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Prefaces to The Flowers of Evil

Four introductions to this magnificent collection of poems. You can read the original here


France is passing through a phase of vulgarity. Paris, center and appeal of universal stupidity. In spite of Molière and Béranger, we would never have believed France to be marching on the path of progress. Questions of art, terra incognita. Great men are fools.

My book could have done some good; I’m not grieved by this possibility. It could have been harmful; this does not fill me with joy.

The aim of poetry. This book was not made for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters.

All the crimes I have recounted have been imputed to me. The base entertainment of hate and contempt. The elegiacs are blackguards. And the word became flesh. For the poet is of no faction. Otherwise, he would be a simple mortal.

The Devil. Original sin. Good man. You may be the Tyrant’s favorite if you so wish. It is more difficult to love God than to believe in Him; on the other hand, it is more difficult for people of this century to believe in the Devil than to love him. Everyone makes use of him and no one thinks him real. The sublime subtlety of that Devil.

A soul of my choosing. The decor. Hence novelty. An epigraph. Barbey D’Aurevilly. The Renaissance. Gérard de Nerval. We are all hanged or hangable.

I had incorporated some garbage to please the journalists. They turned out to be a bunch of ingrates.



It is not for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters that this book was written; nor for the wives, daughters, or sisters of my neighbor. I will leave this analysis to those who mistake good actions for beautiful language.

I know well that the lover fascinated by a rich, beautiful style exposes his body to the hate of the masses. But no human respect, no false prudishness, no coalition, no universal suffrage will restrain me from speaking the incomparable dialect of this century, nor from confounding ink with virtue.

Since time immemorial the best poets have shared the most flowered spaces of the poetic realm. To me it seemed pleasing, and more agreeable than difficult, to extract the beauty of Evil. This book, fundamentally useless and absolutely innocent, was made with no other goal than to provide me with some light entertainment and indulge my taste for obstacles.

Some have told me that poetry can do wrong; this does not fill me with joy. Others  good souls all of them  that it may do good; and I’m not grieved by this possibility. The fear of some and the hope of others surprised me in equal measure, and did nothing but prove yet again that this century has unlearned the classical concepts of literature.

Despite the assistance provided by some celebrated oafs to man’s innate predilection for humbug, I would never have thought it possible that our country could march on the path of progress with such speed. This world of ours has acquired a thick film of vulgarity that imbues a spiritual man with all the violence of passion. But happy are the shells which the poison has not and cannot enter.

Initially I had the intention of answering several critics and explaining at the same time some very simple questions totally obscured by modernity’s glare. What is poetry? What is its aim? What is the distinction between the Beautiful and the Good? What could be the Beautiful in Evil? I could have averred that rhythm and rhyme fulfill man’s immortal need for monotony, symmetry, and surprise. I could have spoken at length on the adaptation of style to the subject, of the vanity and danger of inspiration, and so forth and so on. But I suffered from the imprudence of reading this morning several papers. Suddenly an indolence not unlike the weight of twenty atmospheres came over me, and my actions ceased in the face of the horrific inutility of explaining anything to anyone. Those who knew me were able to guess why. And for those who cannot or do not want to understand, any explanations would accumulate in vain into a heap of misconceptions.


How can an artist, through a sustained series of efforts, attain originality commensurate with his talent?

How can poetry become music through prosody whose roots dig farther into the human soul than any classical theory might claim?

How does French poetry possess a little–known and mysterious system of prosody like that of Latin or English?

Why are all poets ignorant of how words rightly incorporate rhyme unable to express any ideas?

How is it that poetry (in this way akin to music and mathematics) can imitate a horizontal line, a straight line ascending, or a descending straight line? How can it rise in steep path to the sky without shortness of breath, or fall perpendicularly towards hell with the velocity of all gravity? How can it follow a spiral, trace a parabola, or the zigzag of superimposed angles?

How does poetry relate to the art of painting, of cooking, of cosmetics by expressing every sensation of sweetness or bitterness, of beatitude or horror by the coupling of a certain noun with a certain adjective, analogue, or opposite?

How is it that every man, reliant on my principles and availing himself of the knowledge which I plan to teach him in twenty lessons, can compose a tragedy no more lustily booed than any other or structure a poem of sufficient length to be as dull and tedious as all other epic poems?

