Baudelaire’s first book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (“Flowers of Evil”), was published in 1857 when the poet was 36. Six of the poems, some of which have already been translated here by Lasha Darkmoon, were immediately banned as obscene. Au Lecteur stood as the book’s preface, containing some of the most quotable lines in French literature.
Victor Hugo was to enthuse, “Your fleurs du mal shine and dazzle like stars. I applaud your vigorous spirit!” Others were not so impressed. “Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible,” the poetry critic of Le Figaro wrote angrily. “And everything one understands is putrid”.
Au Lecteur ~ To the Reader
Translated by Lasha Darkmoon
Folly, error, sin, meanness of spirit,
Possess us and consume us body and soul.
We love to make a meal of our remorse
As beggars nurse the lice that drink their blood.
We keep on sinning. Repentance is hard.
We expect a fat reward when we confess.
And then it’s back to wallowing in the mire—
Hoping a tear or two will wash us clean!
Satan Trismegist sits perched on our pillow
Pouring his honeyed words into our ear.
This cunning alchemist knows how to turn
The pure gold of our wills into base metal!
It is the devil pulls our puppet strings,
Propelling us to vile and shameful deeds.
Each day we slip down heedlessly to hell—
Into the fetid darkness one step further!
Like a poor lecher feasting on the breasts
Of a ravaged and rickety old whore,
We grab at any secret passing pleasure,
Squeezing it dry like a shrivelled orange.
Seething in our minds like millions of maggots,
Legions of pullulating demons swarm.
We only have to breathe and death’s sad river
Invisible, chugs through our muffled lungs.
If rape, murder, arson, have yet to leave
Their charming traces on our sorry lives,
Our grim pathetic lives, it is because
We haven’t got the guts to rape and kill!
But among the jackals, panthers, hound bitches,
Monkeys, scorpions, vultures, serpents and all
Those yelping, yowling, crying, crawling creatures
In the menagerie of our foul vices
There’s one much fouler, uglier, far more evil!
He doesn’t cry out loud or make grand gestures,
But if he wanted he could squash the world
And swallow up creation in a yawn.
Ennui—that’s his name! This rheumy-eyed monster
Dreams of the gallows as he puffs his pipe!
You know this brute, this dainty beast, dear reader!
It’s you, you hypocrite!—my like!—my brother!