On June 25, 1857, Baudelaire’s volume of poetry Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1909) went on sale. Some of its poems had been published years earlier in periodicals, but the full impact of what Baudelaire was attempting to do with verse was not felt until the collection was published as a whole. With this book Baudelaire boldly professed that it was possible for something beautiful to be a product of evil, and that so-called perverse topics, such as lesbianism, could be molded into poetic eloquence. Although Baudelaire understood that some conservative literary critics—possibly even the French government—would find parts of Flowers of Evil offensive, he was confident that ultimately vindication would be his.
Within a few weeks of the book’s going on sale, Baudelaire and his publisher, the partners Auguste Poulet-Malassis and Eugène de Broise, were indicted for offending religious morality, and copies of Flowers of Evil were confiscated by the French government. In January, 1857, similar charges had been brought against Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. After Flaubert was found innocent, the government risked another embarrassment by prosecuting Baudelaire. On August 20, 1857, Baudelaire appeared before the sixth court of the Tribunal de la Seine. His attorney, Gustave Chaix d’Est-Ange, argued that Baudelaire intended through the poems of Flowers of Evil to illustrate his contempt of evil. The judges dropped the charge of offending religious morality but found Baudelaire guilty of the lesser charge of offending public morality and fined him three hundred francs. The publishing partners were fined 100 francs each. The judges also decided to suppress six poems from the collection.
Although Baudelaire did not receive a prison term, he was deeply saddened by the verdict; he died ten years later. It would not be until 1949 that the judgment against him was officially reversed by the French government and the six suppressed poems were legally included in a French edition of Flowers of Evil.