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The Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire

Study Questions

Wine, Death, and Revolt

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How was Baudelaire influenced by the historical and cultural events of his time?

Baudelaire witnessed a number of important historical events firsthand. One of his early childhood memories was the 1830 Revolution. His stepfather was a general in the army, meaning that political events had a great impact on his personal life. As he grew to dislike his stepfather he, thus, grew to dislike the government. For example, during the 1848 Revolution his stepfather led the troops that quelled the insurrection, while Baudelaire exhorted a mob to go kill him. He was also extremely disappointed at Louis-Napoleon's coup d'état, which ended the Second Republic. Thus, the rapid societal and political changes Baudelaire witnessed led him both to respect and abhor tradition. Consequently, his poems both follow specific rules and break them. Yet his overriding reaction to this tumultuous era was a feeling of alienation, especially in light of the swift rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s. As a result, his poetry often addressed feelings of isolation, failure, the fear of death, as well as nostalgia for a less industrialized time.

What are spleen and the ideal? Is one stronger than the other?

Throughout The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire depicts the incessant battle between spleen and the ideal. Spleen signifies everything that is wrong with the world: death, despair, solitude, murder, and disease. (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; "spleen" is a synonym for "ill-temper.") Baudelaire often evokes spleen with images of impotence, anxiety, claustrophobia, and bizarre fantasy. In contrast, the ideal represents an escape from the harsh reality of spleen. Warm, soothing, and musical rhythms summon up sensations of ecstasy and bliss. The speaker often imagines the ideal as an abstract and timeless far-off land toward which he must travel. However, Baudelaire quickly reveals the ideal to be merely an imagined state: The spleen alone is real. Yet even if spleen wins out in the end, it is the struggle between the two worlds that is most significant: Together, the ideal and the spleen represent the primal human tendency toward both the elevation toward God and the descent toward Satan. Thus, implied in the opposition between the two forces is the fundamental paradox of the human condition: our lives are characterized by the constant intermixing of good and evil, of flower-like beauty and a nauseating malevolence.

How does the poem "To a Passerby" unite Baudelaire's misogyny with his fear of death? What role does love play in this system?

Ostensibly a description of an encounter between two lovers, "To a Passerby" is actually a poem about deception, death, and the impossibility of love. Emerging from the threatening background of the city, the woman is first compared to a statue. But her seductive beauty elicits not only the obsessive stare of the speaker but a temptation toward death. The modern city prohibits a healthy or normal encounter: The speaker's passion is destined to wither away for "eternity"--the next time they will meet will be in death. Love, overshadowed by spleen, becomes impossible because "pleasure kills." The pain of the woman's fleeting presence leads the speaker to doubt if she ever even existed.

Why were Baudelaire's poems condemned for immorality? What class did he accuse of hypocrisy in judging his work?

How do elements of horror and fantasy shape the poems? What aspects of Edgar Allen Poe's work inspired Baudelaire?

What does the Swan symbolize in "The Swan"? Can the swan remember the old Paris, as the speaker does? Why does it ask the sky to bring rain?

According to Baudelaire, is love possible or impossible? Which poems prove your point?

How does Baudelaire's poetry adhere to the rules of traditional French poetry while at the same time breaking them? What poems are examples of this? How does this affect each poem's form and structure?

Discuss the interaction of the themes of death and time in Baudelaire's poetry.

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by sanusense, December 27, 2013

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