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Charles Baudelaire – Three Drafts of a Preface

Flowers of Evil

France is passing through a period of vulgarity. Paris, a center radiating universal stupidity. Despite Moliére and Béranger, no one would ever have believed that France would take to the road of progress at such a rate. Matters of art, terrae incognitae.

     Great men are stupid.
     My book may have done some good; I do not regret that. It may have done harm; I do not rejoice at that.
     The aim of poetry. This book is not made for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters.
     Every sin, every crime I have related has been imputed to me.
     Hatred and contempt as forms of amusement. Elegists are vulgar scum. Et verbum caro factum est. The poet is of no party. Otherwise, he would be a mere mortal.
     The Devil. Original sin. Man as good. If you would, you could be the Tyrant’s favorite; it is more difficult to love God than to believe in Him. On the other hand, it is more difficult for people nowadays to believe in the Devil than to love him. Everyone smells him and no one believes in him. Sublime subtlety of the Devil.
     A soul to my liking. The scene.-Thus, novelty.-The Epigraph.-D’Aurevilly.-Gérard de Nerval.-We are all hanged or hangable.
     I have included a certain amount of filth to please the gentlemen of the press. They have proved ungrateful.



     It is not for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters that this book has been written; nor for the wives, daughters, or sisters of my neigbors. I leave that to those who have some reason to confuse good deeds with fine language.
     I know the passionate lover of fine style exposes himself to the hatred of the masses; but no respect for humanity, no false modesty, no conspiracy, no universal suffrage will ever force me to speak the unspeakable jargon of this age, or to confuse ink with virtue.
      Certain illustrious poets have long since divided among themselves the more flowery provinces of the realm of poetry. I have found it amusing, and the more pleasant because the task was more difficult, to extract beauty from Evil. this book, which is quintessentially useless and absolutely innocent, was written with no other aim than to divert myself and to practice my passionate taste for the difficult.
     Some have told me that these poems might do harm; I have not rejoiced at that. Others, good souls, that they might do good; and that has given me no regret. I was equally surprised at the former’s fear and the latter’s hope, which only served to prove once again that this age has unlearned all the classical notions of literature.
     Despite the encouragement a few celebrated pedants have given to man’s natural stupidity, I should never have believed our country could move with such speed along the road of progress. The world has taken on a thickness of vulgarity that raises a spiritual man’s contempt to the violence of a passion. But there are those happy hides so thick that poison itself could not penetrate them.
     I had intended, at first, to answer numerous other criticisms and at the same time to explain a few quite simple questions that have been totally obscured by modern enlightenment: What is poetry? What is its aim? On the distinction between the Good and the Beautiful; on the Beauty in Evil; that rhythm and rhyme answer is the immortal need in man for monotony, symmetry, and surprise; on adapting style to subject; on the vanity and danger of inspiration, etc., etc.; but this morning I was so rash as to read some of the public newspapers; suddenly an indolence of the weight of twenty atmospheres fell upon me, and I was stopped, faced by the appalling uselessness of explaining anything whatever to anyone. Those who know can divine me, and for those who can not or will not understand, it would be fruitless to pile up explanations


     How the artist, by a prescribed series of exercises, can proportionately increase his originality;
     How poetry is related to music through prosody, whose roots go deeper into the human soul than any classical theory indicates;
     That French poetry possesses a mysterious and unrecognized prosody, like the Latin and English languages;
     Why any poet who does not know exactly how many rhymes each word has is incapable of expressing any idea whatever;
     That the poetic phrase can imitate (and in this, it is like the art of music and the science of mathematics) a horizontal line, an ascending or descending vertical line; that it can rise straight up to heaven without losing its breath, or go perpendicularly to hell with the velocity of any weight; that it can follow a spiral, describe a parabola, or zigzag, making a series of superimposed angles;
     That poetry is like the arts of painting, cooking, and cosmetics in its ability to express every sensation of sweetness or bitterness, beatitude or horror, by coupling a certain noun with a certain adjective, in analogy or contrast;
     How, by relying on my principles and using the knowledge which I guarantee to teach him in twenty lessons, any man can learn to compose a tragedy that will be no more hooted at than another, or line up a poem long enoug to be as dull as any epic known.
     A difficult matter, to rise to that divine callousness! For, despite my most commendable efforts, even I have not been able to resist the desire to please my contemporaries, as witness in several places, laid on like make-up, certain patches of base flattery aimed at democracy, and even a certain amount of filth meant to excuse the dreariness of my subject. But the gentlemen of the press having proved ungrateful for tender attentions of this kind, I have eliminated every trace of both, so far as possible, from this new edition.
     I propose, in order to prove again the excellence of my method, to apply it in the near future to celbrating the pleasures of devotion and the raptures ofr military glory, thoug I have never known either.
     Notes on plagiarisms.-Thomas Gray. Edgar Poe (2 passages). Longfellow (2 passages). Statius. Virgil (the whole of Andromache. Aeschylus. Victor Hugo).