Quite a task, rising up against all this divine insensitivity! More so owing to the fact that I, despite numerous laudable attempts, could not resist the desire to please my contemporaries, as shown in various places highlighted like rouge, certain base flatteries addressed to her, Democracy, and even some other twaddle excusing the despondency of my subject matter. But my dearest gentlemen of the press were ungrateful of such caresses, and I omitted in this new edition the traces of this ingratitude as much as could be possible.

To verify once more the excellence of my method, I have suggested devoting myself in the future to a celebration of the joys of the dedication and intoxication of military glory, even if they are not known to me.

Notes on my plagiary: Thomas Gray; Edgar Allan Poe (2 passages); Longfellow (2 passages); Statius; Virgil (the whole part of Andromache); Aeschylus; Victor Hugo.

(perhaps to be incorporated with previous notes)

If there is some glory in not being understood or in being understood just a little, I can say unboastfully that with this slender tome I have obtained and deserved such fame in one fell swoop. Offered numerous times to a series of publishers, all of whom shoved it away in horror; harassed and mutilated, in 1857, following a rather bizarre misunderstanding, slowly rejuvenated, sharpened, and strengthened in the course of many years of silence; having disappeared yet again owing to my insouciance, this discordant product of the Muse of the last days, revived again by a few new violent strokes, dares today to confront the sun a third time with its inanity.

This is not any fault of mine. The person to blame is the publisher insisting that he thought himself strong enough to brave the public’s distaste. “This book will remain forever like a blemish on your life,” one of my friends, an important poet, said to me from the very beginning. As it were, all my misadventures up to that point had affirmed the correctness of his observation. But I possess one of those happy personalities which derive a certain pleasure from hate, and which are glorified in their contempt. My taste so wickedly bent towards stupidity coerced me into finding particular pleasure in the travesties of calumny. As chaste as a sheet of white paper, as sober as water, as devoted to devotion as a communicant, as inoffensive as a victim, I do not mind passing for a debauched drunk, an impious lout, or an assassin.

My publisher continues to pretend that I, like he, would gain some benefit from explaining why and how I created this book, what my means and ends were, and from detailing my design and method. A critical work in that vein would surely amuse those minds enamored with profound rhetoric. For those dear souls I will write something later, perhaps, and have it printed in about ten copies. But, upon further scrutiny, doesn’t this all seem superfluous and wasteful since some will know or guess its essence and others will never understand it? I am too afraid of ridicule to insufflate to the masses the intelligence of a work of art. And I fear that I too greatly accommodated those Utopians who want by some immediate and magical decree to render all Frenchmen rich and virtuous.

And then, my most important reason, that most important reason of all: such acts bore and displease me. Should one then lead the rabble into the dresser’s and decorator’s studio, or the actor’s box? Should one reveal the tricks and levers of our gadgetry to the crowd so impassioned today and so indifferent tomorrow? Should one explain to them the edits and daubs and the variants improvised at rehearsals, or to what extent sincerity and instinct combine under the banner of indispensable charlatanism? Should they know of all the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains, regrets, and smears  in short, all the horrors that compose the sanctuary of art?

Besides, I’m not in the mood for all this today. I have no desire to demonstrate, surprise, amuse, or persuade. I have my nerves and my erratic whims. My goal is absolute rest and endless night. Bard of the mad pleasures of wine and opium, I thirst for nothing but a liqueur unknown on earth which even the celestial pharmacy could not provide me. A liqueur containing neither vitality, nor death, nor excitation, nor nothingness. To know nothing, to teach nothing, to want nothing, to sense nothing, to sleep, and then sleep more, this is today my one and only pledge. An infamous and disgusting pledge, but a sincere one.

Nevertheless, as superior taste instructs us not to be afraid of contradicting ourselves a bit, I have gathered at the end of this abominable book testimonies of sympathy on the part of certain men whom I value most. In this way, the impartial reader may see that I am not absolutely deserving of excommunication and that, having learned to make myself loved by some, my heart, although I no longer know on what printed cloth, does not perhaps have the “horrific ugliness of my face.”

Finally, by unmatched generosity, whereby my dear critics ...

As ignorance, more and more so ...

I myself denounce all imitations ...

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