ragpickers’ Wine” is taken from “Wine”; “A Martyr” from “Flowers of Evil,” the most explicitly perverse and shocking section of the collection. The collection concludes with sections entitled “Rebellion” and “Death”; the final and longest poem, “Travelers,” posits mortality as the final possibility for escape, the final source of novelty for an urbanite who has tasted and tired of all that the city has to offer.
Baudelaire never exactly created a school of poetry, but he exerted a profound influence on the French poets who came after him, and his paradoxical and ironic attitude toward modern city life has been a staple of urban cynicism ever since. Baudelaire’s symbolism remained rooted in the environment and people of Paris; while he liked to personify the city’s types and invoke its activities and features as allegories (“Sleep,” “Wine”), his tableaux can nearly always be visualized as miniature urban narratives. Mallarmé, and Rimbaud as well, depicted the city as the site of dramas, or simply visions, whose full meaning was clear only (if even) to them.