Les Fleurs du Mal

Charles Baudelaire, France.1857

Of all the poets to appear on the Great Books List, few evoke the cliché of a tortured poet better than Frenchman Charles Baudelaire. Impoverished, pallid and unrecognized Baudelaire had a short, hard life; but his poetry made him one of the most influential European poets of the nineteenth century.

Baudelaire was born in Paris, in 1821 into a middle class family. His father was 34 years older than his wife and died shortly after Charles was born. His mother remarried an army staff officer who was also a senior ambassador for the French government. Baudelaire began to exhibit an artistic temperament at a young age, which put him at odds with his strict military father. Charles was dispatched to a boarding school in Lyon and spent a miserable lonely childhood away from his mother and family. He was allowed to return to Paris to attend the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, but began to neglect his studies.

Upon graduation at 18, Baudelaire rejected his father’s desire that he go to law school and began to associate himself with Paris’ literary figures and bohemian artists. He also began to frequent the city’s demi monde and contracted gonorrhea and syphilis from prostitutes. He quickly spent his allowance on clothes and doctors. His angry father hit upon the plan of reforming his stepson by sending him to India as assistant to a ship’s captain.

The trip, however, did nothing to change Baudelaire’s attitude and his desire to begin a literary career. He was sent home by the captain shortly after arriving in Calcutta much to his parent’s distress. Baudelaire began to write poetry and returned to the bars and clubs of Paris. At 21, he received a large inheritance of money and land which freed him from the yolk of his father’s allowances but he quickly spent the money and mortgaged the land. He took a number of mistresses, including photographer Nadar’s mistress, most of them spent his money and left him in debt.

Still unpublished in his early twenties, Baudelaire had garnered a reputation as a bohemian partier, with little money and expensive tastes. He became an acquaintance of Balzac and began to write the poems that would later appear in Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”).

In 1845, he was finally published although it was an art review of the Salon of 1845. He began to be sought after as a critic and he began to attract attention for his bold, well written reviews. But depressed by his debts, his lack of attention for his poetry and his increasing loneliness he attempted suicide. He only managed to wound himself with a knife and was hospitalized. His family ignored his pleas for contact and upon his release he found himself broke and homeless.

In 1846, Baudelaire wrote his second Salon review, and promoted the work of Delacroix as the foremost Romantic artist. The following year Baudelaire finally published a novella, La Fanfarlo.

Following the Revolution of 1848, which tore through Paris with Baudelaire taking part in many debates and riots, the struggling poet battled sickness, poverty and writer’s block. He tried to maintain a relationship with his mother but it often fell apart after his constant requests for money. He made money with reviews and completed a translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1857, Baudelaire’s stepfather died but cut Charles out of the will.  The same year the poet finally completed and published his first collection of poems. Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil)

The poems found a small audience but their sexual and morbid subjects attracted the attention of the authorities and Baudelaire found himself fined for offending public morals and six of the poems were banned. Baudelaire became a cause celebre with the likes of Victor Hugo and Balzac coming to the young poet’s cause.

Over the next three years, Baudelaire published other collections of poems, criticism and translations but none gained him the acclaim of Les Fleurs du Mal.

Drug addiction, the effects of poverty and his recurring illnesses began to take their toll on Baudelaire. His mother relented and took him in for a while in the family home in Honfleur and he enjoyed a brief spell of poetic output and wrote some of his best work. But in 1864 he left for Belgium in the hope of selling his poetry and teaching. But he fell into old habits and took up opium, carousing and drinking. Baudelaire suffered a massive stroke in 1866 spent the last year of his life in a semi-paralyzed state in various hospitals in Brussels and in Paris. He died aged 46 in 1867.

The collection of poems found an audience quickly among the Parisian literati. But once the subject matter was discovered the poems gained a much wider audience intrigued by the eroticism and sexuality. Poems also explored lesbianism, religious imagery, metamorphosis, melancholy, moral corruption, lost innocence, ennui, and a bohemian sensibility. Baudelaire mixed his dark sinister imagery with evocations of the sense of smell and of fragrances.

Later critics have pointed to the publication of the collection as one of the most important events of the modernist and symbolist movements.

While some critics called a few of the poems “masterpieces,” others saw them as little more than profane diatribes and worked to have them banned.  Baudelaire, his publisher, and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals and fined.

Naturally, the court proceedings only served to help the first edition of the book to sell out. In 1861, four years after the first issue, a second issue was published with a number of new poems composed in Honfleur including “Le Cygne” and “Le Voyage” which are today regarded as masterpieces.

After the death of Baudelaire in 1867, the rights to the poet’s work reverted to his mother. She paid off Baudelaire’s debts and took some solace in her son’s growing reputation. She followed the advice of his friends and she published what is regarded as the definitive edition of the collection. A collection of all of Baudelaire’s was also published.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the six banned poems were reincorporated into French versions of Les Fleurs du Mal.

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