Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Most of Baudelaire’s important themes are stated or suggested in “To the Reader.” The inner conflict experienced by one who perceives the divine but embraces the foul provides the substance for many of the poems found in Flowers of Evil. This preface presents an ironic view of the human situation as Baudelaire sees it: Human beings long for good but yield easily to the temptations placed in their path by Satan because of the weakness inherent in their wills. People can feel remorse, but know full well, even while repenting, that they will sin again: “And to the muddy path we gaily return,/ Believing that vile tears will wash away our sins.” Baudelaire once wrote that he felt drawn simultaneously in opposite directions: A spiritual force caused him to desire to mount upward toward God, while an animal force drew him joyfully down to Satan. The diction of the poem reinforces this conflict of opposites: Nourishing “our sweet remorse,” and “By all revolting objects lured,” people are descending into hell “without horror.”

From the outset, Baudelaire insists on the similarity of the poet and the reader by using forms of “we” and “our” rather than “you” and “I,” implying that all share in the condition he describes. “Our sins are stubborn, our repentance lax,” and “The Devil holds the strings by which we’re worked,” reflect a common culpability, while “Each day toward Hell we descend another step”...

(The entire section is 565 words.)