With Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal we continue a two-week “literary combo”. If you remember, last week we talked about the birth of the gothic novel.
Certainly, Le Fleurs du Mal also has some decadent and goth elements but this time we find them in poetry. And what poetry! Today, June 25, on the anniversary of the release of this work, we will tell you about its genesis, its creator and the themes.
Born in 1821, Charles Baudelaire, fatherless at the age of 6, lived in a conflictual relationship with his stepfather, General Aupick.
Expelled from high school Louis le Grand for his rebellious attitude towards authority, he nevertheless obtained his baccalaureate and chose a bohemian life in the Latin Quarter of Paris. In 1841 he embarked for the Indies. Of this journey, the only one he will make without finishing it, he will retain multiple impressions that will inspire him in some of his works.
Returning to Paris in 1842, Charles Baudelaire led a dissolute life and began squandering his father’s inheritance when he came of age. Placed under the legal guardianship of his family, he became a journalist and art critic for a living. At the time he became an admirer of the works of Eugène Delacroix and Edgar Allan Poe, and of the latter he even translated some works.
He then began writing poems which he published in magazines which, however, met with little public resonance. In 1857, Baudelaire published his main work, the collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal.
The work was immediately condemned “for offending public morals”. With his publisher, Baudelaire had to pay a heavy fine and cancel some passages. In 1860 he published Les Paradis Artificiels, then the following year a new version of Les Fleurs du Mal, from which six controversial poems were removed.
Sick of syphilis, hemiplegia and aphasia, he died in 1867.
Creation and history
Between 1841 and 1845 Charles Baudelaire wrote some poems (about ten) for the “Fleurs du Mal”. At that time, Baudelaire did not think of making a collection, but in 1845, this idea sprouted in him, with the title “Lesbiennes“.
This title will be abandoned, and replaced in 1848 by a more mysterious title, “Les Limbes” (Limbo, as we know, is an intermediate space where unbaptized souls dwell), and under this title 11 texts will appear in 1851.
But Baudelaire will once again decide to change, because another poet was already using this title at the same time. He then went in search of a new one, and it was in 1855 that the final title appeared: “Les Fleurs du Mal”.
This title would have been found by a friend of Baudelaire: Hyppolite Babou, and if Baudelaire kept it this way is because it corresponded deeply to his aesthetic: “extracting the beauty out of evil”. This title is paradoxical, because usually evil does not give birth to beauty.
But for Baudelaire, all these flowers that arise from suffering are a metaphorical designation of his poems. It is under this title that in 1855 eighteen poems appeared in the literary magazine “Revue Des Deux Mondes”.
In 1861 a second edition appeared which would be enriched with thirty-two poems. The work counted one hundred twenty-six texts in that year, as six were removed during the trial. The appearance of the section “Parisian panels” determines a change in the order of the collection (the section is composed of eighteen poems).
This second edition is the one that serves as a reference, even today (but, fortunately, there are also the six condemned poems).
Structure of Les Fleurs du Mal
Les Fleurs du Mal are divided into several parts. Let’s see them together.
1. Spleen et Idéal: It is the longest part (poems 1 to 85). It contains a double postulate: hell, anguish on the one hand and happiness on the other. Here the poet’s conscience oscillates between these two poles. Within the section there are several cycles: first poems (1 to 11 and 17 to 21) which define the role and function of the poet.
Then there are the women’s cycles: poems from 22 to 39 for Jeanne Duval, poems from 41 to 48 for Madame Sabatier, poems from 49 to 58 for Marie Daubrun.
The poems 75 to 78, the Spleen cycle, go together because they have the same title and speak of melancholy and despair. The first part is considered the skeleton of the collection because it is the longest and because it contains almost all the themes of the collection.
2. Tableaux Parisiens: (poems from 86 to 103): it is this group of poems that made Baudelaire the father of urban poetry: an unusual and modern vision of the city and in particular of the plain and the workers. He is the first to speak of the city in the poem. He makes Paris an allegory of his soul.
3. The other four sections (Le Vin, Fleurs du Mal, Révolte and La Mort) will appear as the different attempts to escape the laceration of consciousness. In Le Vin (poems 104 to 108) an attempt is made to use drunkenness, one of Baudelaire’s artificial paradises. Fleurs du Mal (poems 109 to 117) treats debauchery as another means of escaping one’s discomfort, an allusion to death which is seen as alluring and frightening. At the end of the poems, death is seen as an effective solution.
Themes in Les Fleurs du Mal
For Baudelaire, love can also be happy. When the woman becomes muse, inspirer, source of new beauty and exoticism, the transport is real.
As we said before, we can guess the presence of three women in the book: Jeanne Duval, a sensual Amazon with whom Baudelaire lives a stormy passion. Marie Daubrun, figure of the inaccessible ideal, who preferred the poet Théodore de Banville to Baudelaire. And then Apollonie Sabatier, an angelic figure, who shows Baudelaire the way to a possible salvation.
