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Posted on June 13th, 2012, by

Charles Baudelaire is known for his shocking and provoking poems devoted to the themes of sex, sexual obsession, death and vampirism. He was the first who presented his readers a real view of modern urban Paris with its mysteries and horrors. He was born in 1822 in a family of ex-priest. His father died in a couple of years but Charles had warm and close relations with his mother during all his life. She was his support and inspiration. When he was 36, he collected his poems and published them in one book under the title Flowers of Evil. The first edition appeared in 1857 and was sharply criticized and considered as inappropriate for social norms. A new edition of Flowers of Evil was published in 1861 and Charles continued his work on the third edition, when he died in 1868. Nevertheless, the posthumous edition appeared in 1868 after his death.

The book Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire represents a bright example of the modern European poetry, however, Charles’ choice of images oftenraises loud discussions among the public. He often uses contradictory symbols and images in order to deliver his messages to his readers. We can often reveal the notions of goodness, beauty and harmony under ugly and often terrifying images used by the author. He presents a bright contrast to the representatives of the previous movement of poetry Romanticism and due to this fact his first edition of Flowers of Evil was accused of profanity.

First publication of poems found just a small circle of appreciators and real fans because such rapid transformation from lyrical poems of Romanticism with romantic and mild images to unexpected scandalous themes of sex and death was strange and alien for the audience. However, some writers of that time admired Baudelaire’s style and  appreciated his bravery and own world view. Flaubert, for example, who was also criticized by his work Madam Bovary, writes to Baudelaire: You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism… You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist (Richardson, 26). However, first reaction of most people was absolutely negative. Habas gives a sharp critic of Baudelaire’s poetry: Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible, everything one understands is putrid (Richardson, 27). The themes of profane love, lesbianism, corruption and decay of the city, were actual but unusual for readers and, obviously, inappropriate for the social moral.

The author reveals a number of provoking themes in his poems. In Flowers of Evil Baudelaire addresses his readers personally: Hypocrite reader – my likeness – my brother! (Baudelaire, 5). He presents the world of hypocrisy, lie and sin which is controlled by the Devil and human beings are just puppets in the Devil’s hands.

It is necessary to note that Baudelaire’s poems are full of contradictions and paradoxes. The title of the book, Flowers of Evil, is strange and, on the first sight, inappropriate. In our minds, flowers are usually associated with beauty, freshness and kindness and in no way with evil. 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 (Richardson, 114). However, the author is able to see this beauty and purity in evil and death. He does not follow average poetic tradition of Romanticism and does not eulogize natural beauty, he tries to extract this beauty from ugliness and evil.

Baudelaire tries to reveal his readers that beauty can exist on its own and it can be even sinful. The author presents modern paradoxical life with its horrors and beauty. He makes a clear opposition between two worlds the spleen and the ideal. Spleen (an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; spleen is a synonym for ill-temper (Hyslop, 65) symbolizes disease, fear, murder, pain, sorrow, despair and death, at last. The ideal, on the contrary, is the image of transcendent love and beauty that controls this world of evil.

The writer often reveals this ideal through the erotic imagery. The ideal helps us to escape reality through sex, passion, alcohol, drugs and new impressions. The ideal state is not limited by time or death, it is a permanent state of happiness and ecstasy. Spleen returns us back to the real world with diseases, deaths, sufferings and pain. Baudelaire shows that people are torn between these tow world spleen and the ideal.

Women, being the source of inspiration for the author, present this bridge between spleen and the ideal. A woman is a goodness and a curse at one time. She awakes strong emotions and deep feelings and reminds of the  perfection of the world but, at the same time, she dooms the lyrical hero to eternal sufferings and early death. Woman embodies both God and Satan. Women, thus, embody both what Baudelaire called the elevation toward God and what he referred to as the gradual descent toward Satan: They are luminous guides of his imagination but also monstrous vampires that intensify his sense of spleen, or ill temper (Hyslop, 55). The image of women is really provoking in Baudelaire’s poems.

The theme of death is an inalienable component of Baudelaire’s poetic style. For example, in his poem To a Passerby, this theme prevails and readers notice how love interest turns into a melancholy and death, as a result.

Modern Paris, its rapid speed and busy life reminds the main character that his life is so short and meaningless. He feels lonely and this feeling of alienation provokes thoughts about a consoling death.

The existence of the world of monsters, black cats, demons and vampires affects our mind and awakes force of the spleen in it. These creatures make people think about immediate death and all the horrors of it. The author proposes to combine two worlds the spleen and the ideal one through wine. We can follow this theme in a number of his poems: The Soul of Wine, Wine of the Assassin, Destruction, Damned Women, etc. In these poems the speaker compares the power of wine with the seductive power of women over men. Men cannot escape women’s charms. The speaker states:

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. (Baudelaire, 98)

The speaker is torn between horrors of pain and death that are embodied by women-vampires and women-demons and power of passion and love that are hidden in women.

A lot of poems from Flowers of Evil present the role of the poet in the modern society. In one of the poems, The Albatross, the author compares the poet to this giant bird, which is so majestic and beautiful in the skies and so weak on the earth. The image of the poet seems similar: poets are often teased and criticised among the public and only with time, often after poets’ death, their works are appreciated.

To sum up, Charles Baudelaire in his book Flowers of Evil reveals beauty, goodness and love through unusual and unexpected images death, demons, vampires, etc. The author presents two opposite sides of life the spleen world and the ideal world. Our real world the spleen one is full of fears, sufferings and thoughts about death. The lyrical heroes of Baudelaire’s poems look for liberation and freedom from these restrictions in their ideal world. They escape the cruel reality through opium, wine and women.

The author often associates spleen with anxiety, solitude, claustrophobia, despair and death. The ideal is the embodiment of warm feelings, ecstasy, happiness and bliss. These two worlds present human inner nature: eternal struggle between good and harm and elevation towards Satan and God. The fight of these two opposite forces is the foundation of every human personality and the result of the fight is not so important, the leading role belongs to the process and to the fight itself. This fight is the life with its black and white stripes. Our life is a constant change from good to evil and from evil to good. Being aware of this fact, people should enjoy every moment of life in its any embodiment and form. Death and suffering are as necessary for normal existence as love and goodness and people should remember about it. Baudelaire shows this close connection between these worlds due to his provoking images in his poems.

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