Thesis: Charles Baudelaire expanded subject matter and vocabulary in French poetry, writing about topics previously considered taboo and using language considered too coarse for poetry. Analyzing To the Reader makes a case for why Baudelaire’s subject matter and language choice belong in poetry.
Any work of art that attracts controversy is also likely to be interesting. This can certainly be said of Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs Du Mal (Flowers of Evil), of which Au Lecteur (To the Reader) serves as a preface. There are many reasons why I would recommend Au Lecteur to you. The utilization of sharp sensory imagery, deliberation of topics considered taboo and a freestyle choice of vocabulary are major attractions in the poem. But instead of detracting from the value of poetry, these facets of his art only enhance its appeal. Through the rest of the letter I hope to convince you of this, my friend.
Having known you for many years now, I know that you are not averse to eroticism. Erotic literature usually gets a bad rap and is looked upon as vulgar by prudish intellectuals. But I would like to point to you that literature of every language has a rich erotic tradition – some of which is even accepted as part of the mainstream. To the Reader and Flowers of Evil certainly belong to this category of canonized literary works. Though it was censured and had provoked sharp reactions at the time of its publication, it has withstood the test of time. It was taboo in 19th century France to talk openly of sex and gore. I am sure you will understand, my friend, that in the evolved 21st century cultural sensibilities that you live in, you would hardly find anything shocking in the text. But Baudelaire was a pioneer and led the way for generations of poets to explore erstwhile taboo subjects. It is all the more admirable that he also brought artistic grace and intellectual rigor to the work.
At the time of Flowers of Evil’s publication, critics condemned it for breaking the rules and decorum of poetic discourse. But today, after a century and a half of its existence, the question is no longer whether Baudelaire’s work belongs to poetry, but how much he helped redefine the idea of poetry. To the Reader, for instance, is quite rightly referred to as the ‘poetry of the abyss’, in that it talks about human experience, not at its noblest, but at its most fallible. This focus on the abyss is by no means frivolous or lacking philosophical merit. However, once you come to grips with the explicit and somewhat shocking verbalization of Flowers of Evil, you will see a profound inquiry into the nature of human weakness. For example, the poem boldly delves into the heart of darkness:
“Folly, depravity, greed, mortal sin
Invade our souls and rack our flesh; we feed
Our gentle guilt, gracious regrets, that breed
Like vermin glutting on foul beggars’ skin.”
As you can clearly see, the poem sets for itself a very broad subject matter. To the Reader can be seen as an announcement for what is in store in the rest of Flowers of Evil. Baudelaire touches upon the common human malaise of ennui or boredom in the poem. He suggests that boredom is the root cause for evil tendencies in humans. Concurring with the famous saying that ‘an idle mind is a devil’s workshop’, Baudelaire’s view is rather sympathetic. He reckons that if all our energies are creatively engaged in activities that we love to do, then instances of evil behavior would automatically reduce. Interestingly, this finds resonance with modern sociological theories on crime, whereby it is seen to be caused by failings of social structures, including the family, schools, government, etc. For example, “Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams/ Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.” It is in this context that Baudelaire implies that boredom is the worst of all evils. For interesting perspectives such as this, I would say that the time you spend reading the poem is well worth it.
I have to caution you though that the subject matter of the poem can seem coarse if you are uninitiated. Across generations, conservative critics have attacked the work on moral grounds, claiming that themes of incest, sadism, death and decay are too abhorrent to be part of civil discourse. But the question is, aren’t these vices intrinsic to human nature. I believe that in order to tackle these pressing and persistent issues of society, a deep understanding of them is necessary. I hope you agree with my point of view. By dissecting the anatomy of sin and decadence threadbare, the poem is a sociological project much before the discipline came into existence. Far from deviating from the purpose and proper application of the poetic form, Baudelaire’s work is an epitome of the poetic form. It possesses all the qualities required of good poetry – be it subject matter, technique or style. So this is another incentive for you to read the poem.
Another reason why I recommend this poem to you is that it sets a template for the unique Baudelairean style. Readers not acquainted with Baudelaire’s technical prowess as well as recurrent themes would find a snapshot of both in To the Reader. Serving the role of a preface to the poetry collected under Flowers of Evil, the poem indicates the main preoccupations in the poet’s mind. One such is religion, or more particularly, a skeptical attitude toward it. I know that you are an agnostic and do not pay much attention to theology. Yet, I think you will enjoy reading this poem because it is not a sermon or a gospel on religious virtue. To the contrary, it makes a critical comment on the Christian understanding of sin. Baudelaire’s point of view is not an endorsement for the Christian view of sex. To the contrary, his tone is empathic toward the human tendency to succumb to lust. Baudelaire does not condemn lust as other morally concerned poets might have done. Instead he suggests that such is the human condition whether we approve of it or not. Baudelaire was a pioneer in treating such sensitive and controversial themes as lust. By treating such fundamental aspects of human nature To the Reader very much belongs in poetry. This is a strong reason for you to read the poem.