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in the alleyway
Charles Baudelaire 
12th-Jul-2009 12:09 pm


Born in Paris in 1821, Charles Baudelaire has long been recognized as not only one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century but also a forefather of modern art. Baudelaire lived during a tumultuous time in French history and his work was impacted by a number of political events. However, his personal life was also turbulent: One of the most scarring episodes of his life was the death of his father in 1827 and his mother's hasty remarriage to a general in the French army. Baudelaire detested his stepfather both personally and as a symbol of the corrupt July monarchy established following the 1830 Revolution. He went to great lengths to upset his stepfather, squandering his inheritance and living a bohemian lifestyle. Worried about his behavior, his family sent him on a trip across the Mediterranean, whose exotic beauty left a lasting impression on the young poet.

'Shortly after Baudelaire's return to Paris, the 1848 Revolution overthrew the July monarch and established a republic in France for the first time in more than fifty years. Baudelaire greeted the revolution with enthusiasm, fighting among the barricades and openly defying his stepfather in public. However, his joy soon turned to disenchantment when Louis Napoleon, the original Napoleon's nephew, overthrew the Second Republic in 1851. Louis Napoleon's coup d'état instituted the Second Empire, ending the hopes for a republican form of government that men like Baudelaire favored. His disenchantment then turned to despair when Louis Napoleon began an intense rebuilding and public works project aimed at modernizing Paris. Baudelaire was horrified with the destruction of the ancient and medieval sections of Paris that he had called his home. His longing for the "old" Paris would play a major role in his poetry.

Baudelaire's disgust with politics led to a rejection of reality in favor of an obsessive fantasy world inspired by drugs, the exotic beauty of the Mediterranean, and the search for love. He was strongly influenced in this regard not only by his experiences along the Mediterranean but also by Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings he translated into French. Baudelaire was fascinated by Poe's evocation of the dark side of the imagination, and he found a comparably sinister seductiveness in the paintings of Eugene Delacroix and Edouard Manet, as well as the music of Wagner. These themes and influences play a predominant role in Baudelaire's 1857 collection of poetry, The Flowers of Evil, which juxtaposed the negative themes of exile, decay, and death with an ideal universe of happiness.

Baudelaire's exotic themes quickly caught the attention of the government, which condemned The Flowers of Evil for immorality. Unlike his friend, Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was also put on trial, Baudelaire lost his case, had to pay a fine, and was forced to remove some poems from the collection. Baudelaire was devastated by this rejection of his work, which he attributed to the hypocrisy of a bourgeoisie incapable of understanding artistic innovation. Yet at the same time, he saw the condemnation of his work as the culmination of the different themes and events that had shaped his artistic talent since his youth: no achievement of beauty could be unaccompanied by bitterness and disappointments. Indeed, with this philosophy, Baudelaire shifted the attention of the art world to the darker side of life, inspiring contemporary and future artists to new levels of perception and provocation.


A confession of hopes, dreams, failures, and sins, The Flowers of Evil attempts to extract beauty from the malignant. Unlike traditional poetry that relied on the serene beauty of the natural world to convey emotions, Baudelaire felt that modern poetry must evoke the artificial and paradoxical aspects of life. He thought that beauty could evolve on its own, irrespective of nature and even fueled by sin. The result is a clear opposition between two worlds, "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.") In contrast, the ideal represents a transcendence over the harsh reality of spleen, where love is possible and the senses are united in ecstasy.

The ideal is primarily an escape of reality through wine, opium, travel, and passion. Dulling the harsh impact of one's failure and regrets, the ideal is an imagined state of happiness, ecstasy, and voluptuousness where time and death have no place. Baudelaire often uses erotic imagery to convey the impassioned feeling of the ideal. However, the speaker is consistently disappointed as spleen again takes up its reign. He is endlessly confronted with the fear of death, the failure of his will, and the suffocation of his spirit. Yet even as the poem's speaker is thwarted by spleen, Baudelaire himself never desists in his attempt to make the bizarre beautiful, an attempt perfectly expressed by the juxtaposition of his two worlds. As in the poem "Carrion," the decomposing flesh has not only artistic value but inspires the poet to render it beautifully.

