The Flowers of Evil

by: Charles Baudelaire

Spleen and Ideal, Part I

Summary Spleen and Ideal, Part I

Commentary

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."

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