(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."