Banned Book Club: Les Fleurs du Mal

Title: The Flowers of Evil

Published: 1857

Author: Charles Baudelaire

Challenge status: After publication of the book, both the author and the publisher were prosecuted for the French equivalent of obscenity, aka “outrage aux bonnes mœurs” (trans. “an insult to public decency”). Baudelaire was fined, and six poems were formally banned from publication/dissemnation: “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnés”, “Le Léthé”, “À celle qui est trop gaie”, “Les Bijoux”, and ” Les “Métamorphoses du Vampire”. The ban was not lifted in France until 1949; a second French edition was published in 1861 (with the suppressed poems removed, and new poems added). The censored poems were published in Brussels, in a volume called “Les Épaves” (Scraps). Book #44 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Too sexy, Charles

First line: From the first poem, “Bénédiction“:

”Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes / Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé / Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes / Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié…”

When, on a certain day, into this harassed world / The Poet, by decree of the high powers, was born, / His mother, overwhelmed by shame and fury, hurled / These blasphemies at God, clenching her fists in scorn…” (Edna St. Vincent Millay translation)


You didn’t think i was going to end with a D.H. Lawrence book, did you?

I fell for Baudelaire in high school, when I was taking French Lit and thought pretty much anything that French was just so gorgeous. Further fell for Baudelaire when I found an edition of his poems had been translated to English by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who is an amazing poetess herself (Pulitzer prize winning, yo).

Baudelaire can be considered an early modernist (as opposed to post-modernists, s’il vous plaît), artists who sought new approaches to art, given effects of industrialism on human activities and lifestyles. Newness or novelty in approach were lauded, anything that broke art and expression from the yoke of previous dogma/tradition was considered advancement. Baudelaire himself is associated with expression around experiences of pleasure, decadence, and vice/sin. There are many comparisons of Baudelaire to Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet who is known for incorporating dark themes and the supernatural into his work (i.e. one of the patron saints of the “Goth” phenomenon).

You can find the six censored poems and their brethren of the various editions of the book (with several English translations to choose from, including Millay) at this awesome site:

My favorite of the Pièces condamnées (i.e. the banned poems) is probably Le Léthé (The Lethe). Title is a reference to one of the rivers in Hell (drink the water would make people forget everything) and named after a Greek spirit of oblivious/forgetfulness. The poem itself is about losing oneself in a lover – a lover possessing passion, but lacking mercy. The translations are interesting, too.

From Le Léthé:

“Viens sur mon coeur, âme cruelle et sourde, Tigre adoré, monstre aux airs indolents”

– Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

(Tigress adored, indolent fiend, lie there, There on my heart now, merciless and strong – LeClercq translation)

Pour engloutir mes sanglots apaisés
Rien ne me vaut l’abîme de ta couche;
L’oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche,
Et le Léthé coule dans tes baisers.

– Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

(To drown my sorrow there is no abyss, / However deep, that can compare with your bed. /Forgetfulness has made its country your red / Mouth, and the flowing of Lethe is in your kiss. – Dillon translation)

(to drown my sobs and still my spirit — o! / no boon but thine abysmal bed avails; / poppied oblivion from thy mouth exhales / and through thy kisses floods of Lethe flow. – Shanks translation)

Too hot for Paris! Ooh la la.

And that’s “Le Fin” for Banned Book Club 2013…à bientôt.

What do you think?

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