Reflections on themes in Baudelaire’s
“Les fleurs du mal”
Welcome to my page of thoughts on themes in « Les fleurs du mal ». This is not planned as literary criticism, but rather a page allowing young or new readers of Baudelaire to become familiar with some of the themes and thoughts contained in the poems.
First published in 1857, “Les fleurs du mal” is a collection of poems divided into five sections:
Spleen et idéal
Les fleurs du mal
On its initial publication Baudelaire and his publisher were prosecuted for an “insult to public decency”, and six poems were banned. A second edition was published in 1861 which contained 32 new poems and a new section entitled “Tableaux Parisiens”.
The poems contained in this collection deal with a wide variety of themes and generally reflect the philosophical mood of the time, as well as Baudelaire’s own feelings and torment. For a page discussing some of the philosophical ideas which were prevalent at the time of writing, and which undoubtedly exercised considerable influence on Baudelaire, please click here.
Baudelaire’s poetry is remarkably clear, incisive and accessible. Although highly personal, he manages to make points which are equally applicable to all men. He considers themes such as good and evil, human nature, conflict between the spiritual and the physical, religion, death, time, discipline and self-control, boredom, destiny and artistry.
I have chosen a handful of poems (more or less at random) which illustrate these themes and ideas. However, the work which encapsulates beautifully the themes and feelings of the author is the introductory poem entitled “Au lecteur”, which touches on many of the themes expanded upon in the course of the collection, and gives the reader a clear indication of the tone and content of what is to follow.
Au lecteur (1)
La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.
Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches ;
Nous nous faisons payer grassement nos aveux,
Et nous rentrons gaiement dans le chemin bourbeux,
Croyant par de vils pleurs laver toutes nos taches.
Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.
C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent !
Aux objets répugnants nous trouvons des appas ;
Chaque jour vers l'Enfer nous descendons d'un pas,
Sans horreur, à travers des ténèbres qui puent.
Ainsi qu'un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange
Le sein martyrisé d'une antique catin,
Nous volons au passage un plaisir clandestin
Que nous pressons bien fort comme une vieille orange.
Serré, fourmillant, comme un million d'helminthes,
Dans nos cerveaux ribote un peuple de Démons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes.
Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encor brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas ! n'est pas assez hardie.
Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,
II en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde !
Quoiqu'il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde ;
C'est l'Ennui ! L'œil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
- Hypocrite lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frère !
Baudelaire immediately introduces several of his main themes within the first four lines. He lists four somewhat negative qualities of human nature and suggests they overwhelm our minds or spirits and control our bodies. He goes on to suggest that while we may “feed” regret over this, this regret in turn “feeds” off us.
Thus Baudelaire has already introduced his somewhat jaundiced and negative (yet realistic?) view of human nature, the division between the body and soul, the concept that man has little (if any) self discipline or self-control, and of course the idea that conscience serves largely to weaken man, causing him to doubt himself, though in the next verse he suggests that this has little or no effect in real terms.
In verse two he says our “sins” are stubborn and our repentance is faint-hearted. We pay handsomely for our confessions (a dig at the Catholic Church?), but then we happily return to our murky paths, thinking we have washed away stains on our characters with a few cheap tears.
Here Baudelaire makes it clear that although we are conscious of our misdeeds, we can’t stop repeating them – we may try (or pretend) to alleviate guilt through confession or atonement, but that doesn’t stop us re-offending. Once again man’s willpower is called in to question, as is organized religion. He almost goes so far as to suggest that we are hypocritical, as we “buy” a clear conscience for a short time before once again committing the same acts.
In verse three Baudelaire personifies temptation or evil and suggests that temptation gently but steadily draws us in, and great willpower and determination of which we can be so proud on occasions is simply vaporised by this temptation.
