Les Fleurs du mal  

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"Never in the space of so few pages have I seen so many breasts bitten, nay even chewed; never did I see such a procession of devils, of foetus, of demons, of cats, and vermin. The book is a hospital full of all the insanities of the human mind, of all the putresence of the human heart; if only this were done to cure them it would be permissible, but they are incurable." --Gustave Bourdin on Les Fleurs du mal in Le Figaro, translation Enid Starkie

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Les Fleurs du mal (literal trans. "The Flowers of Evil") is a volume of French poetry by Charles Baudelaire. The poems represented the near-totality of his poetic output since 1840. First published in 1857, the poems were of influence to the symbolists and modernists. Their subject matter deals with themes relating to decadence and eroticism. Six of the poems (numbers 20, 30, 39, 80, 81 et 87 of the first edition) were banned in France following an obscenity trial on August 20, 1857. Ernest Pinard, the magistrate who ruled the case had also been involved in the Madame Bovary trial. The six suppressed poems were printed later as Les Épaves.



The Flowers of Evil

Baudelaire was a slow and fastidious worker, often sidetracked by indolence, emotional distress and illness, and it was not until 1857 that he published his first and most famous volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). Some of these poems had already appeared in the Revue des deux mondes (Review of Two Worlds), when they were published by Baudelaire's friend Auguste Poulet Malassis.

The poems found a small, appreciative audience, but greater public attention was given to their subject matter. The effect on fellow artists was, as Théodore de Banville stated, "immense, prodigious, unexpected, mingled with admiration and with some indefinable anxious fear". Flaubert, recently attacked in a similar fashion for Madame Bovary (and acquitted), was impressed and wrote to Baudelaire: "You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism... You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist".

The principal themes of sex and death were considered scandalous. He also touched on lesbianism, sacred and profane love, metamorphosis, melancholy, the corruption of the city, lost innocence, the oppressiveness of living, and wine. Notable in some poems is Baudelaire's use of imagery of the sense of smell and of fragrances, which is used to evoke feelings of nostalgia and past intimacy.

The book, however, quickly became a byword for unwholesomeness among mainstream critics of the day. Some critics called a few of the poems "masterpieces of passion, art and poetry" but other poems were deemed to merit no less than legal action to suppress them. J. Habas writing in Le Figaro, led the charge against Baudelaire, writing: "Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible, everything one understands is putrid". Then Baudelaire responded to the outcry, in a prophetic letter to his mother:

"You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Fleurs du mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron."

Baudelaire, his publisher and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals. They were fined but Baudelaire was not imprisoned. Six of the poems were suppressed, but printed later as Les Épaves (The Wrecks) (Brussels, 1866). Another edition of Les Fleurs du mal, without these poems, but with considerable additions, appeared in 1861. Many notables rallied behind Baudelaire and condemned the sentence. Victor Hugo wrote to him: "Your fleurs du mal shine and dazzle like stars... I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might". Baudelaire did not appeal the judgment but his fine was reduced. Nearly 100 years later, on May 11, 1949, Baudelaire was vindicated, the judgment officially reversed, and the six banned poems reinstated in France.

In the poem "Au lecteur" ("To the Reader") that prefaces Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire accuses his readers of hypocrisy and of being as guilty of sins and lies as the poet:

...If rape or arson, poison or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
It is because we are not bold enough!
(Roy Campbell's translation)

Initial publication

The initial publication of the book was arranged in five thematically segregated sections:

  • Spleen et Idéal (Spleen and Ideal)
  • Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil)
  • Révolte (Revolt)
  • Le Vin (Wine)
  • La Mort (Death)

The foreword to the volume, blasphemously defining Satan as "thrice-great" and calling boredom the worst of miseries, neatly sets the general tone of what is to follow:

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie.

If rape and poison, dagger and burning,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our souls, alas, are not bold enough!

The preface concludes with the following malediction:

C'est l'Ennui! —l'œil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!

It's Ennui! — his eye brimming with spontaneous tear
He dreams of the gallows in the haze of his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

"Ennui" is left untranslated here, as "boredom" does not accurately portray Baudelaire's intended meaning. "Ennui" means a boredom so pronounced as to lead to a violent depression.

