Baudelaire and Lesbianism

Le Sommeil

In Le Sommeil, an 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet, two women are depicted lying together in what appears to be post-coital languor. It is thought that Courbet, who was influenced by Baudelaire, may have drawn inspiration from Femmes damnées in the creation of this piece.

In June 1857, Charles Baudelaire published the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal, or The Flowers of Evil, a collection of 100 poems that he had written during the 1840s and 1850s. (1) By this time, Baudelaire had developed a reputation for lurid poetry of questionable content, and the publication of his collection quickly incited outrage. Baudelaire was put on trial for "outrage à la morale publique et aux bonnes moeurs" (outrage to public morality). By August, Baudelaire had been prosecuted, and although the court recognized the literary value of his work, they demanded that he remove six poems from the anthology. (2)

Two of these poems – “Femmes damnées,” or “Women Doomed,” and “Lesbos” – dealt explicitly with the idea of lesbianism, a concept deemed disgusting and taboo by French society and thus neglected in literary works of the time. Although these are just two poems out of one hundred, there are indications that Baudelaire considered the notion of "tribades" (a 19th century term for lesbians) as central to Les Fleurs du mal, as he considered alternative titles for the anthology such as Les Lesbiennes, or The Lesbians.

In “Lesbos,” Baudelaire frankly acknowledges the existence of attraction between females: “The hollow-eyed girls, in love with their own bodies, / Caress the ripe fruits of their nubility;” (3). By modern standards, this brief mention of caresses comes across as relatively innocuous. However, given the taboo on “tribades” that existed at this time in French history, this line must have been perceived as outrageous and was one of the main points of public contention with Les Fleurs du mal.

Despite the apparent progressiveness of Baudelaire’s straightforward presentation of lesbianism, there are indications in “Femmes damnées” of his own moral confusion on the subject. Although the poem begins with fairly graphic descriptions of the sexual closeness of two women, Hippolyte and Delphine, it culminates in five stanzas of harsh ethical critiques, inviting the women to “descend into the deepest abyss” and declaiming the “sterility of [their] delight.” In this way Baudelaire’s treatment of lesbianism, while not voyeuristic, nonetheless retain echoes of the social anxiety surrounding women who were seen as being sexually independent of men.

The complete French versions of “Femmes damnées” and “Lesbos,” as well as several English translations, may be found at fleursdumal.org.

(1) http://fleursdumal.org/1857-table-of-contents

(2) Günther, Renate, and Wendy Michallat. Lesbian Inscriptions in Francophone Society and Culture. Durham, UK: Durham University, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2016.

(3) "FleursDuMal.org." Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs Du Mal. Accessed April 28, 2016. http://fleursdumal.org/.