The Flowers of Evil
Baudelaire now turns his attention directly to the city of Paris, evoking the same themes as the previous section. In "Landscape," he evokes a living and breathing city. The speaker hears buildings and birds singing, also comparing window lamps to stars. He considers the city a timeless place, passing from season to season with ease. It is also a space of dreams and fantasy, where the speaker finds "gardens of bronze," "blue horizons," and "builds fairy castles" during the night. Paris becomes an enchanted city, where even a beggar is a beautiful princess. For example, the speaker admires the erotic beauty of a homeless woman in "To a Red-headed Beggar Girl," especially her "two perfect breasts." He does not see her rags but, rather, the gown of a queen complete with pearls formed from drops of water.
The speaker then laments the destruction of the old Paris in "The Swan." Evoking the grieving image of Andromache, he exclaims: "My memory teems with pity / As I cross the new Carrousel / Old Paris is no more (the shape of a city /Changes more quickly, alas! than the heart of a mortal)." All he sees now is the chaos of the city's rebuilding, from scaffolding to broken columns. Baudelaire then juxtaposes the pure but exiled image of a white swan with the dark, broken image of the city. The swan begs the sky for rain but gets no reply. The speaker forces himself to come to grips with the new city but cannot forget the forlorn figure of the swan as well as the fate of Andromache, who was kidnapped shortly after her husband's murder.
The presence of the grieving Andromache evokes the theme of love in the city streets. But in the modern city, love is fleeting--and ultimately impossible-- since lovers do not know each other anymore and can only catch a glimpse of each other in the streets. In "To a Passerby," the speaker conjures up a beautiful woman and tries to express his love with one look: they make eye contact, but it is quickly broken, as they must each head their separate ways. The encounter is tragic because they both feel something ("O you who I had loved, O you who knew!") and yet they know that their next meeting will be in the afterlife; a foreboding presence of death looms over the poem's end.
Baudelaire continues to expose the dark underside, or spleen, of the city. (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; "spleen" is a synonym for "ill-temper.") In "Evening Twilight," he evokes "cruel diseases," "demons," "thieves," "hospitals," and "gambling." The different aspects of the city are compared to wild beasts and anthills, while "Prostitution ignites in the streets." Paris becomes a threatening circus of danger and death where no one is safe. By the end of the section, in "Morning Twilight," "gloomy Paris" rises up to go back to work.
It is important to note that most of the poems in this section are dedicated to Victor Hugo, who composed long epic poems about Paris. In this context, Baudelaire abandons the structure and rhythm of the previous section in order to emulate Hugo's own style. However, in "To a Passerby," Baudelaire returns to his original form, using a traditional sonnet structure (two quatrains and two three-line stanzas). As in "Spleen and Ideal," he emphasizes the imperfection of the speaker's spleen with imperfections in meter, isolating the words "Raising" and "Me" at the beginning of their respective lines.
Baudelaire was deeply affected by the rebuilding of Paris after the revolution of 1848. Begun by Louis-Napoleon in the 1850s, this rebuilding program widened streets into boulevards and leveled entire sections of the city. Baudelaire responded to the changing face of his beloved Paris by taking refuge in recollections of its mythic greatness but also with a sense of exile and alienation. The swan symbolizes this feeling of isolation, similar to the "Spleen" poems in which the speaker feels that the entire city is against him. The Swan asks God for rain in order to clean the streets and perhaps return Paris to its antique purity but receives no response. Suddenly, the city itself has become a symbol of death as its rapid metamorphoses remind the speaker of the ruthlessness of time's passage and his own mortality: "The shape of a city /Changes more quickly, alas! than the heart of a mortal."
The speaker sees Paris as a modern myth in progress, evoking such mythological figures as Andromache and Hector. Even the negative aspects of city life, ranging from prostitution to gambling, are described as animals, giving Baudelaire's poetry an allegorical quality. For example, in "Evening Twilight," the poet evokes "Dark Night," which casts its shadow over the ants, worms, and demons, symbolizing Parisian prostitution, theater, and gambling. Together, the city, its vices, and its people form a mythical, "unhealthy atmosphere," instructing the reader to learn his or her lesson.
Yet Paris is primarily a cemetery of failed love, as described in "To a Passerby." The "howling" street immediately evokes the speaker's powerful spleen, making the poem's atmosphere one of deception and botched happiness. Indeed, the hostility of the city is only surpassed by the cruelty of the speaker's loved one. Thus, the loved one's presence does not promise future happiness in mutual affection, but rather, it symbolizes cold death. In French, the words "majestic" ("majestueux") and "sumptuous" ("somptueux") contain letter combinations similar to those in the word "killer" ("tueur"), and the murder theme is further developed in the phrase, "The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills." This symbolism is also present in "To a Red-headed Beggar Girl," where the beautiful breasts of the beggar are contrasted with her "wanton fingers" and "dagger of gold." Paris becomes a realm of spleen and misery where love is impossible.
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