Great Art Bad Reviews Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal

About Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, a great work of art which was originally given bad reviews.


Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal

The Work: Les Fleurs du Mal ("The Flowers of Evil") by French poet Charles Baudelaire, is a collection of poems first published in 1857. The poems deal with decadence and eroticism, and point an uncompromising finger at the reader. The book had barely been published when it was seized for being blasphemous and obscene, and a trial began. Gustave Flaubert had just been tried and acquitted for alleged obscenity in Madame Bovary, so Baudelaire felt certain that he would also be found innocent. However, the author, the publisher, and the printers were all found guilty of an offense against public morality and fined. Six of the poems were banned and did not reappear until 1949, almost 100 years after their original publication.

The Critics Speak: It was Baudelaire's belief that the first, scathing review of Les Fleurs du Mal in Le Figaro led to his prosecution. It was written by a Mr. Bourdin, who is remembered today only for this piece:

"There are times when one doubts Monsieur Baudelaire's sanity; there are times when there is no longer any doubt . . . the odious is cheek by jowl with the ignoble--and the repulsive joins the disgusting. You have never seen so many bosoms being bitten, chewed even, in so few pages; never has there been such a procession of demons, fetuses, devils, cats, and vermin.

"The book is a hospital open to all forms of mental derangements and emotional putrefaction. . . . If one may understand a poet at the age of 20 allowing his imagination to be carried away by such subjects, nothing can justify a man of over 30 making public such monstrosities in a book."

This next review appeared in the Journal de Bruxelles:

"The hideous novel Madame Bovary is a work of piety compared to Les Fleurs du Mal. . . . Nothing could possibly give you the faintest idea of the heap of filth and horror contained in this book . . . a decent pen cannot even quote. . . ."

J. Habans, a protege of the minister of the interior, wrote a review which also appeared in Le Figaro: "In Monsieur Charles Baudelaire's case we must use the word nightmare. . . . All of these coldly displayed charnel-house horrors, these abysses of filth into which both hands are plunged to the elbows, should rot in a drawer."

History Speaks: Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Baudelaire "above all others of his age the poet of modern civilization." Les Fleurs du Mal, his major work, inspired the Symbolist movement in writing and art, and today can be called nothing less than an enduring classic.

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