Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal)
Published by Diogenes, 1982
With ‘The Flowers of Evil’, Charles Baudelaire wrote a book of scandal of the modernist literary movement. Upon the 1857 publication of the French original ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, the volume of poetry shocked both the general public and the critics. The author was accused of insulting public decency and of blasphemy. Another six poems, which were believed to be too offensive, were banned from publication. Eventually, however, Baudelaire and his publisher Poulet-Malassis only had to pay a substantial fine.
Already the first lines of the initial chapter of the 100 thematically arranged poems make clear what it is all about:
Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.
Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains.
Man on the brink, adrift and uprooted, especially in the monster-like metropolis, constitutes the subject-matter of Baudelaire’s work. His clear composition and the strict poetic forms render the language with its rich symbolic meaning all the more powerful. Numerous images and metaphors serve to illustrate the ‘ennui’ of modern man, this feeling made of melancholy, weariness and boredom.
Baudelaire unmasks the petit bourgeois longing for harmony and happiness as fallacy. In his work, the individual is condemned to resignation – isolated and incapable of finding a permanent fulfillment in any other person or thing. Forces that are raw, disgusting, even Satanic, prevail. With his ‘Flowers of Evil’, Baudelaire sets himself apart from romanticism and ushers in modernism, in terms of style and content. It brought him, as one of the most famous French lyric poets ever, unbroken fame and inspired writers like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Celan.