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Baudelaire's poem "Femmes damnées" / "Damned Women" contains the following lines (fifth stanza):

Et d'autres, dont la gorge aime les scapulaires,

Qui, recélant un fouet sous leurs longs vêtements,

Mêlent, dans le bois sombre et les nuits solitaires,

L'écume du plaisir aux larmes des tourments.

In English:

And others, whose breasts love the feel of scapulars,

Who, concealing a whip under their long habits,

Mingle, in the dark woods and solitary nights,

The froth of pleasure with tears of torment.

I can understand the last two verses, but I don't understand the first two. Are these women in some kind of cult? Are they sadomasochistic nuns? Is it symbolical?

Could anyone explain this to me?

  • 1
    Didn't some religious people use to scourge themselves? See flagellants. And sado-masochism is clearly being referenced. – Peter Shor Oct 8 '17 at 18:14
  • Baudelaire has two poems with this title--Femmes damnées and Femmes Damnées (Delphine et Hippolyte). The second poem should shed some light on possible meanings of the first poem. – DukeZhou Oct 12 '17 at 18:41
  • Short answer might be that Delphine et Hippolyte deals with "forbidden love" (lesbianism), and forbidden love is a special kind of torment. Love has religious connotations, and the religious symbolism--nuns, scapulars, self-flagellation--are likely being used to reinforce the idea of torment. – DukeZhou Oct 12 '17 at 18:58
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Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal contained two poems with almost identical titles: "Femmes Damnées (Delphine et Hippolyte)" and "Femmes damnées". When Baudelaire and his publisher were prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy in 1857 (by the same lawyer who had prosecuted Flaubert), six poems were to be removed from Les Fleurs du mal, including "Femmes Damnées (Delphine et Hippolyte)" but not "Femmes damnées". (These poems were not allowed to be published in France until 1949, so they were printed abroad, for example in the volume Les Épaves, published in Belgium in 1866.)

The court did not find any obsene or immoral passages or expressions in "Femmes Damnées". In stanzas 2-5, the poet describes four categories of women, which the sixth stanza describes as "searchers of the infinite". The fourth category (fifth stanza) wear a scapular under their clothes. The scapular is meant to be worn so that one of the patches rests on the chest and the other on the back. Apparently, these women also practice self-flagellation, which is usually a form of penance or purification, but in this case causes both pleasure and pain.

Based on this, the women in the fifth stanza are not nuns, or the court in 1857 did not interpret the poem in this way. Apparently, the court did not interpret scapular as the "monastic scapular", since that is an outer garment worn over a tunic and that would therefore not touch the skin.

Sources (other than those already linked above):

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