Women are Baudelaire's main source of symbolism, often serving as an intermediary between the ideal and spleen. Thus, while the speaker must run his hands through a woman's hair in order to conjure up his ideal world, he later compares his lover to a decomposing animal, reminding her that one day she will be kissing worms instead of him. His lover is both his muse, providing ephemeral perfection, and a curse, condemning him to unrequited love and an early death. 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. The result is a moderate misogyny: Baudelaire associates women with nature; thus, his attempt to capture the poetry of the artificial necessarily denied women a positive role in his artistic vision.

Baudelaire's poetry also obsessively evokes the presence of death. In "To a Passerby," a possible love interest turns out to be a menacing death. Female demons, vampires, and monsters also consistently remind the speaker of his mortality. However, the passing of time, especially in the form of a newly remodeled Paris, isolates the speaker and makes him feel alienated from society. This theme of alienation leaves the speaker alone to the horrific contemplation of himself and the hopes of a consoling death. Baudelaire further emphasizes the proximity of death through his reliance on religious imagery and fantasy. He earnestly believes that Satan controls his everyday actions, making sin a depressing reminder of his lack of free will and eventual death.

Finally, elements of fantastical horror--from ghosts to bats to black cats-- amplify the destructive force of the spleen on the mind. Baudelaire was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and he saw Poe's use of fantasy as a way of emphasizing the mystery and tragedy of human existence. For example, Baudelaire's three different poems about black cats express what he saw as the taunting ambiguity of women. Moreover, the presence of tortured demons and phantoms make the possibility of death more immediate to the speaker, prefiguring the fear and isolation death will bring.

Spleen and Ideal, Part I

Baudelaire famously begins The Flowers of Evil by personally addressing his reader as a partner in the creation of his poetry: "Hypocrite reader--my likeness--my brother!" In "To the Reader," the speaker evokes a world filled with decay, sin, and hypocrisy, and dominated by Satan. He claims that it is the Devil and not God who controls our actions with puppet strings, "vaporizing" our free will. Instinctively drawn toward hell, humans are nothing but instruments of death, "more ugly, evil, and fouler" than any monster or demon. The speaker claims that he and the reader complete this image of humanity: One side of humanity (the reader) reaches for fantasy and false honesty, while the other (the speaker) exposes the boredom of modern life.

The speaker continues to rely on contradictions between beauty and unsightliness in "The Albatross." This poem relates how sailors enjoy trapping and mocking giant albatrosses that are too weak to escape. Calling these birds "captive kings," the speaker marvels at their ugly awkwardness on land compared to their graceful command of the skies. Just as in the introductory poem, the speaker compares himself to the fallen image of the albatross, observing that poets are likewise exiled and ridiculed on earth. The beauty they have seen in the sky makes no sense to the teasing crowd: "Their giant wings keep them from walking."

Many other poems also address the role of the poet. In "Benediction," he says: "I know that You hold a place for the Poet / In the ranks of the blessed and the saint's legions, / That You invite him to an eternal festival / Of thrones, of virtues, of dominations." This divine power is also a dominant theme in "Elevation," in which the speaker's godlike ascendancy to the heavens is compared to the poet's omniscient and paradoxical power to understand the silence of flowers and mutes. His privileged position to savor the secrets of the world allows him to create and define beauty.

In conveying the "power of the poet," the speaker relies on the language of the mythically sublime and on spiritual exoticism. The godlike aviation of the speaker's spirit in "Elevation" becomes the artistry of Apollo and the fertility of Sybille in "I love the Naked Ages." He then travels back in time, rejecting reality and the material world, and conjuring up the spirits of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Hercules in "The Beacons." The power of the poet allows the speaker to invoke sensations from the reader that correspond to the works of each artistic figure. Thus, he uses this power--his imagination-- to create beacons that, like "divine opium," illuminate a mythical world that mortals, "lost in the wide woods," cannot usually see.

After first evoking the accomplishments of great artists, the speaker proposes a voyage to a mythical world of his own creation. He first summons up "Languorous Asia and passionate Africa" in the poem "The Head of Hair." Running his fingers through a woman's hair allows the speaker to create and travel to an exotic land of freedom and happiness. In "Exotic Perfume," a woman's scent allows the speaker to evoke "A lazy island where nature produces / Singular tress and savory fruits." The image of the perfect woman is then an intermediary to an ideal world in "Invitation to a Voyage," where "scents of amber" and "oriental splendor" capture the speaker's imagination. Together with his female companion, the speaker expresses the power of the poet to create an idyllic setting just for them: "There, all is nothing but beauty and elegance, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness."


