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The Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire

Spleen and Ideal, Part I


Spleen and Ideal, Part I, page 2

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Baudelaire famously begins The Flowers of Evil by personally addressing his reader as a partner in the creation of his poetry: "Hypocrite reader--my likeness--my brother!" In "To the Reader," the speaker evokes a world filled with decay, sin, and hypocrisy, and dominated by Satan. He claims that it is the Devil and not God who controls our actions with puppet strings, "vaporizing" our free will. Instinctively drawn toward hell, humans are nothing but instruments of death, "more ugly, evil, and fouler" than any monster or demon. The speaker claims that he and the reader complete this image of humanity: One side of humanity (the reader) reaches for fantasy and false honesty, while the other (the speaker) exposes the boredom of modern life.

The speaker continues to rely on contradictions between beauty and unsightliness in "The Albatross." This poem relates how sailors enjoy trapping and mocking giant albatrosses that are too weak to escape. Calling these birds "captive kings," the speaker marvels at their ugly awkwardness on land compared to their graceful command of the skies. Just as in the introductory poem, the speaker compares himself to the fallen image of the albatross, observing that poets are likewise exiled and ridiculed on earth. The beauty they have seen in the sky makes no sense to the teasing crowd: "Their giant wings keep them from walking."

Many other poems also address the role of the poet. In "Benediction," he says: "I know that You hold a place for the Poet / In the ranks of the blessed and the saint's legions, / That You invite him to an eternal festival / Of thrones, of virtues, of dominations." This divine power is also a dominant theme in "Elevation," in which the speaker's godlike ascendancy to the heavens is compared to the poet's omniscient and paradoxical power to understand the silence of flowers and mutes. His privileged position to savor the secrets of the world allows him to create and define beauty.

In conveying the "power of the poet," the speaker relies on the language of the mythically sublime and on spiritual exoticism. The godlike aviation of the speaker's spirit in "Elevation" becomes the artistry of Apollo and the fertility of Sybille in "I love the Naked Ages." He then travels back in time, rejecting reality and the material world, and conjuring up the spirits of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Hercules in "The Beacons." The power of the poet allows the speaker to invoke sensations from the reader that correspond to the works of each artistic figure. Thus, he uses this power--his imagination-- to create beacons that, like "divine opium," illuminate a mythical world that mortals, "lost in the wide woods," cannot usually see.

After first evoking the accomplishments of great artists, the speaker proposes a voyage to a mythical world of his own creation. He first summons up "Languorous Asia and passionate Africa" in the poem "The Head of Hair." Running his fingers through a woman's hair allows the speaker to create and travel to an exotic land of freedom and happiness. In "Exotic Perfume," a woman's scent allows the speaker to evoke "A lazy island where nature produces / Singular tress and savory fruits." The image of the perfect woman is then an intermediary to an ideal world in "Invitation to a Voyage," where "scents of amber" and "oriental splendor" capture the speaker's imagination. Together with his female companion, the speaker expresses the power of the poet to create an idyllic setting just for them: "There, all is nothing but beauty and elegance, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness."


Baudelaire was a classically trained poet and as a result, his poems follow traditional poetic structures and rhyme schemes (ABAB or AABB). Yet Baudelaire also wanted to provoke his contemporary readers, breaking with traditional style when it would best suit his poetry's overall effect. For example, in "Exotic Perfume," he contrasted traditional meter (which contains a break after every fifth syllable in a ten-syllable line) with enjambment in the first quatrain. The result is an amplified image of light: Baudelaire evokes the ecstasy of this image by juxtaposing it with the calm regularity of the rhythm in the beginning of the poem. Other departures from tradition include Baudelaire's habit of conveying ecstasy with exclamation points, and of expressing the accessibility of happiness with the indicative present and future verb tenses, both of which function to enhance his poetry's expressive tone. Moreover, none of his innovations came at the cost of formal beauty: Baudelaire's poetry has often been described as the most musical and melodious poetry in the French language.

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