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Flowers of Evil.

Type of work: Poetry

Author: Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

First published: 1857

"Small hands washed, scoured, cared for like the hands of a woman--and with that, the head of a maniac, a voice cutting like a voice of steel"--thus did the observant but uncharitable Goncourt brothers describe Charles Baudelaire, who had already become the subject of innumerable legends in the Paris of the Second Empire. It was said that he had dyed his hair green; that he had been heard to remark in a cafe: "Have you ever eaten a baby? I find it pleasing to the palate!" But unfortunately for seekers after the sensational, most of the Baudelaire legends have been disproved by later research. Like Poe, he enjoyed creating mystifications about himself.

Flowers of Evil, the volume on which Baudelaire's fame rests, was published in 1857, although some of the poems had appeared in magazines as much as fifteen years earlier, when the author was ruining himself financially by attempting to be a dandy of the boulevards. The book immediately become famous--or notorious--because of a prosecution brought against author and publisher on the grounds of offense against public morals. In the same year a similar charge had been brought against Flaubert for his Madame Bovary. Possibly because of the ridiculous position in which the government had found itself in the earlier case, the prosecution of Baudelaire was halfhearted, and the fine of three hundred francs was never paid. Actually, there were only six poems found to be objectionable (the subject of two of them being lesbianism); they were reprinted in a new edition published in Belgium, and are now included in all the standard texts and in some of the English translations.

When Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote of Baudelaire: "His present book is an anonymous drama in which he takes all the parts," he was saying no more than that the poet was a Romantic. No young man of his generation could escape the "Byronic attitude" that had been the Englishman's legacy to Europe--to be grand, gloomy, and peculiar was expected. In addition to international Byronism, however, Baudelaire had been exposed to other influences at that time unusual in France. As a boy, he had learned English; hence, he came to know authors such as De Quincey and the Gothic novelists. Most important, he encountered the works of Poe about 1846 and translated much of that work between 1856 and 1865. It was through this translation that Poe began to have an influence upon French literature far greater than any he has ever exerted in America. Baudelaire's admiration of Poe was immense: He called him "the incomparable Poet, the irrefutable philosopher--who must always be quoted in regard to the mysterious maladies of the mind.... The Master of the Horrible, the Prince of Mystery." And yet a reading of Baudelaire's poetry does not greatly remind us of that of Poe; the American was not so preoccupied with sex nor do his ethereal, idealized females suggest the tigerish women with smoldering eyes whose nude charms--"ingenuousness united to lubricity"--Baudelaire loved to describe. What Poe gave him was a general interest in the macabre and a feeling for compression, the latter a welcome reaction against the overwhelming verbosity of much Romantic poetry.

Baudelaire's style, at least as it appeared to a contemporary, was described by Gautier as "ingenious, complicated, learned, full of shades and of investigations, always pushing back the limits of language, borrowing all technical vocabularies, taking its colors from all palettes.... This decadent style is the last word of language called upon to express everything and pushed to the utmost." It is a "gamy" style like that of late Latin, suitable for the "haggard phantoms of insomnia." This, it must be confessed, rather melodramatic description well indicates the peculiar appeal that Baudelaire held for his contemporaries, who felt that "since Louis XIV French poetry has been dying of correctness."

As for his subject matter, the word "morbid" has been applied to it with unfailing regularity. D'Aurevilly called Baudelaire an "atheistic and modern Dante" whose Muse descended into Hell as surely as Dante's had ascended therefrom. The Romantic indulgence in sensation for its own sake he carried to the point at which pleasure becomes revulsion. In what is perhaps his most famous poem, "A Voyage to Cytherea," after the gay opening of the ship setting sail for the island of Venus, we are brought up sharply by

Look at it; after all, it's a poor land,

and are carried remorselessly through the description of the gibbet from which dangles a "ridiculous hanged man" torn by birds, to the final stanza: In thine isle, O Venus, I found only upthrust A Calvary symbol whereon mine image hung, --Give me, Lord God, to look upon that dung, My body and my heart, without disgust!

Added to all of this was the attitude of world-weariness inherited from Byron. Baudelaire compares himself to a king in whose veins "the green waters of Lethe flow"; to someone who, in a former life, lived among "vast porticoes," tended by slaves whose only task was to discover their master's secret grief. There were also the blasphemies ("Les Litanies de Satan") and the meticulous descriptions of the revolting ("Une Charogne").

Much of Baudelaire's pyrotechnics--even that part which was sincere and not merely intended to shock the bourgeoisie--has lost its effect. A modern reader, accustomed to clinically precise analyses of sex, is not particularly shocked by his lubricities; his blasphemies seem rather juvenile. One wonders what all the fuss was about. But to contemporary poets, English as well as French, he is important as a counter-Romantic in a Romantic age; As the first modern, to quote Peter Quennell, "He had enjoyed a sense of his own age, had recognized its pattern while the pattern was yet incomplete." He enormously extended the frontiers of poetry by showing that it need not be limited to the conventionally "poetic." And there are few readers who will not be forced to admit the truth of the last line of his "Preface":

Hypocrite reader--my likeness--my brother!
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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