Literary Daybook, June 25

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 25, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 25, Rosemary has her baby.
-- "Rosemary's Baby" (1967)
by Ira Levin

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1857, Charles Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" was published. Critics now regard it as the most important and influential collection of poetry to come out of the 19th century, and an essential bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but contemporary newspapers like Figaro would have no part of it:

"Never in the space of so few pages have I seen so many breasts bitten, nay even chewed; never did I see such a procession of devils, of foetus, of demons, of cats, and vermin. The book is a hospital full of all the insanities of the human mind, of all the putresence of the human heart; if only this were done to cure them it would be permissible, but they are incurable."

This sort of reaction soon had the watchdogs in the public safety office on the case, eager to win back whatever moral ground had been lost through the acquittal of Flaubert at the Madame Bovary trial earlier in the year. Baudelaire thought his poems to be a shock, and surely knew his title to be a red flag; on the other hand, he had sent presentation copies to such establishment poets as Longfellow and Tennyson, and felt that, in any case, the government had better things to do than "prosecute a lunatic." When news leaked otherwise, he tried to alert his publisher -- "Quick, hide the whole edition, and hide it well" -- and to rally whatever influence he could to stop the preliminary investigation from becoming a full-blown trial. This he could not do, and 13 of his 100 poems were cited for being "in contempt of the laws which safeguard religion and morality." The trial brought notoriety to a lifestyle already headed that way, and a conviction on the morals charge (not the charge of irreligion), which required that six poems be excised from the first edition. Baudelaire's poems are notoriously difficult to translate -- Norman Shapiro's 1998 edition is highly praised -- but the titles of some of the sinful six begin to convey the objections raised in court: "Lethe," "Les Femmes Damnees," "Les Bijoux," "A Celle qui est trop Gaie," "Lesbos" and "Les Metamorphoses du Vampire."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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