Baudelaire’s banned poems 1

January 16, 2010 at 9:53 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

I’ve just realised that back when I started up this blog I promised to discuss Charles Baudelaire in more detail, and I never did. Well, now it’s about time to start making it up to my favourite tortured poet, and what better way to go about it than by discussing his condemned poems, banned from the early editions of Les Fleurs du Mal? This post is going to focus on Lethe, a poem which was in all probability inspired by Baudelaire’s most prolific mistress, Jeanne Duvall, his ‘black Venus’.


Come to my heart, you tiger I adore.

You sullen monster, cruel and speechless spirit;

Into the thickness of your heavy mane

I want to plunge my trembling fingers’ grip.


I want to hide the throbbing of my head

In your perfume, under those petticoats,

And breathe the musty scent of our old love,

The fading fragrance of the dying rose.


I want to sleep! to sleep and not to live!

And in sleep as sweet as death, to dream

Of spreading out my kisses without shame

On your smooth body, bright with copper sheen.


If I would swallow down my softened sobs

It must be in your bed’s profound abyss-

Forgetfulness is moistening your breath,

Lethe itself runs smoothly in your kiss.


My destiny, from now on my delight,

Is to obey as one who has been sent

To guiltless martyrdom, when all the while

His passion fans the flames of his torment.


My lips will suck the cure for bitterness:

Oblivion, nepenthe has its start

In the bewitching teats of those hard breasts,

That never have been harbour of the heart.

Translated by James McGowan

picture of duval

Duval, drawn by Baudelaire

So what do you think of it? I could never quite understand the reasoning behind the banning – as far as I can see, the poems which were condemned are no more ‘corrupting’ than the ones that were left. For example, ‘Litanies of Satan’ was, as far as I’m aware, never banned. And you can’t get much more corrupt than  a prayer to Beelzebub himself. I suppose it just goes to show how idiotic these moral police were. More banned Baudelaire is coming soon. Also, I’ve posted a link in my blog roll on the right to a site where you can listen to Baudelaire’s poems being read in the original French, which is well worth checking out.



  1. melmoth said,

    A wonderfully intoxicating and sensual poem. Scary to think the banned poems were not reinstated in France until 1949. I suppose after WWII the hypocrisy of such a ban became untenable.

    • Decadent Handbook said,

      I think you’re right there. It is shocking how long the literature police were active though. As far as I can tell from looking at the poems that were condemned, it was purely based on sexual content. Other poems which contain references to Satanism or fairly graphic violence seem to have been left alone. It’s quite worrying that they thought that sex was morally corrupt, but violence and devil worship were okay!

  2. kseverny said,

    wow. beautiful; expressions

  3. Katie said,

    Léthé is absolutely one of my favourite Baudelaire poems. So sensual and beautiful… And sexy! I’d never be able to refuse a man/woman who repeated those lines to me, that’s for sure! This translation isn’t the best, however. I much prefer George Dillon’s. Even though he takes a few liberties with the language, I think his translation better captures the grandiloquence and sensuous mood of the poem.

    • Decadent Handbook said,

      I’ve heard that Dillon’s version is really good. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get hold of it yet. I’m using the dual text Oxford Classics version – good for improving my French, but I would like a translation that captures the essence of the original more accurately.

      • Decadent Handbook said,

        It’s quite possible – mixed-race relationships weren’t exactly looked on positively back then. From looking at the other banned poems, though, it seems that they just didn’t like it when Baudelaire discussed sex with anyone. Either way, they were stupid. I hate the literature police!

      • Katie said, has multiple translations of every one of Baudelaire’s verse poems.

      • Decadent Handbook said,

        Ooh, thank you! I’ll have to add that to my blog roll.

  4. Liam said,

    Was race a factor?

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