The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire (Translated by Aaron Poochigian): A Review

The Flowers of Evil. Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2023. 400pp. $27.95.

Intellectuals love to quibble about precisely when an era began—or ended. When exactly did Rome fall? At what point did the collapse of the USSR become inevitable? What demarcates the “High Middle Ages?” Such questions tickle the ears but conceal another unspeakable question: “Has our own age already ended?”

The poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), now in a new translation by Aaron Poochigian, is fascinating for many reasons, not least because it delineates the edge of an era. Whether the edge is a beginning or an end depends on what we believe constitutes civilization. But either way, Baudelaire’s volume, titled The Flowers of Evil, indicates a shift in our beliefs about art, the artist’s role, and the relationship between the individual and society.

French poetry has a reputation (unearned) of being lofty, inaccessible—a mark of impossibly elevated taste. I think of the moment in Groundhog Day where Andie MacDowell’s character reveals that she studied French poetry before becoming a producer for a local news station; the biographical tidbit serves to exalt her beyond the realm of Lesser Mortals, making her a Beatrice to Bill Murray’s Dante.

In Poochigian’s new translation, this great modern French poet becomes not only accessible but urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand where our civilization came from—and where it is going.

“One dawn we ship out”

“Charles Baudelaire was the first modern poet,” says Dana Gioia in the introduction to Poochigian’s translation. There is no other way to describe Baudelaire: he is the father of all who make verse in these days.

What, though, is a modern poet? Modern poetry (which, to clarify, is not limited to the category called “Modernist”), is presumably poetry that belongs to the modern era—and here the spectral question rises again: what is modernity?

In Poochigian’s new translation, Baudelaire becomes not only accessible but urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand where our civilization came from—and where it is going.

Since I must offer something, I offer this: modernity is The Individual Against. Against nature, society, God—modernity positions the individual as a solitary force. Modernity is the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, alone above the mysteries, mediating them for himself. It is Nighthawks, huddled together yet profoundly solitary in a tiny commercial oasis against encroaching darkness. It is a figure strong, silent, above judgment or obligations, with the courage to wrest meaning from the abyss. “To thine own self be true,” modernity says, quoting Polonius, forgetting that Polonius, in the course of Hamlet, is a fickle, untrustworthy knave whose loyalty twists in the wind.

Modernity is neither fully good nor fully evil. If Solzhenitsyn is right and “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart,” how much more must it run through every era. Here poetry is a great help, for if we understand the anguish of the poet, we may be able to better interpret the cry of our age’s sundered heart.

“Onward! without knowing why”

Modern poetry encompasses nearly all poetry since Baudelaire, because that poetry places itself in conversation with Baudelaire, in either submission or challenge. Modern poetry cannot escape the demands Baudelaire placed upon language.

Of course, some poets have not entered into conversation with Baudelaire, but these are few and often peripheral. Possibly one of these voices will be heralded by the future as a prophet, but choosing to ignore the agonies and triumphs of one’s age is a dangerous path for artists. Poetry that endures always has what David Jones called the quality of “now-ness.” In the hands of great artists (Homer, Shakespeare, Dante all wrote poetry dripping with their ages), the “now” transcends and transforms the stuff of history—petty regional conflicts, provincial comedies, passing political infighting—into the stuff of eternity.

That is what we see in Baudelaire. The Flowers of Evil contains just a few dozen poems, a startlingly slim volume to have birthed modern poetry. But in it, Baudelaire exposes the back alleys and slovenly bedrooms of nineteenth-century Paris as the most sordid chambers of the human heart.

Baudelaire lived and wrote in nineteenth-century France. A native of Paris, he died in his mother’s arms only a few miles from where he was born, aged forty-six. During his lifetime, his verse attracted little attention—save from the French government. Soon after The Flowers of Evil was published, the government tried Baudelaire for obscenity. Baudelaire lost; he and his publisher both had to pay fines; six of his poems were suppressed. He died a decade later. Soon after his death, poets and artists began to recognize that this failed French writer had done something significant: he had given the modern age a voice.

