Self Portrait by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire's
Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil

Le Squelette laboureur


Dans les planches d'anatomie
Qui traînent sur ces quais poudreux
Où maint livre cadavéreux
Dort comme une antique momie,

Dessins auxquels la gravité
Et le savoir d'un vieil artiste,
Bien que le sujet en soit triste,
Ont communiqué la Beauté,

On voit, ce qui rend plus complètes
Ces mystérieuses horreurs,
Bêchant comme des laboureurs,
Des Ecorchés et des Squelettes.


De ce terrain que vous fouillez,
Manants résignés et funèbres
De tout l'effort de vos vertèbres,
Ou de vos muscles dépouillés,

Dites, quelle moisson étrange,
Forçats arrachés au charnier,
Tirez-vous, et de quel fermier
Avez-vous à remplir la grange?

Voulez-vous (d'un destin trop dur
Epouvantable et clair emblème!)
Montrer que dans la fosse même
Le sommeil promis n'est pas sûr;

Qu'envers nous le Néant est traître;
Que tout, même la Mort, nous ment,
Et que sempiternellement
Hélas! il nous faudra peut-être

Dans quelque pays inconnu
Ecorcher la terre revêche
Et pousser une lourde bêche
Sous notre pied sanglant et nu?

Charles Baudelaire

Skeleton with a Spade


In the anatomical plates
That lie about on dusty quais
Where many cadaverous books
Sleep like an ancient mummy,

Engravings to which the staidness
And knowledge of some old artist
Have communicated beauty,
Although the subject is gloomy,

One sees, and it makes more complete
These mysteries full of horror,
Skinless bodies and skeletons,
Spading as if they were farmhands.


From the soil that you excavate,
Resigned, macabre villagers,
From all the effort of your backs,
Or of your muscles stripped of skin,

Tell me, what singular harvest,
Convicts torn from cemeteries,
Do you reap, and of what farmer
Do you have to fill the barn?

Do you wish (clear, frightful symbol
Of too cruel a destiny!)
To show that even in the grave
None is sure of the promised sleep;

That Annihilation betrays us;
That all, even Death, lies to us,
And that forever and ever,
Alas! we shall be forced perhaps

In some unknown country
To scrape the hard and stony ground
And to push a heavy spade in
With our bare and bleeding feet?

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

The Skeleton Navy


Quaint anatomic plates are sold
Along the quays in third-hand stalls
Where tomes cadaverous and old
Slumber like mummies in their palls.

In them the craftsman's skill combines
With expert knowledge in a way
That beautifies these chill designs
Although the subject's far from gay.

One notes that, consummating these
Mysterious horrors, God knows how,
Skeletons and anatomies
Peel off their skins to delve and plough.


Navvies, funereal and resigned,
From the tough ground with which you tussle
With all the effort that can find
Filleted spine or skinless muscle —

O grave-snatched convicts, say what strange
Harvest you hope from such a soil
And who the farmer is whose grange
You would replenish with this toil.

Mean you to show (O evil-starred
Exponents of too stark a doom)
The promised sleep may yet be barred,
Even from us, beyond the tomb;

That even extinction may turn traitor,
And Death itself, can be a lie;
And that perhaps, sooner or later,
Forever, when we come to die,

In some strange country, without wages,
On stubborn outcrops delving holes,
We'll push a shovel through the ages
Beneath our flayed and blinding soles?

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

Skeletons Digging


Among the anatomical plates
Displayed along the dusty quays,
Where many a dead book desiccates
Like an old mummy — among these

Sad diagrams to which the grave
Fantasy and ironic skill
Of some forgotten artist have
Lent a mysterious beauty still,

One sees (for thus mere nerves and bones
Were rendered life-like through his pains)
Digging like laborers, skeletons
And skinless men composed of veins.


Out of that stony soil which ye
Unceasingly upturn, with all
The strength of your stripped vertebrae
And fleshless thews — funereal

Prisoners from the charnel pile! —
What do ye look for? Speak. What strange
Harvest prepare ye all this while?
What lord has bid you load his grange?

Do ye desire, O symbols clear
And frightful of a doom unguessed,
To demonstrate that even there,
In the deep grave, we have no rest —

That we can no more count as friend
Eternity than we can Time,
Death, too, being faithless in the end?
That we shall toil in dust and grime

For ever upon some field of shade,
And harry the stiff sod, and put
Over and over to the spade
A naked and ensanguined foot?

— George Dillon, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

Le Squelette laboureur


in anatomic charts, upon
the parapets of dusty quays,
where coffined volumes lie at peace
like mummies dozing in the sun

— drawings where in the solemn zeal
of dexterous hands long turned to dust,
in things of sadness or disgust
have shown the beauty of the real —

we find — and then these lexicons
of cryptic horror grow complete! —
spading, like farmers, with their feet,
cadavers flayed and skeletons.


say, from the earth ye ransack there,
o patient serfs funereal,
with all your straining backbones, all
the strength of muscles peeled and bare,

tell me, o galley-slaves who moil,
from graves and charnel-houses torn,
whose barn ye hope to fill? what corn
will crown your long mysterious toil?

would ye (a proof in miniature
of some intolerable doom!)
teach us that even in the tomb
our promised sleep is not secure;

that graves, like all things else, are traps,
and nothingness another lie;
and that, although we mortals die,
'twill be our fate at last, perhaps,

in lands of loneliness complete,
to dig some rocky counterscarp,
pushing a heavy spade and sharp
beneath our naked bleeding feet?

— Lewis Piaget Shanks, Flowers of Evil (New York: Ives Washburn, 1931)

The Skeleton Laborer

Written to the flayed and fleshless figures on an
anatomical chart, from the 19th century French.

Out of the earth at which you spade,
Funereal laborers, tired and done,
Out of your straining naked bone,
Out of your muscles bare and frayed,

Tell me, what harvest do you win?
Slaves snatched from the charnel ground,
Who is the farmer drives this round
To fill his barn? And what your sin?

You, the terrible sign we're shown
Of our destiny's greater dearth,
Wish you to say that in the earth
The promised sleep is never known?

That the end has betrayed us here,
That even death himself has lied?
That though eternity betide,
Alas! we have again to fear

That in some unknown land we'll meet
A knotted earth that needs to be flayed —
To drive again the heavy spade
Beneath our bleeding naked feet?

— Yvor Winters, Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1955)


Two editions of Fleurs du mal were published in Baudelaire's lifetime — one in 1857 and an expanded edition in 1861. "Scraps" and censored poems were collected in Les Épaves in 1866. After Baudelaire died the following year, a "definitive" edition appeared in 1868.