The author and the publisher were prosecuted under the regime of the Second Empire as an outrage aux bonnes mœurs (trans. "an insult to public decency"). As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined 300 francs. Six poems from the work were suppressed and the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949. These poems were "Lesbos", "Femmes damnés (À la pâle clarté)" (or "Women Doomed (In the pale glimmer...)"), "Le Léthé" (or "Lethe"), "À celle qui est trop gaie" (or "To She Who Is Too Gay"), "Les Bijoux" (or "The Jewels"), and " Les "Métamorphoses du Vampire" (or "The Vampire's Metamorphoses"). These were later published in Brussels in a small volume entitled Les Épaves (Scraps).

On the other hand, upon reading "The Swan" or "Le Cygne" from Les Fleurs du mal, Victor Hugo announced that Baudelaire had created "un nouveau frisson" (a new shudder, a new thrill) in literature.

Les Fleurs du mal 1857 Edition[1]

  1. Bénédiction / Benediction
  2. Le Soleil / The Sun
  3. Élévation / Elevation
  4. Correspondances / Correspondences
  5. J’aime le souvenir de ces époques nues… / I love the memory of those naked epochs…
  6. Les Phares / The Beacons
  7. La Muse malade / The Sick Muse
  8. La Muse vénale / The Venal Muse
  9. Le Mauvais Moine/ The Bad Monk
  10. L’Ennemi / The Enemy
  11. Le Guignon / Bad Luck
  12. La Vie antérieure / A Former Life
  13. Bohémiens en voyage / Traveling Gypsies
  14. L’Homme et la mer / Man and the Sea
  15. Don Juan aux enfers / Don Juan in Hell
  16. Châtiment de l’orgueil / Punishment of Pride
  17. La Beauté / Beauty
  18. L’Idéal / The Ideal
  19. La Géante / The Giantess
  20. Les Bijoux / The Jewels
  21. Parfum exotique / Exotic Perfume
  22. Je t’adore à l’égal de la voûte nocturne… / I adore you as much as the nocturnal vault…
  23. Tu mettrais l’univers entier dans ta ruelle… / You would take the entire world to bed with you…
  24. Sed non satiata / Never Satisfied
  25. Avec ses vêtements ondoyants et nacrés… / With her pearly undulating dresses…
  26. Le Serpent qui danse/The Dancing Serpent
  27. Une Charogne / A Carcass
  28. De profundis clamavi / From the Depths I Cried
  29. Le Vampire / The Vampire
  30. Le Léthé / Lethe
  31. Une nuit que j’étais près d’une affreuse Juive… / One night when I lay beside a frightful Jewess…
  32. Remords posthume / Posthumous Remorse
  33. Le Chat / The Cat
  34. Le Balcon / The Balcony
  35. Je te donne ces vers afin que si mon nom… / I give you these verses so if my name…
  36. Tout entière / All Together
  37. Que diras-tu ce soir, pauvre âme solitaire… / What will you say tonight, poor solitary soul…
  38. Le Flambeau vivant / The Living Torch
  39. À celle qui est trop gaie / To She Who Is Too Gay
  40. Réversibilité / Reversibility
  41. Confession / Confession
  42. L’Aube spirituelle / Spiritual Dawn
  43. Harmonie du soir / Evening Harmony
  44. Le Flacon / The Perfume Flask
  45. Le Poison / Poison
  46. Ciel brouillé / Cloudy Sky
  47. Le Chat / The Cat
  48. Le Beau navire / The Beautiful Ship
  49. L’Invitation au voyage / Invitation to the Voyage
  50. L’Irréparable / The Irreparable
  51. Causerie / Conversation
  52. L'Héautontimorouménos / The Self-Tormenter
  53. Franciscae meae laudes / In Praise of My Frances
  54. À une dame créole / To a Creole Lady
  55. Moesta et errabunda / Grieving and Wandering
  56. Les Chats / The Cats
  57. Les Hiboux / The Owls
  58. La Cloche fêlée / The Broken Clock
  59. Spleen (Pluviôse, irrité…) / Spleen (Pluvius, irritated…)
  60. Spleen (J’ai plus de souvenirs…) / Spleen (I have more memories…)
  61. Spleen (Je suis comme le roi…) / Spleen (I’m like the king…)
  62. Spleen (Quand le ciel bas et lourd…) / Spleen (When the low heavy sky…)
  63. Brumes et pluies / Mists and Rains
  64. L’Irremédiable / The Irremediable
  65. À une mendiante rousse / To a Mendicant Redhead
  66. Le Jeu / Gambling
  67. Le Crépuscule du soir / Evening Crepuscule
  68. Le Crépuscule du matin / Morning Crepuscule
  69. La servante au grand cœur dont vous étiez jalouse… / The kind-hearted servant of whom you were jealous…
  70. Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville… / I have not forgotten, near the city…
  71. Le Tonneau de la haine / The Cask of Hatred
  72. Le Revenant / The Ghost
  73. Le Mort joyeux / The Grateful Dead
  74. Sépulture / Sepulchre
  75. Tristesses de la lune / Sorrows of the Moon
  76. La Musique / Music
  77. La Pipe / The Pipe
    Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil
  78. La Déstruction / Destruction
  79. Une Martyre / A Martyr
  80. Lesbos / Lesbos
  81. Femmes damnées (À la pâle clarté…) / Women Doomed (In the pale glimmer…)
  82. Femmes damnés (Comme un bétail pensif…) / Women Doomed (Like pensive cattle…)
  83. Les Deux Bonnes Soeurs / The Two Good Sisters
  84. La Fontaine du sang / The Fountain of Blood
  85. Allégorie / Allegory
  86. La Béatrice / Beatrice
  87. The Vampire’s Metamorphoses / Les Métamorphoses du vampire
  88. Un Voyage à Cythère / A Voyage to Cythera
  89. L’Amour et le crane / Love and the Skull
    Révolte / Revolt
  90. Le Reniement de saint Pierre / The Denial of Saint Peter
  91. Abel et Caïn / Abel and Cain
  92. Les Litanies de Satan / The Litanies of Satan
    Le Vin / Wine
  93. L’Âme du vin / The Soul of Wine
  94. Le Vin des chiffonniers / The Rag-Picker’s Wine
  95. Le Vin de l’assassin / The Murderer’s Wine
  96. Le Vin du solitaire / The Lonely Man’s Wine
  97. Le Vin des amants / The Lovers’ Wine
    La Mort / Death
  98. La Mort des amants / The Death of Lovers
  99. La Mort des pauvres / The Death of the Poor
  100. La Mort des artistes / The Death of Artists

