Last Updated November 20, 2023.
"To the Reader," the opening poem of Charles Baudelaire's 1857 collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), serves as a defiant introduction to a collection that challenges conventional norms and explores the complexities of human experience. Written in the mid-19th century, a period marked by social and political upheaval in France, Baudelaire's work emerged as a poetic exploration that blurred the boundaries between romanticism and modernity. Baudelaire's examination of decadence, sensuality, and rejection of the status quo made these poems controversial in their time.
In "To the Reader," Baudelaire directly addresses his audience with an audacious tone, immediately setting the rebellious atmosphere throughout the entire collection. This poem serves as a gateway into the darker recesses of the human psyche, inviting readers to question traditional morality and embrace the unconventional. Baudelaire expresses a fascination with the forbidden, exploring themes such as the allure of sin, the rejection of societal norms, and the inherently sinister inclinations of humanity.
In the first two stanzas, Baudelaire discusses how common vices, "Folly, error, sin, avarice," are always on our minds and take a toll on our bodies. He compares the enjoyment of feeling guilty to beggars supporting the vermin that feed on them.
Baudelaire points out that sins are stubborn, and even though people might feel a bit sorry, their apologies aren't very meaningful. He says people pay a high price for their apologies but then easily go back to making the same mistakes, thinking their tears of regret can make up for all the bad things they've done.
Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains.
These stanzas set the mood for the whole collection, showing how people grapple with their flaws and try to find redemption despite succumbing to these challenges.
In the following two stanzas, the poet introduces the idea that the temptations of evil constantly influence human minds. Baudelaire uses vivid imagery, describing Satan as a cunning alchemist who "Incessantly lulls our enchanted minds." He suggests that the strength of people's will, represented as a noble metal, is completely transformed by Satan, implying the alluring and destructive nature of sinful desires.
Baudelaire further explores the notion that Satan has control over human actions, manipulating people like puppets on a string. He provocatively states that people find a strange attraction even in repulsive things. Baudelaire paints a grim picture of a gradual descent into moral decay, where each day takes humanity a step closer to Hell. However, he notes, people continue this descent without being horrified, becoming accustomed to the unpleasant darkness surrounding them.
In stanzas five through seven, the poet uses several metaphors to describe the destructive nature of human desires. He compares people to an impoverished libertine tormenting an old prostitute, symbolizing the relentless pursuit of pleasure. The "clandestine pleasures" they encounter are short-lived, similar to squeezing a dried-up orange, emphasizing the emptiness and temporary nature of these experiences.
Baudelaire describes a "legion of demons" running around in our brains to highlight the internal conflict and turmoil caused by sinful desires. He suggests that even the act of breathing is tainted, as the metaphorical river of death enters our lungs, implying a constant awareness of mortality.
The poet introduces a dark list of vices — "rape, poison, daggers, arson" — suggesting that, so far, these extreme sins are something most people can resist. Baudelaire attributes this not to moral virtue but...
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to a natural sense of timidness in the human soul.
The final three stanzas introduce the personification of Baudelaire's most reviled sin: ennui (boredom). Describing ennui as even more repulsive and wicked than the other vices, Baudelaire portrays this creature as quietly malevolent. Unlike the dramatic and loud gestures of other sinful behaviors, ennui is subtle yet capable of great harm. Baudelaire colorfully suggests that ennui has the potential to turn the world into chaos with a mere yawn.
Baudelaire characterizes ennui with watery eyes, as if on the verge of tears, and envisions it dreaming of destruction while smoking a hookah pipe. The poet addresses the reader directly, identifying them as someone who knows this refined monster, highlighting the universal experience of boredom and its potential to lead individuals towards darker thoughts and actions. Baudelaire intriguingly refers to the reader as "my brother," emphasizing a shared understanding of the complexities of human nature.