But women can also be overbearing and cause pain. She is then compared to the “vampire“, because she deprives the poet of his genius, distracting him from creation. Baudelaire’s misogyny is pervasive and reveals the attraction-repulsion he feels towards women, another “flower of evil”. This female triad is the subject of the 2016 film titled precisely Les Fleurs du Mal ,available on Amazon.
Travel and wine
Travel is a recurring theme in the book. Baudelaire dreams of an exotic “elsewhere”, past or future, because he has an aversion to the “here” and the present. The search for a distant world, which is accessed through memory, becomes an escape route that pushes the poet on an ascending trajectory.
Wine is also a recurring theme. It allows Baudelaire to sublimate the banality of everyday life. Drunkenness becomes the occasion for an inner journey and an escape.
It is the motif that structures Baudelaire’s reflection on poetic creation in depth. Baudelaire considers himself an alchemist who transforms the ugliness of reality into beauty: “I mixed the mud and I made gold”, he writes in his poem “Pride”. The poet must transform the real through the verb, extracting its quintessence. But alchemical art presupposes a pact with the Devil, as the legend tells of Faust.
It appears in the entire work of Baudelaire. “Spleen” is the seat of black bile, which Aristotle called in Problemata, “melancholy or black humor”. Since ancient times there has been an equivalence between melancholy, genius and madness.
Baudelaire therefore follows in the footsteps of Aristotle, giving the spleen very negative connotations related to anxiety, apathy (absence of movement) and the absence of will. “L’Ennui” is synonymous with “Spleen” in the collection and becomes “the Enemy” against which the poet fights in vain.
This is one of the great themes of the book. Baudelaire praises the city of him in the “Tableaux Parisiens”. In this second section of the 1861 edition, Baudelaire expresses his nostalgia for the old Paris destroyed by Haussmann. He also paints the strange and shady atmosphere of the neighborhoods where murderers and prostitutes meet. Paris made Baudelaire one of the first poets of modernity, for his predilection for urban, speed and artifice.
According to Baudelaire the dandy is “the latest burst of heroism in decadence.”
His sartorial refinement, his high literary culture, his aesthetic tastes and his impertinence are opposed to the vulgarity of an era in which bourgeois materialism dictates its laws.
The British Brummell and Byron are the ancestors of the Baudelairean dandy, who pushed the principle of being a dandy to its limits.
Illness an prostitution
Illness is omnipresent in the book, starting with the title. Indeed, “evil” can mean “disease”, since Baudelaire dedicates “these sickly flowers” to Gautier.
We find the poem “the sick muse”, which clearly indicates that Baudelaire recognizes a certain beauty in the morbid. As a worthy poet of modernity, he seeks beauty where classical poetry has never ventured. Thus, he finds charm in thinness, in consumptive and androgynous bodies.
Prostitution, like illness, is paradoxically praised in poems such as “La Muse vénale” or “Le Crépuscule du soir”. For Baudelaire it is a question of anchoring poetry to a form of amorality, going hand in hand with his choices as an esthete.
The cursed poet and the devil
Baudelaire is so defined by Verlaine in 1884, when he cites his contemporaries, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. The terminology also applies to Baudelaire who, with his trial, was sidelined.
Society has condemned the artist as in the scriptures God condemned Satan. The Devil accompanies the cursed poet in creation. Baudelaire feels a form of empathy with Satan because of his misery but also because of his negating power that elevates him to the rank of creator.
The “Révolt” section thus praises three figures who opposed God, namely Satan, Cain and St. Peter. Each of us can consider them as a doppelganger of the poet who with his art rejects the divine model, nature, together with the classical notions of “Beautiful” and “Good” that are intrinsic to him. Consequently, voluntary damnation becomes the condition of a new art.
It is the end of the journey and hell is its painful mode of expression. This quest for nothingness is, however, an active quest, as it engages creation in absolutely new directions. With his final poem, “Le voyage”, Baudelaire evokes death which becomes the ultimate goal to reach and which will allow him to “find something new”.
The unknown does not scare the poet, because the latter realizes that only death can inspire poems never written before. It is because of this upheaval that the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal is today considered the father of poetic modernity.
Why are Les Fleurs du Mal so important?
We said it a few lines ago. Because the work is a revolution. On 25 June 1857, with the release of Les Fleurs du Mal, an era was inaugurated: modernity, our era. Many literary works will derive from this masterpiece.
Mallarmé’s early poems have very clear references to Baudelaire. Arthur Rimbaud even greets him as the first and only “clairvoyant”. Verlaine sees in him the first of the “cursed poets”.
Symbolists designate him as the true precursor of the movement. And this is not all.
The surrealist movement will claim to draw inspiration from this work. In 1955, Yves Bonnefoy, a great contemporary poet, wrote in his preface to Les Fleurs du Mal: “Here is the master book of our poetry”.
Baudelaire is the poet of modernity and his poetry is never separated from lived experience. It is the real, sensual, sometimes cursed world, that of the “here and now” that has always fascinated the poet we celebrate today and that still fascinates us all after a century and a half.