The Scents of Les Fleurs du Mal

During his lecture presented at The Perfumative conference, Dr. Martin Jaeggi called Charles Baudelaire a poet-perfumer for his ability to create scent accords: musk and tobacco, rose and amber, musk and ambergris, benzoin and frankincense, coconut oil and tar, etc.

Les Fleurs du Mal was first published in 1857, and it immediately caused a scandal. Some of the poems were deemed so outrageous to public decency that Baudelaire was tried and fined. Baudelaire managed to publish the poems in a separate volume titled Les Épaves (Scraps) during his sojourn in Brussels, but in France, the ban wasn’t lifted until 1949. Baudelaire wasn’t grateful to the Belgian laid-back attitude and penned a number of diatribes against his adopted residence and its denizens.

I picked up Les Fleurs du Mal this summer, and it was the first time I had read Baudelaire’s poetry since my university days. I don’t have unqualified admiration for his philosophy. Far from it. But the musicality and rich imagery of his poetry is seductive, and I found myself reciting the verses out loud and savoring their complexity. At some point, I began to associate scents and colors with every poem, since Baudelaire doesn’t spare sensory impressions.

So, I agree with Dr. Jaeggi that he is a poet with a perfumer’s sensibility. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, Le Flacon (The Flask). What do you smell when you read it?

The Flask

Perfumes there are which through all things can pass
And make all matter porous, even glass;
Old coffers from the Orient brought, whose locks
Grind sullenly when opening the box,

Or, in an empty house, some ancient chest,
Where time and dust and gloom were long compressed,
May yield a flask where memory survives,
And a soul flashes into future lives.

A thousand thoughts, funereal larvae, laid
Shuddering softly under palls of shade,
May suddenly their soaring wings unfold,
Stained azure, glazed with rose, or filmed with gold.

Intoxicating memory now flies
Into the dusk, and makes us close our eyes:
Vertigo draws the spirit which it grips
Towards some dark miasma of eclipse:

Beside an ancient pit he makes her fall,
Where Lazarus, sweet-scented, tears his pall
And wakes the spectral corpse of some now-cold,
Rancid, sepulchral love he knew of old.

So when I’m lost to human memory, thrown
In some old gloomy chest to fie alone,
A poor decrepit flask, cracked, abject, crusty
With dirt, opaque and sticky, damp and dusty,

I’ll be your pall and shroud, beloved pest!
The witness of your venom, and its test,
Dear poison, angel-brewed with deadly art —
Life, death, and dear corrosion of my heart.

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

Le Flacon

II est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu’ils pénètrent le verre.
En ouvrant un coffret venu de l’Orient
Dont la serrure grince et rechigne en criant,

Ou dans une maison déserte quelque armoire
Pleine de l’âcre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noire,
Parfois on trouve un vieux flacon qui se souvient,
D’où jaillit toute vive une âme qui revient.

Mille pensers dormaient, chrysalides funèbres,
Frémissant doucement dans les lourdes ténèbres,
Qui dégagent leur aile et prennent leur essor,
Teintés d’azur, glacés de rose, lamés d’or.

Voilà le souvenir enivrant qui voltige
Dans l’air troublé; les yeux se ferment; le Vertige
Saisit l’âme vaincue et la pousse à deux mains
Vers un gouffre obscurci de miasmes humains;

II la terrasse au bord d’un gouffre séculaire,
Où, Lazare odorant déchirant son suaire,
Se meut dans son réveil le cadavre spectral
D’un vieil amour ranci, charmant et sépulcral.

Ainsi, quand je serai perdu dans la mémoire
Des hommes, dans le coin d’une sinistre armoire
Quand on m’aura jeté, vieux flacon désolé,
Décrépit, poudreux, sale, abject, visqueux, fêlé,

Je serai ton cercueil, aimable pestilence!
Le témoin de ta force et de ta virulence,
Cher poison préparé par les anges! liqueur
Qui me ronge, ô la vie et la mort de mon coeur!

— Charles Baudelaire

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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21 Comments

  • Muriel: Hello, this is a very interesting exercise…linking smells to a poem. I read it quite a few times and now I smell peat and rose (a bright yellow one)… I’m very curious to read the other comments!! November 30, 2018 at 8:17am Reply

    • Muriel: To carry on with my first impressions of dirt, decay, peat combined with a beautiful smell of love,which I imagined as a bright rose, I thought of one of Annick Menardo ‘s perfume, but could not remember the name and now I have it: it is Peau d’Ailleurs… which I remember as being very earthy at first, moving to something “celestial” which could also be a smell for love…?? December 1, 2018 at 4:42pm Reply

