Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal

2024-05-17 @Literature

After a year on and off reading with major gaps throughout, I can finally dedicate an entry to Charles Baudelaire’s poems. In my case, I didn’t have the entire collection accessible but sporadically. For the most part I had sections printed out, sections reproduced by hand, and only recently finished the 1857 and 1861 portions (the predominant ouvre including the censored poems, about 130 in all) of the complete paperback I’d originally purchased in Rennes that mostly lounged on the shelf.

That said, I don’t think it’s healthy of anyone to read these poems in one marathon swoop. Like Poe’s stories, like the Arabian Nights, like Leonora Carrington’s paintings or Giovanni Piranesi’s etchings, too much over a short period (for some imprecise coefficient) might not strictly drive you mad, but needlessly anxious and overburdened, limiting valuable input.

Think of Fleurs as an autobiographical ouvre expressing the grotesque and the decadent of mid 19th century Parisian society. Except Baudelaire appeals to meticulously refined poetic tradition reserved normally for nobler ideas.

Fleurs divides into five cycles:

  1. Spleen et Idéal - most poems fall here. Had the ouvre lacked cyclical divisions, Spleen and Ideal fairly accurately conveys the predominant interplay of moods across the whole.

  2. Tableaux Parisiens - Sketches, satires, caricatures, caprices. Many feel like journal entries in verse. Many in spirit with Verlaine’s Poèmes Saturniennes published several years after.

  3. Le Vin - five poems singing the escapism of wine consumption across five profiles of society.

  4. Fleurs du mal - a heavier emphasis on taboo and explicit matter, ignoble portraits, particular degeneration. Some of it feels in spirit with Schwob’s Livre de Monelle, some with Swinburne’s more outrageous verse (all postdating Baudelaire).

  5. Révolte - three poems of total sacrilege. Astounding.

  6. La Mort - like the wine cycle, but now death as a certain ideal across varying sectors of the populace.

But per my diagnosis, you can read the book in any conceivable order without consequence, exhausting each individual poem to your heart’s content subject to your endurance.

Baudelaire addresses hypocrisy, pomp, death and sepulchre, deplored poets, lasciviousness, depression, self indulgence, wine, opium, cats, perfume, fashion, literary effigies, voyages, bohemianism, foul moods, seasons and malice of all sorts. One might derive racial, religious and feminine (or effeminate) bias.

Baudelaire pays homage to modernity as well as classicism. And Baudelaire does so through dreams, satire, allegory, parables; sometimes by way of innuendos and sometimes as transparent as shock radio.

I wanted to highlight certain poems. But there’s too much of the sensational, of the remarkable, of the horrendous. This time I’ll have to nearly refrain. Suffice to say, some of the longer poems, ie Femmes damnées, Le Cygne, Les Sept Vieillards, Les Petites Vieilles, or Le crépuscule du soir, Le crépuscule du matin, many of the cycle Tableaux Parisiens … No, not if I wish to spare another two hours.

On the prospect of translations. Clearly, I read the original. Wouldn’t have read otherwise. Translations: deplorable, if to be construed as anything even remotely related to Baudelaire and not strictly of academic insight to occasionally demystify misunderstood expression. And though no easy read in French, well worth it a dozen times over.

Edgar Poe, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Coleridge (perhaps), Moliere, Gogol: if you enjoy any of these poets/playwrights/storytellers addressing decadent or satirical subjects, chances are you’d derive great pleasure from Baudelaire’s chef d'œuvre.

Questions, comments? Connect.