Not everyone liked the title. Henry James used it to focus on what he thought were the deficiencies of Baudelaire’s poetry:
‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ was a very happy title for Baudelaire’s verses, but it is not altogether a just one. Scattered flowers incontestably do bloom in the quaking swamps of evil, and the poet who does not mind encountering bad odours in his pursuit of sweet ones is quite at liberty to go in search of them. But Baudelaire has, as a general thing, not plucked the flowers — he has plucked the evil-smelling weeds (we take it that he did not use the word flowers in a purely ironical sense) and he has often taken up mere cupfuls of mud and bog-water. He had said to himself that it was a great shame that the realm of evil and unclean things should be fenced off from the domain of poetry; that it was full of subjects, of chances and effects; that it had its light and shade, its logic and its mystery; and that there was the making of some capital verses in it. So he leaped the barrier and was soon immersed in it up to his neck. Baudelaire’s imagination was of a melancholy and sinister kind, and, to a considerable extent, this plunging into darkness and dirt was doubtless very spontaneous and disinterested. But he strikes us on the whole as passionless, and this, in view of the unquestionable pluck and acuteness of his fancy, is a great pity. He knew evil not by experience, not as something within himself, but by contemplation and curiosity, as something outside of himself, by which his own intellectual agility was not in the least discomposed, rather, indeed (as we say his fancy was of a dusky cast) agreeably flattered and stimulated. In the former case, Baudelaire, with his other gifts, might have been a great poet. But, as it is, evil for him begins outside and not inside, and consists primarily of a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture. This is an almost ludicrously puerile view of the matter. Evil is represented as an affair of blood and carrion and physical sickness — there must be stinking corpses and starving prostitutes and empty laudanum bottles in order that the poet shall be effectively inspired.
A good way to embrace Baudelaire at a glance is to say that he was, in his treatment of evil, exactly what Hawthorne was not — Hawthorne, who felt the thing at its source, deep in the human consciousness. Baudelaire’s infinitely slighter volume of genius apart, he was a sort of Hawthorne reversed. It is the absence of this metaphysical quality in his treatment of his favourite subjects (Poe was his metaphysician, and his devotion sustained him through a translation of ‘Eurekal’) that exposes him to that class of accusations of which M. Edmond Schérer’s accusation of feeding upon pourriture is an example; and, in fact, in his pages we never know with what we are dealing. We encounter an inextricable confusion of sad emotions and vile things, and we are at a loss to know whether the subject pretends to appeal to our conscience or — we were going to say — to our olfactories. ‘Le Mal?’ we excIaim; ‘you do yourself too much honour. This is not Evil; it is not the wrong; it is simply the nasty!’ Our impatience is of the same order as that which we should feel if a poet, pretending to pick ‘the flowers of good’, should come and present us, as specimens, a rhapsody on plumcake and eau du Cologne.
James, Henry: ‘Charles Baudelaire’, The Nation, 27 April 1876, in The Portable Henry James, ed. J Auchard (2004)
Poulet, Georges; Kopp, Robert: Who was Baudelaire? (1969)