Sex and drugs – Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire Gustave_Courbet_033
Portrait of Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet (1848)

Charles Baudelaire  (1821-1867) was a French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil], published in 1857, which was undoubtedly the most important and influential poetry collection to appear in Europe in the 19th century. When it was first printed, the book was prosecuted for alleged obscenity.

Addicted to sex and drugs, Baudelaire eventually succumbed to syphilis, but in his famous preface to Les Fleurs du mal entitled “Au lecteur” [To the reader] he listed all manner of vice and accused his contemporary society of monstrous hypocrisy, stating in effect ‘none of you are any better than me, my brothers.’. A number of versions of this scathing text can be read at: http://fleursdumal.org/poem/099, but here are the first two verses in a translation by the American poet, Robert Lowell:

To the Reader

Folly and error, sin and avarice, 

Labor our minds and bodies in their course, 

Blithely we nourish pleasurable remorse 

As beggars feed their parasitic lice.

Our sins are stubborn, our repentance faint, 

We sell our weak confessions at high price, 

Returning gaily to the bogs of vice, 

Thinking base tears can cleanse our every taint.

The prose poem I have translated below is taken from the posthumously published Petits poèmes en prose (1869): the most successful and innovative early experiment in prose poetry of the time. Here the mood is that of world-weariness, ennui, or spleen and the title is borrowed from a poem by the English poet, Thomas Hood.


Anywhere Out of the World

This life’s a hospital in which every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one would like to suffer in front of the stove, and another believes he’d recover his health by the window.

It always seems to me that I’d feel well wherever I am not, and this question of displacement is one I’m forever discussing with my soul.

« Tell me, my soul, my poor frozen soul, what do you think of going to live in Lisbon? Must be warm there, and there you’d liven up like a lizard. That city’s on the coast; they say that it’s built of marble and that the people there so hate vegetation that they tear down all the trees. There you have a landscape to your taste! a landscape made of light and mineral, and liquid to reflect them! »

My soul says nothing.

« Since you’re so fond of taking it easy, while observing the bustle, would you like to live in Holland, that beatifying country? Maybe you’d have some fun in that land the image of which you’ve so often admired in the art galleries. What do you think of Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships moored at the foot of houses? »

My soul remains silent.

« Perhaps Batavia would appeal more? There, of course, we’d find the spirit of Europe married to tropical beauty. »

Not a word. « Could my soul be dead ? »

« Have you reached such a degree of lethargy that you’re only content to be ill? If so, let’s flee to those countries that are analogues of Death. I know what we need, my poor soul! We’ll pack our trunks for Tornio. Let’s go farther still to the far end of the Baltic; or farther still from life, if that’s possible; let’s settle at the Pole. There the sun only grazes the earth obliquely, and the slow alternation of light and darkness suppresses variety and increases monotony, that semi-nothingness. There we’ll be able to take long baths of darkness, while to amuse us, the aurora borealis will from time to time send us its pink sprays, like a display of fireworks from Hell! »

Finally, my soul blows it top, and wisely cries out to me: « Anywhere! anywhere! as long as it’s out of the world! »

Translation by John Lyons


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