It is hard to overstate the impact of Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. It is a canonical text not only in French literature and modernism, but in the history of European art. It influenced innumerable poets, novelists, artists, and critics in its wake. It shocked, titillated, inspired, and thrilled with its bold images, complex symbols, iconoclastic worldview, and evocations of the sensual, sordid subterranean world of 19th century Paris.
Baudelaire believed the work ought to be read as one structured whole, not individual poems or sections (his friend Barbey D’Aurvilly coined the phrase “secret architecture” to express this structure). Regardless, it is in six major divisions: "Spleen and Ideal," "Parisian Scenes," "Wine," "Flowers of Evil," "Revolt," and "Death." "Spleen and Ideal" deals largely with the poetry of everyday life as well as the nature of love and beauty. "Parisian Scenes" finds the poet traversing the streets of his city and noting what he sees and feels. In "Wine" and "Flowers of Evil" he looks at evil, sadism, decay, and the destruction of humanity. In "Revolt" he considers religion but prays to Satan, a symbol of heroic resistance. In "Death" he articulates a need for the infinite, for escape to the unknown, for release from the toils of sublunary existence.
Following his suicide attempt of 1845, Baudelaire began working on the poems that would comprise Fleurs. Initially, though, he claimed that he was working on a volume entitled Les Lesbiennes. Later, in 1848, he had changed it to Les Limbes. By 1855 he settled on Fleurs du Mal and published the volume in 1857.
Baudelaire chose to publish the volume with the small publishing house of Auguste Poulet-Malassis, and watched the process closely every step of the way. The release of Fleurs resulted in public outrage, and resulted in an immorality trial. Thirteen poems were singled out as being in contempt of morality. One judge claimed that the poems’ scenes “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to decency.” Baudelaire assiduously fought for his exoneration, claiming that he depicted sin in a manner that would dissuade readers from it, that the poems were part of a larger and ultimately moral whole, and that some of his literary predecessors were even more scandalous. In the end, six poems were suppressed (the ones violating religious morality were exonerated and the ones dealing with sex were indicted) and left out of the 1861 edition. Baudelaire and his editors were fined 300 francs. The ban on the poems was not officially lifted until May 31st, 1949.
Although Baudelaire grumbled that he had to do more work on Fleurs to prepare the 1861 edition, the years between 1858-1860 were remarkably fecund. Indeed, the 1861 edition featured thirty-five new poems.
In 1868, a year after Baudelaire’s death, his friend Charles Asslineau and Theodore de Banville published the third edition of Fleurs. They modeled it after an 1861 edition in which Baudelaire had inserted eleven other poems, but it is unknown whether or not Baudelaire would have actually wanted these included. They also added a few other poems from The Waifs, a volume Baudelaire printed in Belgium in 1865 that included the banned poems from Fleurs and others; this decision is also open to question, since Baudelaire had indicated that those poems were not good enough for Fleurs.
The initial critical reviews were very positive, with Flaubert praising Baudelaire’s uniqueness and his infusion of new life into Romanticism. In 1887 Victor Hugo compared the Fleurs to “dazzling” stars. Baudelaire’s reputation as a debauched, brilliant man of letters expanded enormously in the aftermath of the work’s publication and trial; young poets began to dedicate some of their new work to him.
It is impossible to detail how influential this volume of poetry was for artists of all mediums, but a few observations can suffice. T.S. Eliot wrote extensively of Baudelaire’s influence on him: “I think that from Baudelaire I learned first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic. From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material I had, the sort of experience an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic.” He also quoted the last line of the poem “Boredom” in his famed modernist poem The Waste Land – “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!” Literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote multiple essays on Baudelaire, particularly his role as a flaneur. Rainer Maria Rilke looked directly to Baudelaire for inspiration for his own Die Aufzeichnungen des Make Laurids Brigge. Yves Bonnefoy stated in a talk on Baudelaire in 1954, "Here is the key work of our poetry: Les Fleurs du Mal. Never has the truth of the word, the superior form of the true, revealed its face more clearly.”