The Flowers of Evil | Study Guide

Charles Baudelaire

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The Flowers of Evil | Themes


Mankind's Fallen State

In his nonfiction work "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire wrote that "the rejection of original sin is in no small measure responsible for the general blindness" of the previous century. Baudelaire's belief in original sin and humanity's subsequent fall from God's grace infuses many of the poems in The Flowers of Evil. This idea is expressed quite succinctly in "Spiritual Dawn," where the speaker characterizes humanity as "fallen man, who suffers and dreams on."

Man's sin and fallen state is sometimes expressed through the description of a preferable, pre-Fall bygone era when humanity was not corrupted with shame, but was full in power and beauty. These descriptions also function to critique the modern era's zeitgeist, or defining spirit. In "I Prize the Memory ...", the speaker praises humanity as it was before the Fall, using allusions to classical Greek antiquity. Back then, people were "flawless fruit engendered without shame." They lived in harmony with nature and the gods, partaking of this freely given abundance: "Cybele then, abundant in her yield, / did not regard her sons as burdensome, / but ... graciously / suckled the universe at her brown dugs." The speaker contrasts this with the "corruption" of the present era, where humans are "grotesques" and "brats whom Utility, a pitiless god, / has swaddled in his brazen diapers!"

Sometimes humanity's sin and fallen state is expressed through the longing to return to a place that cannot be reached. In "Moesta et Errabunda," the speaker laments humanity's loss, wondering, "what plaintive cries can ever call it back, / that innocent paradise of timid joys?" In "A Voyage to Cythera," the speaker confronts man's fallen state when he journeys to the mythical island of the classical Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. He finds that the "Island of feasting hearts and secret joys / ... [is now] nothing more than a thistled promontory" where the speaker sees a corpse whose castrated, ravaged state suggests the corruption and destruction that define human life.

Man's fallen state is sometimes expressed as an alliance with or closeness to Satan, who like humanity has been exiled from God's favor. In "Satan's Litanies," the speaker characterizes Satan as the "Adoptive father to those an angry God / the Father drove from His earthly paradise."

The reason for the fall of man from God's grace is expressed in "The Punishment of Pride." The speaker tells the allegorical story of how pride overcame one of the founders of the Church, who functions as the symbol of all humanity. "Moved / to panic by Satanic pride," this man insulted Jesus Christ, claiming to be above him and characterizing him as a "vile homunculus," a tiny caricature of a man, whose glory is not his own. At that moment, humanity stopped being "a living temple" and fell to "Chaos." This man lost his reason and became like an animal, the slave of his passions.

The Desire for Death

For the speaker in many of these poems, and presumably for Baudelaire as well (who suffered from ill health and depression for much of his life and made several suicide attempts), death is a state of longing intensely present in the speaker's consciousness. The awareness of mortality, often expressed with a sense of impatience or expectation, colors a variety of situations from the mundane to the romantic to the grotesque. Death-related symbols—such as tombs, shrouds, and skeletons—pepper the poems. Paradoxically, it is not so much a rejection of experience but rather an intense desire for a completely new experience that lies behind this obsession with death.

Death is often personified, presented as a woman ("Dance of Death") or some kind of creature. This personification allows the speaker to evoke an intimacy with death, often in the form of direct address. In "The Death of Artists," the speaker addresses death directly as a "grim Caricature," also referring to it as a "splendid Creature" and the "idol" worshiped by artists. The domain of death is "the Void," which the artist can reach when he creates art where "the circle [is] squared." The artist is thus aligned with death in his continual struggle to create something that is completely, fundamentally new and different. Such fundamental difference can belong only to the domain of death. This idea of death as the fundamentally different is further expressed in the last section of "Travelers." The speaker addresses Death here personified as the admiral of the traveling ship. Expressing his boredom with his current circumstances, the speaker urges Death to sail the ship onward, out of the realm of life itself. Once the travelers have imbibed death's comforting poison, they "can plunge / to Hell or Heaven—any abyss will do— / deep in the Unknown to find the new!"

The speaker, however, is not always so sure that death will bring the freedom and newness he craves. "A Strange Man's Dream" expresses the anxiety, conveyed through a dream of dying, that death will not fulfill his expectations. Comparing his impatience for death to a child who waits for a curtain to rise on a stage, the speaker laments, "Finally the cold truth was revealed: / I had simply died, and the terrible dawn / enveloped me. Could this be all there is? / The curtain was up, and I was waiting still."