In verse four he expands and suggests it is the devil who holds the strings which move us – man has no effective willpower or control and will always give in to his nature. In moments of clarity we may see general unpleasantness and ugliness, we recognize our wrong-doing, yet our nature causes us to see something attractive within this, and we give in to temptation. Each day we descend one step closer to Hell, without complaint, and recognising the unpleasantness and wrong-doing around us, yet we continue.
In verse five he gives a specific example of a debauched man who turns to an ancient prostitute in order to gain a fleeting moment of pleasure. He compares this act to squeezing the remaining juice from an old orange. Clearly this is a desperate act of pure physical satisfaction with no hint of love, romance or affection, and no hint of spiritual worth or beauty. This is a very clever metaphor as it not only exemplifies the division of body and soul, but also introduces the idea of “carpe diem”, by which he suggests we should squeeze every drop of life from every moment and every experience.
Verse six suggests that temptation is all around us in a million shapes and forms. It is unstoppable, in much the same way as death which comes closer with every breath of life we take. Here Baudelaire introduces the inevitability of death, underlining once again the importance of making the most of every moment as life will come to an end.
In verse seven once again we have a list of misadventures which Baudelaire finds attractive and which brighten our uneventful lives and our pitiful destinies. Life is boring and Baudelaire finds such activities preferable to banal and monotonous existence. Once again there is implied recognition of “unpleasantness” involved in these activities, yet Baudelaire finds them attractive, especially given the boredom of the alternative. However, he does seem to suggest that indulgence in such activities require considerable strength of spirit.
The last three verses run together. In verse eight Baudelaire compares vices to a list of various creatures and animals, all displaying strength and purity of purpose (while following their nature), and also representing danger. However, in verse nine he suggests there is one more awful than any other, one vice that could destroy the world. In verse ten we are told this is boredom and we, the readers, are reminded that we know this vice just as well as Baudelaire. There should be no hint of superiority on our part for we are all the same, all brothers sharing the same vices.
This is an excellent introductory poem, which was almost certainly written after the others. It expresses themes and ideas with such clarity that it almost summarises rather than introduces the ideas Baudelaire will go on to discuss in the main body of his collection.
Ma jeunesse ne fut qu'un ténébreux orage,
Traversé çà et là par de brillants soleils ;
Le tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage,
Qu'il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.
Voilà que j'ai touché l'automne des idées,
Et qu'il faut employer la pelle et les râteaux
Pour rassembler à neuf les terres inondées,
Où l'eau creuse des trous grands comme des tombeaux.
Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je rêve
Trouveront dans ce sol lavé comme une grève
Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur ?
– O douleur ! ô douleur ! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l'obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le cœur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie !
In “L’ennemi” Baudelaire likens life to, or describes life by way of, weather and gardening metaphors. He has had a hard life, lightened only occasionally, and he asks if hope for the future will find some way to grow in the barren land of his life. Suddenly, in the last verse, he turns his attention to time and suggests that time consumes life and grows stronger as we grow weaker.
He goes from a beautifully (and effectively) descriptive poem to one which attaches blame and reveals anger and frustration at the thought of time consuming his life.
La destruction (78)
Sans cesse à
mes côtés s'agite le Démon ;
II nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable ;
Je l'avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l'emplit d'un désir éternel et coupable.
Parfois il prend, sachant mon grand amour de l'Art,
La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes,
Et, sous de spécieux prétextes de cafard,
Accoutume ma lèvre à des philtres infâmes.
II me conduit ainsi, loin du regard de Dieu,
Haletant et brisé de fatigue, au milieu
Des plaines de l'Ennui, profondes et désertes,
Et jette dans mes yeux pleins de confusion
Des vêtements souillés, des blessures ouvertes,
Et l'appareil sanglant de la Destruction !
In “La destruction” Baudelaire again emphasises lack of willpower and recognises the “guilty” nature of his thoughts. Temptation is once again personified and he suggests that if he is feeling low, demons (or temptation) will take the shape of an attractive woman, knowing Baudelaire cannot resist such a work of art, and this takes him far from God’s gaze and influence. Once again it seems man is incapable of offering any resistance and has no control over such matters.
