BORN: 1821, Paris, France
DIED: 1867, Paris, France
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction
Les Fleurs du mal (1857)
Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (1860)
Journaux intimes (1887)
Charles Baudelaire. Etienne Carjat / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Charles Baudelaire is one of the most compelling poets of the nineteenth century. While Baudelaire’s contemporary Victor Hugo is generally acknowledged as the greatest of nineteenth-century French novelists, Baudelaire excels in his expression of modern themes within structures of technical artistry. Baudelaire is distinctive in French literature also in that his skills as a prose writer virtually equal his ability as a poet. His body of work includes a novella, influential translations of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, highly perceptive criticism of contemporary art, provocative journal entries, and critical essays on a variety of subjects. Baudelaire’s work has had a tremendous influence on modernism, and his relatively slim production of poetry in particular has had a significant impact on later poets.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Complex Family Relationships. Charles Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris. His father, Joseph Franyois Baudelaire, had been a friend of the philosophers C. A. Helvetius 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. At the time of their marriage, Franyois was sixty and Caroline just twenty-six.
In February 1827, when Baudelaire was not yet six, Franyois died. His father’s death led to a period of very close intimacy with his mother, for whom the boy felt a deep love. Her remarriage near the end of the following year to the handsome officer Jacques Aupick might have seemed to her son a cruel betrayal.
It is understandable that Baudelaire might have been jealous of his mother’s new husband, because he was deeply attached to his mother. Their close relationship was of enduring significance. Much of what is known of his later life comes from his extended correspondence with her.
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. Financial constraint, alienation, and complex emotions defined Baudelaire’s life. It is against this backdrop of complicated family relations that some of the best poetry in the French language was written.
An Extravagant Lifestyle. Baudelaire was expelled from the Lycee Louis le Grand in 1839 for refusing to give up a note passed to him by a classmate. He had not yet received his baccalaureate degree, but he managed to obtain it later that year. He registered for legal studies in Paris. For a time he 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. Baudelaire apparently went no farther than the island of Mauritius, to the east of Madagascar. He returned home, however, with unforgettable memories of exotic lands and seas.
When he was twenty-one, 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, although 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 Presidente’’) and green-eyed Marie Daubrun.
The Revolution of 1848. The France of Baudelaire’s time was a country of near-constant political unease. Though the French Revolution in 1789 had been fought to improve the lives of the lower classes, by the 1830s the country was largely ruled by a monarch, King Louis- Philippe, who aimed to reduce the power of the masses by limiting the rights of the press and keeping the lower classes from voting. Opposition to this form of government built, especially as unemployment and economic hardship worsened. This resulted in a relatively bloodless revolution that led to the formation of a new provisional government advocating citizens’ rights to work and to vote. Baudelaire, like many writers and artists of the time, supported the revolution and its ideals.
Controversial Work and Life. 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. Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal) appeared at the end of June 1857. It is considered his greatest work and is the 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 ofthree hundred francs and to remove six poems from his collection.
Baudelaire’s writings on 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 Poeme 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.
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. 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 cafe and taken home, where he was later discovered paralyzed and unable to speak or understand those speaking to him. In July 1866 he was brought back to Paris and placed in a rest home. He died in his mother’s arms on August 31, 1867, and was buried two days later in the family vault in Montparnasse Cemetery, where a somber monument was unveiled to his memory in 1902.
Other Writings. In the Petitspoemes en prose (1869), sometimes called Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire developed the prose poem into an exquisite form. The volume’s fifty 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 (1930), the most notable are the two notebooks called Fusees and Mon coeur mis a nu, a title that Baudelaire took from Poe. They contain invaluable insights into the poet’s inner world ‘‘his intellectual, ethical, religious, and aesthetic 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Baudelaire's famous contemporaries include:
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): Well known today for his macabre mystery stories and gothic poetry, Poe is also generally considered the father of detective fiction and a major contributor to the birth of science fiction.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885): Romantic poet, playwright, and novelist, best known in the English-speaking world for his novels Les Miserables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831).
Edouard Manet (1832-1883): Revolutionary French painter—forerunner of Impressionism and modern art.
Louis Napoleon (1808-1873): Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon was elected first president of the French Republic in 1848. Four years later he was proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III. His reign would last until 1872, when defeat in the Franco-Prussian War would bring an end to the last French monarchy.
Works in Literary Context
Sin and Despair. Baudelaire’s most famous work is his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal (1857), 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 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 although 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 a Cythere’’ and in ‘‘Sed non satiate.’’
