Brian Nelson reviews 'Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du mal' by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jan Owen

Brian Nelson reviews 'Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du mal' by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jan Owen

Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du mal

by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jan Owen

Arc Publications, £13.49 hb, 189 pp, 9781908376411

The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal, 1857) is the most celebrated and most influential collection of verse in the history of modern French poetry. Its author, Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), is seen as the embodiment of a sensibility we regard as 'modern'. T.S. Eliot called him 'the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language'.

Baudelaire's modernism is based on the experience of city life. The spectacular transformation of Paris by Baron Haussmann during Napoleon III's Second Empire (1852–70) not only reshaped the city physically but also broke down or blurred boundaries of every kind – cultural, social, perceptual. The dramatically new patterns of urban life dislocated and fragmented traditional relationships and frames of reference. Many people felt they had lost Paris and were dwelling in someone else's city.

Baudelaire called for a new aesthetic to match the challenges of 'modernity'. A new mode of representation was needed, he wrote, to match a new mode of perception. The exemplary artist would capture the thrill of the new – the speed and flux, the dizzy sense of change, that characterised modernity. Modern beauty, he wrote, lay not in the untouched scenes of nature prized by the Romantics, nor in the timeless themes of the classical tradition, but in the artificial creations of city life. Indeed, the city, being man-made, represented art itself.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson is Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University. He is a past President of AALITRA (the Australian Association for Literary Translation), and the author or editor of twelve books on aspects of modern French and European culture, including The Cambridge Companion to Emile Zola (2007). In addition, he has translated and edited Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, Pot Luck, The Kill, The Belly of Paris, and The Fortune of the Rougons for Oxford World's Classics. He was awarded the 2015 NSW Premier's Prize for Translation. His latest publication is The Cambridge Introduction to French Literature (2015).

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.