The publication of The Flowers of Evil in 1857 caused a great scandal. It was ruled by a French court to be an obscene collection, and some of the poems had to be excised in subsequent editions. The preface of The Flowers of Evil stated Baudelaire’s belief that sin overwhelmed the world, and in each section of the collection, the poet confronted different ways of personal escape. “Cats” was included in the opening section, in which Baudelaire escaped into a quest for beauty in art and love. Within this section there is charm, music, and sensuality; Romanticism is strong in these poems. It is clearly evident in a poem such as “Cats.” The spell that is created within this sonnet has close ties to English Romanticism and especially to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Baudelaire can also be considered a bridge to modern poetic art. He used the bold repudiation of bourgeois normality found in Romanticism and added his own sharp images, framed within a rigid poetic structure, to legitimize a wide range of topics otherwise thought to be indelicate. “Cats” does not approach some of the more scandalous subjects; it does speak powerfully about a creature that is exotic, however, and the exotic also runs counter to bourgeois normality. The cat of the first quatrain receives love by being different but not existing outside normal boundaries. Baudelaire refuses to leave it at that. In the second quatrain, the cat takes on qualities that are dark, or at least potentially dark (the cat’s pride will not allow it to “condescend to serve”).
The sestet introduces a magical world. The common house cat is no longer—if it ever really was—common. It assumes a pose comparable to the “sphinxes in the desert”; it is beyond complete human comprehension. When the last tercet begins with an image of the cat’s loins being “lit with the fires of alchemy,” it is evident that cats are magical creatures with special powers. The last line mentions “the mystery of his eyes,” which is a fitting summation of what cats symbolize. The cat represents (as do tigresses or women in other of Baudelaire’s poems) a fantastic creature that will consume any human who tries to understand or love it. The Flowers of Evil attempted to pierce bourgeois society from every possible angle. In “Cats,” Baudelaire created a sonnet that struck at society’s respectability through the exotic and mysterious world of cats.