Baudelaire was a classically trained poet and as a result, his poems follow traditional poetic structures and rhyme schemes (ABAB or AABB). Yet Baudelaire also wanted to provoke his contemporary readers, breaking with traditional style when it would best suit his poetry's overall effect. For example, in "Exotic Perfume," he contrasted traditional meter (which contains a break after every fifth syllable in a ten-syllable line) with enjambment in the first quatrain. The result is an amplified image of light: Baudelaire evokes the ecstasy of this image by juxtaposing it with the calm regularity of the rhythm in the beginning of the poem. Other departures from tradition include Baudelaire's habit of conveying ecstasy with exclamation points, and of expressing the accessibility of happiness with the indicative present and future verb tenses, both of which function to enhance his poetry's expressive tone. Moreover, none of his innovations came at the cost of formal beauty: Baudelaire's poetry has often been described as the most musical and melodious poetry in the French language.


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."


Spleen and Ideal, Part II

Despite the speaker's preliminary evocation of an ideal world, The Flowers of Evil's inevitable focus is the speaker's "spleen," a symbol of fear, agony, melancholy, moral degradation, destruction of the spirit--everything that is wrong with the world. (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with malaise; "spleen" is a synonym for "ill-temper.") Although the soothing ideal world in the first section does remain a significant presence for the speaker, it will now serve primarily as a reminder of his need to escape from a torturous reality. Even "The Ideal" begins with "They never will do, these beautiful vignettes." Baudelaire's juxtaposition of the poem's title ("The Ideal") with its content suggests that the ideal is an imagined impossibility. He insists that he cannot find the ideal rose for which he has been looking, declaring that his heart is an empty hole. The comforting, pure, and soothing presence of a woman has also given way to "Lady Macbeth, mighty soul of crime." As the speaker acknowledges in "Earlier Life," the beautiful majesty of blue waves and voluptuous odors that fill his dreams cannot fully obscure "the painful secret that lets me languish."

Baudelaire uses the theme of love and passion to play out this interaction between the ideal and the spleen. In "Hymn to Beauty," he asks a woman: "Do you come from the deep sky or from the abyss, / O Beauty? Your look, infernal and divine, / Confuses good deeds and crimes." The speaker projects his anxiety at a disappointing reality onto a woman's body: Her beauty is real but it tempts him to sin. Both angel and siren, this woman brings him close to God but closer to Satan. He then refers to his lover as a witch and demon in "Sed non Satiata" ("Still not Satisfied"). The reality of her tortuous presence awakens him from his opium-induced dream, his desire pulling him toward hell. This ambivalence between the ideal and the spleen is also played out with the juxtaposition of the speaker's lover to a decaying corpse in "Carrion." While out walking with his lover, the speaker discovers rotting carrion infested with worms and maggots, but which releases pleasing music. He compares the carrion (a word for dead and decaying flesh) to a flower, realizing that his lover will also one day be carrion, eaten by worms. Just like the corpse, nothing will be left of their "decomposed love." The theme of death inspired by the sight of the carrion plunges the speaker into the anxiety of his spleen. The nostalgic timelessness and soothing heat of the sun are replaced by the fear of death and a sun of ice in "De Profundis Clamavi" ("From Profoundest Depths I Cry to You"). The mythical and erotic voyage with a woman in the ideal section is now phantasmagoric pursuit by cats, snakes, owls, vampires, and ghosts, all of whom closely resemble the speaker's lover. In two separate poems both entitled "The Cat," the speaker is horrified to see the eyes of his lover in a black cat whose chilling stare, "profound and cold, cuts and cracks like a sword." In "The Poison," the speaker further associates the image of his lover with death. Unlike opium and wine, which help the speaker evade reality, the evasion of his lover's mouth is the kiss of death: "But all this doesn't equal the poison kiss / Arising in your green eyes."

