12 October 2016, The Tablet

Found in translation

by Ian Thomson


The Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire, an egregious bad boy of nineteenth-century French letters, was the son of an ex-Catholic priest and accordingly enriched by a symbolism of ritual and penitence. His first and most famous poetry collection, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), exalts in hashish consumption and vinous night-crawling round his native Paris. A sense of damnation almost lifts from the page but in Catholicism Baudelaire had found a melodrama – an atmosphere of good and evil – that served him well as a poet. He was really a Catholic writer in Satan’s employ; his secular religion was tainted by a kind of Jansenist belief in original sin.

Anthony Mortimer’s new translation of The Flowers of Evil is alert to the whiff of incense and the glimpse of monstrance. In “St Peter’s Denial”, Baudelaire considers the disciple’s repudiation of Christ (“Jesus, recall the Agony in the Garden!”), while another poem, “Abel and Cain”, recasts the Old Testament fratricide as a symbolic war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

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