The Flask/Le Flacon: A Poem by Charles Baudelaire, Disreputable Man of Genius

In his 1919 introduction to The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire, which includes “The Flask,” James Huneker laments how in our modern era we attempt to rationalize the behavior of our dissolute favorites. Disheartened, he cries, “Spare us our dear, old-fashioned, disreputable men of genius!”

But as he goes on to tell us, Charles Baudelaire has not been subjected to such unseemly resurrections. We have received intact the legend of Baudelaire: “the atrabilious, irritable poet, dandy, maniac, his hair dyed green, spouting blasphemies; that grim, despairing image of a diabolic, a libertine, saint, and drunkard.” Huneker assures us that, although Maxime du Camp had much to do with the creation of this legend, Baudelaire himself was at least partly responsible for his disreputable image: ” In the history of literature it is difficult to parallel such a deliberate piece of self-stultification.” Perhaps this is why Baudelaire seems never to be uncool. He comes to us as a man who, if he were to walk into our dark and seedy bars of today, might be expected still to delight and offend in equal measure.

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, by Emile Deroy, 1844. Seated askew looking straight at viewer. Resting wearing all black with a white create. And a white sleeve at wrist.

“Le Flacon” is sometimes translated as “The Perfume Flask.” It was one of the poems censored from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, according to FleursduMal.org, a wonderful site where you can read the original next to several translations of this poem and others of the infamous Flowers of Evil.

Perhaps it is the bleak irreverence of “The Flask” that made Baudelaire’s contemporaries nervous enough to censor it. This poem seems to be about the traumatic powers of scent. As we discussed in Digging into the Creepy Smells of Blood, Death, & Darkness, we tend to talk about the sentimental and nostalgic power of scent less than about the way in which a smell can disquiet or alarm. The forgotten flask of ghostly perfume seems to catch the speaker up short with its visceral reminder of death, decay, and unavoidable mortality. If the fragrant spirits that it once contained are likened to the soul, then, Baudelaire seems to suggest, all that is left of us after we die is an empty vessel, our carcass like a forgotten bit of glass, which, if we are lucky, exudes remnants of a not-quite forgotten love. Below is the 1919 translation from The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire, followed by the original French from Les Fleurs du Mal.

THE FLASK

There are some powerful odours that can pass
Out of the stoppered flagon; even glass
To them is porous. Oft when some old box
Brought from the East is opened and the locks
And hinges creak and cry; or in a press
In some deserted house, where the sharp stress
Of odours old and dusty fills the brain;
An ancient flask is brought to light again,
And forth the ghosts of long-dead odours creep.
There, softly trembling in the shadows, sleep
A thousand thoughts, funereal chrysalides,
Phantoms of old the folding darkness hides,
Who make faint flutterings as their wings unfold,
Rose-washed and azure-tinted, shot with gold.
A memory that brings languor flutters here:
The fainting eyelids droop, and giddy Fear
Thrusts with both hands the soul towards the pit
Where, like a Lazarus from his winding-sheet,
Arises from the gulf of sleep a ghost
Of an old passion, long since loved and lost.
So I, when vanished from man’s memory
Deep in some dark and sombre chest I lie.
An empty flagon they have cast aside,
Broken and soiled, the dust upon my pride,
Will be your shroud, beloved pestilence!
The witness of your might and virulence,
Sweet poison mixed by angels; bitter cup
Of life and death my heart has drunken up!

"Blue colored flacon de poche": a black and white photograph of a late 17th/early 18th century perfume flask from a collection at the Met Museum.

LE FLACON

Il 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 tes 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;
Il 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 cœur!