A view from the Harry Ransom Center
Pictured high in both Ransom Center Atrias, the image of Charles Baudelaire’s scandalous flower from his 1857 poetry collection, Les fleurs du mal stands tall. As part of the Ransom Center’s French Literature Collection, this rare first edition of Les fleurs du mal features the namesake Flower of Evil on its cover. With themes of death and desire, Baudelaire’s erotic poetry collection acts as a figure of contradiction in French modernist literature.
Twentieth-century literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire to describe the rapid urbanity of Paris in the nineteenth century. In Benjamin’s unfinished work, The Arcades Project (compiled between 1927-1940), Benjamin writes that the “uninterrupted resonance which Les Fleurs du mal has found up through the present day is linked to a certain aspect of the urban scene, one that came to light only with the city’s entry into poetry. It is the aspect least of all expected. What makes itself felt through the evocation of Paris in Baudelaire’s verse is the infirmity and decrepitude of a great city.” The contradictions of a great city, the urbanized and rural, the beautiful and grotesque are essential in Les fleurs du mal. Through the image of the flower on the window, an urbanized college campus and capitol city provide the background for a view of beautiful aging oak trees; the contradictions present in Baudelaire’s work come to light every day as curious watchers gaze out the window.
The contradiction inherent in the title of Baudelaire’s work explores this relationship between the beautiful – the flower – and the grotesque – evil. No longer are flowers associated with love and all things good, the dissolution of the previously known forces the reader into a realm of the “other”, the doppelgänger, and the sublime. The themes of lust and banality are prevalent throughout the poems and Baudelaire’s exploration of eroticism and decadence caused scandal in late-nineteenth century French society. Within a month of its 1857 publication, the Parisian government brought an action against Les fleurs du mal claiming it to be an “outrage aux bonnes mœurs”, an insult to public decency, and fined Baudelaire 300 francs. Eventually, the Parisian courts recognized the literary merit of Baudelaire’s poetry but ultimately insisted on the censorship of six poems. The second edition of Les fleurs du mal was published in 1861 and included 35 new poems but suppressed “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnées (À la pâle clarté)”, “Le Léthé”,” À celle qui est trop gaie”, “Les Bijoux”, and ” Les Métamorphoses du Vampire”. This ban was not lifted in France until 1949.
Upon its publication in 1857, Gustave Bourdin, literary critic for Le Figaro, wrote, “Never has there been such a review of demons, fetuses, devils, chloroses, cats and vermin. – This book is a hospital open to all insanities of the mind, to all putridities of the heart; still if it was to cure them, but they are incurable.” Undoubtedly, Baudelaire’s infamy brought on by the scandal prompted the first edition of Les fleurs de mal to sell out.
Baudelaire’s poetry is an essential part of the symbolist and modernist literary movements. In the section Tableaux Parisiens, added in 1961, his critiques of Parisian society describe citizen’s feelings of estrangement and anonymity from living amidst the French bourgeoise and rapid urbanization; that due to the new structures, Baudelaire can no longer recognize the Paris he had once called home. Baudelaire’s sympathy for the common Parisian citizen will later serve as an inspiration for his future works.
The groundbreaking nature of Les fleurs de mal developed its notoriety and uproarious reception. Upon reading “The Swan” (or “Le Cygne”) from Les Fleurs du mal, Victor Hugo announced that Baudelaire had created “un nouveau frisson” (a new shudder, a new thrill) in literature. Amongst the Ransom Center’s collections, Baudelaire’s poetry is a testament to a new era of French literature.