Beauty and Aesthetics. Poems concerned with aesthetics, such as ‘‘Correspondances,’’ ‘‘Les Phares,’’ ‘‘La Beaute,’’ ‘‘L’Ideal,’’ and ‘‘Hymne a la Beaute,’’ reveal Baudelaire’s very complex ideas on the beautiful. While greatly influenced by the aesthetic concepts of romanticism, Baudelaire also recalls significant elements in the great neoclassic writings of the seventeenth 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. Baudelaire’s belief in the importance of beauty for its own sake had a marked influence on the so-called ‘‘decadent’’ writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.
Modern Subject Matter. It is in his subject matter and the range of his sensibility that Baudelaire seems most modern. His poems on 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’’—introduces a powerful new sensuousness into French poetry and gives a new literary importance to odors and fragrance that would be exploited later in the novels of Emile Zola and Marcel Proust.
Baudelaire’s vision of Paris in the eighteen 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, 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.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Les Fleurs du mal provoked a scandal when it was published, but it has since been hailed as a classic. Other works whose reputation has shifted in the same way include:
Madame Bovary (1856), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. This novel, now considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written, was initially at the center of an obscenity trial. Flaubert expressed sympathy for Baudelaire when he came under fire for his work not long after.
Ulysses (1922), a novel by James Joyce. Irish novelist Joyce's modernist masterpiece was deemed pornographic in the United States, and its publication in America was banned until 1934.
Tropic of Cancer (1934), a novel by Henry Miller. Miller's semiautobiographical novel, published in Paris, was still controversial enough to earn him an obscenity trial when the first American edition of the book was published in 1961.
Howl and Other Poems (1955), a poetry collection by Allen Ginsberg. American Beat poet Ginsberg was launched into stardom when he was put on trial for obscenity after the publication of this book.
Works in Critical Context
When Les Fleurs du mal was first published, reviewers were frightened away from offering positive reviews. As A. E. Carter explains it, this was a catastrophe that can hardly be understood in a modern age in which scandal often translates into sales: ‘‘In 1857 the uses of publicity were not properly understood: Instead of profiting by the lawsuit, Baudelaire's career suffered an undeniable setback. Poetry is seldom an easy article to market, especially poetry like his, and now publishers had a sound excuse for turning down his manuscripts. Not until twenty or thirty years later did the 1857 stigma prove negotiable. It has paid off pretty well since; Les Fleurs du mal have always smelled of forbidden fruit.’’
The second edition of the book, in 1861, is the one on which Baudelaire's considerable reputation is built— the six poems deemed to be indecent were removed, and roughly a hundred new poems were added.
Baudelaire was considered a breakthrough poet, at least by other poets. His reputation was discussed, but his works were not widely available until after 1917, when the copyright ran out and his works fell into public domain. Baudelaire was a powerful influence on the French symbolists, who gained international acclaim in the late 1800s. He was also a strong influence on T. S. Eliot, whose artistic theories were central to the development of the Modernism movement from the 1920s forward.
Contemporary critics are able to see the influence that Baudelaire's poetry has exerted on the literary world over time. Most literary analyses focus on his fascinations with Satan and beauty, such as when Lewis Piaget Shanks noted, in 1974, that “Baudelaire could never shake off the Catholic dualism, that consciousness of our warring flesh and spirit.’’ It is this dualism that has made him a model poet—his poetry is intellectually challenging, but still based in the experiences of the senses.
Responses to Literature
1. ‘‘Hymn to Beauty’’ is about a beautiful woman who is considered a ‘‘sacred monster.’’ Research several female celebrities who are famous for their ‘‘bad girl’’ images. What about their behavior is considered shocking? Is there a point at which the public stops being titillated and starts being disgusted?
2. Baudelaire makes frequent reference in Les Fleurs du mal to ‘‘spleen.’’ What does he mean when he uses this term? How does spleen contrast to his concept of the ideal?
3. Baudelaire’s poetry can either be seen as a condemnation or affirmation of love. Choose a side and then support your argument with evidence from his poetry.
4. Using your library and the Internet, research current obscenity laws at the local and national level. Could these laws be applied to label any music or literature that you enjoy as obscene?
5. Research a recent court case or public controversy that involves censorship of a writer, musician, filmmaker, or cartoonist. Have the issues or themes that provoke calls for censorship changed in the last century? How are they different? How have they remained the same?
Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Translated by Harry Zohn, London: NLB, 1973.
Bennett, Joseph D. Baudelaire: A Criticism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1944.
Gilman, Margaret. Baudelaire the Critic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
Turnell, Martin. Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1953.