New Historian

Les Fleurs du Mal

This week marks the anniversary of the publication of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) in 1857. The collection of poetry caused outrage upon its release, leading to censorship and the author being put on trial.

Les Fleurs du Mal consists of 126 poems split across six sections. The sections, like the poems contained within, are all of varying length. Baudelaire claimed that the work, rather than a simple poetry compilation, had a clear beginning and end, a deliberate structure that meant each poem would only make sense when read in the context created by the others.

At the centre of the work is the conflict between everything that is rotten in the world and everything that can be considered beautiful. Grim reality against the dreamlike escape from it. The negative is conveyed through the ‘spleen’; the part of the body which has to remove disease. The positive is represented by the ‘ideal’; love, compassion and ideas which allow escape from the harsh material world. Baudelaire created a form of poetry in stark response to the romantic era, one which attempted to reflect the two contradictory elements of life rather than focus on a beauty in nature which to his mind only reflected the ideal and thus failed to truly express the reality of existence.

Throughout the poems, regular patterns emerge as the ideal is always disrupted by the spleen. Moments of erotic love, idealised escapes for the speaker, are overshadowed by the fear of death, a sense of failure, or the feeling of suffocation of one’s spirit when pursuing something which should lead to happiness. At its most extreme, a man compares his lover to a decaying corpse, highlighting that any moment of romance ultimately has its end in the death of the two involved, their corpses rotting.

In section three, ‘Parisian landscapes’, Baudelaire captures the constant change of nineteenth century Paris. Opening the section with a romanticised description of the city Baudelaire called home, the mood quickly deteriorates. Paris’ renovation and modernisation under Louis Napoleon caused Baudelaire great distress, as the narrow, medieval streets of his youth gave way to broad boulevards. Increasingly, the speaker in the book is overwhelmed by a sense of detachment from other Parisians, and the darker side of the city – prostitution, thieves and disease.

Born to a wealthy family in 1821, the death of Baudelaire’s father in 1827 had a lasting impact on the writer. His mother quickly got remarried, to a French general who Baudelaire quickly came to detest. Baudelaire went out of his way to anger his stepfather, wasting his inheritance, and giving up his law studies to pursue a bohemian lifestyle. Concerned, Baudelaire’s parents sent him on a trip around the Mediterranean countries in the hope it would encourage him to curb his youthful rebellion.

He returned to Paris and continued his reckless lifestyle, becoming a frequent user of opium and hashish. Several factors here all combined to have a profound impact on Baudelaire’s writing. Firstly, a series of infatuations which led to him writing several collections of romantic poetry. Secondly, the constant upheaval and change of Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly the 1848 revolution and subsequent Paris insurrection, cemented the idea that the universe was in a state of constant chaos and discontent in Baudelaire’s mind. Finally, a direct literary influence came from Edgar Allan Poe, whose works Baudelaire translated into French. Poe’s engagement with the macabre undoubtedly became an influence on Les Fleurs du Mal.

Following Les Fleurs du Mal’s publication, Baudelaire and the book’s publisher were trialed on charges of blasphemy and obscenity. Both were heavily fined, and the book was taken out of print. Baudelaire’s works were barely recognised in his own time, and by the time he died he was impoversished with almost none of his work in publication. It took until 1949 for a completely uncensored version of Les Fleurs du Mal to be published in France.

Image by Étienne Carjat (1828–1906)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: British Library

Related Books


Les Fleurs du Mal
by Charles Baudelaire