Temptation transports him from the land of boredom (or is this in fact depression?). Are we to see interaction with women as a form of release from self doubt and depression?
In the last verse Baudelaire recognizes unpleasant side effects of indulgence, but this is not enough to stop him.
Yes, there is some expansion of themes treated in “Au lecteur”, and some of these are expressed with slightly greater clarity, but there is little that is new, thematically speaking, although it is interesting to note discussion of depression as a possible extension of boredom.
Le reniement de Saint Pierre (90)
Qu'est-ce que Dieu fait donc de ce
Qui monte tous les jours vers ses chers Séraphins ?
Comme un tyran gorgé de viande et de vins,
II s'endort au doux bruit de nos affreux blasphèmes.
Les sanglots des martyrs et des suppliciés
Sont une symphonie enivrante sans doute,
Puisque, malgré le sang que leur volupté coûte,
Les cieux ne s'en sont point encore rassasiés !
– Ah! Jésus, souviens-toi du Jardin des Olives !
Dans ta simplicité tu priais à genoux
Celui qui dans son ciel riait au bruit des clous
Que d'ignobles bourreaux plantaient dans tes chairs vives,
Lorsque tu vis cracher sur ta divinité
La crapule du corps de garde et des cuisines,
Et lorsque tu sentis s'enfoncer les épines
Dans ton crâne où vivait l'immense Humanité ;
Quand de ton corps brisé la pesanteur horrible
Allongeait tes deux bras distendus, que ton sang
Et ta sueur coulaient de ton front pâlissant,
Quand tu fus devant tous posé comme une cible,
Rêvais-tu de ces jours si brillants et si beaux
Où tu vins pour remplir l'éternelle promesse,
Où tu foulais, monté sur une douce ânesse,
Des chemins tout jonchés de fleurs et de rameaux,
Où, le cœur tout gonflé d'espoir et de vaillance,
Tu fouettais tous ces vils marchands à tour de bras,
Où tu fus maître enfin ? Le remords n'a-t-il pas
Pénétré dans ton flanc plus avant que la lance ?
– Certes, je sortirai, quant à moi, satisfait
D'un monde où l'action n'est pas la sœur du rêve ;
Puissé-je user du glaive et périr par le glaive !
Saint Pierre a renié Jésus... il a bien fait !
“Le reniement de Saint Pierre” offers an interesting discussion about God and Baudelaire’s attitude to religion.
He appears to suggest that God is “asleep on the job”, ignoring the situation of revolt against Him (a reflection of the Enlightenment Movement?), and even seems to suggest complacency.
He goes on to point out that martyrs die in the name of God, but that heaven does not appear to have had its fill of their pain and suffering. Baudelaire asks if God is listening, and appears to suggest a certain injustice and lack of caring as he uses empirical evidence of pain and suffering in God’s name.
He goes so far as to suggest that God may have laughed at Jesus’ suffering. Not that Baudelaire renounces Jesus – Jesus represents humanity, but he points out that God did nothing. Jesus was full of promise and hope, but Baudelaire suggests he was ultimately let down by God, and Jesus must have felt regret on his death.
This poem, perhaps more than any other, reveals the malaise felt in the late nineteenth century as the principles and challenges of the Enlightenment Movement made themselves felt. In a sense Baudelaire feels almost abandoned by God. He wants more from life – he wants direction, purpose, sense, morality. These things were in place, but they have now disappeared with the arrival of the challenge to God’s very existence and the authority of those who claim to represent Him. God is not responding to this challenge, and is allowing pain and suffering – not least the pain caused by the possibility of His non-existence!