In The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire continually evokes and collapses the distinction between self and other, finite and infinite, subject and object, past and present, speaker and reader. These binary oppositions are made to mirror one another. The reader is thus invited along with the poet-speaker to contemplate the very nature of reality and to come to an understanding of self and the world that lies outside of logic and received wisdom—a project that Baudelaire felt was most necessary in the new era that he termed modernity.

A primary type of mirroring in The Flowers of Evil occurs between the speaker's subjective experience and the external world. Baudelaire often uses this relationship to convey the experience of despair or other negative emotions with heightened intensity. In "Alchemy of Suffering," the speaker explains, "Nature glows with this man's joy, / dims with another's grief." This principle is exemplified in poems like "Sympathetic Horror," where the speaker describes the complex mirroring between his emotions and the clouds he views: "The canyons of bloody cloud / accommodate my pride, / their nebulous shapes become / a splendid hearse for my dreams, / their red glow the reflection / of the Hell where my heart's at home."

Many of the poems evoke the connection between the finite, temporal world and the infinite or spiritual plane. The poem "Spiritual Dawn" explains that "To fallen man, who suffers and dreams on, / the Empyrean's inaccessible blue / presents the fascination of the Void." Baudelaire asserts that it is in man's nature to see the presence of God or the infinite in the ordinary surfaces of the world. To view the sky (the Empyrean) is to see two levels of reality at once: its blue color as well as its suggestion of the infinite.

One distinctly modernist quality of these poems is their self-exposure as poetic objects, a quality known as self-reflexivity. As well as functioning to mirror the world, the poem becomes a mirror that reflects the undertaking of poetry itself with its processes exposed and its aims clearly articulated. Often this self-reflexivity is demonstrated through the collapse of the distinction between the speaker and the poet, with the speaker then meditating on his task of creating poetry. In "Parisian Landscape," the poet-speaker's description of his living quarters is presented as part of the process of writing poetry. "To make [his] eclogues proper," the speaker claims he needs a garret view that allows him to be close to the infinity of the sky while also watching the happenings of the city below. With this view, he can concentrate on creating poetry, which is a process "of fastening the springtime to [his] will" and remaking his city, Paris, in the image of his internal vision.

Satan and Human Nature

Satan—the demon, the devil—appears frequently in The Flowers of Evil. In some of the poems, the speaker describes the work of this demon as the source of his suffering, which is manifested as desire, ennui (existential boredom and dissatisfaction), and self-destruction. This demon or devil is portrayed as an agent, a being who acts with intention, directing the impulses that drive the individual and define human nature. The intimacy between humanity and Satan is affirmed in other poems such as "Satan's Litanies," which take the form of prayers as they praise and even revere Satan for his workings.

In "To the Reader," the opening poem, Satan is referred to as "Satan Trismegistus," the latter name being an allusion to the purported inventor of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus. In this mode, Satan is the "cunning alchemist" who works upon the human will like ancient alchemists worked to separate substances and transform base materials into gold. The result of this Satanic alchemy is that "the Devil's hand directs our every move— / the things we loathed become the things we love." The image of demons reveling and "Wriggling in our brains like a million worms" suggests that these demonic agents become deeply integrated into our very selves, infesting our bodies and making their thoughts our own.

The process whereby Satanic interference gives rise to the self is clearly explained in "Destruction," the poem that opens the section "Flowers of Evil." The speaker casually explains how his constant companion is "the Demon," who "tags along, / hanging around me like the air I breathe" and filling the speaker, breath by breath, "with sinful cravings never satisfied." The speaker follows his desires and thus finds himself separated from God and stranded "where the vast / barrens of Boredom stretch infinitely." This boredom is ennui, the profound existential dissatisfaction laced with detachment and despair that Baudelaire wrestles with in many of his poems. Trapped in ennui, the speaker then becomes aware that his self-destruction and suffering—even his will—are the result of the demon's trickery yet again. He is not what he thinks he is. Rather, he is a manifestation—a flowering, which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes not—of this evil impulse that has been placed in him by Satan. In this way, Baudelaire asserts our lives, our very selves, are "flowers of evil."

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