Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) is an unusual collection of poetry in its bold thematic exposition of taboo subjects and darker undertone. Being contrary to the accepted tradition of poetry, which Baudelaire dismissed as “pretty verses that would make their (meaning society) hypocrite lives even better”, this work had to swim through the rough ocean to get to the safe shores in which it now safely remains.
Published in 1857 and at once judged as an immoral work, Baudelaire was accused of publishing a work which is “an insult to public decency”. He and the publisher were brought before courts and was found guilty. Baudelaire was fined 300 francs, which was later reduced to 50 francs by the intervention of the Empress. Four years later, a second edition was published with the removal of six poems that were censored because they posed a threat to public morality.
Structure and Form
The collection of poetry is arranged into six sections: Spleen and Ideal, Parisian Scenes, Wine, Flowers of Evil, Revolt, and Death. The work differs in its darker themes from the other “pretty verses” that the public has hitherto read. It is one of its kind at the time with originality in concept, boldness in expression, modernity for its time, flexibility in the style of prose poem, and unconventional use of provocative imagery and unusual forms.
In Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire exposes various themes. The uppermost is the quest for the ideal. Baudelaire looks to nature and women, the aesthetic beauty, for the ideal. But their veiled mysteries only allow for a glimpse. Frustration at his inability to understand the ideal and the suffering at the estrangement of the eternal truth increase his spleen.
Women play a major part in this collection. In fact, the “fair sex” is his muse. Baudelaire searches for his ideal in dark eroticism, in his lust and desires. But his search becomes futile as he experiences only a momentary transcendence wherein his senses undergo the beauty in its purest form. However, when the moment lapses, there follows the fall, the fall from the grace of God in his moral decadence.
However, decadence has its own attraction. It makes him suffer the caresses of wine, opium, and casual sex. Instead of soothing his spleen, this further aggravates his spiritual fall, and he fears that he was possessed, body and soul, by Satan. Being at a crossroad of spirituality and sensuality increase his despair and he seeks to escape from it.
The escape is the end, the death. Here he is plagued by suicidal longings. Intoxicants (wine and women), however, yet may prolong the ultimate end, dragging the sinner through self-degradation and moral decay.
Influence and Appreciation
Flaubert praised Baudelaire’s uniqueness and thought that he brought a new life and force to Romanticism. Victor Hugo praised him announcing that Baudelaire created a “un nouveau frisson (a new thrill)”
Les Fleurs du Mal had a powerful impact on French symbolist poets as well as renowned poets across the channel. T.S. Eliot wrote, “I think that from Baudelaire I learned first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic”.
This unusual collection was one not easy to understand. There is much depth, and one needs to reflect deeply on the meaning beyond mere words. The invoking of grotesque imagery was beautiful and horrifying at the same time. His prose creates so much imagery that the poems take the form of paintings. The darker tones, the grotesque imagery, and the indelicate expression perhaps weren’t as welcoming as the pretty verse to my romantic mind. But its importance and the impact it had on the future generation of poets cannot be overlooked. Appreciated more than enjoyed.