Charles Pierre Baudelaire

The French author Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867) was the poet of the modern metropolis and was one of the first great French precursors of the symbolists. He has also been recognized as one of the 19th century's finest art critics and translators.

Charles Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris. His father, Joseph François Baudelaire, had been a friend of the philosophers C. A. Helvétius and A. N. de Condorcet and tutor to the young sons of the Duc de Choiseul Praslin. His mother, Caroline Archimbaut-Dufays Baudelaire, was born in London in exile in 1793 and died at Honfleur in 1871. In February 1827, when Baudelaire was not yet 6, his father's death led to a period of very close intimacy with his mother, for whom the boy felt a passionate love. Her remarriage near the end of the following year to the handsome officer Jacques Aupick must have seemed to her son a cruel betrayal. Baudelaire's stepfather, a capable and resolute man, rose to the rank of general, was named minister to Turkey in 1848 and ambassador to Spain in 1851, and in 1853 became a senator. But his nature was different from Baudelaire's, and he took a very dim view of his stepson's desire to be a poet.

Baudelaire was expelled from the Lycée Louis le Grand in 1839 before receiving his baccalaureate degree, but he managed to obtain it later that year. He registered for legal studies in Paris and for a time led a dissipated, bohemian existence in the Latin Quarter, where he probably contracted syphilis, which later caused his death. He may also have begun taking opium and hashish during these years. In 1841 his worried parents arranged a sea voyage to India to draw the young poet out of his dissolute environment. His ship sailed from Bordeaux but was damaged in a storm, and Baudelaire apparently went no farther than the island of Mauritius, to the east of Madagascar. He returned home, however, with ineffaceable memories of exotic lands and seas.

When he was 21, Baudelaire inherited a modest fortune from his father's estate, but his extravagance soon led to the appointment of a legal guardian whose conscientious control of his finances drove the poet nearly to despair. A long affair with a multiracial woman who called herself Jeanne Duval added to his suffering, though she seems to have been the person, along with his mother, whom Baudelaire loved most in life. She was his "Black Venus" and the inspiration for some of his most beautiful and most despairing poems. Other women frequently celebrated in his verses were the voluptuous Madame Sabatier ("la Présidente") and green-eyed Marie Daubrun.

Baudelaire's significant early publications were two essays of art criticism (Le Salon de 1845 and Le Salon de 1846) and two volumes of translations from the tales of Poe in 1856 and 1857. At the end of June 1857 appeared Les Fleurs du mal, his greatest work, for which Baudelaire was tried for offenses against religion and public decency. He was found guilty of the second charge and sentenced to pay a fine of 300 francs and to remove six poems from his collection.

As the years passed, ill health and financial problems added to Baudelaire's miseries. In 1864 he went to Belgium to deliver a series of lectures that ended in dismal failure. He suffered further terrifying attacks of illness, and he began to pray—" to set out his sentinels for the night." In the midst of all this unhappiness he learned that Jeanne Duval might be going blind. Finally, in March 1866, he fell while visiting a church at Namur, Belgium, with friends. A few days later he was found dazed in a café and taken home, where he was later discovered paralyzed and aphasic. In July 1866 he was brought back to Paris and placed in a rest home. He died in his mother's arms on Aug. 31, 1867, and was buried 2 days later in the family vault in Montparnasse Cemetery, where a somber monument was unveiled to his memory in 1902.


Les Fleurs du mal

Baudelaire's most famous work is his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal, whose title means both "Flowers of Evil" and "Flowers of Suffering." Baudelaire believed that original sin pervades man's world, and a sense of theological evil looms over his thought like a cloud. But he proclaimed suffering "a divine remedy for our impurities" and wrote that "it is one of the prodigious privileges of Art that… suffering put to rhythm and cadence may fill the mind with a calm joy."

The first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857) contains only 100 poems, and the posthumous edition of 1868 suffers from having been put in order by friends after the poet's death. Thus the second edition of 1861 (the last arranged by Baudelaire's own hand) is most useful for a study of his art. It comprises an introductory poem, "To the Reader, " which is a powerful indictment of the current society, and 126 poems divided into six sections: Spleen and Ideal, Parisian Sketches, Wine, Fleurs du mal, Revolt, and Death.

Baudelaire's imagination and moral nature were deeply rooted in his Catholic background, and though his gloomy conception of humanity doomed by original sin is not alleviated by any assurance of salvation, it is important to recognize that Baudelaire does keep for man's spiritual nature a dimension of eternity. Love in Baudelaire's poetry, as elsewhere in his writings, is seen most often in dark and despairing terms, and many of his epithets for woman are extremely cruel. His grim vision of love is evident, for example, in the hideous imagery of the poem called Voyage à Cythère and in Sed non satiata.

