the notes to auerbach’s “the aesthetic dignity of the ‘fleurs du mal'”

Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS

Illustration by Jeff Hill for Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil
(Jacques Leclerq translation). Mount Vernon, New York: 
Peter Pauper Press, 1958.  

Erich Auerbach, "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du mal’" 





1In E. Raynaud, Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1922), p. 105, we find the following quotation from a play written in the 1840’s:


Quel plaisir de tordre

Nos bras amoureux,

Et puis de nous mordre

En hurlant tous deux.


One is also reminded of Leconte de Lisle’s poem about the wild dogs, "Les Hurleurs."


2 Sum levis, et mecum levis est, mea cura, Cupido, says Ovid, Amores, 3, 1, 41. But all that is finished since Baudelaire; light love in poetry has become Kitsch or pornography. As late as the eighteenth century, in Chaulieu or Voltaire, for example, it was very different. In this connection it is interesting to read Baudelaire’s instructions to his lawyer when Les Fleurs du mal was prosecuted for immorality; they may be found in a number of critical editions and biographies. He stresses the serious character of his poetry over against the polissonnerie of some of the "light" poems of Beranger and Musset, at which the authorities had taken no umbrage. We need only read these poems to see how incredibly vulgar this erotic poetry in the "light style" had become.


3 Even in prose such matters were seldom treated. A few mild allusions occur in Montaigne. Crepet, in his critical edition (Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal: Edition critique établie par Jacques Crépet et Georges Blin [Paris, 1942], p. 431; cited in the following as FdM, Crépet-Blin), expresses the belief that Baudelaire had read these passages in Montaigne and refers to Essais, II, Chap. XV. This is perfectly possible, but it is certain that Baudelaire learned nothing from Montaigne.


4"Semper eadem," "Tout entière" "Que diras-tu," "Le Flambeau vivant," "A celle qui est trap gaie" "Réversibilité," "Confession," "L’Aube spirituelle," "Harmonie du soir," "Le Flacon," "Hymne."


5 Baudelaire made many such statements. One of the most characteristic occurs in a letter to Fernand Desnoyers. It has often been cited, e.g., in FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 463.


6 "The tender, beautiful "Je n’ai pas oublié" refers to a happy period in his early youth, spent with his mother before her second marriage. Apart from this, wherever we find a gentler, more tender sentiment in Les Fleurs du mal, it usually proves to be deceptive. It is genuine when, in speaking to the beloved, he argues flight, renunciation, repose, or a numbing of the senses; then we find phrases such as Mon enfant, ma sceur, or O ma si blanche, ô ma si froide Marguerite.


7 Jean Royère (Poèmes d’amour de Baudelaire [Paris, 1927]) calls these breaches of style catachrèses, and gives an excellent description of them. Royère regards Baudelaire as a Catholic mystic; on the lines from "Hymne à la Beauté" of which we have quoted a part (L’Amoureux pantelant . . .) he writes (p. 123): "I decline to comment more directly on such verses. I content myself with reciting them every day like a Pater and an Ave." There are many such exaggerations in his book and almost all his ideas strike me as arbitrary and dilettantish. But even so it is a beautiful book.


8 This line is a good example of the romantic three-part alexandrine, with a caesura not after the sixth, but after the fourth and eighth syllables. It should be read and savored accordingly


9 There is a passage in which even le Néant does not seem to be nothing enough for him. It occurs in the Projets de preface pour une édition nouvelle, toward the end in the paragraph beginning with the words D’ailleurs, telle n’est pas . . . (FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 214).


10 Cf. the lines to Mme Sabatier (Ta chair spirituelle a le parfum des anges); or the following from "Sonnet d’automne":


. . . Mon cceur, que tout irrite,

Excepté la candeur de l’antique animal


"J’aime le souvenir des ces époques nues" is another example of this, although the apotheosis of youth at the end (A la sainte jeunesse . . .) is very startling in Baudelaire. Cf. the note in FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 303.


11 Royère,loc. cit., p. 58, writes: Baudelaire . . . ne serait peut-être pas éloigné d’une théologie qui mettrait l’homme, en quelque manière, au niveau de Dieu. But that would be the Devil’s own theology. In this passage, to be sure, Royère is speaking more of the male than of humankind, but that scarcely makes a difference.


12 Ames choisies is from the Mémoires of Saint-Simon, but may have been used earlier in the seventeenth century. The principle of selection has changed since then.


13 Charles Baudelaire, Ecrits intimes; introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre (Paris, 1946).


14 His hatred of nature often sounds Christian (la femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable; or le commerce est naturel, done il est infâme: both from "Mon cceur mis à nu"). But it is so absurdly exaggerated (j’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol, as he is quoted as saying in Schaunard’s Souvenirs), that it all seems to boil down to revolt. On the Apocalypse as the source of his visions of landscapes without vegetation (e.g., "Réve parisien" cf. Apoc. 21-2) see J. Pommier, La Mystique de Baudelaire (Paris, 1932), p. 39.


15 The first version, which appeared in 1851 in Le Messager de l’Assemblee, is quite different, much weaker and milder; in the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal the poem already has its definitive form, with the exception of the third line which runs: Pour piquer dans le but, mystique quadrature . . .


16 Crépet (FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 518) calls "La Mart des artistes" la plus mallarméenne peut-être des Fleurs du mal. This is incontestable. But perhaps one may equally well say that there is no better indication of the profoundly different character of the two poets.


17 Un état d’esprit auquel Baudelaire aura cessé" de correspondre, says E. Raynaud, loc. cit., p. 307.


18 Like Taine after him, he called Baudelaire’s style âpre, and wrote: Vous chantez la chair sans l’aimer. Aside from Ange Pechméja’s letter, this is no doubt the most outstanding of contemporary judgments; J. J. Weiss should be mentioned as one of the contemporary adversaries. These and other critical remarks may be found in Eugène Crépet, Charles Baudelaire: Etude biographique, revue et mise à jour par Jacques Crépet (Paris, 1906), Flaubert, p. 359; Pechméja’s letter, p. 414; Taine, p. 432. But the action against Les Fleurs du mal and the contemporary reaction to the book are treated at length in the other biographies. The most complete compilation of opinions is probably that of Vergniol in La Revue de Paris, August 1917.

Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS

Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS

—from Erich Auerbach, ScenesFrom the Drama of European Literature (1959). “
The Aesthetic Dignity of the "’Fleurs du Mal’": Translated by Ralph Manheim from the original German text in Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung (Bern, 1951), pp. 107-27.


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