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.
The Flowers of Evil evokes a world of paradox already implicit in the contrast of the title. The word "evil" (the French word is "mal," meaning both evil and sickness) comes to signify the pain and misery inflicted on the speaker, which he responds to with melancholy, anxiety, and a fear of death. But for Baudelaire, there is also something seductive about evil. Thus, while writing The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire often said that his intent was to extract beauty from evil. Unlike traditional poets who had only focused on the simplistically pretty, Baudelaire chose to fuel his language with horror, sin, and the macabre. The speaker describes this duality in the introductory poem, in which he explains that he and the reader form two sides of the same coin. Together, they play out what Baudelaire called the tragedy of man's "twoness." He saw existence itself as paradoxical, each man feeling two simultaneous inclinations: one toward the grace and elevation of God, the other an animalistic descent toward Satan. Just like the physical beauty of flowers intertwined with the abstract threat of evil, Baudelaire felt that one extreme could not exist without the other.
Baudelaire struggled with his Catholicism his whole life and, thus, made religion a prevalent theme in his poetry. His language is steeped in biblical imagery, from the wrath of Satan, to the crucifixion, to the Fall of Adam and Eve. He was obsessed with Original Sin, lamenting the loss of his free will and projecting his sense of guilt onto images of women. Yet in the first part of the "Spleen and Ideal" section, Baudelaire emphasizes the harmony and perfection of an ideal world through his special closeness to God: He first compares himself to a divine and martyred creature in "The Albatross" and then gives himself divine powers in "Elevation," combining words like "infinity," "immensity," "divine," and "hover."
The speaker also has an extraordinary power to create, weaving together abstract paradises with powerful human experiences to form an ideal world. For example, in "Correspondences," the speaker evokes "amber, musk, benzoin and incense / That sing, transporting the soul and sense." He not only has the power to give voice to things that are silent but also relies on images of warmth, luxury, and pleasure to call upon and empower the reader's senses. In "Exotic Perfume," the theme of the voyage is made possible by closing one's eyes and "breathing in the warm scent" of a woman's breasts. In effect, reading Baudelaire means feeling Baudelaire: The profusion of pleasure-inducing representations of heat, sound, and scent suggest that happiness involves a joining of the senses.
This first section is devoted exclusively to the "ideal," and Baudelaire relies on the abstraction of myth to convey the escape from reality and drift into nostalgia that the ideal represents. This theme recalls the poet's own flight from the corruption of Paris with his trip along the Mediterranean. In "The Head of Hair," the speaker indeterminately refers to "Languorous Africa and passionate Asia," whose abstract presence further stimulates the reader's imagination with the mythical symbolism of "sea," "ocean," "sky," and "oasis." The figure of women further contributes to this ideal world as an intermediary to happiness. The speaker must either breathe in a woman's scent, caress her hair, or otherwise engage with her presence in order to conjure up the paradise he seeks. His fervent ecstasy in this poem derives from the sensual presence of his lover: "The world... o my love! swims on your fragrance."