Why we should read To the Reader (from Fleurs du Mal) by Charles Baudelaire

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.

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