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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."


Marcel Proust (essay date 1921)

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...

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P. M. Pasinetti (essay date 1948)

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...

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Jean Prévost (essay date 1953)

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...

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Martin Turnell (essay date 1953)

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...

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Alison Fairlie (essay date 1960)

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...

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Camille Paglia (essay date 1990)

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...

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William Chapman Sharpe (essay date 1990)

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...

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Graham Robb (essay date 1991)

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...

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T. A. Unwin (essay date 1991)

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...

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John Porter Houston (essay date 1991)

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...

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Karen A. Harrington (essay date 1992)

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...

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Edward K. Kaplan (essay date 1993)

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)...

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Further Reading


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...

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