Le vin du solitaire (96)
Le regard singulier d'une femme
Qui se glisse vers nous comme le rayon blanc
Que la lune onduleuse envoie au lac tremblant,
Quand elle y veut baigner sa beauté nonchalante ;
Le dernier sac d'écus dans les doigts d'un joueur ;
Un baiser libertin de la maigre Adeline ;
Les sons d'une musique énervante et câline,
Semblable au cri lointain de l'humaine douleur,
Tout cela ne vaut pas, ô bouteille profonde,
Les baumes pénétrants que ta panse féconde
Garde au cœur altéré du poète pieux ;
Tu lui verses l'espoir, la jeunesse et la vie,
– Et l'orgueil, ce trésor de toute gueuserie,
Qui nous rend triomphants et semblables aux Dieux !
Here, Baudelaire lists several things which can make you feel better about the pain of life, but best of all is a bottle of wine which pours hope, youth, life and pride into its consumer – it can make you feel triumphant and equal to the gods.
Clearly Baudelaire is seeking a form of escape, and this poem reveals something of how he feels about life – as a series of insurmountable problems, and wine offers a momentary release, although he recognises the fleeting and illusory nature of this solution.
La mort des artistes (100)
Combien faut-il de fois secouer mes
Et baiser ton front bas, morne caricature ?
Pour piquer dans le but, de mystique nature,
Combien, ô mon carquois, perdre de javelots ?
Nous userons notre âme en de subtils complots,
Et nous démolirons mainte lourde armature,
Avant de contempler la grande Créature
Dont l'infernal désir nous remplit de sanglots !
Il en est qui jamais n'ont connu leur Idole,
Et ces sculpteurs damnés et marqués d'un affront,
Qui vont se martelant la poitrine et le front,
N'ont qu'un espoir, étrange et sombre Capitole !
C'est que la Mort, planant comme un soleil nouveau,
Fera s'épanouir les fleurs de leur cerveau !
Will death allow artists to meet that which has captivated and inspired them ? Will it release their spirit from physical limits and allow them to grow? Do artists gain a glimpse of what is beyond the physical to see the truth? Will death enable them to achieve a spiritual reality?
Much in Baudelaire’s poetry suggests he is lost – he doesn’t know what to believe, or whether he should believe in anything. At one moment he suggests God is responsible, the next it is the Devil who is pulling the strings. Then he decides it doesn't matter anyway – he will simply seek pleasure in his experiences because life is short and should be appreciated as such. He appears confused or at least unclear about who or what is responsible for life, but he is quite clear that he finds nature overwhelming – he feels he is not in control and is disappointed that he cannot find it in himself to rise above his nature. He sees his own shortcomings and weaknesses with remarkable clarity (and extends his criticisms to the whole of humanity), so that he understands the consequences of his actions, but finds himself incapable of altering his nature.
Baudelaire makes much of the fact that death is the end. If God does not exist, then there is no afterlife. This also brings home the fact that life is relatively short and should not be wasted. Each moment is precious and should be filled with something worthwhile, yet life is also boring and repetitive, and perhaps ultimately pointless. All the more reason, then, to seek moments of pleasure to relieve the boredom and pressing feeling that time is running out.
Baudelaire frequently emphasises the temporary nature of moments of pleasure. These are fleeting moments which make life more bearable, but the pleasure he takes from them is double-edged. He is left with the feeling that physical experience is lacking in some way – he is happy to indulge in his freedom, but regrets the lack of spirituality and the depth that would lend the experience, and a sense of control over these events.
I think this is essential to understanding the torment, despair, and spirituality which underpin Baudelaire’s "Fleurs du Mal". The key to understanding Baudelaire’s poetry is in understanding his ambivalence toward moral freedom – his overwhelming desire to indulge in the moral and sexual freedom implied by the Enlightenment Movement (indeed his inability to resist it!), but countered by his recognition of negative aspects, and his longing for something of spiritual value, accentuating his awareness of the emptiness and fleeting nature of mere physical being. This is reflected in the very title of the collection, where he finds himself attracted to something, yet recognises its harmful effect.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you have found these notes of some help, and I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the subject further. I can be contacted at email@example.com .
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