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Contents

The Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire

Wine, Death, and Revolt

Parisian Landscapes

Study Questions

Summary

The speaker combines his spleen world and ideal world through the intermediary of wine. In "The Soul of Wine," a drunken speaker is unable to talk; we hear instead the singing voice of the wine he drank. As the wine sings, it promises health, wealth, and happiness, promising to produce flowery poetry. Yet a drunken beggar in "Wine of the Ragmen" soon replaces this positive presence of the ideal. Unlike the swan that sadly wanders around the streets of Paris, the ragman is depicted "Vomiting across enormous Paris." Surrounded by rats and vermin, the beggar is oblivious to reality and thinks that he is a king. The poet fully exposes the evil of drunkenness in "Wine of the Assassin," in which a man under the influences of wine loses all sense of morality, enabling him to kill his wife without a second thought: "I will be dead drunk this evening; / I will lie down like a groundling, / Without fear or to atone."

Calling out to Bacchus, the god of wine, in both "Destruction" and "Damned Women," the speaker compares the incapacitating effects of wine and opium to the seductive power of women over men. Evoking Satan, the speaker insists that, "Sometimes, knowing my great love of Art, he takes / The form of the most seductive woman, / And, using a cynic's specious pretexts, / Accustoms my lips to the infamous potion." He continues by comparing a woman's heart to a painful hell that he cannot escape. Despite his animosity, the speaker cannot resist the specter of death that female "virgins," "demons," and "monsters," embody. Instead, "the urns of love" that are their hearts still draw the speaker to their breasts.

Baudelaire concludes The Flowers of Evil with a harrowing reinterpretation of the travel poems that had first appeared in his "Ideal" section. In "Voyage to Cythera," the speaker finds only spleen, witnessing an execution: "I, at the sight of your limbs flapping to-and-fro, / Felt as though vomit rose to my teeth from my bones, / A long river of gall flowed from ancient sorrows." (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; "spleen" is a synonym for "ill-temper.") Even though he finds himself in an idyllic setting, the speaker can only think of blood and death, the pains of the victim becoming his own. He finds spleen even among his ideals, in his imagination. The last poem, "The Voyage," describes the ultimate voyage of death: "Not to be changed into beasts, we go higher / Into space and light and the blazing sky; / The ice that bites us, the sun that fires / Will efface the rash of love slowly." Denied his free will by "Time" and his metaphorical ship commandeered by Satan, the speaker contemplates the unknown evil ahead. Wondering what lies at the end of the "Sea of Darkness," the speaker challenges the reader to find neither heaven nor hell but something "new."

Form

The poems in these last three sections are shorter and more conceptually interconnected than the poems earlier in the book. For example, the "Wine" section involves the entire natural progression from ideal to spleen. First the wine speaks, then the beggar, and then the murderer. Baudelaire emphasizes the intoxicating effects of wine by having a bottle of wine replace the usual speaker, suggesting the speaker is too drunk to recite the poem. This move reflects Baudelaire's notion of the artist as a master of artifice: He thought that poets should not impose sublime forms on nature that could not exist but rather conjure strange fantasies from real objects. The pain of death and the vice of drunkenness are, thus, transformed into lush blossomings of the imagination, or "flowers of evil."

Commentary

Throughout his literary career, Baudelaire urged his readers to escape reality, whether with wine, opium, or poetry. Yet in this section, the turn from reality leads only to delusion and death. The "vomiting" beggar and the "dead-drunk" murderer symbolize the power of wine to break down and decompose lives, as it were. The bottle of wine in "The Soul of Wine" proposes the ecstasy of "ambrosia," "brotherhood," and "immense joy" of the ideal. But these promises prove to be empty: the despair and madness of the beggar and the murderer demonstrate that spleen and death exist also in the artificial paradises the speaker hopes to create.

Baudelaire explores the depths of spleen by pushing the limits of madness and immorality in this final section. The mad ravings of the murderer and the speaker's fervent cries to Bacchus and Venus reveal the ultimate misery of despair as well as the purposelessness of existence--none of their cries for help are answered. A number of the poems in this section were also condemned for immorality, specifically for lesbian undertones. For example, in "Damned Women," Baudelaire refers to women "who seek each other," in order to emphasize women's cruelty toward men and their demoniacal urging of sin. Baudelaire's misogyny has often been attributed to his mother's hasty remarriage following his father's death, as well as to his tempestuous affair with the actress Jeanne Duval.

All of these final poems about travel inevitably lead to a depressing spleen. Incapable of surmounting the contradictions of existence ("the rash of love"), the speaker concludes that death is the only truth. Rather than soothing the scene, the radiant heat of the island "burns the body" of the victim and hastens his decomposition. Everyone else sees a "charming sky" and a "unified sea," but for the speaker all is bloody chaos. He soon rejects his free will, asking the captain of his ship to lead him toward the unknown. Death becomes the only certain release from an oppressive reality that has stalked the speaker around the globe. Through these lines, the speaker serves as a negative example, a warning: Baudelaire exhorts us toward innovation and imagination, urges us to continue to pursue our own visions through art--even if these visions involve evil--rather than let others dictate what we should see.

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