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The Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire

Spleen and Ideal, Part II

Spleen and Ideal, Part I

Parisian Landscapes


Despite the speaker's preliminary evocation of an ideal world, The Flowers of Evil's inevitable focus is the speaker's "spleen," a symbol of fear, agony, melancholy, moral degradation, destruction of the spirit--everything that is wrong with the world. (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; "spleen" is a synonym for "ill-temper.") Although the soothing ideal world in the first section does remain a significant presence for the speaker, it will now serve primarily as a reminder of his need to escape from a torturous reality. Even "The Ideal" begins with "They never will do, these beautiful vignettes." Baudelaire's juxtaposition of the poem's title ("The Ideal") with its content suggests that the ideal is an imagined impossibility. He insists that he cannot find the ideal rose for which he has been looking, declaring that his heart is an empty hole. The comforting, pure, and soothing presence of a woman has also given way to "Lady Macbeth, mighty soul of crime." As the speaker acknowledges in "Earlier Life," the beautiful majesty of blue waves and voluptuous odors that fill his dreams cannot fully obscure "the painful secret that lets me languish."

Baudelaire uses the theme of love and passion to play out this interaction between the ideal and the spleen. In "Hymn to Beauty," he asks a woman: "Do you come from the deep sky or from the abyss, / O Beauty? Your look, infernal and divine, / Confuses good deeds and crimes." The speaker projects his anxiety at a disappointing reality onto a woman's body: Her beauty is real but it tempts him to sin. Both angel and siren, this woman brings him close to God but closer to Satan. He then refers to his lover as a witch and demon in "Sed non Satiata" ("Still not Satisfied"). The reality of her tortuous presence awakens him from his opium-induced dream, his desire pulling him toward hell. This ambivalence between the ideal and the spleen is also played out with the juxtaposition of the speaker's lover to a decaying corpse in "Carrion." While out walking with his lover, the speaker discovers rotting carrion infested with worms and maggots, but which releases pleasing music. He compares the carrion (a word for dead and decaying flesh) to a flower, realizing that his lover will also one day be carrion, eaten by worms. Just like the corpse, nothing will be left of their "decomposed love."

The theme of death inspired by the sight of the carrion plunges the speaker into the anxiety of his spleen. The nostalgic timelessness and soothing heat of the sun are replaced by the fear of death and a sun of ice in "De Profundis Clamavi" ("From Profoundest Depths I Cry to You"). The mythical and erotic voyage with a woman in the ideal section is now phantasmagoric pursuit by cats, snakes, owls, vampires, and ghosts, all of whom closely resemble the speaker's lover. In two separate poems both entitled "The Cat," the speaker is horrified to see the eyes of his lover in a black cat whose chilling stare, "profound and cold, cuts and cracks like a sword." In "The Poison," the speaker further associates the image of his lover with death. Unlike opium and wine, which help the speaker evade reality, the evasion of his lover's mouth is the kiss of death: "But all this doesn't equal the poison kiss / Arising in your green eyes."

The section culminates with four poems entitled "Spleen." Depressed and "irritated at the entire town," the speaker laments the coming of death and his defunct love, as a ghost and the "meager, mangy body of a cat" evoke the haunting specter of his lover. In the next "Spleen," the speaker watches the world around him decompose. He is swallowed up by death, comparing himself to a cemetery, a tomb, and a container for withered roses. Empty physically and spiritually, only the miasma of decay is left for him to smell. In the fourth and final "Spleen," the speaker is suffocated by the traditionally calming presence of the sky. Devoid of light, "the earth becomes a damp dungeon, / When hope, like a bat, / Beats the walls with its timid wings / And bumps its head against the rotted beams." Drenched by rain and sorrow, the bells of a nearby clock cry out, filling the air with phantoms. Horrified and weeping with misery, the speaker surrenders as, "Anguish, atrocious, despotic, / On my curved skull plants its black flag."


Baudelaire uses the structure of his poems to amplify the atmosphere of the speaker's spleen. In "Spleen" (I) each stanza accumulates different levels of anguish, first beginning with the city, then creatures of nature and nightmare, and finally, other objects. This layered expression of pain represents Baudelaire's attempt to apply stylistic beauty to evil. Moreover, his sentences lose the first-person tense, becoming grammatically errant just as the speaker is morally errant. By beginning the first three stanzas of "Spleen" (IV) all with the word "When," Baudelaire formally mirrors his theme of monotonous boredom and the speaker's surrender to the inexorable regularity and longevity of his spleen. Another aspect of Baudelaire's form is his ironic juxtaposition of opposites within verses and stanzas, such as in "Carrion," with "flower" and "stink."


Baudelaire is a poet of contrasts, amplifying the hostility of the speaker's spleen with the failure of his ideal world. Like the abused albatross in the first section, the poet becomes an anxious and suffering soul. It is important to remember that the speaker's spleen is inevitable: It occurs despite his attempts to escape reality. The flowers he hopes to find on a "lazy island" in "Exotic Perfume" do not exist: It is the stinking carrion that is the real "flower" of the world. The failure of his imagination leaves him empty and weak; having searched for petals, he finds their withered versions within himself. The poetry itself suggests a resurgence of the ideal through its soothing images only to encounter the disappointing impossibility of calming the speaker's anxiety. In this sense, the speaker's spleen is also the poet's. Indeed, the gradual climax and terror of the speaker's spleen in "Spleen" (IV) has often been associated with Baudelaire's own nervous breakdown.

The hostile and claustrophobic atmosphere of the speaker's world is most eloquently expressed in the failure of his ability to love. The poet originally intends his love to be a source of escape but is soon reminded of the cruel impossibility of love that characterizes his reality. For him, love is nothing but a decomposing carrion. Instead of life, love reminds him of death: A woman's kiss becomes poisonous. Baudelaire often spoke of love as the traditionally artistic attempt to escape boredom. Yet he never had a successful relationship and as a result, the speaker attributes much of his spleen to images of women, such as Lady Macbeth and Persephone. Cruel and murderous women, such as the monstrous female vampire in "The Vampire," are compared to a "dagger" that slices the speaker's heart. But Baudelaire also finds something perversely seductive in his demoniacal images of women, such as the "Femme Fatale" in "Discordant Sky" and the "bizarre deity" in "Sed non Satiata." Baudelaire often described his disgust at images of nature and found fault in women for what he saw as their closeness to nature. However, what comes through in the poetry is not so much Baudelaire's misogyny as his avowed weakness and insatiable desire for women.

The speaker's spleen involves thoughts of death, either in the form of an eventual suicide or the gradual decay of one's body. Sickness, decomposition, and claustrophobia reduce the expansive paradise of the speaker's ideal to a single city pitted against him. Baudelaire felt alienated from the new Parisian society that emerged after the city's rebuilding period, often walking along the city streets just to look at people and observe their movements. This self-imposed exile perfectly describes the sense of isolation that pervades the four "Spleen" poems. Yet while the city alienates and isolates, it does not allow for real autonomy of any kind: The speaker's imagination is haunted by images of prison, spiders, ghosts, and bats crashing into walls. Unlike the albatross of the ideal, the bat of the spleen cannot fly.

This restriction of space is also a restriction of time, as the speaker feels his death quickly approaching. Baudelaire saw the reality of death as fundamentally opposed to the imagined voyage to paradise; rather, it is a journey toward an unknown and terrible fate. The "frightful groan" of bells and the "stubborn moans" of ghosts are horrific warning signs of the impending victory of the speaker's spleen. According to the poet, there are no other sounds.

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