July 7, 2023

Baudelaire, Sex, Death and Banned Poems

Portrait de Charles Baudelaire
 en 1844 par Émile Deroy 

I don't recall reading the French poet Charles Baudelaire in my college days. He is most famous for his collection of prose poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). I think I would remember poems about sex and death. When the book was published in 1857 it made Baudelaire famous. 

There were 126 poems. Six are about lesbianism. The poems linked sexuality, love and death, and touched on lesbian love and some of the seamier side of Paris. One 1857 reviewer wrote: “Never has one seen so many breasts bitten or even chewed in so few pages.” 

In this time where we hear about so many books being banned and attacks on the LGBTQ community, it seems like a moment to revisit his problems publishing in the 19th century.

The entire book was considered obscene enough that Baudelaire, his printer, and his publisher were put on trial. The six poems were banned from future printings of the book and banned in France. Baudelaire responded, “Give them only carefully selected garbage.” The judgment of obscenity was finally reversed in 1949 and the poems were restored. T.S. Eliot called Baudelaire “the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language” 

One of the banned poems is "À Celle qui est trop gaie" (To One Who Is Too Gay), which though it is in the old sense of gay meaning "happy," seems like a curious coincidence to a modern ear. 

...To whip your joyous flesh
And bruise your pardoned breast,
To make in your astonished flank
A wide and gaping wound,

And, intoxicating sweetness!
Through those new lips,
More bright, more beautiful,
To infuse my venom, my sister!
   (translated by William Aggeler)

Baudelaire barely made a living from his writing. Besides his poetry, he did art reviews and articles and translated Edgar Allan Poe’s works into French. He became addicted to laudanum, then opium. He became quite ill, moved in with his mother, and the last two years of Baudelaire’s life were spent in semi-paralysis in an aphasic state. He died in 1867 at the age of 46. Most of his poetry was published after his death and then it sold well.


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