Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of Les Fleurs du Mal here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
The year 1857 was an important one in the French literary landscape. Two groundbreaking works, one published the year before, the other that year, were both subjected to trials for obscenity. The first was Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, which unblinkingly depicted the adulterous relationships of a bored provincial housewife. Flaubert was eventually acquitted. The second was the volume of poetry called Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), by Charles Baudelaire. Six poems (mostly depicting lesbian desire) were suppressed, and a fine was imposed on the poet. It is this volume of poetry that I would like to discuss today.
Before we start, I would thoroughly recommend that you visit this website devoted to Les Fleurs du Mal, where you can consult the full text of the different editions, along with a variety of published translations. The 1868 edition contains all the poems that are now commonly used. As all the translations on the site date from over 60 years ago, you may wish to buy Anthony Mortimer’s stylish and clear modern translation; it is available as an e-book or in traditional book form and comes with the original French versions.
Les Fleurs du Mal stands apart from any volume of poetry that came before it both in the scale of Baudelaire’s ambition and the unflinching exploration of the poetic self. Before him, romantic poets of the earlier 19th century often saw themselves as solitary visionaries, more at one with nature than with modern civilization. Baudelaire, on the other hand, is not afraid to explore all aspects of life, from the idealistic highs to the grimiest of lows, in his quest to discover what he calls at the end of the volume “the new.”
The title of the collection, The Flowers of Evil, shows us immediately that he is not going to lead us down safe paths. “Flowers” and “evil” are not terms that would normally be found together, and in so naming his work, he is signaling that he will show us both the contradictions of existence and the beauty that can be found in things that society might normally deem to be immoral or ugly. By using the term “evil,” he is also showing that he is willing to address questions of religion and spirituality over the course of the book.
From the very beginning, where he addresses the reader directly in a poetic prologue, fittingly entitled “Au Lecteur” (To the Reader), we can see that he is not going to give us, or himself, an easy ride. The prologue ends with the words “– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!” which translates (in Mortimer’s version) as “– Hypocrite reader, – kindred spirit, – brother!” In other words, we are going to accompany the poet on his journey. This idea of traveling is an important one in the book; four poems have the word “voyage” in their title, including the final poem.
The structure of the collection charts the poet’s quest to discover to what extremes he may go. The first, and by far the longest, section, “Spleen et Idéal” (Spleen and the Ideal), replicates the paradox contained within the overall title of the work: he will move from feelings of celestial inspiration to those of darkest despair. Many of his most famous poems are in this section, including “Hymne à la Beauté” (Hymn to Beauty), “La Chevelure” (which sounds much more beautiful in French than the rather prosaic English translation, “Hair”), “Harmonie du Soir” (Evening Harmony), and “L’Invitation au Voyage” (Invitation to the Voyage), which contains the famous refrain,
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté,
rendered by the poet Roy Campbell as
There’ll be nothing but beauty, wealth, pleasure,
With all things in order and measure.
By the way, many wonderful songs have been set to Baudelaire’s poetry, and Henri Duparc’s setting of this poem could hardly be bettered in my opinion.
The section that follows “Spleen et Idéal,” “Tableaux Parisiens” (Parisian Scenes), contains to my mind the most interesting and extraordinary poems because Baudelaire resolutely refuses to evoke the city of Paris in a romanticized way. He is far more interested in the urban landscape at a time when much of Paris was in a state of transition. We now know the name of Georges-Eugène Haussmann as the person responsible during the middle years of the 19th century for carrying out a massive project of urban renewal, resulting in the beautiful wide boulevards that can be found in the city today. But it is sometimes easy to forget that during the time that Baudelaire was writing Les Fleurs du Mal, much of Paris was a building site, and, instead of imagining a perfect, complete city, Baudelaire found poetry in the dirt and mud of the city of his day. If I were to choose one poem to read from this section, it would be “Le Cygne” (The Swan), in which he describes a swan dragging itself through the dust, a symbol of alienation and exile, of incongruous natural beauty in the middle of urban squalor. The fact that the French for swan, cygne, sounds exactly like the word for a sign, signe, allows us to read this poem as a piece about poetry itself.
I won’t linger on all the other sections of the volume, but the poet moves from this world of urban reality to seeking oblivion in drink and drugs in the section called “Le Vin” (Wine), to loves that lie outside traditional morality in “Fleurs du Mal” (Flowers of Evil, not to be confused with the title of the whole volume, which is The Flowers of Evil), before shifting to poems evoking a more general sense of rebellion in “Révolte.”
One of the most devastating poems in the collection comes from the “Fleurs du Mal” section: a poem entitled “Un Voyage à Cythère” (A Voyage to Cythera). Cythera is the Greek island believed to have been the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. The poet commences his journey to the island of love full of hope and joy, but as he approaches Cythera, he sees in the distance a hanged man on a scaffold being pecked at by birds. As he comes closer, he sees an image of his own face in the dead man, leading to the heartbreaking final lines,
– Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon cœur et mon corps sans dégoût !
(Oh Lord! give me the strength and the courage
To contemplate my body and my soul without disgust!)
The final section, “La Mort” (Death), brings us not only to the end of life (and of the volume) but also to questions of what might possibly lie beyond the grave. The very last poem, “Le Voyage” (The Voyage), rehearses many of these ideas, finally declaring that we should not be so concerned with whether we will achieve salvation or damnation but that we should embrace the newness of the unknown. I’ll leave you simply with the French:
Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!