‘The Flowers of Evil’ by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire’s most famous collection, The Flowers of Evil, is not a collection of poems in the normal sense—3 editions were published during his lifetime with new poems added with each version.

When The Flowers of Evil was first published in 1857, it was immediately condemned and Baudelaire and his publisher were (successfully) sued for releasing poems that were ‘offensive to public morals’. The collection was republished soon after minus the 6 poems that had caused the uproar.

Despite its reputation, The Flowers of Evil seems tame and traditional from a distance (or with eyes squinted)—perfectly-formed sonnets and other traditional forms are utilised as a smokescreen for Baudelaire’s themes of unrealised dreams, disillusion, sex and, most of all, ennui. The poems swerve between passion and despair—one cycle in the collection is even called ‘Spleen and Ideal’.

Baudelaire lived and walked Paris at a momentous time for the city—not only was France going through the political upheavals of the July Monarchy, the Second Republic and the formation of the Second Empire, but Paris was a city in complete regeneration; the city’s alleyways and compact buildings were bulldozed and rebuilt into the broad boulevards and grand buildings that Paris is known for today. His poems describe the squalor and transformation of the city though its industry, theatres, brothels and restaurants—Baudelaire avoids making his poems sentimental or moralising though.

In this edition, new English translations face the original French and without knowing French at all it’s possible to see, to hear the poems with their depth of rhyme and alliteration which Baudelaire mines the language for. Here’s an audio recording of a (slightly different) translation of one of the poems from The Flowers of Evil, ‘Obsession’.

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