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.”