Poems concerned with esthetics, such a Correspondances, Les Phares (The Lighthouses), La Beauté, L'Idéal, and Hymne à la Beauté, reveal Baudelaire's very complex ideas on the beautiful. While greatly influenced by the esthetic concepts of romanticism, Baudelaire also recalls significant elements in the great neoclassic writings of the 17th century in his concern with the moral, psychological, and religious aspects of man's nature, in his relatively small vocabulary, and in his powerfully compressed expression.

It is in his subject matter and the range of his sensibility that Baudelaire seems most modern. His poems on spleen and ennui bear the accent of his age; and his poetic imagery, with its marvelous interplay of the senses—for example, Correspondances and Harmonie du soir (Evening Harmony)—introduces a powerful new sensuousness into French poetry and gives a new literary importance to odors and fragrance which will be exploited later in the novels of Zola and Proust.

Baudelaire's vision of Paris in the 18 poems of the Parisian Sketches includes what he called "the heroism of modern life." His Paris is a city of physical and spiritual and moral suffering, and the eyes of the men and women in the poems depicting it are full of unrest and sorrow. But over the great city are skies that make one think of eternity; and there is mystery and enchantment amidst the suffering.

In Les Fleurs du mal there are recurrent dominant images of ennui, time, and death. The clock is seen as a sinister god, terrifying and impassive (L'Horloge), and time is ultimately the victor over man. The last poem in Les Fleurs du mal is Le Voyage, representing death as a voyage that may lead to "something new."


Other Writings

Baudelaire's writings on the "artificial paradises" of wine, opium, and hashish mirror his concerns as artist and moralist. In his most famous writing on drugs, Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (1860), the opium essay is based on Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater but Le Poème du haschisch is Baudelaire's own. He knew from experience the hallucinations of both drugs and apparently suffered the miseries of addiction to opium. He concludes that man cannot, without terrible danger, alter "the primordial conditions of his existence"— if the artificial paradises enhance imagination, they destroy the "precious substance" of the will.

In the Petits poèmes en prose (1869), sometimes called Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire developed the prose poem into an exquisite form. The volume's 50 examples of this genre depict mostly a world of lonely people: old women, artists, children, workmen, crowds, widows, clowns, cold and perverted lovers—the poor and cynical and bored men and women of the great city. But again, beyond the suffering and misery, one finds Baudelaire's understanding of the strange "heroism of modern life."

Among Baudelaire's Journaux intimes (Intimate Diaries) the most notable are the two notebooks called Fusées (Skyrockets) and Mon coeur mis ànu (My Heart Laid Bare), a title that Baudelaire took from Poe. They contain invaluable insights into the poet's inner world—his intellectual, ethical, religious, and esthetic speculations and his comments on love and women, boredom, and material progress. There is constant evidence of Baudelaire's moral and intellectual elegance, of his dandyism, and of his violent antipathy to the society of his day; but above all, one is conscious in these pages of his inner distress—his fears and longings and his sense of the loneliness of the human situation.

Of Baudelaire's other volumes, the most significant are his translations from Poe: Histoires extraordinaires (1856), Nouvelles Histoires extraordinaires (1857), Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym (1858), Eureka (1864), and Histoires grotesques et sérieuses (1865); his criticism of art, music and literature: Curiosités esthétiques (1868) and L'Art romantique (1869) and such miscellaneous writings as La Fanfarlo (1847); and his violent diatribes against Belgium and the Belgians, Amoenitates Belgicae (1925) and Pauvre Belgique (1952).


Further Reading on Charles Pierre Baudelaire

Among the most useful English translations of Baudelaire are William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (1954), and Francis Scarfe, Baudelaire (1961), both in English prose with bilingual texts, and Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., Baudelaire as a Literary Critic: Selected Essays (1964) and Baudelaire, a Self-Portrait: Selected Letters … with a Running Commentary (1957). The best biography is Enid Starkie, Baudelaire (1958). Other valuable studies include W. T. Bandy, Baudelaire Judged by His Contemporaries (1933); Margaret Gilman, Baudelaire the Critic (1943); Percy Mansell Jones, Baudelaire (1952); Martin Turnell, Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry (1954); Marcel A. Ruff, Baudelaire (1955; trans., slightly abridged by Agnes Kertesz, 1966); Henri Peyre, ed., Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962); and Lois Boe Hyslop, ed., Baudelaire as a Love Poet and Other Essays (1969). An early study of unusual value is Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1933; trans. 1949). Robert T. Cargo, Baudelaire Criticism, 1950-1967 (1968), provides a useful bibliography of scholarship with critical commentary.