The section culminates with four poems entitled "Spleen." Depressed and "irritated at the entire town," the speaker laments the coming of death and his defunct love, as a ghost and the "meager, mangy body of a cat" evoke the haunting specter of his lover. In the next "Spleen," the speaker watches the world around him decompose. He is swallowed up by death, comparing himself to a cemetery, a tomb, and a container for withered roses. Empty physically and spiritually, only the miasma of decay is left for him to smell. In the fourth and final "Spleen," the speaker is suffocated by the traditionally calming presence of the sky. Devoid of light, "the earth becomes a damp dungeon, / When hope, like a bat, / Beats the walls with its timid wings / And bumps its head against the rotted beams." Drenched by rain and sorrow, the bells of a nearby clock cry out, filling the air with phantoms. Horrified and weeping with misery, the speaker surrenders as, "Anguish, atrocious, despotic, / On my curved skull plants its black flag."


Baudelaire uses the structure of his poems to amplify the atmosphere of the speaker's spleen. In "Spleen" (I) each stanza accumulates different levels of anguish, first beginning with the city, then creatures of nature and nightmare, and finally, other objects. This layered expression of pain represents Baudelaire's attempt to apply stylistic beauty to evil. Moreover, his sentences lose the first-person tense, becoming grammatically errant just as the speaker is morally errant. By beginning the first three stanzas of "Spleen" (IV) all with the word "When," Baudelaire formally mirrors his theme of monotonous boredom and the speaker's surrender to the inexorable regularity and longevity of his spleen. Another aspect of Baudelaire's form is his ironic juxtaposition of opposites within verses and stanzas, such as in "Carrion," with "flower" and "stink."


Baudelaire is a poet of contrasts, amplifying the hostility of the speaker's spleen with the failure of his ideal world. Like the abused albatross in the first section, the poet becomes an anxious and suffering soul. It is important to remember that the speaker's spleen is inevitable: It occurs despite his attempts to escape reality. The flowers he hopes to find on a "lazy island" in "Exotic Perfume" do not exist: It is the stinking carrion that is the real "flower" of the world. The failure of his imagination leaves him empty and weak; having searched for petals, he finds their withered versions within himself. The poetry itself suggests a resurgence of the ideal through its soothing images only to encounter the disappointing impossibility of calming the speaker's anxiety. In this sense, the speaker's spleen is also the poet's. Indeed, the gradual climax and terror of the speaker's spleen in "Spleen" (IV) has often been associated with Baudelaire's own nervous breakdown.

The hostile and claustrophobic atmosphere of the speaker's world is most eloquently expressed in the failure of his ability to love. The poet originally intends his love to be a source of escape but is soon reminded of the cruel impossibility of love that characterizes his reality. For him, love is nothing but a decomposing carrion. Instead of life, love reminds him of death: A woman's kiss becomes poisonous. Baudelaire often spoke of love as the traditionally artistic attempt to escape boredom. Yet he never had a successful relationship and as a result, the speaker attributes much of his spleen to images of women, such as Lady Macbeth and Persephone. Cruel and murderous women, such as the monstrous female vampire in "The Vampire," are compared to a "dagger" that slices the speaker's heart. But Baudelaire also finds something perversely seductive in his demoniacal images of women, such as the "Femme Fatale" in "Discordant Sky" and the "bizarre deity" in "Sed non Satiata." Baudelaire often described his disgust at images of nature and found fault in women for what he saw as their closeness to nature. However, what comes through in the poetry is not so much Baudelaire's misogyny as his avowed weakness and insatiable desire for women.

The speaker's spleen involves thoughts of death, either in the form of an eventual suicide or the gradual decay of one's body. Sickness, decomposition, and claustrophobia reduce the expansive paradise of the speaker's ideal to a single city pitted against him. Baudelaire felt alienated from the new Parisian society that emerged after the city's rebuilding period, often walking along the city streets just to look at people and observe their movements. This self-imposed exile perfectly describes the sense of isolation that pervades the four "Spleen" poems. Yet while the city alienates and isolates, it does not allow for real autonomy of any kind: The speaker's imagination is haunted by images of prison, spiders, ghosts, and bats crashing into walls. Unlike the albatross of the ideal, the bat of the spleen cannot fly.

This restriction of space is also a restriction of time, as the speaker feels his death quickly approaching. Baudelaire saw the reality of death as fundamentally opposed to the imagined voyage to paradise; rather, it is a journey toward an unknown and terrible fate. The "frightful groan" of bells and the "stubborn moans" of ghosts are horrific warning signs of the impending victory of the speaker's spleen. According to the poet, there are no other sounds.


Parisian Landscapes

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.


Wine, Death, and Revolt

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."


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."


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.


26th-Jan-2011 01:11 pm (UTC) - claim insurance
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