The Flowers of Evil contains just a few dozen poems, a startlingly slim volume to have birthed modern poetry. But in it, Baudelaire exposes the back alleys and slovenly bedrooms of nineteenth-century Paris as the most sordid chambers of the human heart.

From all this, we might expect The Flowers of Evil to be an ecstasy of free verse, a stylistic rebellion against the structures of classical art. Nothing could be further from the reality. Baudelaire’s poetry is meticulously formal, adhering—sometimes scrupulously—to the laws of classical French poetry.

Poochigian’s translation follows Baudelaire’s lead, rendering the poems into rhymed and metered verse. This alone makes it an astonishing accomplishment. French, being a syllable-timed language, has a different approach to meter than English, which is stress-timed. In addition, there are many more rhymes in French (a more directly Romantic, or Latinate, language) than in Germanic-rooted English. Poochigian’s choice to retain, as closely as possible, Baudelaire’s formalism gives English readers a startling new vision of Baudelaire’s world, in which the pillars and arches of classical structures soar over halls full of rot and ruin.

Consider, for example, the opening lines of the repulsive and fascinating sonnet Poem 32:

Once, sleeping with a horrid Jewish crone, 
(we lay like corpses), I began to dream,
beside that flesh bought for a given time,
of someone beautiful who once was mine.

This is the absolute collapse of romantic love. The chivalric ideal that had dominated the European imagination since Charlemagne, lingering far longer in poetry than in society, here shows its stinking remains: “Love,” that guiding star, has fallen into lust and led the poet to the bought bed of a disgusting old woman. This is desolation; these two bodies that “lay like corpses” cannot bring forth life. This is the exact opposite of romantic chivalry. There, a wholly chaste love brings forth the fruit of noble deeds. Here, physical lust is sterile; its carnality brings no new life.

“Tell us what you have seen”

Baudelaire’s poetry plunges us repeatedly into gruesome physicality, the poet’s sanity held together only by the classical structures of the poems and his strange, ghastly version of Catholicism. Baptized a Catholic, Baudelaire never escaped the shade (or shadow?) of the Church. “Nothing on earth is interesting except religion,” he wrote, and his verse bears this out. The speaker of Baudelaire’s poems, especially in the section Spleen and the Ideal, cries out as if stretched on a rack, torn between his obsession with the body and his certainty that the body is decay, his imaginative longing for religion and his fear that religion too will prove rotten. In poem 48, “The Perfume Bottle,” the rack stretches so far that the speaker fears he will rip:

Vertigo wrestles the already vanquished soul
through the abysmal recess of human smell
and drops it to the bottom of an ancient pit
where, just as Lazarus once tore his winding-sheet,
a ghostly corpse comes back to life—the specter of
a long-dead and seductive, rancid sort of love.

Baudelaire’s religious agony reaches blasphemous depths in poem 120, “The Litanies of Satan,” where the speaker begs the devil to “Grant that my soul may lie near you beneath the Tree/of Knowledge.” Here Baudelaire finishes what Milton began, painting us humans in the image of the rebellious devil rather than the all-sacrificing God.

“Immortal sin—a rather boring sight”

Yet, in allying modern man with rebellious Lucifer, where does Baudelaire see this rebellion going? There is no more modern poem than Baudelaire’s “Voyaging,” which concludes the whole collection. Here Poochigian’s careful adherence to meter and rhyme give his translation a tautness lacking in other translations. He renders the first line, “The world can sate the giant appetite,” an enjambment that seems to validate our lust. But read on:

The world can sate the giant appetite
of children keen on stamps and atlases.
How vast it all is in the lantern’s light!
How pitiful in recollection’s eyes!

The world can only sate our lowest appetites, our most childish ones. It has nothing to offer our mature selves, who look through “recollection’s eyes” to see a former vastness as really quite paltry. “How strange a game!” Baudelaire writes later in “Voyages.” “The object of the quests/changes and could be everywhere at once.”