  • Matty: A very interesting concept. I’ve never really thought about it before. November 30, 2018 at 9:08am Reply

  • Kisa: And one of my favorite from Petits Poèmes en Prose:

    Le Chien et le Flacon

    « — Mon beau chien, mon bon chien, mon cher toutou, approchez et venez respirer un excellent parfum acheté chez le meilleur parfumeur de la ville. »
    Et le chien, en frétillant de la queue, ce qui est, je crois, chez ces pauvres êtres, le signe correspondant du rire et du sourire, s’approche et pose curieusement son nez humide sur le flacon débouché ; puis, reculant soudainement avec effroi, il aboie contre moi en manière de reproche.
    « — Ah ! misérable chien, si je vous avais offert un paquet d’excréments, vous l’auriez flairé avec délices et peut-être dévoré. Ainsi, vous-même, indigne compagnon de ma triste vie, vous ressemblez au public, à qui il ne faut jamais présenter des parfums délicats qui l’exaspèrent, mais des ordures soigneusement choisies. » November 30, 2018 at 9:12am Reply

    • Tara C: Interestingly, every time I put on perfume, my dog comes to me and delicately sniffs my arm, as if she is analyzing the smell. She sniffs thoughtfully then walks away. I’m not sure if she is enjoying it or just curious. She’s obviously not repelled by it. I’d love to know what she’s thinking. November 30, 2018 at 11:52am Reply

      • Kisa: They are always a puzzle to us. So close and yet so alien. 😉 November 30, 2018 at 11:55am Reply

  • Marie hobbins: It reminds of the old perfume bottles the used to put perfume in and that the magic of the perfume has been lost because it needs to be worn by the person who has passed to give its full fragrance. Thank you for all your blogs November 30, 2018 at 10:06am Reply

  • Tara C: I smell an old vintage perfume, dark liquid practically dried up in the bottle, something like Djedi. November 30, 2018 at 11:56am Reply

  • Alicia: I teach Les Fleurs… nearly every year. Baudelaire changed Western poetry forever. I admire the poet immensely, but I deplore the man. My favorite poem as a fragantic journey is “La chevelure.” November 30, 2018 at 11:58am Reply

  • Filomena: I smell a dark rose oud perfume. November 30, 2018 at 12:50pm Reply

  • Sandra: Thank you for all of this! November 30, 2018 at 1:08pm Reply

  • Sheila in SF: Very interesting! I liked it…my first introduction to his writing. Yes, some smells come thru–the musty. November 30, 2018 at 2:27pm Reply

  • Sheila in SF: Very interesting! I liked it…my first introduction to his writing. Yes, some smells come thru–the dampness. November 30, 2018 at 2:31pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I somehow smell: Mitsouko! November 30, 2018 at 4:14pm Reply

    • Lily: That was the one that came to my mind too! November 30, 2018 at 6:02pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Strange though, isn’t it? I rather like Mitsouko and used to wear the vintage daily. The poem however, with its E. A. Poe like atmosphere, reminds me of William Blakes drawings, rather spooky and sombre. Not very nice, and actually an insult to the Guerlain perfume! And yet— December 1, 2018 at 2:58am Reply

        • Silvermoon: I agree, the poem has a very Poe like atmosphere. Yet, the sombre mood is lifted with a sweet scent. Two types of perfume come to mind: in the first part, I thought a rose oud seemed right (maybe Jo Malone Velvet Rose and Oud) and then the second half of the poem suggested something ambery (maybe Montale’s Blue Amber or even SL Ambre Sultan). Not sure why I sense this change in mood/perfume.

          Either way an intriguing exercise. Thanks Victoria. December 1, 2018 at 5:40pm Reply

  • Potimarron: I’ve never read any Baudelaire, but might have to give it a try now. Are there any particular translations you’d recommend (while I’d love to read it in the original French, I think I might understand more on translation)?

    When reading the translation, I think of something woody, a bit dusty and musty around the edges, but with something to lift it (something in my brain is suggesting lavender). Maybe some indole, too.

    I wonder whether my imagined perfume would actually be remotely pleasant in real life (although I’m not sure that pleasant is what he’s going for here). December 1, 2018 at 1:21am Reply

  • eudora: thanks for sharing Victoria, I found all the topics of the event very interesting, all of them. Really curious about the Japanese perfum. Looking forward to read about it. December 3, 2018 at 7:42am Reply

  • Aurora: I’ve enjoyed this post with this beautiful poem, Baudelaire is a favorite, Le Flacon makes me think of Relique d’Amour. December 4, 2018 at 8:28am Reply

  • Danaki: This makes me think of vintage Balmain Jolie Madame. December 5, 2018 at 9:07am Reply

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