Publication history

On June 1 1855, La Revue des Deux Mondes publishes under the title Fleurs du mal, eighteen poems by Baudelaire.

In the wake of the prosecution a second edition was issued in 1861 which added 32 new poems, removed the six suppressed poems and added a new section entitled Tableaux Parisiens.

A posthumous third edition with a preface by Théophile Gautier and including 14 previously unpublished poems was issued in 1868.

On February 4 of 1857, Baudelaire sends some of its poems to his Belgian publisher Auguste Poulet-Malassis. On April 20, the Revue française publishes nine poems. The first edition is of 300 copies, put on sale on June 25. Le Moniteur publishes on July 14 an article by Édouard Thierry.


A selection of illustrators who've illustrated The Flowers:

Carlo Farneti, George-Roux, Grékoff, Hallman, Hauterives, Hofer, Janserge, Labocceta, Latour, Legrand, Lemagny, Lemengeot, Leroy, Manceaux, Marcel-Béronn, Mauplot, Monnier, Pipard, Redon, Riche, Rochegrosse, Rochgrosse, Rodin, Rodin (facs), Rops, Roubille, Saint-André, Sala, Schwabe, Serré, Spilimbergo, Trémois, Tzolakis, van Dongen [2]



English-language translations of Les Fleurs du Mal include:

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Les Fleurs du mal" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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