Published today (1 June) in 1857, Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire’s masterpiece was controversial, of course, but it went way beyond that – beyond the outrage aux bonnes mœurs, this big, bold collection of seething poetry was genuinely terrifying. “Walking through the neighborhoods of Paris, he observed animals rotting in the street, the homeless alcoholics, drug users, or assassins loitering in the gutters. The beggars, the blind, the ragpickers, the skinny old ladies and the young famished prostitutes, all became mediums through which he could convey his changing moods. He turned abstractions like Beauty, Sorrow, Death, the Ideal into existential intimacies.”*
“O grisly trunks! O torsos fit for masquerade!
O wretched bodies, twisted, skinny, fat or splayed,
Which, adamant and calm, the god Utility
Has like children swaddled in a brazen napery!”
(I Revel in the Nudity of Days of Old…)
“You’d take the entire universe to bed with you.
Your soul grows cruel when you’re bored, licentious shrew.
To exercise the teeth for your peculiar sport,
Each day you have to chew on yet another heart.”
(You’d take the entire universe to bed with you…)
“An apprehensive bitch behind a granite slab
Was watching with offended moans,
Waiting the moment when to leap and, with a grab,
Retrieve her morsel from the bones.”
“Others try by being kind
To rule your youthfulness and mind;
I will subjugate by fright!”
“Dull eyes – the sparkle of divinity is dead –
Seem always fixed upon infinity and raised
Toward heaven; earthward they seem never to have gazed
Or bent, compliant, dreamily, a torpid head.”
-Was Sappho, dead the morning of her blasphemy,
When, flouting rubrics of her credo and her pact,
She offered up her body as a savory
To that proud brute whose scorn paid out the impious act
Of Sappho, dead the morning of her blasphemy.”
(Lesbos)[* Anna Balakian, introduction to the 1991 translation by William H. Crosby. The translations are all from the Crosby edition, BOA Editions, Ltd.]
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