(To be combined perhaps with earlier notes)

     If there is any glory in not being understood, or in being only very slightly so, I may without boasting say that with this little book I have at a single stroke both won and deserved that glory. Submitted several times over to various publishers who rejected it with disgust, put on trial and mutilated in 1857 as a result of a quite bizarre misapprehension, then gradually revived, augmented, and fortified during several years’ silence, only to disappear again thanks to my losing interest, this discordant product of the Muse of modern times, again enlivened with a few violent new touches, dares today for the third time to face the sun of stupidity.
     This is not my fault, but that of an insistent publisher who thinks he is strong enoug to brave the public distaste. “This book will remain a stain on your whole life,” one of my friends, a great poet, predicted from the beginning. And indeed all my misadventures have so far justified him. But I have one of those happy characters that enjoy hatred and feel glorified by contempt. My diabolically passionate taste for stupidity makes me take peculiar pleasure in the falsifications of calumny. Being as chaste as paper, as sober as water, as devout as a woman at communion, as harmless as a sacrificial lamb, it would not displease me to be taken for a debauchee, a drunkard, an infidel, a murderer. My publisher insists that it might be of some use, to me and to him, to explain why and how I have written this book, what were my means and aim, my plan and method. Such a critical task might well have the luck to interest those minds that love profound rhetoric. For those I shall perhaps write it later on and have it printed in ten copies. But, on second thougt, doesn’t it seem obvious that this would be a quite superfluous undertaking for everyone concerned since those are the minds that already know or guess and the rest will never understand? I have too much fear of being ridiculous to wish to breathe into the mass of humanity the understanding of an art object; in doing so, I shoul fear to resemble those Utopians who by decree wish to make all Frenchmen rich and virtuous at a single stroke. And moreover, my best, my supreme reason is that it annoys and bores me. Do we invite the crowd, the audience, behind the scenes, into the workshops of the costume and scene designers; into the actress’s dressingroom? Do we show the public (enthusiastic today, tomorrow indifferent) the mechanism behind our effects? Do we explain to them the revisions, the improvisations adopted in rehearsal, and even to what extent instinct and sincerity are mixed with artifice and charlatanry, all indispensable to the amalgram that is the work itself? Do we display all the rags, the rouge, the pulleys, the chains, the alterations, the scribbled-over proof sheets, in short all the horrors that make up the sanctuary of art?
     In any case, such is not my mood today. I have no desire either to demonstrate, to astonish, to amuse, or to persuade. I have my nerves and my vertigo. I aspire to absolute rest and continuous night. Though I have sung the mad pleasures of wine and opium, I thirst only for a liquor unknown on earth, which the pharmaceutics of heaven itself could not afford me; a liquor that contains neither vitality nor death, neither excitation nor extinction. To know nothing, to teach nothing, to will nothing, to feel nothing, to sleep and still to sleep, this today is my only wish. A base and loathsome wish, but sincere.
     Nevertheless, since the best of taste teaches us not to fear contradicting ourselves a bit, I have collected at the end of this abominable book certain testimonials of sympathy from a few of the men I prize most, so that an impartial reader may infer from them that I am not absolutely deserving of excommunication, and that since I have managed to make myself loved of some, my heart, whatever a certain printed rag may have said of it, is perhaps not “as frightfully hideous as my face.”
     Finally, the uncommon generosity which those gentlemen, the critics…
     Since ignorance is increasing…
     I take it on myself to denounce imitations…


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