As the title suggests, “To the Reader” was written by Charles Baudelaire as a preface to his collection of poems Flowers of Evil. It is a poem of forty lines, organized into ten quatrains, which presents a pessimistic account of the poet’s view of the human condition along with his explanation of its causes and origins. Baudelaire, assuming the ironic stance of a sardonic religious orator, chastises the reader for his sins and subsequent insincere repentence. He proposes the devil himself as the major force controlling humankind’s life and behavior, and unveils a personification of Boredom (Ennui), overwhelming and all-pervasive, as the most pernicious of all vices, for it threatens to suffocate humankind’s aspirations toward virtue and goodness with indifference and apathy. The tone of Flowers of Evil is established in this opening piece, which also announces the principal themes of the poems to follow.
The first two quatrains of the poem can be taken together: In the first quatrain, the speaker chastises his readers for their energetic pursuit of vice and sin (folly, error, and greed are mentioned), and for sustaining their sins as beggars nourish their lice; in the second, he accuses them of repenting insincerely, for, though they willingly offer their tears and vows, they are soon enticed to return, through weakness, to their old sinful ways. The next five quatrains, filled with many similes and metaphors, reveal Satan to be the dominating power in human life. The power of the thrice-great Satan is compared to that of an alchemist, then to that of a puppeteer manipulating human beings; the sinners are compared to a dissolute pauper embracing an aged prostitute, then their brains are described as filled with carousing demons who riot while death flows into their lungs. The seventh quatrain lists some violent sins (rape, arson, murder) which most people dare not commit, and points a transition to the final part of the poem, where the speaker introduces the personification of Boredom.
The eighth quatrain heralds the appearance of this disgusting figure, the most detestable vice of all, surrounded by seven hellish animals who cohabit the menagerie of sin; the ninth tells of the inactivity of this sleepy monster, too listless to do more than yawn. The final quatrain pictures Boredom indifferently smoking his hookah while shedding dispassionate tears for those who die for their crimes. Presenting this symbol of depraved inaction to his readers, the speaker insists that they must recognize in him their brother, and acknowledge their share in the hypocrisy with which they attempt to hide their intimate relationships with evil.
Baudelaire selected for this poem the frequently used verse form of Alexandrine quatrains, rhymed abab, one not particularly difficult to imitate in English iambic pentameter, with no striking enjambments or peculiarities of rhyme or rhythm. The theme of the poem is neither surprising nor original, for it consists basically of the conventional Christian view that the effects of Original Sin doom humankind to an inclination toward evil which is extremely difficult to resist. This apparently straightforward poem, however, conceals a poetic conception of exceptional brilliance and power, attributable primarily to the poet’s tone, his diction, and to the unusual images he devised to enliven his poetic expression.
Believing that the language of the Romanticists had grown stale and lifeless, Baudelaire hoped to restore vitality and energy to poetic art by deriving images from the sights and sounds of Paris, a city he knew and loved. Elements from street scenes—glimpses of the lives and habits of the poor and aged, alcoholics and prostitutes, criminal types—these offered him fresh sources of material with new and...
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