The Flowers of Evil evokes a world of paradox already implicit in the contrast of the title. The word "evil" (the French word is "mal," meaning both evil and sickness) comes to signify the pain and misery inflicted on the speaker, which he responds to with melancholy, anxiety, and a fear of death. But for Baudelaire, there is also something seductive about evil. Thus, while writing The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire often said that his intent was to extract beauty from evil. Unlike traditional poets who had only focused on the simplistically pretty, Baudelaire chose to fuel his language with horror, sin, and the macabre. The speaker describes this duality in the introductory poem, in which he explains that he and the reader form two sides of the same coin. Together, they play out what Baudelaire called the tragedy of man's "twoness." He saw existence itself as paradoxical, each man feeling two simultaneous inclinations: one toward the grace and elevation of God, the other an animalistic descent toward Satan. Just like the physical beauty of flowers intertwined with the abstract threat of evil, Baudelaire felt that one extreme could not exist without the other.Les Fleurs du Mal
Rene Magritte, Flowers of Evil, 1946
Le vin sait revêtir le plus sordide bouge
D'un luxe miraculeux,
Et fait surgir plus d'un portique fabuleux
Dans l'or de sa vapeur rouge,
Comme un soleil couchant dans un ciel nébuleux.
L'opium agrandit ce qui n'a pas de bornes,
Approfondit le temps, creuse la volupté,
Et de plaisirs noirs et mornes
Remplit l'âme au delà de sa capacité.
Tout cela ne vaut pas le poison qui découle
De tes yeux, de tes yeux verts,
Lacs où mon âme tremble et se voit à l'envers...
Mes songes viennent en foule
Pour se désaltérer à ces gouffres amers.
Tout cela ne vaut pas le terrible prodige
De ta salive qui mord,
Qui plonge dans l'oubli mon âme sans remords,
Et charriant le vertige,
La roule défaillante aux rives de la mort!
— Charles Baudelaire
Wine knows how to adorn the most sordid hovel
With marvelous luxury
And make more than one fabulous portal appear
In the gold of its red mist
Like a sun setting in a cloudy sky.
Opium magnifies that which is limitless,
Lengthens the unlimited,
Makes time deeper, hollows out voluptuousness,
And with dark, gloomy pleasures
Fills the soul beyond its capacity.
All that is not equal to the poison which flows
From your eyes, from your green eyes,
Lakes where my soul trembles and sees its evil side...
My dreams come in multitude
To slake their thirst in those bitter gulfs.
All that is not equal to the awful wonder
Of your biting saliva,
Charged with madness, that plunges my remorseless soul
And rolls it in a swoon to the shores of death.
— translation by William Aggeler