This, then, is the end of modernity: constant satiation of our basest appetites, change so rapid and so continuous that it becomes itself a drudgery. In Part IV of “Voyages,” a wizened old mariner tells the poet, “Despite disastrous situations,/we often have been bored, as we are here.” And later, in Part VI, the mariner says, “We witnessed (without even seeking it),/the whole way up and down the fatal ladder,/immortal sin—a rather boring sight.” Immortal sin, in which the poet has luxuriated for a hundred and twenty-five poems, finally bears its fruit: boredom.

Today, tomorrow, yesterday, the bland
world gives us back our own reflection: a spring
of horror rising out of boring sand!

“Our minds are burning, and we want to go”

This is the sandy shore where Baudelaire, the Sybil of our Cumae, casts us up. He hails modernity as a brilliant star, with its vision of the heroic individual against society, against morality, against God—but that star is falling, and by the end of the voyage, it has been swallowed up by the sea.

All this leaves us with one last question: what are the flowers of evil? The answer is many-faceted and disputable, but I will offer a suggestion. Baudelaire’s response to ennui, the horrible boredom besetting the modern soul, is to immerse ourselves in evil, contemplating it so fiercely and steadily that we come to love it, finding unexpected beauty. As Gioia writes in the new introduction, “Discovering the beauty in such objects—disease, vice, intoxication, decay—reveals the secret purposes of their troubling existence.”

This is a disturbing claim. It threatens to suck us into a dualistic universe in which God and the Devil are equals, evil possessing just as much right to existence as goodness. The “flowers,” then, are the unexpected beauties that can flourish only in the sickly atmosphere of this tainted world.

At the end of his life, Baudelaire requested and received Last Rites. On his deathbed, when this whole world with all its myriad miseries and beauties was passing away for him, he turned to something beyond this world.

Understood this way, we can see Baudelaire’s influence all over contemporary art, where the formerly taboo is now commonplace. “Transgressive art”, or art which examines something repugnant without passing moral judgment on it, owes its existence to The Flowers of Evil. But Baudelaire himself might not approve of how modernity has embraced moral relativism; to him, the line between good and evil, between beauty and ugliness, remained. Art does not ask us to seek to erase that line; instead, it asks us to consider man as an inextricable mingling of divinity and diabolism.

To find what’s new”

If Baudelaire is truly the prophet of modernity, it seems we have come to the end of his prophecy. What marks our society more clearly than avaricious, dismayed ennui? What more fully describes us than a “bland/world giving us back our own reflection: a spring/of horror rising out of boring sand?” For denizens of the twenty-first century, even the flowers of evil have begun to wilt.

So, what to do? Baudelaire’s biography perhaps offers a clue. At the end of his life, Baudelaire requested and received Last Rites. On his deathbed, when this whole world with all its myriad miseries and beauties was passing away for him, he turned to something beyond this world.

This might seem like a cheap answer: Oh, Baudelaire rejected his philosophy on his deathbed, so we can ignore it. But I do not see it that way. Instead, I believe that in receiving Last Rites, which usually includes Holy Communion, Baudelaire at last allowed into his soul the greatest mystery of the relationship between Good and Evil: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. St. Augustine called the Fall the felix culpa—the “happy fault” which, as the Easter Exsultet says, “merited so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” Why is it that Christians reflect on the Cross? Why do we meditate on the sufferings of Christ? Is it not because in those wounds, we find the greatest Beauty the universe can reveal–not simply flowers found within evil, but flowers made, somehow, out of evil?

“Voyaging” concludes:

Give us your poison and we will be well.
Our minds are burning, and we want to go
into the magnitude of Heaven or Hell,
to fathom the unknown, to find what’s new.

That is the cry of the modern soula dangerous one, pitching us to the very brink of Hell. But the edge of Hell may be nearer salvation than the plains of complacency, for there at least we are crying out. And, as Baudelaire found at the end of his life, God truly does hear the cry of the poor. 

J. C. Scharl is a poet and essayist. Her writing has appeared in many publications throughout the English-speaking world, including the BBC, The European Conservative, The New Ohio Review, The Hudson Review, Dappled Things, Plough Quarterly, and many others. She lives with her husband and two children in Detroit, Michigan

[1] The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Aaron Poochigan. New York: Liveright, 2023, $27.95, pp. 400.


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